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.

An initiation into Tibetan history


This statue in the Lama temple in Beijing reminded me of the Tibetan statuary I grew up with. One of my grand-aunts was an artist and a keen traveler, who collected, among other things, statuary, masks and paintings from the Himalayan, mainly Tibetan, Vajrayana buddhism. Her collection was large enough that it spilled over to all her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Even now, the violent imagery and snarling masks induce in me a sense of peace and nostalgia, and clear visual memory of her large house, and in general, of my extended family.

But now, planning a possible trip to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, I became curious about Tibetan history and religion. Religion first: the extreme ritualism and the violent iconography of Himalayan buddhism is completely at odds with what one learns about buddhism in India. Moreover, Nepali and the remnants of Indian Vajrayana buddhism do not have such violent imagery. It turns out that the dominant Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, is possibly a late and syncretic development. The rituals come from the late Indian Vajrayana (tantric) buddhism, carried to Tibet by the monk Padmasambhava. There could be a dash of Bon beliefs and a soupcon of older Mahayana buddhism stirred into this. Some of the imagery could be a survival from Bon, but the violence?

This brings me to the second point: history. Tibetan history has been warlike. From the Tibetan empire of the 7th century, there were continuing wars with Nepal, Indian kingdoms, China, the Mongols, and later with the Sikh and British empires. Buddhism became a state religion by the 8th century, and the Dalai Lamas were involved in Tibetan and Asian politics since the 16th century. It is possible that this warlike stance of the state crept into the iconography we associate specifically with Tibet.

The re-invention of Tibetan buddhism as a religion of peace seems to be due to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This Gandhi-like political-spiritual transformation is his greatest achievement, and directly responsible for the rock-star status that he enjoys.