Print edition : November 02, 2012

Colossal Maitreya relief, Kartse, circa 7th century.The earliest colossal Buddhas were seen in the Kanheri and Ajanta caves, in the 5th-6th centuries. This is a tradition that became very popular in the Himalayan regions and in Central Asiaand China.-

The ecstasy of aesthetic experience lies at the heart of the Buddhism that came to Tibet and the Indian trans-Himalayas. In these vast and bleak desert lands, the Buddhist temples are like an oasis of colour.

Vajrayana Buddhism was born out of centuries of dynamic intellectual search at the great universities of eastern India and Kashmir. It is believed to have the clarity and indestructible nature of a diamond as well as the striking nature of a thunderbolt. Its purpose is to free us and to dispel the veils of ignorance with the force of a clap of thunder.

By the 4th century, in the Buddhist centres of Kashmir the Yogachara school of thought had developed. It believed that the most effective method to attain the Truth was meditation or Yoga. The different aspects of the wisdom of the Buddha were personified as the five Dhyani (meditation) Buddhas: Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Vairocana. Mandalas were also conceived in Buddhist practice and are seen from the 5th century. The path to enlightenment was visualised as a movement through various levels of spiritual growthfrom the outer spheres towards the illumined centre and the moment of the realisation of the Truth or Buddhahood.

In the 10th century, Abhinavagupta in Kashmir took the Indian philosophy of aesthetics to rare heights of development. This was in a climate deeply imbued with the thoughts of Kashmir Shaivism, which saw the beauty of the world as a reflection of the glory of the divine. The experience of beauty, the ecstasy of the aesthetic experience, was considered to be akin to the final bliss of salvation itself.

This experience of aesthetics and of joy lies at the heart of the Buddhism that came to Tibet and the Indian trans-Himalayas. In these vast and bleak desert lands, the Buddhist temples are like an oasis of colour. The architecture, the sculpture and the paintings are all a part of a unified, sacred plan. Their purpose is to move us and to transport us, far from the cares and confusions of the material world: to the peace to be found within.

COLOSSAL BUDDHA, 8TH-9TH CENTURY, MULBEK, LADAKH. Many "brhad", or colossal, Buddhas were made by Kashmiri artists in the 8th and 9th centuries in Ladakh. The best known are at Mulbek, on the road from Leh to Kargil. These are all about 30 feet (nine metres) high and display the characteristics of Kashmiri art. This relief at Mulbek is that of the Chamba, or Maitreya, Buddha, who is yet to come.-

The Cham dance of the Lamas signifies the victory of knowledge over ignorance. In Buddhist thought the greatest evil is the ego. It is that sense of the self that is the greatest illusion that we must lose in order to gain true knowledge.

The masks are very important. For, on the sacred ground it is not the individual Lamas who are supposed to dance. They have to forget themselves; they have to obliterate their own personalities to become the deity, who will then dance. The masks present qualities of the deities within them. There are peaceful masks and those with wrathful expressions. Finally, both symbolise the emptiness of the ultimate nature of all appearances.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 34 years. He has taken over 35,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made over a hundred documentaries on art history. This series carries photographs from his photographic exhibition on Buddhist Heritage of the World, which is currently on display in Nara in Japan and in the French Reunion Island. It was also displayed earlier this year in London, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, Leh, New Delhi and at the International Buddhist Conclave in Varanasi. The series has photographs taken in 19 countries/regions across Asia and in one part of Europe which has a 300-year-old Buddhist heritage.

BUDDHAS CARVED AT PADUM, ZANSKAR, LADAKH. In ancient times, Zanskar was a thriving centre of Buddhism. Carvings on a massive boulder next to the Lungnak river in Padum display the artistic style of Kashmir.-

PHUGTAL MONASTERY, ZANSKAR. It is in a very remote part of the beautiful Zanskar valley. Until recently, there was no motorable road and it was a wonderful two-day journey on horseback, up and down craggy mountains. This is among the monasteries known to have been founded by the Lotsawa, or Great Translator, of Zanskar, in the 11th and 12th centuries.-

SUMTSEK, ALCHI, LADAKH, CIRCA 12TH CENTURY. Sumtsek means three-storeyed temple. This was one of the principal Kashmiri architectural forms followed in the monasteries of the Second Diffusion. This sumtsek has some of the best paintings of the Alchi complex.-

SHRINE, DUKHANG, ALCHI, 11TH CENTURY. The dukhang, or assembly hall, has a beautiful shrine for Vairochana, with numerous deities and joyous figures made around him. From the 8th-9th century until around the 12th century, the system of yoga tantra was predominant in Buddhism in eastern India and Kashmir. It then spread to Nepal, Tibet, Korea, Japan and Indonesia. The texts of the yoga tantras were translated by Rinchen Zangpo, who took them from Kashmir to Ladakh and Tibet. These texts formed the basis of the sculptural programme and paintings in many monasteries, including this dukhang.-

CLAY SCULPTURES, TSUGLAKHANG, TABO, SPITI, HIMACHAL PRADESH, LATE 10TH-EARLY 11TH CENTURY. The Tabo monastery is situated in a village of the same name at an altitude of about 10,850 feet (3,307 metres). In the main temple, called the Tsuglakhang, the assembly hall is an architectonic Vajradhatu Mandala with sculptures and paintings representing the many deities of the mandala.-

VAJRALASYA, CLAY SCULPTURE, TABO, 11TH CENTURY. This deity expresses the quality of grace, which is at the heart of all that there is in the world. The art strips away the veils of illusion to present this inherent quality. As we perceive the gentle graciousness of the deity, we awaken that same quality within us.-

MAITREYA, BASGO, LADAKH, 16TH-17TH CENTURY. This is a gilded, two-storeyed, 45-foot (13.7 metres)-high statue the Maitreya-the Buddha who is yet to come-in the temple of Basgo. This beautiful statue is known to have inspired many generations of sculptors in Ladakh.-

VAJRARAKSHA, CLAY SCULPTURE, TABO, 11TH CENTURY. On the walls of the dukhang (assembly hall) are many deities who surround us. Coming into this assembly hall signifies entering the Vajradhatu Mandala itself. The purpose of this wonderfully peaceful and benign deity is to awaken within us the qualities he represents.-

MANDALA DEITY, MURAL, NAKO, KINNAUR, HIMACHAL PRADESH, 11TH-12TH CENTURY. Mandalas are painted on the walls of the Lotsawa Lhakhang (Translator's Temple) of the Nako monastery. They include finely painted small figures such as these, made in roundels of about six inches (15.24 centimetres) diameter. A sense of dynamic movement is blended with joyousness in this exquisite representation.-

RIDERS ON MYTHICAL CREATURE, MURAL, SUMTSEK, ALCHI, 12TH CENTURY. Such mythical creatures with riders, trampling upon fierce animals, are a constant motif in the medieval art of all Indic faiths. They represent the courage within us, with which we must face the demons of ignorance and confusion.-

DETAIL, MURAL, SUMTSEK, ALCHI, 12TH CENTURY. The painters from Kashmir have left us many images of the life and culture of the valley. This one appears to be a Kashmiri prince on a hunt with his retinue. The colourfully designed textiles point to the fact that this region was on an artery of the Silk Route.-

DETAIL OF MANDALA, MURAL, NAKO, 11TH-12TH CENTURY. Nako village, Kinnaur district, Himachal Pradesh, lies at an altitude of 12,000 feet (3,657.6 metres) high above the Spiti river valley. Paintings of the early monasteries of the trans- Himalayas show the exquisite lines and grace of the art of their Kashmiri painters.-

CHAM, MASKED MONASTIC DANCE OF THE LAMAS, LADAKH. Guru Padmasambhava is known to have performed a dance to scare away evil spirits from the land and to establish Buddhism in the trans-Himalayan areas. The Cham dance is performed even today to keep the land free of evil.-

CHAM DANCE, HEMIS MONASTERY, LADAKH. The Cham is one of the most important forms of meditation of the Lamas. They perform puja for many days before the event so as to awaken within themselves the deity they wish to become on the day of the Cham. The wrathful deities represent the vigour within us, with which we face the demons of ignorance.-

PADMASAMBHAVA, CHAM DANCE, HEMIS MONASTERY. Guru Padmasambhava was from Nalanda University. He swept across Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur, Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh in the 8th century and established Vajrayana Buddhism in this region. He is still worshipped across the trans-Himalayas as the Second Buddha.-

RUMTEK MONASTERY, SIKKIM. Located near Gangtok in Sikkim, this monastery is an important centre of the Kagyupa sect, which traces its Buddhist teachings to Tilopa (988-1089), the great teacher from the eastern plains of India.-

GORSEN CHORTEN (STUPA), TAWANG DISTRICT, ARUNACHAL PRADESH, 16TH CENTURY. The mountains of Arunachal Pradesh represent the eastern frontiers of the lands transformed by Guru Padmasambhava. Eyes are painted on all four sides of this chorten in a style similar to the chortens in Nepal and Bhutan. They watch out for the evil of ignorance.-

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