Published in Rupam: Illustrated Quarterly Journal of Oriental Art, No. 9 Jan 1922, pp. 20-24

(Diary Leaves From the Expedition.) [1]

The red doors, aglow with the gold of ornament slowly opens. In the twilight of Dukkang, the gigantic images of Maitreya majestically merges into the height. In the velvety patina of time, you begin to discern upon the walls the delicate silhouettes of images. A whole series of stern Bodhisattvas, guardians and keepers… powerfully they stand, outlined by a firm hand. Time has enriched the colours and mellowed the sparks of exalting joy!

The entrance all blue-white, like old Chinese porcelain. A tiny door and a high threshold. Like old banners of the battle of spirit, the rows of thangkas hang from the carved balustrade. Numerous paintings glow with the multiform variety of themes. Golden and purple riders gallop against a black background. The golden filament of clouds and structures are interwoven into a scroll of inexhaustible imagination. The hermits are taming the elements. The teachers are ascending the difficult path.

The dark forces are humbled. Legions of the righteous and of the sinners are thronging around the throne of the Blessed Ones. On white hatiks, scarfs, travellers cross the abysses of life. And the Blessed Tathagatha in the circle of the chosen Arhats, send His Blessings of the approaching one who are unfearful of the Great Way. We shall not forge this shrine of precious banners. We shall become filled with the strength of battle.

And another carved entrance. Over the broad steps, powerfully stands the Darmaradji, the Rulers of all lands. They guard the gates to the great Mother of All Being. The multiple-eyed, omniscient Dukkar, surrounded by resplendent Taras, these are the self-sacrificing guardians of the mankind. Not everywhere has the gold been subdued by the noble covering of time. But the dampness of the walls already weaves its pattern. High above the Taras was the Mandalla of Shambhala. The indefatigable ruler Rigden keeps vigilance upon the tower, in the sacred circle of the snowy mountains. The warriors are grouped together. We shall not forget this great symbol.

Remote mountains passes. The snows are already near. On the age-old pathway is apparent a gigantic image of Maitreya carved on a rock, bestowing blessing upon the travellers. Not by ordinary hand was the surface of the rock transformed into this mighty, monumental image. The fire of achievement, strength of hand, and indefatigability of labour brought human forces for such a creation on this now-deserted way. Verily this is great and significantly in thought and expression and so impelling in masterly handiwork. A great art!

But of Chinese origin are the black and gold banners. The characters of design and composition recalls China visibly. Dukkar and Taras, they are Mother Kali of Great India and the Blessed Kwan Yin of hoary China; they have come from afar to Tibetan Dukkang. Maitreya recalls Bodhi-Gaya of India. The Image of the Blessed One directs your thought to Sarnath. The Hindu origin of the image is even pointed out to you. The great Maitreya on the rock was carved by a hand in the sixth or seventh centuries which knew of great India. You recall the techniques of the Trimurti of Elephanta. You are transported to the sculptures of Mathura, to the frescoes of Ajanta, to the fairy tale of Ellora, to the majestic ruins of Anuradhpura, to the picturesque masses of Rangoon and Manadalay.

Everything that we see in Tibetan temples unavoidably evokes in you the reminiscences of India and China. The flow of the waterfall recalls its source!

Four years of wanderings through all the Buddhist countries have amassed many impressions. From the unforgettable fairy tale of the cave temples of Central Asia to the Ten Thousand Buddhas of Mongolia which were recently ordered by Buddhists from the factories of Poland, as if the East had become depleted to such an extent! From the impoverished monastery of the steppe in a transportable yurta, to the painting of Shambhala carried by the wandering Lama we have seen all.

Of course, everywhere we have been shocked by the difference between the old and modern images. The powerful conceptions of ancient temples, their grandeur and proportions, beautifully chosen sites and the lavishness of execution speak to us about quite a different spiritual creative condition in their masters. The meagre proportions, casual choice of sites, instability of construction and ornamentation, all this poverty marked the new Tibetan temples unconvincing. Those who lived as eagles upon the heroic rocks, have passed away. The Tibetans themselves are stressing to you the advantages of the ancient works, and the importance of the site in view of its antiquity; it is simply reality and evident difference in the quality of the creation.

Certainly, time with its inimitable accumulations adorns all things. We know how ennobled by time are the Primitives of Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. The Persian merchants are spreading the carpets under the feet of the bazaar crowds to obtain the precious patina. So we may attribute a great deal of the attractiveness of old Tibet to the lure of time.

Besides, it is entirely evident that the mastery of old artists of Tibet was finer and keener. Their spiritual striving gave them an inspiration which passed beyond the boundaries of the conventional mechanical canon.

Dalai Lama the Fifth, called the Great, who gave the Potala, the only significant structure of Tibet, knew how to strengthen the nerve of spirit. Several of the Tashi Lamas knew how to encourage talent. And now when ignorance, hypocrisy, suspensions and lie have become rooted in Tibet, all these defects first of all become reflected in the quality of the creation and labour.

It is significant to note how everywhere the inner stimulus establishes the quality of production. It lights or establishes the quality of production. It lights or extinguishes the fire of creation and of all the productions of a nation. The true history of a nation could be written by the monuments of its creation and production. Now, after the departure of the Tashi Lama, Tibet is obscured spiritually and socially, and the evidences of its art are also conventionally limited and mechanically cold. The cold conventionality does not uplift the onlookers; it evokes doubts in him about the essence of Tibetan art itself.

Even the first images of the Blessed Ones were received by Tibet from China and Nepal only in the seventh century, that is, from Hindu traditions. Until then, Tibetans who were called by Chinese chronicles a savage people, probably were in the same state as the present tribes of Chor-pa and Mischini.

These tribes until now use raw meat of food and wear one garment without changing until it rots on their bodies.

The entire literature of the Buddhist teachingcamefrom India and China. It is pointed out that Tibetan translation from the Sanskrit are conventionalised because of the poverty of expression in the Tibetan language and fail to express many of the subtleties which evolved from Vedic wisdom.

The savagery of Tibet absorbed literally also the pictorial side of the teaching which was brought from its cultural neighbours. The religious ceremonies and the poverty of their own imagination kept Tibet within the bounds of foreign conceptions. Studying all sorts of Lamaistic and folk creations, we see in their best manifestations only the imitative forms of India and a following of the foreign ritual of China. If to these conditions we shall add the Persian Moghul Miniatures, then the complete trinity of the reaction upon the art of Tibet shall be outlines. Who could name anything which we could truthfully term an original Tibetan creation?

Of course, outside of India and China, Tibet has still more ancient heritages. On the rocks were found drawings. From the infinity of antiquity the Swastika summons us, thus sign of fiery cross of life. Since the times of ancient migrations of peoples, there remain in Tibet some typical forms of handicrafts. But the art of the great wanderers is entirely forgotten by modern Tibetans. True, that up to now the swords of Tibet remind you of the Gothic tombs, fibulae and buckles will reveal to you the Goths and Alans. You will recall the unexpected information from the chronicles of Catholic missionaries, that the site of Lhassa was somewhere called Gotha. In the Doring district in the trans-Himalayas we found an old buckle with double-headed eagle, so much like the finds in the South Russians steppes and norther Caucasus. In the same locality were discovered ancient tombs completely like the tombs in Altai where the Goths passed.

The women of this district are wearing head-gear in the form of the Kokoshnik, so typical of the Slavonic countries of Europe. On the heights of 15000 feet were also found ancient stone sanctuaries like the sun-cult of the Druids. But we shall speak about it separately and in detail. And when we, freezing in Chunargen, called Tibet jestingly the Land of the Niebelungen, we were closer to the truth than could have been foreseen. Recalling all the appropriations and imitations of Tibet, it is really impossible to speak about art in Tibet. Really it is difficult to recall architectural, sculptural or pictorial monuments which are not crude imitations of the refined treasures of India and China.

Let us also not forget the technical influences on Tibet from the side of Nepal. Nepal itself has not created original forms and was nurtured by the influence of India. In paintings, Nepal is undistinguished; but good Nepalese metal workers and goldsmith from time immemorial brought into the Tibet a specific form of technique.

Just before me I have two excellent images of old Tibet. The image of Buddha in which you immediately discern the Hindu type and Hindu influence. Another of very fine work, is an image of Dalai Lama the Fifth, justly called the Great. The image recalls a fine Chinese work and probably came from Derge. Now Tibet does not make images of such perfection.

The contemporary art of Tibet has become a completely congealed, mechanical repetition of old foreign forms. The tradition of the sharp technique has died out and has been replaced by uncertain line and childish colouring. The colours of third-rate quality are penetrating into Tibet and are adding to the downfall of the quality of the work. And what value has conventional copying without strong spirit and firm technique. If someone should come to the conclusion that now art does not exist in Tibet, he will approach reality. Stencilling has reached such mechanization that almost all images are transferred by pin pricks and powdered. And everything which is done by hand is as out of the kindergarten. If you deprive the Icon painter of his ready and punctured stencils, he will remain almost helpless. In the technical tradition, it is very interesting to trace the same methods which are characteristic of the medieval Icon paintings, which were used until recent times by the professional Russian rustic Icon painters, I recognized the method of work completely like the work of the Russian rustic Icon painters. In the same way the wood or canvas is prepared. In the same manner the levkas, that is chalk and glue, is prepared for the background. Similarly, the wood and canvas is polished by a shell or horn. In the same way is the stencil transferred and coloured by very fine brushes. The difference is only that the Russian Icon painters are covering the Icon with oil varnish. They carefully guard the formula of this varnish and are proud of the durability of their work. Tibetan Icon painters often have manuscripts in script about the technique of Icons, which are sometimes written in a hidden symbolical code. Such manuscripts are guarded in families and are handed down only from father to son. Of such manuals I have never heard in Tibet.

One more resemblance between Tibetan and Russian Icon painters. Both chant during their work and often the Russian Icon painters intone the old chants about Yosephat Tzarevich, not suspecting that they sing of the Blessed Buddha. Yosephat is the corrupted pronunciation of Bodhisattva.

Another circumstance indicates the close influence of China on the art of Tibet. The best Tibetan Icon painters come from K’am. The best images are moulded in Derge, and there also the printing is best. Tibetans themselves say that they cannot imitate the perfection of the Chinese work. The Maharaja of Sikkim possesses a series of very colourful Thangkas of apparent Chinese quality. Certainly the series is from K’am. Some good works are also to be found in Tashi Lhunpo as befitted the residence of the spiritual head of Tibet. With all their arrogance and boasting, Tibetans do not claim high quality for Tibetan work. It appears that the abode of 30,000 Lamas is not a centre of spiritual and creative achievement.

One may find many touching details of iconographic work. We can graciously smile at the limitation of Lama Icon painters. One can pity the Tibetan people who, under the present regime the present regime, have so difficult a time. But if you desire to exact serious demands from Tibet, your considerations will be misunderstood because of the lowered, cowed intellect.

There still remains the interest in iconography and the symbolism of images. To study it is very instructive. You may find many forgotten occult laws. Pay attention as to how the auras are represented. Look on the magic mirrors. Study the meaning of the magic circle of Mandala of Norbu Rinpoche. But the contemporary artists do not even know of these laws. Kalachakra, brought from India by Atisha, is repeated without application to life. The signoflife is transformed into the dance of Death.

Ignorance, hypocritical corruption of the teaching cannot longer continue. These decompose the spirit of the people. Out of darkness is born only darkness!

But “Everything which has fallen-will it not rise again?” In the future there will be a new Tibetan people and a Tibetan art. But when and how?

“With fire is the space filled. Already the lightning of Kalki Avatar predestined Maitreya-flashes upon the horizon.”

There is not to be seen one sign of the regeneration of Tibet. It is so strange to see this congealing of an entire country-like a dead island amidst glowing waved of the awakened oceans. There were moments when after cataclysms the consciousness was awakened in full vigour by these explosions of spiritual accumulations. Entire vivid epochs were created. But someone may still remain immovable, devouring raw meat, losing his teeth and scurvy because of an unhealthy life and rotting in unchanged germ-ridden skins. In Lhassa, it is forbidden to have electric lights on the streets. Moving pictures are forbidden. In all Tibet, the laity is forbidden to shave its hair and has again been ordered to be garbed in long halats and in Tibetan-Chinese shoes. All these symptoms are not ordained by the Blessed One, because each teaching foresees the possession of possibilities and the evolutionary movement. These Tibetan forbiddances are revealing mechanical superstitious worship of the past. But we shall ask: “Which past do you worship? To which of your grandfathers do you wish to pay homage?” In retrogression, one can reach some inarticulate sounds of his forefathers. The past is good as long as it does not impede the future. We love and value all the value and charm of the past. We confirm that “from the stones may be erected the steps of the future.”

But from the stones, lay together the complete majestic steps of the new beauty and knowledge. And what shall evolve if the death of the past has already taken place and future is forbidden? Then the creative energy of the people appears cowed and cornered, and who can foresee where the current of the life shall forcibly break the dams? Tibet has deliberately appropriated for itself the spiritual superiority over its neighbours whereas they all are already growing with a great new consciousness. Mongolia recalls its glorious past. The whirlpool of clashing thoughts in China is seething. In India are seen signs of the great Renaissance of art and science. Tibet alone is again left behind. And afterwards it will accept some one’s forms of life, ready and prepared, travailed over and uplifted by spirit.

But from where shall we now accept the teachings? Yet in the midnight, into the tent, a Lama comes and cautiously peering about, speaks of the purification of the entire teaching. Such Lamas do not live in Lhassa, but on the heights.

From, the desert distances a rider rushes from unknown friends. He speaks, arranges his gold-woven kaftan, and disappears into the twilight of the dessert. Whence art thou, messenger? Whence is thy smile?


[1] Editorial Note: Nicholas Roerich, leader of Roerisch American Central Expedition, recently reached Sikkim after hazardous experience which led the Expedition across an entirely new direction of Tsaidam and Tibet. The Expedition went to central Asia under the auspices of the Roerich Museum, which is dedicated to Roerich’s art, and Corona Mundi, International Art Center. All the paintings completed by Roerich on the Expedition have been added to the collections of the Roerich Museum. Having emerged so recently from the heart of the Asia, Roerich’s voice may be considered as the most authoritative upon the present conditions of Tibet. Published in Rupam: Illustrated Quarterly Journal of Oriental Art, No. 9 Jan 1922, pp. 20-24
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now

The Photography Timeline is currently under construction.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.