Tara in Art

This isn’t a travel post. This is more my attempt to record my fascination with the great Buddhist goddess Tara, and her representations in art that I’ve come across in my travels and readings.

First a brief biography of this major Mahayana goddess. The ‘Mother of Liberation’, when she first appeared in art and literature in India around the 7th century AD, Tara represented a radical departure from previous conceptions of Buddhahood. While the great Bodhisattvas  had not achieved ‘Nirvana’ in the sense that they ‘postponed’ their Buddhahood to help all sentient beings achieve the same, Tara was a full-fledged Buddha herself. She came to represent the manifestation of a union of Karuna (compassion) and Prajna (perfect wisdom); or, in tantric terms, sunyata (emptiness) and mahasukha (great bliss). She became, in a sense, an embodiment of the very thing, the principle of being a Buddha. On an earthier level, she came to be venerated with a bhaktic intensity that rivalled that of the Bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

There are two major manifestations of Tara, the Green Tara and the White Tara. The former, also known as Shyama Tara or Khadiravani Tara, was the more popular manifestation. Her wilder, tantric aspect of Mahachinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara was a great favourite of artists, as she rewarded her tantric sadhak with felicity of artistic expression.  Tara as durgatitarini, deliverer from all evils, sealed her early popularity, and this has continually grown through her historical existence.

Tara first appears in carved reliefs in Ellora, but her immense popularity properly began with the rise and the long reign of the Pala monarchy of Bengal and Bihar. The emblem of the Palas was an umbrella and their banner had a figure of Tara. From the 8th to the 13th centuries, while Mahayana Buddhism flourished in eastern and northern India, Kashmir, the Kathmandu Valley and Tibet, along with its popular tantric means or upaya, the Vajrayana, there was a tremendous explosion in artistic expression in all of these regions—in stone and metal sculpture, music and painting. Fuelled by her popularity, Tara, with her benevolence, wisdom and beauty emerged as a favourite subject of art.

Sadly, very few examples remain of the mural art and watercolour miniatures that Indian Buddhism was renowned for, but a precious number of artworks survive. A few folios of Sanskrit palm-leaf Prajnaparamita manuscripts from Bengal and Bihar are scattered over the world, providing a precious example of miniatures. These are supplemented by copies and originals from around the same time from the Kathmandu valley and Tibet. The mural tradition is best represented by Ajanta and Ellora, Alchi and Tabo, and Chinese versions of current Indian styles at Silk Route sites like Dunhuang in China. Stone sculptures are most numerous from  north and eastern India; while metal sculptures in the Indian mode are more numerous in the Kathmandu valley and Tibet, though some survive from buried hoards in India as well.

Strong traces of the Pala art heritage can still be seen in places like the Kathmandu valley, Tibet, China, south-east Asia and Japan,  hugely enriched by the subsequent developments in the art traditions of those countries. Indian Buddhism in its final avatar perished a long time ago, and along with it artistic representations of Tara. However, she lives on in the popular cultural memory, especially in Bengal, Assam and Orissa, where the fleet-footed saviour—she who ferries us over from our mundane existence—in a Hindu garb, continues to fulfill the same functions in the affections of the people. An artistic heritage of that era still flourishes in rural areas of eastern India, e.g. the patachitras. And Tara remains the doting mother of all creation, Jagattarini. Even her tantric manifestation, Ugra Tara, retains her cremation ground mystique at the famous Tarapeeth in Bengal.  

Here are some examples of the great Tara in art. Note, I’ve only listed artworks in the Indian tradition. The Tibetan tradition which branched off about 800 years ago, deserves its own post.

There are some great online resources which go much deeper into this fascinating subject. See

Miranda E. Shaw: Buddhist Goddesses of India

Gudrun Buhnemann: The Goddess Mahacinakrama Tara (Ugra Tara) in Buddhist and Hindu Tantrism

There are some great collections in various museums in the west. In India and Nepal, many museums, including the following, maintain priceless collections of Pala-era art and its descendants:

The Indian Museum, Kolkata

The Asiatic Society Museum, Kolkata

State Archaeological Museum, Kolkata

Ashutosh Museum of Indian Art. Kolkata

Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneshwar

Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

Archaeological Museum, Nalanda

Archaeological Museum, Bodh Gaya

Patna Museum

National Museum, New Delhi

Patan Museum, Patan, Nepal

National Museum of Nepal, Kathmandu

Bangladesh National Museum, Dhaka

Shri Partap Singh Museum, Srinagar

Top: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 10th century. Bottom: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 8th century.

Top: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 10th century.
Bottom: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 8th century.

A sandstone Tara stele from Nalanda from the 10th century, at the Indian Museum, Calcutta

A sandstone Tara stele from Nalanda from the 10th century, at the Indian Museum, Calcutta

Standing Tara, bronze, Kashmir, 11th-12th century

Standing Tara, bronze, Kashmir, 11th-12th century

Standing Tara, gilt copper alloy with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones Nepal, 11th-12th century, from a private collection

Standing Tara, gilt copper alloy with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones Nepal, 11th-12th century, from a private collection

Seated Tara, brass, copper and silver inlay, 12th century, Pala-style

Seated Tara, brass, copper and silver inlay, 12th century, Pala-style

Seated Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century Lalitagiri, Orissa

Seated Tara, sandstone, Indian museum, Calcutta, 11th-12th century Lalitagiri, Orissa

Bust of Vajra-Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century, Pala-style.

Bust of Vajra-Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century, Pala-style.

Tara dispensing boons, opaque watercolour on palm leaf; from a folio of an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm leaf manuscript. 12th century, Bengal. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tara dispensing boons, opaque watercolour on palm leaf; from a folio of an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm leaf manuscript. 12th century, Bengal. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Seated Tara, mural, Alchi, Ladakh, 12th century.

Seated Tara, mural, Alchi, Ladakh, 12th century.

Folios from an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm-leaf manuscript, the middle folio showing Tara. 11th-12th century, Bengal, Pala-style.

Folios from an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm-leaf manuscript, the middle folio showing Tara. 11th-12th century, Bengal, Pala-style.

Seated Tara, opaque watercolour on palm leaf, from a folio of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, 12th century, Bengal

Seated Tara, opaque watercolour on palm leaf, from a folio of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, 12th century, Bengal

Sketch of Mahachinakrama Tara, a terrible manifestation of Tara said to be the tutelary deity of artists and musicians, Nepal. Note Aksobhaya on her crown.

Sketch of Mahachinakrama Tara, a terrible manifestation of Tara said to be the tutelary deity of artists and musicians, Nepal. Note Aksobhaya on her crown.

Pahari watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara, without Aksobhaya and now turned into a Saiva goddess. Her function remains the same.

Pahari watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara, 18th century without Aksobhaya and now turned into a Saiva goddess. Her function remains the same.

Watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara, 18th century, Nepal.

Watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara, 18th century, Nepal.

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Nepal Trek Part 1

I’ve made a bit of a habit of going for treks in the off-season. I never planned to do so, but that’s the way it seems to work every year. One of the advantages of doing so is that it’s cheap. Guides and porters come at half the rates, the trails aren’t cluttered with trekking flotsam, and you feel like you’re ‘out there’ somewhere, with just your wits to help you in a harsh terrain.

That’s an idle fantasy of course. In this day and age, there isn’t anything really life-threatening about walks in the Himalayan wilderness, as long as you watch your step and don’t take foolish risks. You might suffer with slippery rocks on a high pass, or spend days waterlogged but you certainly won’t have to fight off the bears for a dinner of boiled bamboo shoots.

Even then, when I get an offer to trek in the Khumbu region of Nepal ‘in style’, and what’s more, ‘in season’, I jump at the chance. After all, who doesn’t want to take a look at Everest, that menacing, squat pyramid of black rock that towers over all the other mountains of the world? And that’s not all. Apart from Everest and its sister eight thousanders Lhotse and Cho Oyu, even a casual stroll in Khumbu brings you face to face with some classic mountain scenery. And it’s home to the Sherpas, probably the most legendary mountain people in the world.

Flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Dudh Kosi valley, somehow the idea of a comfort trek doesn’t seem so outlandish. The very fact that I am covering in a forty-minute flight a distance that not so long ago took a week, and that almost all my co-passengers seem to be retired Europeans, makes me feel many worlds removed from the modest joys of trekking in the Indian Himalaya. But what a flight! We take off from Kathmandu one cold morning, with me nervously glancing at the propellers of the rickety Twin Otter aircraft and wondering if it’ll hold up. I don’t like flying, and I’d foolishly watched far too many YouTube videos of wobbly landings on the airstrip for my comfort. But once the die is cast and we are airborne, there is little to do but trust in the nous of the pilots and enjoy the ride. My friend Puneet and I manoeuvre to the front of the plane so we end up with the much coveted left hand seats. We fly with the sunrise, towards a blood red dawn, over the tiny houses and streams of the Kathmandu valley.

Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Soon after taking off, the aircraft banks slightly to the left and the shadowy wall of the Great Himalayan Range falls into step. Soon we are swooping over high kharkas (grazing grounds) and higher aiguilles while the main range looms in the haze of the angled sunbeams. A little while later a deep valley appears bathed in a thick golden mist, and the plane begins a rapid descent towards a little sticking plaster at the bottom of an onrushing mountain, the Lukla airstrip. We have arrived at the Dudh Kosi valley.

Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

A smooth landing and cries of “Bravo” from assorted passengers later, we are found in the melee of porters and baggage by our guide for the trip, Sonam Tenzing Sherpa, a young, affable man in his late twenties. We are guests of Yeti Holidays, one of Nepal’s biggest travel groups, and Sonam is to take us to our day’s stop at a luxury lodge on the outskirts of the small village of Phakding on the edge of the Dudh Kosi river.

Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Lukla’s airstrip stands on a long artificial clearing above the village of Chaurikharka, one of the largest Sherpa villages of the Khumbu region. The sun hadn’t yet escaped the shackles of the high ridges to the east, but across the Dudh Kosi, Numdur, a 22,000foot peak of the Rolwaling Himal was glistening in the sunshine. Further north, cloaked in cloud banners stood the southern face of Kwangde. Talk about arriving bang in the middle of the Himalaya. The mountains of the Khumbu Himal form an extensive elevated region. Not only does the main range extend in it’s normal North West to South East axis, here gigantic subsidiary ridges run down in a north south direction as well, enclosing the deep valley of the Dudh Kosi and it’s tributary rivers.

To be continued…

 

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Secret Garden

Dharansi. A hanging valley. I savour those two words. What a delicious idea! I close my eyes and try to remember if I’ve seen one before. There was that small hanging plateau on the northern marches of the Indrahar pass in the Dhauladhar. But this was massive. I was sitting in the middle of a large smooth bowl, covered in turf and little splashes of tiny alpine flowers. Running through the grassy side were long, shallow gullies, filled with the rubble of boulders—the giant moraines of winter snowfields. Right in the middle of the bowl, where our camp was pitched, lay the longest and widest of the moraines. It was also the lowest point in the curve of the valley, almost a hollow. It continued for a little way below the tent. Then, from a cutoff, the valley dropped a couple of hundred feet into another bowl, less wide, more hemmed in by serrated cliffs. The valley then wound down gradually, like a lazily flowing river, then it suddenly ended, as if someone had sliced it off with a very large knife. A tortured, broken precipice plunged dramatically for 5,000ft into the spectacular gorge of the Rishi Ganga. The Bhotias believe that demons live here, and none but holy men may pass through. Thus the river gets its name.

The hanging valley of Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was up this gorge, in 1934, that two English mountaineers and three of the greatest Sherpas of the day forced the only—and till then uncharted—passage into one of the most unique mountain fastnesses in the world. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s adventure was an improbable one, one of the last heroic journeys into the unknown. Shipton’s elegantly romantic book, Nanda Devi, had warmed my heart for many years. Here at Dharansi, the furthest I could get into Nanda’s secret garden after days of incessant rain, landslides and storms, I could hardly believe my luck.

I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor and Oz; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. It would have to be a perilous realm; you’d endure many hardships trying to get there; and you could never hope to reach without a large helping of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, but I had yet to see a place like Dharansi.

Above me, the bugyal stretched upwards at a gentle incline. Directly above the rim of the bowl lurked Hanuman, a prickly black mass of heavily compacted rocks, leering down at me like a nightmare fortress. A modest 19,931ft high, it is best known as one of the standard climbing peaks for trainee mountaineers. But the mountain has a local reputation that is somewhat more sinister. The villagers of the Niti valley, especially those of Dunagiri village, don’t take too kindly to the monkey god. In fact, many despise him, and consider him a thief. When Hanuman flew to the Himalaya to find the magic herb that would cure Lakshman, this is where he is said to have come. Not knowing which the correct herb was, Hanuman hedged his bets and made off with an entire mountain

A little way up the slope, a herd of bharal, the famous Himalayan blue sheep, stood watching us. There were nine individuals. Three sprightly youngsters pranced about unsurely on the massed jumble of boulders. Three ewes, their long black eyes watchful, were licking salt off a large table-shaped boulder. One of them had a single short horn, making her look uncannily like a unicorn. Last of all were the three rams, aloof and sporting impressive curving horns, extremely skittish and keeping their distance. When Shipton and Tilman had broken through to the inner sanctuary, they had been pleasantly surprised to find large herds of bharal grazing on the meadows of the sanctuary, absolutely unperturbed by their presence. That was seventy-eight years ago. By the time all entry into the sanctuary was banned in 1982, the widespread hunting of these beautiful animals to provide meat for mountaineering expeditions had resulted in a near wipe-out. That had also affected the bharal’s chief predator, the snow leopard. I’m sure there was one around, but of course I’d never be able to see this Himalayan ghost unless he wished to be seen.

I had met another such famously shy animal a couple of days ago on the upper slopes of the meadow of Lata Kharak. I’d gone walking to the adjoining ridge of Saini Kharak to get my first glimpse of the legendary Rishi gorge and, if lucky, Nanda herself. We were traversing the cliffs of the junction of these two ridges when Raghubir Singh, one of our porters, clutched my jacket and pointed to a massive rock face and said “Kasturi!” I had to focus before I could make out the distinct brown shape of the musk deer, surprisingly close, looking at us with some alarm, twitching his black nose. It looked like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo, the startling feature being the animal’s vampiric canines. In a few seconds he was off, bounding straight down the sheer cliffs with dizzying speed.

A musk deer in the distance preparing to leap off and away. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Raghubir Singh of Lata is a legend from a legendary village rife with legends. He and his friend Dhan Singh Rana, my guide Narendra’s father, were highly feted high-altitude guides and porters during the heyday of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. Even earlier, from the time Shipton first came to Nanda Devi, the people of Lata have featured prominently in the history of mountaineering in this area. The villagers of Lata are Bhotias, like the rest of the denizens of the Niti valley who live by the banks of the trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga river. Of mixed Tibetan stock, these tribal people of upper Uttarakhand had been successful traders, carrying on a millennia-old summer trade with Tibet. The 1962 war put an end to that. Later, when the national park came into being and all entry was closed, even the local people who’d led a symbiotic relationship with Nanda Devi and her valleys and grazing grounds, found the way barred, and their rights superceded.

It was in Lata, and nearby Reni, that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the decimation of sacred deodar groves around these two villages. In the late 1990s, these same villagers fought a long-drawn-out campaign for community participation in the management of the national park. Dhan Singh was a part of both these efforts. In the former he was a defiant boy standing up to forest contractors. During the latter, he was the village sarpanch who cannily organised the villages into a formidable body of activists. An offshoot of this movement was the opening and maintenance of certain trails within the park where local men could act as guides.

The Dhauli Ganga valley with Lata village in the distance. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra is a shy, soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties. However, the last few days in the wilderness seemed to have wrought a subtle change in him. In addition to the deepening stubble on his angular face, there was a flashing brightness in his eyes, a sharpness of sight. He was beaming as he hid behind a rock and took pictures of the bharal. He loved being here, back after many years. He mostly works in Dehradun now. The last time he’d come this way, he was accompanying a scientific expedition to the inner sanctuary. He still hadn’t forgotten the awe he felt in the presence of Nanda Devi, a mountain that was also a goddess.

And with good reason. My companion Parth and I had arrived in Lata five days before, on a sunny day in early September. It was the last day of the annual Nandashtami celebrations. The devi’s origins lie in ancient nature cults. Indeed, in the older temples of Kumaon, her image is that of a tribal woman. Today, to outsiders she is just another reincarnation of Parvati or Durga, but to the Bhotias Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. Sitting in front of Nanda’s medieval temple, studded with brahma-kamals to mark the occasion, I felt as if I was watching something unfamilar, something special. This wasn’t Hinduism as I knew it. Women in Tibetan-style long black robes and white cloth headscarves danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize—a brahma-kamal.

The Nanda Devi puja in progress in Lata village. photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a ring of high mountains. Bang in the middle of the eastern curve of this cirque sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere in its 110km length is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high except at a single point in this chain, where the Rishi cuts through the barrier and flows west to meet the larger Dhauli. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the precipitous outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga and crossing the 13,950ft Dharansi pass to Dharansi and then down over the Malathuni Pass to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

The broken jagged precipices of Satkula cunningly hide the valley. The only way through is over an exceedingly steep goat track. From that initial notch, it descends right down to a gully before trudging back laboriously up to the next cliff face to another notch in the skyline before plunging down the next gully. It’s beastly hard in the rain, especially in the middle of a heavy fog; one misstep will send you hurtling some 8,000ft into the Rishi gorge. The pass itself is the last link in this chain of convenient notches in the broken ridge-system. But to me, the true entrance was the impressive stone goat arch of Ranikhola, one that the writer Bill Aitken memorably described as a goat’s Arc de Triomphe. It is said that when the shepherds brought their charges to Dharansi, a Bhotia maiden dedicated to Nanda would stand guard here, counting each goat and sheep as it passed through the gateway.

Traversing the Satkula ridge to Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

That evening in Dharansi proved to be the first thawing of Nanda’s suspicion of this motley group of out-of-season trespassers. Along with the shockingly tame bharal came a spectacular sunset. The sky had cleared in the direction of the Dhauli valley and the sun was setting above the distant peaks of Chaukhamba, painting the film of clouds on the western horizon an angry red. Steady streams of thick vapours were flowing down over the strangely shaped pinnacles overhanging the Rishi gorge. Other clouds formed impossibly long banners that draped themselves over the prominent peaks to the south—Bethartoli Himal and Ronti. Up east the sanctuary was still cloaked in heavy clouds. But as I looked up the slope I was mystified to see what looked like a luminous mist playing on the uppermost reaches of the bugyal. Glowing orange and yellow, the mist was the last to disappear, leaving us with a dark night so still and silent I could hear my own heart beat.

The Rishi Ganga gorge from Dharansi at sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

I rose early, only for my jaw to drop as soon as I stepped outside the tent. Everything was unbelievably clear. Beyond the Dharansi cutoff the distant Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys were drowning in a low layer of clouds. But above that all was clear. Far to the northwest ran a set of peaks I was very familiar with—the Kedarnath group and the Chaukhamba massif that contain the Gangotri glacier. A little to their right rose the triangular southeast face of Neelkanth, the peak that towers over Badrinath.

Dunagiri from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To my right, the delicate ice flutings of Bethartoli Himal were a blushing pink in the diffused light of the rising sun. Even the Devistan peaks that formed the dividing ridge between the inner and outer sanctuary were out. Would Nanda be revealed at last? Her peak couldn’t be seen from camp so Narendra and I ran around to the southern enclosing wall of the valley. We drew up to Malathuni pass, panting, with our boots soaked by the heavy dew. There she was, Nanda Devi, her west face in shadow, but her pinnacle proud and true, sailing through the heavens without any wind. The people of Lata were right. She was herself and no other. Looking at her strange, fearful symmetry it is no wonder that Nanda Devi the mountain and Nanda the goddess are considered one and the same, indivisible.

Nanda Devi from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

At the lovely alp of Dibrughati, 2,000ft below us, it was still night. Yet, across the gorge, the green side valley of Dudh Ganga—that descends from the combined snows of Trisul and Bethartoli—looked exactly like a sun-kissed CGI valley. To my left Dunagiri’s peak was lost in a maelstrom. But the majestic shoulders of this giant stood out, the snow glinting in the sunshine. The sun started peeking out from behind Hanuman, and slowly the Dharansi alp started shining a bright emerald green, of a kind I don’t remember seeing before. Lammergeiers flew overhead in slow arcs while tiny swallows leapt down into this amazing scene of wild gorges and snow peaks. A mouse hare emerged to sun himself. I sat there for hours, staring, until swirling mists from the Rishi slowly hid the world again.

-Bibek Bhattacharya

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Outlook Traveller.

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Studies in Form: The Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, Patan

Ah, Patan. The glories of this magical Newari city are too numerous to do justice. I could only spend a few hours when I visited earlier this year, but even after all these months, thinking about the place and its gorgeous Durbar Square sends a shiver up my spine.

It isn’t often that you get to visit a place this old and this richly decorated which is also a part of a living city. Under the shadows of the deliciously carved eaves and under the magnificent spires of its splendid medieval architecture, people sit and pass the time of day; children on the way back from school spend a few truant minutes, old men chat and lovers whisper. Although, historical sources suggest that Patan (or Lalitpur as it was previously known) had been a bustling town anteceding even the Kirata dynasty of the early 1st millennium AD, as well as the Lichchavi dynasty of the 3rd to 9th centuries AD (when it was called Yala); it was only under the Malla dynasty of the 13th to 18th centuries that the city saw an efflorescence in art and architecture, that remains even today. The historical part of the town, with its centre at the Durbar Square is a marvellous warren of medieval wooden houses and linked courtyards, punctuated by intricately carved water reservoirs called hiti.

Too numerous are the wonders of Patan, so I will restrict myself to just one, the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara, or the Kwa Baha- a Buddhist monastery more commonly known as the Golden Temple. It is one of the older extant temples in the city, dating back to the 11th century AD. One of the most ornate monasteries that I’ve ever seen, it is a temple of Vajrayana Buddhism or the ‘Diamond Way’, the great Tantric Buddhist tradition that began in India, especially in Kashmir and Bengal, but died out along with the great Buddhist universities of Bengal and Bihar in the 13th century. Some of its teachings and worldview survived in the mother country in the works of Saiva and Sakta Tantrics, along with the Vaisnav Sahajiyas and the Bengali Sufi tradition. However, as a living tradition, it continues to this day in Newari Buddhism.

Like in all Vajrayanic temples, the priests here are called Vajracharyas, householder monks who are the last Buddhist community whose liturgical texts are in Sanskrit. Echoing the final development in Indian Buddhism between the 9th and 12th centuries, the ideal Vajracharya is a Siddha or a Realised One. Like most of the main Newari temples, both Hindu and Buddhist, it is built around a courtyard.  Again like all Vajrayanic shrines, it has multiple deities representing Buddhist history at it’s three main stages of philosophical and religious development. There is the Sakyamuni, representing the oldest Theravadic origins, the Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana and Vajrasattva and the other Tantric deities of the Vajrayana.

The principle and non-Tantric deity, called the kwabaju, is Sakyamuni Buddha, is housed in the main shrine across the courtyard from the beautifully carved doorway. Before it is the ceremonial caitya arguably the most important object in the courtyard, probably older than Kwa Baha itself, with its own elaborate temple. This is a thing of beauty, with carved images of the five Buddhas as well 12 amazing metal-cast sculptures of various Lokeshvaras, some of them distinctly Tantric ones. The main Tantric shrine, this one to Vajrasattva is on the first floor of the monastery. He is identified with the Adibuddha representing the Absolute, but also as the ideal Siddha or Vajracharya. He holds the bell and the vajra or thunderbolt of wisdom, the chief symbol of the Vajrayana.

In Kwa Baha, there is also a Tibetan shrine modeled on a classic gompa on the first floor devoted to the eight-armed Amoghapasha Lokeshvara, one of the 360 forms of Avalokiteshvaras (or Lord of the World)  popular in Nepal and Tibet. Indeed, all around the courtyard, you can see sequences of the Tibetan prayer wheels, very recent in origin, which speaks of the growing importance of these Newari shrines to the Tibetan population, who first came to Nepal as refugees following the Chinese invasion. Standing in the courtyard, surrounded by Tibetans, as well as Newaris worshipping these Buddhist deities who first came into being in northern India, I felt strangely ecstatic in the middle of this modern confluence of a flow of traditions that has been going on between India, Nepal and Tibet for over a thousand years!

The other object of reverence at the Kwa Bahah is an old Sanskrit manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, properly called the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita or the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. Probably the greatest Mahayanic sutra, composed in India around the 2nd century AD, the Perfection of Wisdom is often ceremoniously read at the monastery for merit as well as for worldly gain. The earliest historical record is that of a monk called Ananda Bhikshu who first copied the manuscript to preserve it in 1225 AD. Legend has it that it was brought to Nepal from India by a Brahmin widow sometime towards the end of the 1st millennium AD. The goddess Prajnaparamita, a form of Tara, is worshipped here.

The entire courtyard is like a public art gallery, full of beautiful things which stand testimony to the highly advanced aesthetics of the Newars, from metal cast sculptures to ones made of gold and stone. Here’s a slideshow of the courtyard. (Press Pause to see it at your convenience)

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Studies in Form: The Taj Mahal

In all my travels this year, the one constant feature has been the dazzling array of art that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. The red sandstone arches of Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri; the marble splendours of Dargah-e-Salim Chisti and the Taj Mahal; the sculpted courtyards of Patan; the animist sculptures of Unakoti and Chabimura; the charchala temples of Udaipur and the luminous murals of Alchi are all wondrous creations. More than that, they’re the repositories of something fine, an elusive enquiry into the nature of form.

I’m no art historian or an aesthetician, but the one common thing to these diverse artefacts seem to me to be a certain combination of taste, and an intrinsic understanding of context and harmony.

I started the year with a trip to Agra, that eternal harlot of tourism fetish. I came away amazed at the self-confidence and nous of the Mughal artisans and a feeling of overwhelming sadness at the extent to which we have debased this once-magnificent imperial capital. The one thing I learnt wandering through the pavilions of the Agra Fort and the gardens around the Taj is that for artistic expression to achieve greatness, context is everything.

Thus, the best views of the Taj Mahal in all its ethereal glory really do come from two places- the eastern ramparts of the Agra fort, situated across the great bend of the Yamuna, and from the charbagh—the garden—surrounding the monument.

From the fort, the Taj looks like a fever dream of Haroun al Rashid­, its bulbous dome rising up to meet the sky. During sunset, it positively glows, gigantic, dominating everything around it. It hovers like a vision, somewhere between the parallel lines of earth and sky. The takht or throne of Jahangir, which forms the focal point of the eastern court of the fort, obviously existed before that emperor’s son and successor Shah Jahan had even thought of building the Taj. So, when Jahangir held court hear, in the Diwan I Khas, the horizon had looked very different. Just bare ground perhaps, or a grove of trees. From here, it really does look just the way Rabindranath Tagore had described it, “A teardrop on the cheek of time.”

The Taj Mahal at sunset, from the eastern pavillion of the Agra Fort. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

The view from the charbagh is something else, showcasing the Taj in a completely different light. I visited the monument very early in the morning, and walked around the complex, as the frosty soft light of dawn gave way to a golden glow as the sun climbed higher. A few hours later, the Taj shone white and majestic, the only time it seemed to transcend all context, a peerless special effect peeking out from behind the canopy of the garden.

The Taj from the charbagh. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Something that’s often forgotten, is that the Taj is a sum of its various gorgeous parts. Take the pishtaqs for example. These giant arched gateways frame the four sides of the monument, crowned by slender spires called guldastas. Within each pishtaq are smaller windows, with stunning marble lattice work on their façade that serve as curtains. If you stand just under an arch and look up, the marble positively flows up from the surrounding walls to a tip. It’s a stunning visual trope, one of delicate lines of marble somehow defying gravity, and becoming fluid. I was again by this sense of the infinite, as if these tangible lines somehow continue into space, never meeting. Repeated on all four sides, this sublime trope adds an extra dimension to the Taj’s already fearful symmetry.

The flowing lines inside the pishtaq. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

If the pishtaqs give it form, then the florid calligraphy, the geometric shaped tiles and the pietra dura inlay work on the spandrels framing the tops of the arches give it depth. Words fail me to describe the delicate beauty of these individual elements, although these are wrought on a gigantic scale. The flower motifs droop and swoon, the pietra dura motifs run like sinuous three-dimensional tendrils; and when these are recreated elsewhere on the monument in fine lines of marble, the effect is the same.

Pietra Dura work on the outer wall of the Taj. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Marble inlay work on the outer wall of the Taj. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Inside the mausoleum, on the walkway around the octagonal innermost chamber that house the false tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, these designs are recreated on a more intimate scale. The slanting rays of the rising sun filter through the marble jail or screen to light up the motifs, inlaid with semi-precious stones. I was lucky to have gone on a day when the crowds weren’t huge, but there were enough people there. Yet the sheer beauty of the surroundings hushed everyone present, and again I was struck by the reason for the art- you’re supposed to stop and stare, and keep staring till you’re head swims.

Marble carving inside the mausoleum. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

A carved pillar inside the mausoleum. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

The mosque to the left (west) of the Taj, is more in the spirit of the peerless red sandstone work of Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. It is architecturally balanced on the other side of the Taj by another building, identical in form, but serving the function of a guesthouse. The mosque is a marvel in itself, divided into three distinct hall areas, with the middle one with the mihraab or the niche that faces Mecca being the largest. The same motifs recur here, but here the inlay work is either in red sandstone, as towards the base of the many arches, or in the form of inlaid painting that play games of visual illusion with your eyes. The central hall again evokes architectural ideals of the infinite. Three steps facing the mihraab disappear into a wall, the concave inside of the main dome a marvel of capricious lines and circles as they, like their marble brethren on the Taj’s pishtaqs, flow upward and onwards into space.

Detail from the entrance arch of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya.

A flower motif in red sandstone on the entrance arch of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

A view of the main hall of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya.

Detail of the domed ceiling of the central hall of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya.

The Taj may have become a cliché, but my visit reminded me that it is, surrounded by a vanished world of broad river, woods and a handsome city, a physical representation of the ineffable, an articulation of the inexpressible.

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Devi: A Forest Walk

Continued from Devi: The Village of Stories

We woke up early the next day to a cloudy dawn. The sky was thick with clouds, especially up the valley and above us on the Lata ridge.  Dhauli Ganga’s roar had subsided to a persistent murmur. Mountain rivers are at their calmest at dawn, before the sun has had a chance to melt the higher glaciers that add to the volume of water. A little later, as the sun rose to blow away some of the surrounding gloom, obstinate tendrils of vapour still clung to the stupendous aiguilles up the valley that formed the outrunners of Dunagiri. The peak itself couldn’t be seen from Lata due to the Lata Kharak ridge above us, but these needle-like rock pinnacles framed the gorge beautifully. Parth and me were packed and ready. Raghubir was overseeing the rations, the stove and fuel being packed.

Rocky pinnacles that lead up to Dunagiri cloaked in clouds. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

In a little while the sun broke through the upper reaches of the gorge, and slanting rays of sunshine illuminated the rich forests above Lata. I learnt from Narendra that this was the first trek in the sanctuary since a couple of treks in June, before the monsoon had set in. Those didn’t go too far, only till Lata Kharak and further till Jhandi Dhar, before turning back. So if we managed to get through to Dharansi, it would be the first time in about a year anybody in the village would have gone that far.

Our little trek was also an opportunity for Lata’s men to go clear some of the upper parts of the trail, collect wild herbs that are necessary for their culinary and medicinal needs, and also check up on supplies and belongings that had been stashed at various points on these trails earlier in the year. So our party was going to be fairly large, at least up to Lata Kharak. There was Narendra and Raghubir, as well as Narendra’s childhood friend, a green-eyed handsome man called Lakha Butola; the quiet and stoical Inder Singh, and a relative of one of them- a quiet, schoolmaster-looking man.

After a quick breakfast, Narendra, Parth and I left around 8. The others, would catch up with us later- not a particularly difficult task, given our as-yet unacclimatised legs and lungs. Parth was carrying only his photography equipment, I was carrying my full rucksack, and Narendra had his own rucksack as well as Parth’s. From Lata, a path climbs steeply through the forest to cover the 12 km to the top of the ridge at the bugiyal of Lata Kharak, a brisk 5338ft. That’s enough to knock the wind out of even a seasoned pair of lungs, so we aimed for Kanook, a cliff top clearing roughly halfway up the ridge in the middle of the forest.

It was a bright, beautiful day. The sun had burned out most of the clouds, and the air was fresh and invigorating. The Nandashtami celebrations over, the village children were on their way to school, a neat large one-floor building surrounded by a yard a little way above the village. Beyond this, the path climbed leisurely through a grove of deodar trees. These kings of Himalayan flora rise to an average of 80 feet from the ground, casting long shadows across the slope. Like most such groves in the region, this too is considered sacred and and felling is strictly frowned upon by the village. These magnificent trees had been saved a generation ago by the women of these villages, and walking in their cool shade, I felt a great sense of well-being wash over me. Occasionally the peace was shattered by the deep, rolling explosions. The ITBP were dynamiting the mountains somewhere below us to widen the road to Malari. It’s a deeply worrying things to do, especially in precipitous gorges, as it weakens the rocks and leaves these very roads open to landslides. Needless to say, the noise can’t be a good thing for the animals in these forests.

The magical forest above Lata. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Beyond this belt began a higher belt of mixed pine trees, and the keen scent of resin increased. As did the humid heaviness of monsoon. Soon I was perspiring freely as we climbed up through the dappled sunlight of this magnificent forest. Slender spider webs twinkled like jewels in the sun. Pretty little alpine flowers dotted the track low-lying bushes exploded in a burst of primary colours. Beetles buzz around on short wings, describing pretty parabolas in the sunshine. Forests in the monsoon come alive with an ardour that is so strong and grasping that it can be pretty overwhelming. Amidst all this beauty, insects bite you and lick you, unseen creepers try to trip you up, stinging nettles jump up at you at uncomfortable moments and the strong noonday scent of resin gives one a headache.

One undeniably good result of the national park status has been the boost in the area’s wildlife. Along with the vegetation being given a fair chance to regenerate itself, vastly reduced human interference has boosted the numbers of many animals indigenous to these Himalayan upland forests, from black bears to leopards and bharal. However, these monsoon months often lead to problems. As Raghubir and Narendra never ceased to tell me, this fecund season is when their territorial struggle with the numerous black bears and jackals and leopards is at its most intense. However, since this is nothing new, all that the villagers do is to lock up securely at night, and if necessary band together in groups and create enough of a ruckus that drives the bears away from their fields. Despite being competitors, the affection and knowledge that the Bhotiyas possess for their wildlife is incomparable.

A clearing in the forest near Bhelta nala. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

We stopped for lunch in the forest glade of Bhelta, beside the little nala of the same name. In drier months, this is a campsite, but in this riot of vegetation, it’s not a particularly comfortable place to camp. It’s a lovely spot for lunch though, right next to the flowing brook. We were already quite high up. From breaks in the foliage, we could look back at Lata village, now a small group of white buildings further down the ridge. Further east, the bugiyals below Kuari pass were cloaked in clouds. Birch, walnut and pine trees crowded around the brook, and the buzzing of large, lazy flies grew more intensive as the afternoon drew on.

Lata village and the Dhauli Ganga, from Kanook. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Lunch over, we shouldered our packs for the final steep rise to our camp for the day. Kanook, at 9400ft, commanded a fine view of the Dhauli valley. A thick haze hung on the noonday forest that stretched away under us towards the distant Lata village. Stray sounds occasionally floated up the valley. Flies lay sluggishly on warm rocks as we stamped down a wild outgrowth of weeds to make a clearing for a tent. Above us rose the jagged boulder strewn ridge of Saini Kharak that divides the Rishi and Dhauli valleys. Just beyond that serrated ridge boiled a massive sea of rain clouds, not quite spilling over. Meanwhile small tufts of valley cloud drifted up from the gorge and catching a breeze they’d then start grouping together in dense little clusters, gradually covering the valley floor. By sunset all was invisible under thick layers of purple clouds.

Monsoon clouds fill up the Dhauli valley at dusk. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To be continued…

 

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Devi: The Village of Stories

The road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing to the sky.

Leaning, I stare into the west and utter a long sigh…

Swift rapids, wrestling cataracts descend in roaring spasms,

Pound cliffs, boil over rocks, and thunder through ten thousand chasms.

- Li Bai

I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor in Satyajit Ray’s Eko Shringo Abhijan (The Unicorn Expedition) to Oz and El Dorado; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. You would never find them on a map, at least not a real one; you’d have to endure many hardships; and you could never hope to reach there without a large amount of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, and places that could well have been Faerie. But then, last year, I went to Nanda Devi.

The West face of Nanda Devi as seen from Chandrashila peak above Tunganath. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

The goddess’s secret garden has held sway over me for what seems like forever. A few years ago I’d chanced upon an excellent book by the journalist Hugh Thomson called Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary. This led me to Eric Shipton’s classic Nanda Devi, an extraordinary book that has to be one of the most romantic mountain travel books ever. In 1934 Shipton along with his partner Bill Tilman and three of the best sherpas of the day spent the summer, monsoon and autumn wandering about central Garhwal, living off the land and accomplishing some unbelievable mountaineering feats, the biggest of which involved finding a way into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, an impenetrable mountain fastness that had repelled all earlier attempts by locals and mountaineers alike. I’d been dreaming ever since, and through a convenient coming together of luck and circumstance, I was finally going there, to pay my respects to a great mountain.

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a cirque of high mountains in the centre of which sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere, in its 110 km length, is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high. At a single point in this chain, the Rishi Ganga cuts a frighteningly deep gorge through the mountain barrier and flows west to meet the larger trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga by crossing the 4252m Dharansi pass to the hanging valley of Dharansi and then down to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

My friend Parth and I arrived at Lata on a sunny day in early September- the final day of the annual Nandashtami festivities. Originally a tribal nature cult, to outsiders Nanda is just a stand-in for Parvati, but to the Bhotias, just as to the rest of Garhwal and Kumaon, Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. In an old temple in Kumaon, Nanda’s image is that of a tribal woman. Many are her legends, too numerous to put down here, but the entire area is consecrated to her- the forests and the animals are her children, as are the Bhotias, who celebrate the end of the monsoon harvest season with nine days of songs and dancing, ending in the ritual sacrifice of rams in honour of the devi who inhabits the body of her priest to bless the day with her presence.

A young man from Lata village possessed by the trickster god Latu, Nanda's deputy. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

We caught the final day’s rituals before Nanda was carried back to her temple from an antechamber where she had been residing the past few days amidst great fanfare and rejoicing. It was one of the few truly animist rituals I’d ever seen.  The stone Nanda temple dominated a courtyard, studded with bramha-kamals to mark the occasion. Women in Tibetan-looking long black robes and white cloth headgear danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then the spirit of Nanda’s deputy, the trickster god Latu, invaded the body of a designated medium. Latu lurched around the compound to frenetic drumming, tasting all the fruits of Nanda’s bounty- from sheep’s heads to barley. Then he flung the rest of the prasad into the delighted crowd, who took what they could. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize- a bramha-kamal.

Women of the village sing a song of regeneration and pray to Nanda to bless the village with her bounty. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra of Mountain Shepherds, my guide, is a charming young man in his mid-twenties. We stayed at a modest home-stay that he runs for his father Dhan Singh, the former village sarpanch. Dhan Singh and his friend Raghubir Singh were much-feted guides in the hey-day of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. It was in Lata and the nearby village of Reni that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the felling of sacred deodhar groves by forestry contractors.  Since the closure of the sanctuary in 1982 for environmental reasons, a generation of Lata men had lost out on a lucrative source of income, especially since the 1962 war had terminated their earlier trade with Tibet. Dhan Singh, who was a young man during the Chipko movement, organised the villagers of this area into an effective body of activists during the Jhapto Cheeno movement in the late Nineties in an effort to get back their land that was shut to them with the advent of the National Park and it’s subsequent notification as a World Heritage Site. Its success led to more elbow room for the Bhotias, and now a few trails were allowed to be kept open in the national park for small groups of trekkers with permits. Men from Lata and the enarby village of Suraithota acted as guides. We were to leave the next day, with Raghubir Singh and Narendra acting as our guides.

To be continued…

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