Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 4

On the last day of the Hemis festival, a large thangka was unfurled on the wall overlooking the courtyard. It had the portrait of a holy man in the red hat of the Drukpa Kagyupa sect. I suppose this is a portrait of one of the Rinpoches. The photos I have seen of thangkas unfurled in this place are different, and show the founder of the monastery, Gyalsras Rinpoche. I haven’t been to Hemis gompa on other days of the festival, so I don’t know whether there are different thangkas exhibited on different days. According to Kagyupa belief, all the succeeding Rinpoches are the reincarnations of Gyalsras, so this would perhaps also show him, but in a different body.

In this detail you can see that the portrait is an applique work over a brocade background. Traditionally brocade came from China, but sometime in the 18th or 19th century brocade from Banaras became more common, and priced the Chinese brocade out of the market. I believe this piece is fairly recent, and made with Banarasi brocade.

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 3

A two-storeyed building runs around two sides of the inner courtyard of the Hemis Gompa. It is built in the traditional style. The supporting walls start as a sturdy wooden frame, and are then filled in with unfired clay blocks, plastered and painted. The roof rests on an elaborate carved wooden section which stands on this. The plastered panels contain paintings which tell stories.

These exposed panels probably weather fast at this altitude, with its high UV flux and annual extremes of temperature, and are probably repainted. I saw different panels are in different states of weathering. Even in a heavily weathered state, the iconography of Gautama Buddha in the panel on the right above is clear from the elongated ears. He is shown with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra, which indicates that he is shown teaching.

The Hemis gompa perhaps first became famous in the west after Nicholas Notovich, a Russian journalist, wrote a book in 1894 (titled La Vie inconnue de Jesus-Christ, The Hidden Life of Jesus Christ) claiming that he had visited this monastery in 1887 and studied two scrolls which gave an account of Jesus’ missing years. According to Notovich, the lost gospel was named “”Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men”, and described how Jesus spent time learning about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, before returning to Galilee. In complete disbelief, Max Mueller wrote to the chief Lama of the monastery, who wrote back saying that no foreigner had visited in 15 years. This was corroborated by J. Archibald Douglas of Agra, who traveled to Hemis and spoke to the Lamas. Nevertheless, Notovich’s book sold very well, and went through eight impressions in one year.

Public religious art is always meant to instruct, and is an open book to those who grow up in the culture. When I see paintings of the Ramayana in south east Asia, I have no difficulty following the story, even though they seem to emphasize what are sometimes considered obscure bits of the epic in India. But when it comes to the stories of Vajrayana Buddhism I’m a little lost. The myth of the Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, is unfamiliar to me, even if you start with the story that the Buddha predicted “After my parinirvana, after ten and two years, in the land of Udiyana, a man called Padmasambhava, will come who will be better than me.” The stories of the Guru preaching to Dakinis, purifying the Himalayas, and his return in his various lives are not stories I know well enough to follow the story told in these panels. However, panels of his receiving alms and flying to the mountains are recognizable.

The colours in these paintings may have faded but they remain extremely attractive. They are painted on a dry wall, but there are several layers to the colours. The underpainting serves to intensify the colour of the outer layer, an effect that is easily visible in the paintings one sees inside shrines. As the outermost layer weathers, its effect on the underpainting gives a wonderful luminosity which one does not see otherwise.

Leh Palace

One of the few dates that I found about the history of Leh is that the Leh Palace was constructed in three years during the reign of Sengge, of the Namgyal dynasty. So the palace must have been built between 1616 and 1642 CE, and definitely predates the beginning of the construction of the Potala palace of Lhasa. The architects who built it were clearly already accomplished. The level floors of the palace built on a slope, the inward tilt of the massive outer walls for stability, and the use of mixed materials, dressed stone, dried clay blocks, and several different kinds of wood, speak of previous experiments and practice. The palace was in continuous use till it was sacked and destroyed during the Dogra invasion of 1834. The restoration started in this century and has been proceeding fitfully.

The palace dominates the modern city of Leh, visible from most of the center. It seems to straddle a large part of a peak behind the town. I was glad to see an exhibition on the restoration project inside the palace, in particular the architectural drawings which showed the structure as a whole. Without this you are lost: the palace has nine floors (you enter at the third level) and each floor has multiple rooms. A look at these drawings gave me an overall feel of the structure. I decided to climb up to the terrace on the seventh floor and then walk back down. This was the second visit for The Family (she’s been here once when I was still battling altitude sickness) so she decided to be more relaxed.

You have to park your car a little distance away. The walk to the palace is lined with cheerful women knitting scarves, socks and ear muffs which they sell to tourists, even in the height of summer. I find that women are much more natural when The Family takes their photos. I would never have got these friendly smiles and eyes meeting the camera. Each person in this cheerful bunch had an umbrella. There’s no rain here, but the sun is pretty fierce. These are really parasols.

The main entrance in impressive with its four huge columns and the carved heads of lions decorating the lintel over the ceremonial door. This is the singe-sgo (Lion gate, singhadwar in Sanskrit-derived languages). I realized at this point that the king who ordered this palace to be built was also named lion. Maybe this was an appropriate name for a king who took on the Mughal empire; although he could not win Kashmir from them, he did protect the frontier.

On the fourth floor I looked out of a window at a great view of the town of Leh. I’m sure the window is a restoration, but it is done by local craftsmen who follow traditional practice. I wonder about the glass though; I am aware of traditional paper to cover windows. Did 17th century Ladakh make glass. The silk route would certainly have brought many craftsmen here for two and a half millennia, so I’ll reserve my judgement. I climbed half a floor to an internal terrace outside the memorial to the Namgyals. Photography was forbidden inside the memorial, but I was happy to take a photo of the very decorative door outside that led to the fifth floor. From there, I passed further terraces with clearer view of the modern city.

There are terraces and courtyards at every level. The dressed stone was really impressive, with the sharp edges still intact. The ceremonial courtyard where the Namgyals had state banquets was warm and protected from winds by surrounding walls. Further up the view was better but the wind was pretty strong. I listened to the clear and calm sound of azaan reaching up there from the wood and plaster mosque which I’d seen in the market below.

The result of the sacking of the palace and its long abandonment is that the murals which once decorated the walls are not in good shape. There are parts of many of these artworks still visible, and work to preserve them is on. The conservation of the palace and the old city below it has barely begun. It attracts many students of architecture who spend a semester surveying and documenting these buildings. I would have been completely unaware of this effort if Niece Mbili had not done a semester project here. But being sensitized to it now, I could see people at work. New papers are being written by engineers on the techniques used in Leh. Historians have been reasearching Ladakh a little more than they used to before. Perhaps in a couple of decades the palace will be restored to something closer to how it might have looked in the centuries when it was in use.

Leh market

After every museum and monastery closes for the evening, tourists descend on Leh’s main market. It’s not a small number of people, I even bumped into acquaintances from work at the market. The Family decided to go there a little before ravenous hordes descend on the cafes. Her first photo of the day shows an exotic market scene: a row of vegetable vendors against a backdrop of beautiful carpets, and a scattered few shoppers. Even the vegetables are laid out on lovely carpets. It is the best photo of the market I’ve seen, but it’s not the typical photo.

If you want the typical photo, that’s this. Crowds of tourists not sure what they want to do. Some sit on benches, others take selfies or photos of each other, the rest cruise in gangs up and down the drag, while the more clear-headed fill up the many cafes and bakeries which offer free wifi.

The market has one of the most cheerful post offices I’ve seen anywhere. It was closed, of course, by the time I spotted it. But there was always a gaggle of tourists around it, either taking selfies against the “I Love Ladakh” mural on one wall, or using it as a meeting point. The bright white building with red trim looked like it might be a place where locals meet and chat.

There were two beautiful mosques on the road, in two different styles. One was an exotic plaster and wood structure: all white and light wood stain. I had to look twice to see that it was a mosque. The architecture was adapted from the native Ladakhi style: the grand gate was in intricately carved wood. The other was a structure that was more immediately recognizable, the turrets and doors, the green and white colour scheme, similar to the mosques that you see around the world. About half of the native Ladakhis are Muslim, the other half Buddhist. This is an ancient history. Ladakh was on the old silk route, and cultures and religions traveled along it for much more than a thousand years.

I liked the view along the drag: with the Leh Palace perched on a hill visible along its axis. The afternoon had turned cloudy, but now, at sunset the clouds parted and we had this joyful golden light on the palace and the upper stories of the shops here. I left The Family to find old Ladakhi jewelery in jade and coral and climbed to a cafe on one of the upper floors with my copy of Gurnah’s “The Last Gift.”

A couple of days earlier The Family had discovered the wonderful Ladakhi apricots: small, juicy, and flavourful. She’d bought a kilo from this lady, and we ate them over a few days. We picked up the fruits again later, and they would be one of the best things we got back from Ladakh.

And the local jewelry? Glad you asked. They are jade and coral, set in silver. The silver-work was fascinating. I saw three pieces, one was antique, the second was a grand old silver piece with new jade and coral pieces added to it, and the third was an old coral set with new rings of silver added to it. In this last one, the silver will get a little patina as it ages.

Mural in Leh Palace

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Children’s rhyme

A mural in the Leh palace shows a hunter armed with a spear and a bow and arrows hunting a tiger. The figure of the hunter hiding behind a Jacaranda tree can still be seen. The tiger has almost disappeared. Life copies art?

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 2

On the walls of the main shrine inside the Hemis monastery are paintings in the usual Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist iconography. The first was a painting of the three powerful deities who helped Guru Padmasambhava to pacify the demons who were troubling the mountain kingdom. The most powerful of them was the central figure of the Yamantaka. I’m not an expert in this iconography, but I could tell him by the water buffalo which he rides (the buffalo seems to be somewhat weighed down by him). All these pictures are meant to educate, so they designed to be easy to interpret.

Detail of the painting of Yamantaka

The Yamantaka is often shown as devouring a snake, which denotes time. This is a symbol which emphasizes that he conquers time, and illustrates the meaning of his name, the conqueror of death (Yamantaka = Yama + antaka in Sanskrit). Here he holds a snake in two hands. Interestingly, he is the aggressive aspect of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of learning and wisdom. That’s a bit esoteric, but it is meant to show people how to conquer death.

Painting of Shridevi, known in Tibet as Palden Lhamo

I should have taken photos of all three of these deities, but I only have this other photo of the painting which shows the wrathful aspect of Palden Lhamo (whose name in Sanskrit is Shridevi). She has many aspects as a guardian diety, and again, one of her attributes is wisdom and learning. Hemis monastery belongs to the Red Hat school, so she is given a secondary role. In the Yellow Hat (Gelug) school she might have had the central role.

Artworks from Hemis monastery: 1

Hemis monastery is famous in Ladakh because of its collection of art work. I spent a lot of time at the festival which celebrates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, watching the Cham dance. As a result, I didn’t get to see the collection. I did see the main temple with its interesting copper statue of the Buddha and the lovely paintings that decorate the shrine. One example is the painting of the Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, which you see above. All these paintings are meant to instruct. They have no hidden meanings, only a language that you need to learn in order to “read” the painting.

Here are some “words” that I know. A green halo always denotes a spiritually powerful person. The long ears almost always belong to the Sakyamuni. Each hand position, a mudra, denotes the context. This one, the bhumisparsha mudra (right hand touching the ground), denotes the moment of enlightenment, the eyes open in wonder at what the mind has just grasped. Overhead is the chhatri, the umbrella which protects him. Around him are the lesser figures, their relative importance denoted by their sizes. Most prominent among these are two itinerant monks, with their staffs and begging bowls. Other powerful figures are also in attendance, you can see them with green and red halos. The latter denote worldly power. Finally note the smallest figures, the ones without halos, the ordinary people like us.

Across the hall from the Sakyamuni was a painting of White Tara. The roof of the shrine is constructed such that an opening illuminates Tara during the morning prayer. The camera saw everything else in deep shadow, and I had to work at recovering part of the image. Tara is a female Bodhisattva, a counterpart of the compassionate Avalokiteshwara (=Kanon, Guan-yin). Her role is to guide every person’s spiritual journey. She is shown seated in vajrasana. In each hand she holds a three part utpala flower, which represents the Buddhas of the past, future, and present eras. This picture dispenses with her extra eyes, representing wisdom, and a fully open lotus, representing compassion.

The paintings are immense, and with my hand-held camera the images were distorted. It takes a long time to work on each image and restore it to some semblance of reality. That is part of the reason why these paintings will make up a series on which I will work whenever I find time. The intricate painting above shows the wheel of life. At its center are the three poisons of the mind, ignorance, desire, and hatred, denoted by the cock, the bull, and the snake. Around it are the hells and heavens you make of your life according to your own actions. Notice the promise of redemption and change in each of them, represented by a figure of the Buddha in each compartment. All the world is in the grasp of Kala, time.

Below the painting of the Sakyamuni was a mandala, the container of an essence of thought. The drawing of each mandala proceeds from the bindu at the center, into the square which represents the human realm and into the outer circle which is a depiction of the rest. This one must have been drawn before the festival began, at the center of the mandala is the lotus of compassion.

Door after door

Finally, we walked through endless empty corridors in Bikaner’s old fort, Junagarh. We’d seen the royal apartments and audience halls already; they make up the core of the complex. But every king added wings according to the needs of the moment. I suppose bureaucracy always multiplies (until it disappears), so new wings and rooms always come in handy. These empty rooms were beautifully painted over in later developments of the same styles of frescoes that we had seen earlier.

We exited Phool Mahal, and, instead of taking the stairs, took a turn into a narrow corridor overlooking the open courtyard below. That led us into a train of empty, but beautifully decorated, rooms. The frescoes were in good repair here. Probably tourists just take the quickest way out, preferring the outer corridors instead of wandering through the rooms. But we were not disappointed. The sonakin style frescoes in the first few rooms were very similar in style to Phool Mahal: the same golds and greens, for pictures of vases of flowers or bowls of fruit. The doors were painted in the same alternation of dark greens and reds, with gold highlights that we recognized as the Jangali Sunthari style.

But this colour scheme of the Sonakin style changed as we progressed. The golds and green disappeared and reds, yellows and blues took over. The lack of gold perhaps signified that these rooms were given over to officials and courtiers rather than the royal family. The reds and the blues began to look like western influence. The ceiling that you see here was a clear evolution of the Manovat style, looking quite English in its colour scheme.

This adaptation was also visible in the pictures on the walls. The unlabelled portrait is full face, quite unlike the early modern style, in which royal portraits were always in profile. The modelling of the face, the shadows, also shows a western influence. Of course, the appearance of photos mounted on the walls was the best clue to the increasing European influence.

We came to the end of the corridors and had to climb down a flight of stairs. These were more modern than the set we’d taken up from the innermost courtyard: wider and better spaced. Defending the staircase against enemies was not on the mind of the architect. Crossing an inner courtyard, we came to the armoury. I’ve never looked at the evolution of swords, daggers, axes, and various other cutting edge weapon designs from the Mughal era. But this armoury had some fascinating early firearms, mostly unrifled muzzle loaders. There was this fascinating piece, about three meters long. I suppose three men were needed to charge, steady and fire it. Was it ever a decisive piece in battle? But then Bikaner seldom entered battle, preferring to work its diplomatic corps more than its army.

The armoury was part of the Ganga Mahal, completed in 1937 CE by Ganga Singh. This was quite different in style from the remainder of the fort: being built almost entirely from the local red sandtone, and elaborately carved, rather than plastered and painted. The main hall was enormous, and we felt quite dwarfed in there. I walked along it admiring the beautifully reliefs of local fauna, birds as well as deer. This was the beginning of the style of stone-masonry that we saw in the other palaces in Bikaner. We’d reached the end of our walk. It was time for the museums. But that is a story I’ve already told.

Image and science

At the last possible minute I managed to see an exhibition of sculptures by a friend. We were students, more or less at the same time, when he was doing physics. But, according to an interview he gave recently, he had already been very invested in art. I liked the work he’d done earlier, some in pen and ink, others digitally. When Sukant told me over a beer some weeks back that he was going to show his clay sculptures, I made up my mind to see them. The piece that you see in the featured photo seemed like it had a glazed surface. But no, he actually hand-polished the clay using glass beads; he has an interesting point of view about firing clay which he makes in his interview. The piece represents a stage in the evolution of a fractal curve that can be thought of as growing to cover the surface of a sphere while still remaining a line. It would be a terribly convoluted line, but one which, at every stage of its growth, could be drawn with a thin-enough nib never leaving the surface, or crossing itself.

I found the exhibition very interesting. Clay comes in various colours, and he’d worked with several different sorts. One set of pieces was inspired by the development of fetuses, and was just lightly interpretive. Some of the pieces were intricately folded shapes, others had interesting contrasts of texture. There are disadvantages and advantages when you turn up so late for an exhibition. He was a little upset with me, but the years of association meant that he could be very grumpy, but still give me a tour of his sculptures. The delay meant that I was the last person in the exhibition, and had his full attention. When he explained how he obtained the texture of the second piece in the panel above I was amazed by the effort that went into it.

The pieces that you see in this carousel represent abstract concepts of physics: the interactions of particles in space-time, and quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Some maths gives rise to definite forms, the precision and clarity of geometric and algebra are definite. But physics is different. It is rooted in the concrete but leads into abstraction that can be pictured differently by each person. I found Sukant’s visualisation very beautiful. The intricate texturing of the first one, built from the inside out, reminded me of a piece of coral that I’d seen. The form of the last one is hypnotizing. You can look at it from different angles and see different things, perhaps a little like the science it represents.

“Is it okay if I take photos?” I asked. “No one can stop it these days,” he said, “I’m sure many people already have. Go ahead.” He looked quizzically at the results and then said, “I like them. Please share them with me.” That gave me the courage to ask, “Can I blog them?” “Go ahead,” he allowed. So thanks to the artist’s generosity, you get to look at scientific abstractions filtered through the mind of someone who works with images.

Afternoon brilliance

Gasps were natural. When the guard unlocked a side door near the queen’s bedchamber, we stepped into a narrow gallery, and a bright jewel-like light hit us. Surely this was the most breathtaking part of Bikaner’s Junagadh, the old fort. The raja’s private apartment was the palace called Phool Mahal, reputedly the oldest part of the complex. It was simpler than I’d expected. But here was the remnant of the opulence that Bikaner’s wealth would have bought. Situated on a branch of the old silk route, this little kingdom had grown wealthy. This wealth had bought, among other things, the beautiful painstaking work that we saw here: both the coloured glass inlay in the jharokha, and the Sonakin style frescoes on the walls and ceilings. These frescoes were much more elaborate than even the ones I’d seen in the private court room downstairs. The narrow corridor ran along the outer perimeter of the queen’s chamber and was absolutely breathtaking. A single door led out to a narrow balcony outside. I suppose the queen would want to see the sky now and then.

After the death of emperor Alamgir in 1707 CE, feudalism had begun to collapse, and Bikaner’s merchants had already begun to rise to the dominating position such families still continue to have in India’s economy. Comparing the cost of the work in front of us to that in the merchants’ havelis made it clear that the raja’s wealth would have been overwhelmingly more if the later British Crown rule had not taken it over. Some part of it made its way into the British crown’s coffers, of course. But British India was notorious for private corruption; it wasn’t only Robert Clive and Warren Hastings who skirted British law. Much of the disappeared wealth found its way into private hands, and thereby into the general economy of the “home islands”. I guess it took two world wars to drain some of that surplus from Britain.

We’d happened on this place at the best time of the day. The afternoon sun slanted through the jharokha, setting the corridor ablaze with colours. This palace is from the early 17th century CE, but the style of frescoes developed about a generation later. If the coloured glass is contemporary with the frescoes then it would also come from the late 17th century, in Alamgir’s lifetime. There’s much writing about Rajasthani mirror technology of this period, so it stands to reason that a lot of experimentation with glass went on at that time. Coloured glass is a much older technology in India, and it would have been easily available.. In the brilliant afternoon light it was obvious that restoration work was badly needed. I wondered what it would cost now.