Print edition : November 05, 2004

The surviving paintings of the trans-Himalayan monasteries are the most sublime manifestations of the philosophical outlook of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Rediscovering Indian Painting - 3. The third of a five-part series.

MORE than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha preached his message of compassion in the plains of eastern India and here was born Buddhism, which spread to all the countries of Asia. The Buddha never spoke of God. He did not speak of prayer and the beseeching of divinities who would help man. He clearly addressed the Three Noble Truths: that there was pain in the world; that there was a reason for that pain; and that it could be removed by following the right path.

Avalokitesvara, Sumtsek, Alchi: This colossal clay sculpture of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is made in a niche on the ground floor of the Sumtsek temple. His painted dhoti is remarkable for the depictions of the secular and religious life of Kashmir at that time.-

The Buddha pointed out that the cause of sorrow was our desires and attachment to the world around us. The way to remove this sorrow was the Eight-Fold Path, of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. He left it in each person's own hands to discipline himself and to break out of the web of the bindings created by desires and attachments.

As time passed, a branch of the followers of Buddhism began to make images of the Buddha in human form and to worship him as a god. It is indeed difficult for any man to take the entire responsibility of his salvation upon himself and, in all ages, men have tended to turn to gods and other deities, whom they can pray to for their benign favour. The new branch of Buddhism soon had many followers and began to call itself the Mahayana (the `Great Vehicle') order.

In the meantime, in the land of Magadha, where the Buddha had preached his message, great scholastic centres came up. These had the bountiful support of the kings of the region and they developed into vast monastic universities. These were the famed Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantpura universities of eastern India. Scholars and pilgrims came here from all the countries of Asia and described its wondrous beauty and the thousands of students and teachers at these grand institutions.

Vajrasandhi, Sumtsek: Bodhisattvas are potential Buddhas who defer their own enlightenment so as to assist all sentient beings on the path to Nirvana. Vajrasandhi, depicted as part of the Vajradhatu mandala, is one of the 16 great Bodhisattvas, who represent various levels of spiritual achievement. He symbolises the intense concentration of body, speech and mind that are essential to gain enlightenment.-

At these great centres of learning, scholars pondered over the many aspects of the teachings of the Buddha. The attributes of the Buddha were studied in detail and these were personified in a pantheon of deities. Painted and sculpted images were made of these many forms of the Buddha. They became vital aids to meditation. In this new form of Buddhism, the devotee meditated upon the image before him to absorb the qualities of that aspect of the Buddha, which was personified, until he became the deity himself. Thus, art came to play a very important role in Buddhism.

In this manner, the practice of Buddhism based on meditation and Yoga, (meaning, to become one with the eternal) developed. Mandalas were conceived for the progressive realisation of enlightenment or the state of Buddhahood. The Buddha is in the centre of the mandala and around him are deities representing different aspects of Him. These deities symbolise different stages in the process of the realisation of the truth.

Each stage of progress in the mandala is the achievement of a particular point in the spiritual ascent. The Buddha at the centre is the `resplendent truth', which in Buddhism means the knowledge of the illusory nature of the world. On the path to this final enlightenment, the worshipper meditates upon the many aspects of the illusory nature of his own perceptions and the physical world around. It is a journey of spiritual growth, which is aimed at bringing him finally to the illumined centre, where the false belief in the existence of the material world is finally dispelled and he has achieved Buddhahood.

Painted dhoti of Avalokitesvara: The paintings on the dhotis of the sculpted Bodhisattvas in the Sumtsek are the only painted record of the architecture and culture of Kashmir around the 11th century. Here, a shrine of the Goddess Tara is seen alongside a temple dedicated to Naga deities. Joyous worshippers and musicians are painted around the temples. There is in these paintings a sense of the flourishing cosmopolitan culture, which would have existed in Kashmir at that time.-

In Mahayana Buddhism, the path towards enlightenment, through many layers of knowledge, was visualised as an extremely long journey, which could be spread over eons of time and over numerous rebirths. Gradually, around the 7th century, there emerged a new phase in Buddhism known as the Vajrayana order or the `Thunderbolt Vehicle', the logic of which was supposed to be as clear and as striking as a thunderbolt. The main difference in the practice of this new form of Buddhism was the use of incantations and rituals as a means to achieve the final goal. Vajrayana Buddhism provided formulae called mantras, which helped the devotee to achieve the desired union with the deity. Whereas the earlier system visualised an interminably long journey towards the truth, the new path offered the possibility of salvation within the present birth.

A great centre of Buddhism, which interacted continuously with the universities of eastern India, was Kashmir. Amidst the great natural beauty of the valley, the philosophers here remained constantly aware of the beauty of the Lord. Vajrayana Buddhism and Kashmir Shaivism evolved to great heights in this valley, which produced some of the finest Indian thinkers.

Bodhisattva, ambulatory, Tabo Dukhang. These large representations of Bodhisattvas are the few original paintings of the period of the renovation of Tabo monastery in 1042. Painted in a style similar to that seen at Alchi, these have a gentle modelling of form and an emphasis on exquisite details of textiles and ornaments.-

From earliest times, the trans-Himalayan lands of Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur took a very deep interest in Buddhism and in Sanskrit scriptures. Through the centuries scholars were constantly sent from here to the great centres of Kashmir and the eastern plains to acquire knowledge.

The `first great diffusion' of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas was when the great Guru Padmasambhava swept from Kashmir, across Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and Tibet onto Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal in the 8th century. He established Vajrayana Buddhism across this entire mountain belt. The second great diffusion of Buddhism was when King Yeshe Od of Guge is believed to have built 108 monasteries across his kingdom in the early 11th century. These were made in Ladakh, Western Tibet, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur. The construction of these was supervised by the great translator Rinchen Zangpo, who had studied for 17 years in Kashmir. Craftsmen and artists from Kashmir were invited by Yeshe Od and they constructed and painted these monasteries, which were to become the backbone of trans-Himalayan Buddhism.

In the midst of the barren stretches and vast, bleak mountains, these monasteries were made in small and fertile patches of land, in the valleys of the rivers that flow through the trans-Himalayas. Entering these structures, one comes into a world of painted splendour. The sculptures and paintings in these monasteries are among the most sophisticated and finest art of the world. They also reflect the rich influences that came to Kashmir and the trans-Himalayas, on the flourishing trade routes that connected Asia to Mediterranean Europe.

The paintings and sculptures of these enchanted monasteries and temples represent one of the high points of the great tradition of art, which flowed from the classic period of the Guptas and the Vakatakas. There is in these a deep and inward look, which is the hallmark of the finest Indian art. What makes them unique is a sense of lilting grace that awakens a sense of joy within us. The art of these early trans-Himalayan monasteries takes us far from the noise and clamour of the material world to a deep fount of peace and beauty, within.

On either side of the throne of the Buddha Akshobhya, Sumtsek, are painted these columns of mythical beasts. This is a delightful representation of a celestial being seated on a vyala, which is atop a lion, which in turn is placed upon an elephant. Such representations are seen in the pan-Asian Buddhist art of that period, including 11th/12th century paintings in Bagan in Myanmar.-

In the Indian philosophy of aesthetics, it is believed that the ecstasy we experience on seeing something truly beautiful, whether it be in nature or in art, is akin to Brahmananda itself, which is the final bliss of salvation. The moment of the experience of beauty is one of the highest states, in which man senses his kinship with the whole of creation: a state in which the soul shakes off its material attachments and feels the bliss of unity with the divine. Thus, the ecstatic response to beauty was seen as a glimpse of the realisation of truth itself. This philosophy was most fully developed in Kashmir. In the 10th century, around the time of Rinchen Zangpo's visit to the valley, the great aesthetician-philosopher of India, Abhinavgupta, lived in Kashmir. In that period, Shaivism and Vajrayana Buddhism in Kashmir were deeply permeated by the philosophy of aesthetics. The surviving art of the trans-Himalayan monasteries brings us some of the most sublime manifestations of this philosophic outlook.

Leh in Ladakh was on an artery of the Silk Route, which connected the distant lands of China to those of Mediterranean Europe. Along with trade, philosophic ideas and artistic impulses flowed to this crucible in the mountains, up from Ajanta and Kerala on the one hand, and from the cities of China, Central Asia and those of the Mediterranean on the other hand.

Of the legendary 108 monasteries made by King Yeshe Od and Rinchen Zangpo during the second diffusion of Buddhism, the best preserved is Alchi in Ladakh. The three-storeyed temple of Alchi is a classic Kashmiri structure, which was made by Kashmiri artists who were invited there. Alchi is an oasis of beauty and colour in the midst of the vast and barren landscape of Ladakh. Inside the temple, the worshipper stands close to the grand statues of the Bodhisattvas that are over 14 feet tall. The dhoti of the Avalokitesvara statue has some of the most gorgeous paintings. We see here the only surviving visual representations of the culture and architecture of ancient Kashmir. These paintings are especially valuable, as the paintings of Kashmir of that period have been lost.

The exquisite representations include a Kashmiri king out for a hunt with falcons and a dancing girl who stands before a palace in Kashmir. She has vitality and poise, as would befit a proud dancer.

The walls of Alchi are resplendent with figures made in the most luminous colours painted anywhere. It speaks for the development of the ancient techniques and materials that these colours still appear fresh, a thousand years after they were painted.

One of the masterpieces of the Alchi paintings is the Green Tara. We are reminded of Ajanta in the manner of shading with a gradual lightening and deepening of colour, which creates a sense of volume and roundedness of form. The painting also follows pan-Indian medieval norms of art, such as the protruding farther eye, which extends beyond the line of the face. This is a convention in Indian painting, which is seen particularly in the Jain paintings of Western India.

The Kashmiri artists present a lively world. The decorative elements of these paintings are remarkable and they display influences from Gandhara and Central Asia. The painted textiles are more varied and more colourful than perhaps anywhere else in the entire realm of art. The bold and rhythmic use of scarves and decorative arabesques lend a quality of movement and grace to these paintings.

The monastery of Sumda has exquisite paintings, which are similar to the paintings of Alchi and Mangyu. Here, in this detail of a mandala, we see the Bodhisattva Manjushri in the centre. In one of his right hands, he holds a sword with which he cleaves the darkness of ignorance. Around him, in the petals of the lotus design, are representations of his emanations. They are all painted beautifully in the Kashmiri style, with fine shading and exaggerated depiction of pectoral muscles.-

The remarkable confluence of cultures is also seen in the depiction of Kalaripaittu, the martial art form of Kerala, just below the painting of a typical Central Asian horseman. The finest paintings in India have flowered at centres of trading. The exchange of ideas in prosperous trading locations has, throughout history, led to the development of vibrant and rich art. The Kashmiri paintings of Ladakh represent such a fruitful blend of many cultures.

In the later temples at Alchi, we see a different manner of painting, which is influenced by Tibetan styles. These paintings appear more like tangkhas or Tibetan cloth paintings. Away from the animated and resplendent world of the earlier Alchi paintings, these present the deities in a much more formal manner. They are made strictly according to canonical conventions and the concentration of the artist is on accurate iconographical presentation. Figures are now arranged in formal rows of hierarchy.

Another monastery of the time of the second diffusion is Mangyu. It has the most beautiful chorten of that period that survives till today. Chorten is the name given to the stupas of the trans-Himalayan regions. Stupas are symbolic mounds that represent the Buddha. In the course of time, these became more complex, with various parts of them symbolising different philosophical ideas. The chorten at Mangyu is of the shape, which was evolved in Kashmir. Like the other chortens of the trans-Himalayas, the worshipper can enter the one at Mangyu. The crumbling and bare exterior has been transformed into a colourful and wondrous world inside. Four large statues are placed in niches and the walls and ceiling are profusely painted. The paintings inside this chorten are very similar to those at Alchi. It would appear that the same hands may have painted these. While, the placement of the large painted deities on the walls is according to iconographic considerations, the ceiling has joyous representations of flying Buddhas.

The delightful posture of this mandala deity is reminiscent of those painted in the Alchi. The swirling scarves add to the sense of movement of her graceful body.-

Not much remains of the once vast monastery complex of Sumda, also made around the time of Alchi and Mangyu. The clay sculpture of the Sumda monastery is one of its most remarkable features. It has the only complete surviving mandala in sculpture in the entire region. At the time of the second diffusion of Buddhism, the principal deity to whom the temples were made was Vairocana, the `Resplendent' form of the Buddha. This mandala, called a `Vajradhatu mandala', also has Vairocana at the centre. The monastery also has very fine surviving paintings and we can see very close stylistic links between the sculptures and paintings, including the stylised forms, the muscular treatment of the belly and an emphasis on richly painted textiles.

In the southwestern edge of the trans-Himalayan plateau, in Spiti, is the monastery complex of Tabo. It was made in 996 A.D. and renovated in 1042. It is the earliest surviving monastery of the second diffusion.

The only surviving paintings of the 11th century are in the main temple hall, which is dedicated to Vairochana. Along the lower part of the walls are painted two narrative sequences. The first is the journey of Sudhana, the son of a merchant, who is sent on a tour by Bodhisattva Manjushri. On this spiritual quest, he meets several kalyana-mitras or beneficial friends, each of whom provides him knowledge towards his understanding of the truth. The second narrative is the life of the Buddha himself. The paintings also bring alive the culture and ethos of the time when they were made, including the architecture, costumes and hairstyles.

Mandala deity, Translator's Temple, Nako: The style of painting of the early art of the trans-Himalayan monasteries is seen in this exquisite painting, in the strong modelling of the pectoral muscles. The necklace, which curves gracefully between her breasts, is a feature of Indian paintings, since the time of Ajanta.-

The paintings here show close similarity to Alchi. The sinuous, and even exaggerated, body forms, the supple lines and the depiction of the pectoral muscles show a form of painting uniquely Kashmiri.

The monastery of Nako is situated near the India-China border in the trans-Himalayan region of Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh. The monastery complex comprises four temples within an enclosure of mud walls. One of these is believed to have been made in the period of the second diffusion.

On the second upper storey of the Sumtsek, Alchi, is this iconic representation of the Goddess Tara as a Saviouress. She protects worshippers from eight kinds of dangers or fears that threaten man. On either side of her, are the painted depictions of these dangers. There is also an unusual representation of the liberation of the worshipper from them.-

The wall paintings at Nako display a considerable delicacy of execution. Deeply influenced by the Ajanta style of painting, an important feature of the early Himalayan murals lies in the tonal variation of body hues to produce an effect of light and shade. The graceful figures have the gentlest expressions and the inward look which is the hallmark of the finest classical art of India. The painters who made these sublime murals would have been deeply devoted people. For them, the act of painting would have been their offering to the divine.

Vishnudharmottara's Chitrasutra, the ancient Indian treatise on painting, suggests that paintings are man's most important treasure as they have a deep and enriching influence on him. The Vajrayana faith gave a concrete shape to this belief by creating numerous images for men to meditate upon. With such a sublime reason and purpose behind this art, paintings were created in vast numbers across all areas where Vajrayana Buddhism spread.

Vajraguhya mandala, Sumtsek, Alchi: This mandala is composed entirely of feminine deities, who are the personification of the wisdom of male deities. This mandala is the female reflection of the Vajradhatu mandala, which was the main mandala depicted in the Buddhist art of the period of the second diffusion of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas. The four-headed goddess in the centre corresponds to Vairochana, the resplendent form of the Buddha and displays the same mudra or gesture of enlightenment as he does.-

The artists' role and position in religious life was most important. The Buddhist scriptures, describing deities with many hands, mainly mention what is held in the principal hands. However, the complex iconography of the numerous symbolical objects in the many hands of the deities continues unchanged over the centuries even till today. The preservation of this crucial area of religious knowledge was left in the hands of the artists.

By the 13th and 14th centuries, the great Buddhist centres and universities of India were destroyed by foreign invaders, both in the eastern plains and in Kashmir. The roots, which fed the Buddhist culture and art of the trans-Himalayas, were cut and eventually this high desert land was left to preserve this rich heritage on its own. In the vast expanses of the great mountains, the liveliness and joyousness of the art gave place over the centuries to a more formal note and sombre gravity.

Offering goddess, Tabo Dukhang: The Varadhatu mandala, which is centred around vairochana, has a depiction of eight goddesses who represent offerings such as flowers, music, dance and incense. Here, this goddess has been painted above the sculpted representation of Bodhisattvas.-


King Yeshe Od and the second diffusion of Buddhism laid the foundations of a great religion and its art in the trans-Himalayas. It is only in these high mountains of the Himalayas that the art of Vajrayana paintings is preserved till today, far from the clamour of the fast-changing world.

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