Himalayan Art: An Aesthetic Adventure

Himalayan art: Bhaishajyaguru Medicine Mandala

This was the first major exhibition of Himalayan art devoted to surveying the artistic processes and aesthetic traditions of the entire Himalayan region. Some 163 masterpieces were shown in the exhibition, including gilded sculpture, ritual objects, maps, portraits of kings and donors, manuscripts, and paintings from India, Nepal, and Tibet created over a period of more than 1,000 years from the 8th to 19th centuries. Most of the works had never been publicly exhibited in the West.

Mountains are found in all parts of the world, but the largest and most majestic range are in the lofty peaks of the Himalayas. They are almost universally held sacred, but none with more passionate fervour than the Himalayas. The cultures in the Himalayas are the results of the cross-fertilisation of the Indic and Tibetan civilisations. Their ethnic or cultural differences notwithstanding, all the peoples of the Himalayas consider its peaks, lakes, and rivers holy. The Sanskrit expression himalaya literally means โ€˜house of ice or snowโ€™.

Himalayan Art in Hindu Mythology

In Hindu mythology, Himalaya is personified as the father of the goddess Parvati, โ€˜daughter of the mountainโ€™. She resides with her spouse, the Hindu god Shiva, on Mount Kailash in West Tibet, a mountain peak that is equally sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, who regard it as Mount Meru, the axis of the world that connects the celestial and earthly realms. Thus, it is no wonder that the Himalayan arts produced in this realm of the gods should primarily reflect divine forms. The mountains are home to numerous spirits and semi-divine beings, peaceful and wrathful celestials that vary from region to region, from passes to valleys, hence the great diversity of their representations.

The majority of works of Himalayan art displayed portrayed Hindu and Buddhist deities, which offered viewers a glimpse of the divine in tangible form. Because these objects served religious purposes, it was imperative that they conform to established iconographic precepts essential for both Hindus and Buddhists to visualise and eventually unite with a deity during worship. Although it might appear that personal expression was not considered a virtue, it would be untrue to say that the artists who created these paintings and sculptures were unconcerned with aesthetics. In fact, the artists of the Himalayas were remarkably inventive in their response to formal directives. Individual talent and eccentric tastes are irrepressible, however, and the works offered in this exhibition represented both the spiritual and aesthetic adventures of generations of unknown master artists of the Himalayas.

Hinduism, the ancient religious practice of the Indian subcontinent, has no precise date of origin. It is monotheistic in philosophy and pluralistic in practice. The โ€˜Ultimate Beingโ€™ in Hindu belief is formless, but can assume many forms. Thus, a diverse and plentiful pantheon (Indra, Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi are examples) and a mythology to support it developed through the ages, at the same time providing a rich repertoire for artists.

Buddhism and Himalayan Art

Buddhism recommended a simpler spiritual path involving meditation and mental discipline. The worship of a single deity was not incorporated into Buddhism, but the well-established Indian ideas of karma, rebirth, and nirvana were accepted. In due course, however, Buddhism could not escape the spell of devotion and the strong urge to seek the help of gods and goddesses for both material and spiritual welfare. This led to the creation of a Buddhist pantheon and the introduction of rituals that brought it close to Hinduism. Both religions, however, continued to flourish in the Himalayas, with Buddhism becoming the principle faith in Tibet, where Hinduism is not practiced.

Although Hinduism and Buddhism are separate faiths, with distinct philosophies, rituals, and arts, they have strong similarities. Both religions were well established and harmoniously co-existing in the Himalayas by the 5th century. Both share similar aesthetics and stress the idea of personal devotion. Both have been influenced by yoga and tantric practices. Indeed, only in the Himalayas today can one study the remarkable co-existence of these two faiths, as was the case across the subcontinent until the near extinction of Buddhism after the 12th century and in Kashmir before its Islamicisation in the 14th century.

While religion has been the principal inspirational force for the creation of most of the arts across the Himalayas between the 17th and 19th centuries, the courts of the hill states in northern India encouraged artists to paint pictures that did not have a religious function. Their subjects were often derived from religion, even though the paintingโ€™s purpose was really to provide aesthetic pleasure. A few works of this kind were featured in the exhibition, demonstrating the continuity of aesthetic traditions across secular as well as cultural and religious lines.

The Kingdom of Nepal

Until the mid-18th century, when the kingdom known as Nepal was established under the rulership of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the designation โ€˜Nepalโ€™ generally referred only to the Kathmandu Valley. Throughout this central valley, the indigenous Newar people have been noted as builders and artisans, responsible for creating most of the temples and shrines, and for maintaining an artistic tradition rich in painting and sculpture. Newar culture may be characterised as the bridge that connects the Tibetan culture of the north and the Sanskrit culture of the Indian subcontinent, having absorbed influences from both through their roles as traders and craftsmen. Yet, though Nepali artists may have borrowed aesthetic norms and artistic conventions from India, they very quickly assimilated them to give expression to their own aesthetic impulses which added to the Himalayan art canvas. The works of art from Nepal cover a period of more than a thousand years of Newar creativity and demonstrate the Nepali aesthetic penchant for slender proportions, restrained sensuousness in modelling, clean silhouettes, and youthful faces with gentle expressions.

Being an artist in Nepal was usually an hereditary occupation, and several families in the Kathmandu Valley, which to this day remains the major cultural centre of the nation-continue that tradition. The Newars are divided into Hindu and Buddhist communities, the latter being more numerous. This predominance of Buddhism facilitated the access that Newar artists and merchants had to Tibet. Since approximately the 7th century, Newar artists and artisans have been an inspired presence across Tibet, contributing to the art and aesthetic history of that country, as well as adding to the wider genre of Himalayan art.

The Western Himalayas – Kashmir

The artists of the vast area of the western Himalayas, stretching from Kashmir in the west, to roughly Mount Kailash in Tibet in the east, and including the modern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, seem to have shared a common aesthetic between the 7th and 13th centuries. By no means are the extensive territories represented in that section of the exhibition homogeneous โ€“ culturally, ethnically, or religiously โ€“ but they can be loosely connected by their creative production, which emanated from the relatively small vale of Kashmir, renowned for centuries for its natural beauty. Now, the majority of the people in Kashmir follow the Islamic faith, with the process of conversion having begun in the 14th century, but from the 7th century until then, Kashmir was the hub of Hindu and Buddhist religious and intellectual activity, which had a profound effect on the arts within Kashmir and geographically beyond.

Travel by monks from Kashmir to central Asia, China, and Tibet abetted the migration of artworks and aesthetic style. Conversely, Kashmir was a must on the itineraries of pilgrims on their way to India. Thus, artistic style was disseminated in both directions. Early figural works are characterised by round, fleshy faces, often with inlaid silver eyes, and stocky robust bodies. Particularly noteworthy is the Kashmiri depiction of luxurious textiles, which, of course, the region has long been known for-in metal sculpture, with intricate engraved patterns and inlays of copper and silver on the garments; in painting, with the delineation of sumptuous brocades, highlighted with gold.

Tibetan Buddhism

Unlike Kashmir and Nepal where both Buddhism and Hinduism inspired the arts, in Tibet Buddhism is the principal religion. Tibetan Buddhism has an extensive pantheon of deities that have provided rich visual inspiration for centuries of artists. The diversity of these figures can be bewildering to non-specialists. In addition to Buddhas and bodhisattvas, there are yidam (personal deities), who can be both benign or wrathful; Dharmapalas (defenders of the faith); and numerous protective deities. As it developed, the Tibetan pantheon also accommodated innumerable regional and local spirits and nature divinities, expanding the aesthetic possibilities in proportion to their cosmic numbers. Although the idea of spiritual lineages of teachers is of Indian origin, neither in Kashmir nor in Nepal do we encounter such visual exaltation of human teachers as we do in Tibet.

The exhibition of Himalayan art – Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure was at The Art Institute of Chicago in 2003, artic.edu. Catalogue available.