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.

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.

The Exquisite Punakha Dzong

If there is only one Dzong that you have time to visit when in Bhutan, there is no question that it should be Punakha. The wonderful location at the confluence of the Po Chhu (Papa river) and Mo Chhu (Mama river), the beautiful Jacaranda and Magnolia trees surrounding it, the exquisite woodwork and paintings (featured photo), and its renowned history, make this undisputedly the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. Don’t take my word for it. The present King was married in this Dzong, and all the kings have been crowned here.

Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 at a site where an older and smaller Dzong stood since 1326. Construction was completed in 1638, and the gold dome was added in 1676. In the second courtyard (dochey) I saw several buildings with beautiful paintings. The one above shows a monk with his left hand, holding a lotus, extended in a gesture that wards off evil (karana mudra). I liked the painting because of the detailed study of black-necked cranes at the monk’s feet. I’, not able to identify who this could be. I guess he is a monk and not a celestial being by the fact that he has a halo, but it is brown in colour.

To reach this place we had to climb a steep set of stairs. It seems that this is protection against invaders as well as flood waters. Entrance to the main buildings in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan The ladder that you see in this photo is apparently pulled up at night and the door behind it is locked. The ladder is so steep that I had to hold the handrail to climb up. The height is a protection against floods. Since Po Chhu is snow-fed, melt-water often floods in early spring. Even so, the Dzong has flooded several times in its history. The waters eventually cross the border into India and feed the Brahmaputra river. We spent a long time in the halls around the second dochey, admiring paintings and statues.

Mural in Punkha Dzong, Bhutan The two images here were taken because the light was good. They depict celestial beings of great power. This is clear from the green halos that surround their heads. Apart from that I’m clueless about who they can be. They are neither the Sakyamuni (since they do not hold a begging bowl) nor are they depictions of the Maitreya Buddha (since their feet do not rest on lotus flowers).

They are not Avalokiteshwara (since they are looking forward), nor are they Tara (since they are male). They do not hold a sword, so they are not Manjushri. They are not surrounded by flames, so they cannot be Mahakala or Vajrapani. Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan Both are bearded, so they could be Padmasambhava. But I have no idea whether the Guru is depicted holding a musical instrument, as the one on the left does, or a prayer wheel, like the one on the right. The identified images of the Guru that I have seen show him with the Sakyamuni seated on the crown. That is not the case here. These could be someone else, but I like to think of them as the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas.

View of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This was the second time we visited the Punakha Dzong. Both times we arrived in May, and found the Jacaranda in bloom. The beautiful purple colour looks wonderful against the white walls of the Dzong. It would be nice to come back here in another season to see what it looks like.

Tashiding monastery

Tashiding gompa is said to have been founded in 1641 CE by Ngadak Sempa Chembo Phunsok Rigzing, one of the three monks who got together in nearby Yuksom to crown the first Chogyal. Various sources say that it is not as old as the Dubdi gompa, which was founded in 1701 CE. The explanation seems to be that the buildings were extended and renovated in 1717 CE.

View of the Chogyal Lhakhang and two of the four chortens in Tashiding gompa

The Tashiding monastery is almost 20 Kms from Yuksom, and stands on a hill between the Rangit and Rathong rivers. It was nearly 3 in the afternoon when we pulled out of Yuksom, and a little past 4 PM when we reached the gompa. Hem Kumar assured us that the monastery closes at 5. It was a steep climb up somewhat uneven stairs from the road to the monastery. We passed several monks coming down the stairs. The Family asked them how much further to the gompa, and they said we were almost there.

View of the Tsenhang and Guru Lhakhang in Tashiding gompa

The stairs bring you to the entrance gate called Mani Lhakhang, at the back of the main monastery, which is called the Chogyal Lhakhang. We walked around it to reach the fore-court. The ecclesiastic year starts with the new moon day in February. The Bhumchu festival is held on the following full moon, which plainsmen call the Maghi Purnima. We’d missed it by just about a week. The gompa closes at 4 PM, and the priests walk down to the nearest village soon after. We’d met them as they left. We didn’t manage to enter the buildings and see the stone carvings which are reputedly the most beautiful in Sikkim.

The courtyard has four chortens. You can see two of them and the main monastery in the photo at the top. Opposite it stand the two buildings called the Tsenkhang Lakhang and the Guru Lhakhang (photo above). Guru, or Rinpoche, in this context always seems to refer to Padmasabhava. Just behind these two buildings is the butter lamp house. Off to one side is a covered workshop where stone masons work. All these were closed. The Family said, wryly, another reason to come back here. And the next time we try to come for the festival, I added.

The yard full of chortens in Tashiding gompa

The Bhumchu festival is famous in Sikkim, and involves showing an earthen vase full of water to devotees. The vase is supposed to have been consecrated by Padmasabhava, the monk who brought Buddhism to the mountains (a long version of this legend can be found in Wikipedia). The level of water in the vessel is inspected by priests; more or less than the nominal level is believed to predict floods or droughts. Cups of water are drawn from the vase, mixed with water from the Rathong river, and given to devotees. The vase is then filled again with a measured amount of water, sealed, and kept away for a year. I asked a local tea-house owner what the prediction for the year is, and she said that the monks had not yet declared it.

What was open to us was a yard full of chortens on the far side. This area is surrounded by a low wall (photo above). We could see colourful tablets stacked up against the white walls.

Thongwa rong di: the golden chorten of the first Chogyal in Tashiding gompa

The first drops of rain fell as we entered the gate to the yard of chortens. Should we ring the large bell that stands just inside? We decided that nothing could go wrong if we left it alone. Just behind the bell is a large golden chorten called Thongwa Rong Di (photo above). This was built on the order of the first Chogyal. The mere sight of it is supposed to wash away your sins. It did lift my spirits to see the only major structure in the monastery complex which we were not too late for. A devotee was making a circuit of these chortens while intoning a prayer. The three of us were the only people in this now-deserted gompa.

Paintings at the base of a chorten in Tashiding gompa

We walked slowly among the chortens. Some were very old, with bricks and stone barely held together by crumbling mortar. Others, like Thongwa Rong Di, were in very good repair. One chorten had bright paintings on the base (above). The largest of these is a representation of the white Tara: the Bodhisattva of compassion who gives a long and healthy life. This pre-eminent Tara of the Himalayas shades into the Guanyin of China and the Kannon of Japan. The Buddha, called the Sakyamuni in the mountains, is shown next to Tara in two mudras. The one that appeals to me is the bhumi-sparsa mudra (in the center), depicting the moment of enlightenment, the transmutation of Gautama into the Buddha.

Tablets on the all around the chortens in Tashiding gompa

The real gems of art in this yard were the tablets. These often-colourful tablets were propped up against anything, the bases of the chortens and the surrounding walls. Most of them said “Om mani padme hum”, but a few had longer inscriptions which I could barely begin to decipher with my rudimentary knowledge of the Tibetan script. It is interesting that with knowledge of the Devanagari and Bengali scripts one finds it somewhat easier to recognize words in Tibetan than Oriya. A few tablets contain icons; again Tara figures more often than the Buddha.

A light drizzle had set in and we decided to leave. The stairs had become slippery with the rains, and we were slower going down than we had been coming up. Soon we were back at the road. Near the stairs stood Pema’s tea house. We decided that a tea was called for.