This is an extraordinary book, and its author, Lokesh Chandra is an extraordinary man; combining esoteric learning and an active public life in a characteristically Indian mode. He is a world authority on Tibetan, Mongolian and Sino-Japanese Buddhism, and also a two-time Rajya Sabha member, a former Vice President of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, as well as Director, Indian Academy of Indian Culture. An almost too prolific a scholar and writer, he is the author of 580 books, and his Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography runs into 15 volumes! (Incidentally, this pales in comparison to the original Tibetan translations of the sutras and tantras which comprise 108 mega volumes, with a further 226 volumes of commentaries running into over 200,000 pages!)
Tibetan Art is an insightful guide to the aesthetics and iconography of Tibetan Buddhist art, sumptuously produced by Niyogi Books, with a striking red jacket, gilt edged pages, and over 120 full page colour illustrations. While images of the great monasteries of Tibet and Ladakh are a part of our collective cultural heritage, and we have all seen (and some of us even owned) a thanka scroll painting, few of us can tell one Bodhisattva from another, or interpret the subtle nuances that differentiate Avalokiteswara from Amoghapasa or Astamangala Devi from Vajrayogini, let alone keep track of the numerous other masters, mystics, kings, goddesses, and attendant guardian deities depicted.
The term Buddha is used for one who has attained enlightenment, released thereby from the endless chain of birth and rebirth. There are many, many such—portrayed as monks, royal princes, or in aniconic form. Sakyamuni, the original Buddha (the historical figure known to us as Gautama Budh), himself has, like Vishnu, a thousand epithets, and is depicted in a thousand different forms. As in Hindu iconography, a hand gesture, an accompanying flower or symbol, a change of posture, or the deity’s accompanying vahan, tell an entire story. As an example—the attributes of Pe-har, the guardian deity of Samye monastery:
As a sign of keeping your oath, you hold a thunderbolt, as a Yidam token you hold a rosary of crystal, and as a abhiseka sign you carry a phur-bu of iron; . . . as an sign of a warlord you brandish a banner of victory with a tiger’s head, as a token of Bodhisattva you lift a stick and a vessel, as a token of your position as a Dharmapala you wear a hat and high boots. . . . to express your peaceful mood you wear a smiling face; a sign of your fierce nature are the bloodshot eyes. . . . In order to guard the religious precepts you ride on a white lion, to subdue enemies and obstacle-creating demons you ride on an elephant with a long trunk; in order to carry out magic actions, you mount a three-legged mule. (to travel on a three-legged mule would certainly require magical powers!)
After reading Lokesh Chandra’s illuminating book, I plan to revisit the National and Crafts Museum collections, book in hand, and look at the thankas with a new eye and understanding. (I must warn fellow seekers that Tibetan deities have absolutely jaw-cracking names! Ma-gcig-Lab-sgron-ma, Pha-dam-pa-sans-rgyas, Gsan-ba-hdus-pa Hjam-pahi-rdo-rje are just three, selected at random.)
Although the literal meaning of thanka is, rather prosaically, a ‘painting on flat surface,’ Buddhist art is the ‘Iconic representation of transcendental meditation’. Painting a thanka is itself an act of meditative devotion. To quote Lokesh Chandra:
Let us visit the studio of a Tibetan artist. Usually a Lama, he is versed in sacred lore and accompanies his work by a continuous recitation of prayers. The holy Kanjur prescribes that he must be a sacred person of good conduct, learned in scriptures, and reserved in his manners.
. . . The work is carried out meticulously, so that minute details of the ornamentation are attended to before colouration. A mistake in the measurements of a body, given in the iconographic manuals, is a cardinal sin. Sometimes, another Lama reads prayers while the artist is at work. An intense spiritual atmosphere envelopes the creation of a painting.
. . . The water in the jar is thus sanctified and may now be sprinkled on any object except on a thanka as it would ruin the painting. Instead a mirror is held up, and the holy water sprinkled on the reflection of the painting. The thanka is now sacrosanct.
In Tibet, iconographic art became the frozen music of forms, the breath of statues, the stillness of painted scrolls, and the flowing rhythms of her eternal quest. The irradiation of her wisdom and mystery, the feel of her shadows and the voices of her spaces, her crystallized grandeur in the brilliant syndrome of form constitute the heart of her culture.
Tibetan art is the pictorial awareness of inner experiences in a pilgrimage to the timeless omnipresence of cosmic consciousness. It is a purified meditative universe to transform our environment into poise and serenity.
Lokesh Chandra’s prose is lyrical and rather old-fashioned, occasionally over-florid. This along with the formidable Tibetan names, and pages loaded with densely packed information makes the text rather heavy going. This is NOT a coffee table book! But the stories and facts therein are fascinating. There is everything from how to distinguish the different shapes of stupas to legends of ascetics and demons. I loved the sage Marpa’s instruction to his disciple Milarepa, ‘Be ardent, fly the banner of perfection’ And occasionally there is a beautiful sentence: the ‘. . . Blue silence of her icy peaks, the ochre silence of her rocks’.
Included too is a sensitive rendering of the Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, translated by the author’s father—OM is the path and experience of universality.
MANI is the jewelline luminosity of the immortal mind.
PADME is its unfolding within the depths of the lotus-centre of the awakened consciousness.
HUM is the ecstasy of breaking through bonds and horizons.
One wishes that like the Kulika king Mahabala, we too could tame ‘all false leaders by means of the sound of the mantra’! I wish too, that Lokesh Chandra has written more on Tibet itself, ‘The Land of Spaces and Silences’ as he calls it. Not just as the backdrop of this flowering of devotional art, but as an extraordinary, still mysterious civilization in itself.
The name Tibet is of Persian/Turkik origin and means ‘The Heights’—appropriate for a kingdom whose average height is over 16,000 ft, the highest region in the world, also referred to as the ‘Roof of the World’. Despite recurring attempts over the centuries by the Chinese, Mongols, Persians, British, and assorted missionaries to conquer and proselytise it, Tibet has stubbornly maintained its unique and individual culture. Buddhism came to Tibet in the 7th century, introduced by the Chinese and Nepali consorts of the then king, the iconic Sron-btsan-sgampo, and reached its apogee 150 years later. In contrast to Buddhism’s nonviolent message, Tibet and China have been constantly in conflict, with both trying to usurp or re-capture each other’s territory for most of recorded history. Tibet has also attracted other invaders—the Mongols, British, Persians, and the inevitable Christian missionaries. Sadly, the last time the Tibetans were at an advantage was in the 8th century when Tibetan troops reached the then Chinese capital.
Though the occupying Chinese have made every attempt to (literally) reduce Buddhism and its institutions to rubble, it still remains the fundament and core of the Tibetan people, underpinning every aspect of Tibetan life and society.
Buddhism is one of the most endearing religions; it has none of the blood and thunder of the Old Testament; it is simpler and more accessible than Hinduism’s metaphysical plurality, not as austere and demanding as Jainism, and has mercifully not been hijacked by rigid and sexist fundamentalists as has contemporary Islam and the Koran. Its gentle, philosophic texts preach moderation, non-violence, and meditation as the path to divine self-realization, and in it Karma can be modified by prayer. The only negative is that, like other mainstream religions, it has a slightly patronizing attitude to women! I was therefore delighted to read that
Women are heaven, women are truth, Women are the supreme fires of transformation. Women are Buddha, Women are religious community, Women are the perfection of wisdom.
Amazing, powerful yet lyrical depictions of the goddesses are one of the joys of this visually beautiful volume. A revelation too was the Mandala of Gyuzhi with Bhaisajyaguru in the middle, surrounded by the most exquisite trees, plants and wild life. Dragons and dreamy skies filled with characteristically curliqued floating clouds have always been a distinctive and recognizable feature of thanka art, but I had never before seen such a magical evocation of foliage, flora and fauna. Nature and its myriad manifestations was an inspiration for all aspects of life depicted by the monkish yet observant artists, laid down in their manuals and texts:
The eyes of yogins, bespeaking of equanimity, should be made to resemble a bow of bamboo. The eyes of women and lovers should resemble the belly of a fish. The eyes of ordinary persons should resemble a blue lotus . . .
Now that an antagonistic and agnostic Chinese occupying force has desecrated the Tibetan monasteries, driven out the monks, and destroyed most of their ancient treasures, what Lokesh Chandra describes as ‘the agony of their absence’ invites the question—whither this beautiful and mystic art? Thankas are still being painted—in refugee camps, in Ladakh, in Lahaul and Spiti, in Bhutan, even in Mongolia and the Russian Republics—but do these contemporary works have the same spiritual integrity and cosmic energy as those painted by the ancient Lamas in the remote mountain reaches of those stark monasteries of long ago? Now that thankas have a dual life (and price tag) as esoteric ‘Ethnic Art’ displayed in art galleries, antique dealers, and urban drawing rooms, can their iconic power transmute this worldly incarnation? Lokesh Chandra’s book invites us to make that conceptual leap, and see beyond the surface artistry to the transcendental ‘Sea of Consciousness’ evoked by these amazing pieces. ‘I am light to eyes long blind’, as one Mongolian professor once said to him.
Laila Tyabji is Chairperson of Dastakar.