Taras and Bodhisattvas: long ago and far away

In the high Himalaya, mountain demons and Hindu deities fused with the Buddhist vision to create a magical art….

One of the last great remote areas of the world are the wind-swept mountain walled valleys of the Himalaya. Here a branch of Indian Buddhism has made its last stand and with it a strange mystical art that is rarely seen by outsiders. It is not a folk art growing up in utter isolation ; for as remote and nearly inaccessible as the Himalayan regions are, the crosscurrents of history have never quite bypassed them. These currents have reached them slowly, however, in time with the pace of the trade caravans that still traverse the deep river valleys and the tortuous passes of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim.

"Rinchen Zangpo, mural, Alchi, 12th century. He supervised the construction of many monasteries in the trans-Himalayan desert. The Second Diffusion of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas, which began on the orders of King Yeshe ’Od and Rinchen Zangpo, was a new dawn of the faith on the Roof of the World. The light of knowledge that they brought was to continue forever in these vast regions. The legendary 108 temples constructed in this period across the kingdom of Guge became the backbone of the revival of the faith and remain the most revered and, in fact, beloved monasteries of the people of these lands. There are many local legends, sometimes even magical stories, describing how these beautiful monastic temples were constructed in a short space of time." Read More: http://samathain.wordpress.com/category/buddhism/

It was the caravans and pilgrims that carried the culture of India into the Himalaya, predominantly from the Buddhist centers of Kashmir and the great monastic institutions of the Ganges basin in Bihar and Bengal. As Buddhism fanned out into the Himalaya to become the religion of all Asia, its art models, carried on painted banners by plgrims, also traversed the silk routes of Central Asia and later reached Tibet, whence they slowly turned back upon the Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan and Sikkim as late as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries- a one millennium journey covering a linear distance of about six hundred miles. It is as if the love songs of medieval Provence had finally reached the Hebrides last year.

"The Digital Himalaya project was designed by Alan Macfarlane and Mark Turin as a strategy for archiving and making available ethnographic materials from the Himalayan region. Based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, the project was established in December 2000. From 2002 to 2005, the project moved to the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University and began its collaboration with the University of Virginia." Read More: http://buddhistartnews.wordpress.com/category/himalayan/

Geography sufficiently explains the slow pace of change, for these mountains comprise a natural barrier surrounded by barriers. On their south-eastern borders, where the Himalaya give way to the Indian plains, are vast malarial swamps and impenetrable savannas of fifteen foot high elephant grass. On the northern borders of the Himalaya at least forty mountain peaks average twenty thousand feet. Between these two borders lie roaring river gorges and rain-pelted valleys hemmed in by sheer mountain walls and rolling, barren ranges.

Each valley is a world unto itself, because for the most part one is linked to another by nothing save perilous footpaths, an occasional mule track, and dizzying rope bridges. Such a topography has naturally sheltered and nourished inbred ideas and timeless symbols.

"Shakyamuni Buddha; Tibet; 18th century; Pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; C2006.66.128 (HAR 75) Gateway to Himalayan Art introduces visitors to the art of the Himalayan cultural sphere, presenting the major concepts comprehensively and equipping visitors with the tools to understand, appreciate and contextualize many of the works of art throughout the museum's six floors of galleries. The exhibition begins with a large map and multimedia display of the Himalayas which orient visitors to the geographic scope and diversity of this region, including Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan as well as adjacent areas of India, China, and Mongolia, that are distinct but culturally interrelated.... read more: http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/617

The Buddhist faith is the inspiration and reason for Himalayan art- but the form of Buddhism that was carried to the mountains around the eighth century A.D. by the Indian guru Padmasambhava bears scant resemblance to the simple teachings that had been set forth about twelve hundred years before by the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. What the Himalayan people received was Buddhism in the vastly elaborated form it had taken during its long settlement in India. By the early years of the Christian Era the historic Buddha was deified and elevated into an eternal, absolute, primordial principle.

"Shakyamuni Buddha Tibet, 16th century pigments on cloth, ca. 44 x 35 in. Rubin Museum of Art" read more: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/karlins/gateway-to-himalayan-art-rubin-museum9-14-10_detail.asp?picnum=1

At the same time Indian Buddhism not only permitted the use of idols but took over a vast array of deities from the Hindu religion. The branch of Buddhism that became most popular in the Himalaya was Vajrayana. Vajrayana worship relied on magical formulas and magical ceremonies- and on the introduction of goddesses (Taras) and Buddhas-to-be ( Bodhisattvas) to the ever expanding Buddhist pantheon. Popularly known as Lamaism, this branch of the religion taught that the de

e could summon up a hug number of imagined deities by means of certain magical formulas.

Presumably, a novice monk could better fix his imaginationif the source of power was pictured in paintings and sculptures, and therefore the deities were described iconographically in the treatises of the fourth and fifth centuries, and later in even greater detail in the mystical Indian texts known as Tantras. These demi-gods in the Vajrayana pantheon essentially revolve around the five Dhyani Buddhas, identified with the four points of the compass and the cosmic apex, presided over by the supreme god, the Adi-Buddha. In this way, through the doctrine of an increasingly complex metaphysical thought, the Buddhist pantheon, which had begun with no god at all, was joined by hundreds of “emanations”.

"The set of painted blocks sticking out at the top is a common feature of Bhutanese Dzong architecture, the eaves under the roofs are thus highly decorated. The skeletons dance to celebrate their detachment from the world, suffering, and life itself, in death. The central face is a wrathful avatar of a bodhisattva (anyone who seeks enlightenment out of compassion not just for himself but also for others) wearing a crown of skulls; the skulls represent the deaths of negative qualities/emotions like anger, desire, etc. The bodhisattva's wrath is directed against the negative qualities in themselves, not against any being who manifests them. The black triangle in the right lower corner came about because a roof of an adjacent building was sticking out there. :)" Read More: http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/photo765358.htm


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