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.

Malwa in Ancient History

I first saw the Malwa plateau in a monsoon eight years ago. Even in that flat leaden light, the area looked beautiful. In the lush green meadows nurtured by two months of gentle rain, trees were in bloom. I was then visiting medieval ruins: just the perfect time of the year if atmosphere is what you are interested in. Now, as we plan to go back to the area to visit much older places, I began to wonder what is the earliest reference to this area that I could find. The nearby temple town of Omkareshwar was certainly recorded in the 8th century CE. Ujjain is older, and temples there are recorded in the Skanda Purana, and so must be older than the 7th century CE.

But Ujjain was the capital of the Avanti republic during the lifetime of the Buddha, and is well recorded in the literature from that time, preserved by Buddhist monks. Nothing seems to remain of the mud ramparts of the city which were recorded in the 7th century BCE. Malwa enters into the larger history of the world through Ashoka, who was sent as governor by his father, the Maurya emperor Bimbisara, to Ujjain in the middle of the 3rd century BCE. There is extensive documentation of his marriage to Devi, a daughter of a merchant from nearby Vidisha, and the birth of his first two children, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, in Ujjain. The two children were emissaries who carried Buddhism to Sri Lanka, from where it spread eastwards to Myanmar and beyond.

There are records of a Buddhist stupa built in Ujjain soon after the death of Gautama, so sometime in the 6th century BCE. I can find no record of it today. The only mention I can find of stupas here is from a recent newspaper article discussing archaeological digs exploring Mauryan era remains in the nearby Vaishya Thekri. I wonder whether I will be able to visit that. If the dating is correct, then it is three centuries older than the stupas at Sanchi.

But humans have inhabited this land for longer. There are nearby digs which are beginning to yield objects from the Chalcolithic period, not older than the 10th century BCE. This begins to bridge the incredible gap between Avanti and the age of ancient dinosaurs and marine fossils. Interestingly, a fairly complete hominin skeleton was found under this dramatic landscape. The so-called “Narmada hominin” was long thought to be the remains of Homo erectus, but has begun to reignite debates about the evolution of Homo sapiens. There must be also be artifacts from much later prehistory buried in these hills.

Greek Buddhism

The story of Greek Buddhism seems to be largely forgotten except when events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas hit the public’s consciousness. When The Family and I chased after a remnant of the neglected Indo-Greek cultures across a flooded river near Bhopal, I had not seen the magnificent schist statue of the Buddha in the National Museum in Delhi (featured photo). The history of the Gandhara kingdom is well documented, widely researched, easy to find, and seldom referred to. In these unsettled days the story is worth keeping in mind.

The Gandhara kingdom was centred around Peshawar and Taxila, and in the period between about 200 BCE and 600 CE it was the meeting place of three cultures: the Greek, the Indian, and the Persian. It was part of the Mauryan empire. The Emperor Ashok was introduced to governance as the satrap of Gandhara, during the reign of his grandfather, Chandragupta the founder of the empire. Buddhism came to Gandhara (and to the rest of empire) with the conversion of Ashoka. The influx of Greek artists and artisans to Central Asia which started after Alexander’s conquests settled into a constant exchange during the Seleucid dynasty, with spillage into the Mauryan empire.

Standing Buddha from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, delhi

The Indo-Greek melding which created the style we call Gandhara arose during the 1st century CE, during the reign of Kushan kings. The featured photo is of a magnificent example of this style. Another one which I liked is the plaster statue of the standing Buddha pictured here. The Kushan kings traded with Rome, and the influence of the imperial Roman style is clear in both the statues. The faces of the Buddhas and the flowing dresses remind me of the flowing robes of 2nd century Roman sculpture, and the faces of Apollo. The statues were often painted and occasionally gilded, but I could not see any trace of paint on the ones I examined.

Bodhisattva from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, Delhi

The head of a Bodhisattva that you see above was striking (in spite of being badly lit). The label did not say much beyond the fact that this is dated to the 2nd century CE. A little search later convinced me that this must be a representation of the Maitreya. He seems to have been very popular in the Gandhara tradition, perhaps almost as much as Gautama. The Maitreya sports a mustache in all the pictures that I saw.

The ascension to the throne of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka, who ruled during the period these three artifact were made, dates the beginning of the Saka calendar, the official calendar of the Indian state. Kanishka’s empire extended as far east as Pataliputra and northwards up to Turfan in present day Xinjiang province. Trade with Rome in this period opened up the silk route and is said to be responsible for the spread of Buddhism into China.

I understand that “most of the archaeological finds of Gandhara art have been the result of casual discovery or clandestine treasure hunts”. This explains the lack of provenance that I noticed in the labels in the museum. In the absence of modern field data, expert opinions on the history of Gandhara art diverge from each other. Unfortunately, this is a part of the world where the major archaeological sites of Peshawar, Taxila, and Swat valley in Pakistan and Jalalabad, Hadda and Bamiyan in Afghanistan have become less accessible. New scholarly expeditions seem to be unlikely in my lifetime. The full story of the flowering of an Afghan-Greek-Iranian-Indian melding will only emerge in a gentler future.

A profusion of gold

You would not want to skip the Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan. After all, it is one of the most important pagodas in the country: said to hold two relics of the Buddha, a tooth and the frontal part of his skull. The 11th century pagoda in the shape of a cone rising over five levels of square terraces, is also the architectural model which is emulated by many of Burma’s pagodas.A view of the terraces below the Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan You can see the terraces in this photo. The niches which run around the wall behind the strange lion in the photo contain tiles which illustrate tales from the jatakas. Apparently king Anawrahta, the founder of Bagan and the one who started the construction of this temple, had placed statues of pre-Buddhist spirits called nats in these niches. They were later moved to a separate chamber inside the temple complex.

Some parts of the complex are modernThe first impression that one has of this temple is that it is full of gold. It is a little misleading, as you can see in the featured photo. Most of the shiny bits are actually lovely wooden carvings covered in gold leaf. The masonry walls are painted yellow to enhance the effect, as you can see in the photo here. Note also the date on the wall: July 1940. Some parts of the complex are really modern.

The central spire of the Shwezigon pagoda in Bagan is surrounded by golden treesThe impression of gold is heightened by these lamps in the shape of flowering trees which surround the pagoda and separate it from the rest of the buildings in the quadrangle. The pagoda is supposed to have been completed by Kyanzittha, the king who followed Anawrahta, and the central dome is covered with copper slabs. The hti (umbrella) over it is said to be made of gold. On the day I went there the dome was being repaired from the damage to it due to the last two earthquakes and the inept restoration which followed the previous one.

Wooden man in the Shwezigon complex in BaganThe complex of buildings around the central pagoda was a mad museum of statuary. Buddha statues from a millennium of artistic styles were scattered through these buildings. But there were also other interesting art works. In a large building abutting the main
pagoda were several wooden figures placed high up near the rafters. One of them was this figure of a starving man. The longyi which he wears and the long pole he carries reminds me of the boatmen of western Myanmar, near the Bangladesh border.Wooden warrior in the Shwezigon complex in Bagan Nearby was a mounted figure. The long ears of the chubby horse made it look like one of the traditional horse figures of eastern India. If it were not for the conical hat, the long white kurta and the dhoti could be mistaken for traditional Indian attire of the 19th century.

Visitors to the Shwezigon pagoda in BaganMost visitors to the temple complex were locals. Watching them one learns that temple bells are to be struck thrice: once for the Buddha, once for the Sangha, and once for Dhamma. As you strike the bell you are supposed to share your merits with the world by chanting “ahh mya”. If you happen to be within earshot, then you show your appreciation of the sentiment by replying “sadhu”. I found that the number of people praying is much larger than the numbers who ring bells.

Wooden stautes depicting the Buddha leading the sangha in the Shwezigon temple complex in Bagan

In a building behind the pagoda I came across an intriguing collection of many wooden sculptures. The only one I recognized was what you see above: the Buddha leads a line of bhikkhus, the mendicant monks, who represent the sangha. I had a tougher time interpreting the rest of the figures. In a mahayana buddhist temple I could have thought of some of the figures as powerful celestial beings. However, Myanmar follows Theravada buddhism, and this was one of the first Theravada pagodas in the country. Perhaps the figures are those of the nats which king Anawrahta placed at the base of the pagoda and were later moved here.

A buddha icon in one of the brick pagodas inside the Shwezigon complex in BaganThis was the first major temple complex I visited in Myanmar and I was struck by the differences between various images of the Buddha one finds here. Old brick structure in the Shwezigon temple complex in BaganThe serene image you see on the right can be found inside a red-brick temple (see the photo on the left) off to one side of the complex of shrines surrounding the central pagoda. This iconography of the Buddha is common in the whole geographic range from Afghanistan in the west to Japan in the east. The serene smile, An imposing later representation of the Buddha inside the Shwezigon complex in Baganthe long ears and the hair piled above the head is retained in the statue you see in the photo below. However, the facial features are clearly different: they are typical of the local features. The change from the north Indian to the Burmese face of the Buddha would place these two statues apart by at least a couple of hundred years. The one on top is likely to be from the early period of Bagan; perhaps it was established soon after the main pagoda was built. The other statue is at least two hundred years older, and could be even more recent.

A gilded bhikkhu in one of the shrines in the Shwezigon complex in BaganThe Buddha is certainly very well represented in the temple in Bagan, but the Sangha is not left out either. On the right you see a photo of a monk, probably high up in the hierarchy of the Sangha, if you go by the confidence in his body language. He could very well be sitting in judgement, or giving his opinion on a subtle point of religious doctrine.Statue of a bhikkhu with an alms bowl in the Shwezigon complex in Bagan The gilt on statues of monks is something special to Myanmar. You can see it again in this image of a monk holding his bowl of alms. I like the scaled model down near the monk’s right knee: it gives it a very modern look, as if someone was beginning to construct a fractal. I’m sure that this statue is something special, since it is surrounded by a little moat and the whole thing is fenced off. I only saw two children at the statue. Although they smiled at me and wanted their photos taken, they did not have enough English to tell me what the statue signified.

Standing Buddha statue inside the Shwezigon complex in Bagan

Dhamma is often represented by a mudra, one in which the palm and forefinger of a hand are joined together, and the other fingers are held straight, in statues of the Buddha. A statue of a man at prayer inside a small pagoda in the Shwezigon complex in BaganIn other places I have seen paintings of the sermon in the park at Sarnath; you can see the Buddha teaching with his right hand in this mudra, his disciples seated in front of him, while spotted deer (always deer) and birds look on. Nowhere in the complex of shrines around the Shwezigon pagoda did I see these depictions. The closest was the statue of a man praying which you can see in the photo here. Could it be that the country considers itself to be so steeped in Dhamma that it does not need to be shown in images?

The temple of unending happiness

As we came to the Ananda temple in Bagan, Zaw Zaw, our guide for the day, told us that it meant endless in Burmese. The Sanskrit word Ananda means happiness, and the word has come unchanged in sound and meaning into most modern north-Indian languages. The word for eternity in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages is Ananta (technically the word means endless). I was happy to note that the Wikipedia article on the temple comments on this etymological confusion.

Ananda temple: the south facing Kassapa Buddha

From Zaw Zaw and others I learnt of the Theravada Buddhist belief in five Buddhas in the current kalpa (era), of whom Gautama, the historical Buddha, is believed to be the most recent. One is yet to come. In many temples in Bagan the remaining four Buddhas face the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. These temples have a symmetric cross shape, with a corridor which goes around the cross so that you can see all four by simply following the corridor. From the outside one sees four porches, surmounted by terraces, leading to a pagoda and an umbrella above it called the hti.

Statue of king Kyanzittha in Ananda temple, Bagan

The Ananda temple is built in this style, and is more than 50 meters tall. The first impression is of a temple from Orissa, but differences are visible as one nears it. We entered from the south, and saw the immense, almost 10 meters tall, statue of the Kassapa Buddha in front of us (photo above). At its feet was a small statue (photo alongside), probably of the king Kyanzittha, who caused the temple to be built in 1105 CE. The height of the statue makes the space look much smaller than it is.

Corridor of the Ananda temple in Bagan
Sculpture inside a niche in the Ananda temple in Bagan

We walked around the corridor. The temple had been damaged in the 1975 earthquake and has been restored with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India. We’d seen beautiful glazed panels running at chest height along the outside (featured image) which recount stories from the Jatakas. The inside was more mixed: there were parts which were painted and gilded, like this arch set into the corridor. Other parts were barer, but had niches running from head height up to the top of the corridor, with a gilded sculpture sitting in each niche. The one here is a typical example. I liked the look of serenity in the face of the Buddha. Notably, the faces look Indian. By the end of our perambulation we realized that we had run counter to the designed sense of the corridor, because we began to recognize the story of the birth of the Buddha in the sculptures. I guess if we had gone around in the right sense we would have followed the story of the Buddha in more detail. There were very few paintings visible: the corridor walls were white washed, and what little was visible was restricted to the walls behind the large Buddha statue.

The Ananda temple is one of the biggest sights in Bagan. I was impressed, but later I visited other temples which I found more beautiful.