Tag Archives: art history

Creating & Sustaining Sacred Space

The physical landscape of the Himalayas can be rugged, challenging, insulating, and  endearing. Home to centuries of earnest practitioners as well as Orientalist projections, those who inhabit these mountains have long negotiated their relationship to their environment in spiritual and religious terms.


Distant view, Lamayuru Monastery, Leh, Ladakh. Photo processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_213.

Monasteries were by necessity separated from the community at large, keeping away secular influences as much as safeguarding the wealth that lay within. Many were placed on hillocks or other promontories which allowed residents to more easily survey and monitor the environment.


Distant view, Spituk Monastery. Slide processed August 1983. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_200.

Often there will be some sort of monument that demarcates the boundaries of the complex; in the case below, a chorten (Skt. stupa), acts as a gateway.


From Ron’s notebook: “Ladakh. Chorten on descent from Leh hill”. Slide processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_174.

But not all demarcations are physical structures; many times there are successive layers of protective imagery in the forms of murals and sculptures. In Himalayan Buddhism, a frequently encountered set of such figures is the Four Guardian Kings, two of whom are visible in the mural below. Each of the kings has a specific iconography and is associated with one of the four cardinal directions. Taken together, they protect and sustain sacred space in a conceptual sense, clearing the area of any negative forces that could impact the practitioner. (For more on the Four Guardian Kings, see the associated entry at Himalayan Art Resources.) Images such as these are public, exoteric, and easily seen. However, as a person moves inside the temple, the content of the imagery changes markedly.


20th century mural of Vaishravana, Guardian King of the North, and Virupaksha, Guardian King of the West, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal. Slide processed August 1989. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_191.

Inside, murals tend to shift to show a number of themes that are more accessible to an initiated audience, and often require specialist knowledge, initiation, or understanding. Such themes include lineage figures particular to a specific tradition (such as the Drukpa Kagyu masters in the scene below), biographical scenes from the life of the Buddha or other advanced practitioner, visualization processes (such as Pure Lands), and higher level meditational deities.


Mural of Drigung Kagyu lineage masters, Phyang Monastery, Ladakh. Photo processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_214.

Below is a form of Shri Devi (Palden Lhamo) known as Magzor Gyalmo, associated with the Gelug or Yellow Hat tradition of Himalayan Buddhism. Two of her attendants, Simhamukha (lion-faced; Sengdongma) and Makaramukha (makara-faced) are visible just below her and to the sides. Magzor Gyalmo is distinguished by having two arms, and a lion emerging from the earring in her right ear and a snake in the earring in her left ear (which is reversed from other forms of Shri Devi). The blue two armed figure holding the kila (phurba) and curved knife is unidentified. To the right are Yellow Yama and White Yama, most likely two of five attendants to a main Yama image not visible in this photo.

Shri Devi is a comparatively more complex deity, and is generally not an exoteric figure. Her practices are restricted to those individuals who receive an initiation from a qualified master, and in all her forms, she serves as a high level protector to Himalayan Buddhist practitioners and traditions.


Mural of Magzor Gyalmo and retinue figures of Yama, Thikse Monastery, Ladakh. Slide processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_197.

And the sacred space is not limited to painting alone; as mentioned elsewhere, the shrine as a whole is constituted of complex and multilayered imagery that combine to represent history and practice, as seen in the image below in its traditional armor, masks for ritual dance, animal skins, sculpted protective deities (described in more detail below the image), musical instruments, paintings, and banners.


Interior view of shrine and murals, Phyang, Leh, Ladakh. Slide processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_167.

The main image of the Phyang shrine is seated, solitary four-armed Mahakala (Caturbhuja Mahakala; Gonpo Chagzhipa) that is primarily propitiated by Kagyu traditions of Himalayan Buddhism.  His upper right hand holds a sword, upper left a trident, primary right the kartrika (flaying knife), and primary left hand the kapala (skull bowl). To the left of the main figure is a retinue figure/attendant to the main image, who is also dark blue in color, however is standing holding an upraised sword in the right hand and cradling the kapala in his left.  Another standing attendant can be seen further to the left, holding a mirror and a kapala.  The murals depict Shakyamuni Buddha with his two primary attendants, Shariputra and Maugalyayana; the central mural images are of Vajradhara (Dorje Chang) and his two standing  bodhisattva attendants; and to the right is an unidentified Drigung Kagyu master with two attendants. Interspersed between the larger mural compositions are figures of bodhisattvas and mahasiddhas, including Virupa.



Travels in Buddhist Temples

Though primarily a specialist in Himalayan architecture, Ron frequently documented other aspects of the built environment, including murals, sculptures, and ritual items. And truth be told, it would be difficult to convey the meaning and significance of these spaces without these interior components. For the practitioner–and often, scholar–what is found inside generates and communicates the site’s significance. But truth be told, many times visitors–again, practitioners and scholars alike–at a particular shrine go through rote movements and actions, and perhaps spend less time absorbing the full amount of information available to them.

The main image of the main shrine, such as the Shakyamuni Buddha shown below, generally are the recipients of ritual action; as they tend to be the largest figures in the space, prostrations are made before them, offerings are given to them and they are most often the figures to which prayers are directed. Yet when we study the murals behind Shakyamuni, we see that there is a predominance of deities primarily associated with the Gelug tradition of Himalayan Buddhism. This information then lets us know–without necessarily seeing the rest of the site or even, in this case, the shrine room as a whole–that this temple’s imagery indicates a strong Gelug presence and patronage at the time the shrine was created.


Main shrine image of seated Shakyamuni Buddha, Thikse Monastery, Ladakh, slide dated July 1980. Behind the main image are murals showing deities primarily associated with the Gelug (Geluk) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In particular, Shinje (Vajrabhairava), Gonkar Yizhin Norbu (Cintamani Mahakala), Damcan Dorje Legpa (Vajrasadhu), and Gurgi Gonpo (Panjarnatha Mahakala). Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_182.jpg.

Mural compositions also reveal cycles of ritual practice, often including not only lineage masters but also retinue figures whose presence embodies a particular aspect of that practice. Specifically, the retinue figures provide additional support for a practitioner’s realization of the main figure(s) that are the ultimate goal of the ritual. Examples of these supporting figures can be identified in the below mural from Aloobari as those shown without a partner or consort and having animal heads. Visible directly above are higher level meditational deities, shown here with multiple arms, legs, and heads and embracing their consorts. Of course, while some of the imagery focuses on advanced and subtle practices; other portions of the composition address everyday needs and concerns of the practitioner. At Aloobari, we see in the lower left the image of the ‘5 Long Life Goddesses’ (Tshering Che Nga), also referred to as Tsheringma and her sisters. She and her cohort are propitiated almost exclusively for long life and healing.  (For more on the Tshering Che Nga, follow this link to the topic on Himalayan Art Resources.)


Mural paintings of meditational deities, lineage figures, and long life deities, second floor, Aloobari Monastery, July 1980 Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_294.jpg

Some compositions depict ritual practices in mandala form, wherein each component figure of a specific cycle is arranged in a geometric pattern as delineated by a textual or other authority, as seen in the composition below from Alchi Monastery:


Mural of Buddhas and mandalas, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, August 1983. Bernier Archive # vrc_20150618_232.jpg

The temple environment is not just paintings and sculptures, however. Ron’s slides also capture elaborate ritual elements and offerings that are key components of Himalayan Buddhist practices. Below is a large torma dedicated to the deity Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi) displayed on the shrine at Tashilhunpo in Tibet. The uppermost portion shows the figure of Palden Lhamo atop her horse, and below the break are the Seven Precious Substances and the Eight Auspicious Signs. (Follow the respective links for more information.) Torma can be crafted out of barley or other grains in more simple forms, like the cream-colored form on the far lower right of the slide, or more elaborate ones that are decorated with colored butter.


Torma at Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet, slide dated September 1968. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150205_180.jpg

Additional sculptures are of deities who provide protection for a sacred space, for a particular lineage tradition, or for a local community.  While some of these figures are associated only with a specific village, others, such as Dorje Legpa below, have had an affiliation with an entire tradition of Himalayan Buddhism. Dorje Legpa is a controversial figure/topic in modern Tibetan Buddhism for reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog, however, it is worth noticing the fringed material hanging over Dorje Legpa’s eyes. Many practitioners describe such a covering as being necessary to help keep the protector’s power intact; the mediating fringe keeps the deity from seeing anything offensive while also ensuring his intense gaze does not impact or harm people in the temple.


Sculpture of controversial deity Dorje Shugden, perhaps from Phyang Monastery, Ladakh, July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_215.jpg

Personally, the image below is among my favorites out of the 1,000 that have been scanned so far. Slightly blurry and affected by hotspots from the camera flash, it isn’t one of the best photos from a technical perspective, but in it we can see the wall murals and their accompanying inscriptions that line the upper level of the shrine. We see thangkas (rolled paintings) of forms of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the sculpture of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) covered in khataks (white silk scarves) standing before offerings of incense, flowers and butter lamps, the ritual drums and texts laid out before the shrine, and the somewhat self-conscious smile of a resident monk. To me, this image encapsulates the richness of a temple environment, the grand scale of some of its imagery, its complexity, and the multilayered symbolisms and meanings present in the shrine, captured as it was in 1979 by a dedicated scholar of Himalayan visual culture.


Interior of Nyingma tradition monastery, Ladakh, August 1979. Bernier archive #vrc_20150618_158



Reconstructing Lost History


Ron’s travels in Asia began when he set foot in Nepal in 1966. Having previously studied African arts and culture, he brought with him the resilience and intrepidness necessary for long term stays in the Himalayas. Also to his credit, he brought Dianne, who not only was an equally adventurous travel partner, but an invaluable research assistant. Together, Ron and Dianne traveled extensively through South, East, Central, and Southeast Asia for the next four decades. They visited many sites more than once, thereby providing documentation of its changes over time. As well, they visited places and saw things that no longer exist.


Taktsang Gonpa, Tiger’s Den Monastery, Paro, Bhutan, 1979. This form of Taktsang was completely destroyed by fire in 1998 and has since been rebuilt.

 Today’s post is going to focus on a few of those sites, objects, and ephemera that Ron and Dianne captured in the field but that don’t survive into the present. Ron’s images of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, fall into this category, yet those slides await future digitization.

As a specialist in Bhutanese art and iconography, I was surprised and thrilled to find images from around Bhutan dating to as early as his first visit to the kingdom in 1979.  Though according to World Bank figures Bhutan is now hosting over 100,000 tourist guests a year, it is certainly safe to say that very, very few visitors made their way into the ‘Land of the Dragon’ in the late 70s. Among the slides is this gem, a photograph of one of Taktsang’s now-lost murals that was destroyed by fire approximately twenty years after Ron’s visit:

Guru at Taktsang

A wall mural of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) from Taktsang Gonpa. Photo taken 1979.

Its subject is Guru Rinpoche, the ubiquitous 8th century Indian master credited with establishing Buddhism in the Himalayas, here surrounded by masters, his Copper Mountain Pure Land, and two of his eight primary manifestations.  Though Taktsang has since been rebuilt and hosts thousands of pilgrims and visitors annually, this image conveys a Taktsang that few were able to experience. As an art historian, I’m enthralled with how the artist masterfully executed the folds, flutters and designs of Guru’s robes, and the successive layers of gold-encircled curvilinear gems, flowers in various states of bloom, and the scrolled cloud motifs that seem to foam out into space. Hopefully, future research will be able to determine whether this mural dated to the temple’s 17th century expansion under Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (more on Tenzin Rabgye’s role at Taktsang in an article by esteemed scholar of Bhutan Dr. John Ardussi here, and a brief English language biography here), or perhaps a later renovation.

Other images reveal aspects of Himalayan culture that are in decline, such as this image of silversmiths working in Shigatse in 1984:


Or this monk-sculptor working on a Buddha’s ear in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989:

Creating in JK

When we speak of change, it doesn’t necessarily involve a material object or place. Sometimes it refers to a past that no longer exists due to any one of a variety of factors: globalization, technological advancement, occupation, oppression, or perhaps the desire to offer something new in place of something old. Sometimes it’s a historical moment, something that will never repeat. Maybe it’s a ritual or festival. Or maybe a moment in a person’s life, or a fleeting expression. Here are a few examples of what Ron was able to capture during his travels:


Members of the Tibetan refugee community learn to spin wool at Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre, est. 1960. Photo taken 1970.



Woman in traditional dress, Sho Dun Festival, Norbulingkha, 1988



Travelers and an animal-skin coracle (koba) alongside the Kyichu River, 1985.