Madhya Pradesh: On the Ken

The Ken River in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region boasts of an unique eco system. This pretty river rises in the uplands of the Vindhya plateau and flows through the Panna Tiger Reserve and upper Bundelkhand for 427km to join the Yamuna at Chilla in Uttar Pradesh. Often called the cleanest river in central India, the reason for its purity is that it passes through less-populated forested areas, at least in its upper reaches. As a result, the river plays host to many bird species. But, like all good things, the fragile beauty of the river is threatened by egregious development, in the form of a plan to link the river with its neighbouring sister stream, the Betwa.

I took a boat ride up the river in the cool dawn of a December day last year, for a spot of birdwatching. But more than that, sailing in the Ken was a reminder of how beautiful and easy a lazy boat ride can be on India’s beautiful, bountiful rivers.

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Our little boat waits in the reeds by the river. The forested ridges of the Panna Tiger Reserve in the distance. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A tiny crab stands alert against the intruders (us). Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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Our boatman, Raju, steers the boat into the main channel of the Ken. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A cormorant sits pretty on a rock stained by bird droppings. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A stork flies off into the reeds with its breakfast. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A stork crouches before take-off. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A cormorant suns itself on the river. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A white-throated kingfisher peeks out over a river-side rock. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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An egret on the river. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

 

The Great Wide Open: A Trek in Ladakh

Emptiness can be beautiful, and intensely terrifying. To get a an idea of just what I mean, go to the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, climb up one of the many 5,000m passes that dot the landscape, look, and hear the blood pounding in your head. But even in the dun emptiness, there are sounds—the whistling cries of a marmot, the distant neighing of wild horses, and the wind, the ever-present wind that burrows through your clothes right into your soul, wailing like a thousand dakinis.

The walk across the Changthang plateau is a profoundly eerie and wonderful trek to the vast inland lake of Tso Moriri. Marking the important pashmina trade route from Leh to southeast Ladakh and then to the Tibetan plateau further east and to Spiti to the south over the Parang La, the trail lies across a marvellous desolation, the like of which I’d never seen before. We walked with and without our mule trains across seven passes over 4,800m high, across the vast lands where Changpa nomads live with their pashmina  goats and yaks, kept company by the small, silvery antelope Kiang, marmots, wolves and horses. We crossed the giant bowl of the salt lake of Tso Kar, past piles of salt washed up by the blue-black waves, while behind us rose a barrier of scree and rock peaks 6,000m high, dividing us from the vast Morey Plains—over which passes the Manali-Leh highway—maybe the vast dusty bed of a giant lake itself.

Strong, fresh, cold ice-melt streams punctuated our walk over extensive high and wide valleys of grazing grounds. These reminded more of Arctic Tundra landscapes than anything else. In other valleys we saw packs of wild horses running in braided patterns, their manes flying, hooves kicking up the water in the stream. Above in the passes, beautiful large grey wolves lurked, disappearing in a flash quite astounding for such large animals. Almost for the entire stretch the clicks and whistles of the marmot dogged our steps, while their furry fat heads played peekaboo from their burrows. After over a week of hallucinatory walk over surreal landscapes of menace and beauty, we finally reached a pass higher than all the rest, perched high up on the the Mentok range, and looked down for our first, breathtaking view of the storied Tso Moriri. Covering a distance of some 100km, this is probably the most quintessential trek in all of Ladakh. The trek takes in no less than seven passes over 4,800m high, thus living up to Ladakh’s name—the land of passes.

This was my first visit to the trans-Himalaya, and I found that just like the landscape, all the other rules of trekking change in the rain-shadow of the Great Himalayan Range. Whereas south of the Himalaya, the trails wind up from semi-tropical regions to the tree-line and then to high alpine areas, the Changthang seems to hang in the air. It seems not quite of the earth—the skies are panoramic and big, the clouds low and stretched out. There are hardly any steep, craggy cliffs here, just unending slopes of gravel and coarse scrub, loose scree and marshes that look like rolling meadows. The general desolation and the extreme altitude here places immense strains on the human body, so trekking here can only be done with full bundobast, which means pack mules, muleteers and a guide with at least one helper.

We started our walk from Rumtse, on the Leh-Manali highway, before veering off up the Kyamar Chu valley, over marshes dotted with orderly groups of Changpa flocks. The first of the passes, Kyamar La, marks the divide between central Ladakh and the Changthang. Look west and the peaks of the Zanskar range like Kang Yatse stand out. Further east, the rolling ranges that punctuate the high plateau come into focus. These run more-or-less parallel to each other, separated by either large lake beds like that of the Tso Kar, or intensely fast-flowing streams. On some days, we crossed not just one pass, but two, which meant ascending some 2,000 feet, and then descending another 1,500 feet, only to repeat this again. Panting for breath in that wide wilderness, unable to realistically gauge distances in the shimmering air, the landscape seemed ripe with intent, brooding and alien. Was that flock of Kiang five km away or ten? Was that skyline the true pass? Was that an enormous shaggy dog or a wolf? Was that stiff-limbed figure lurching towards me a Ro-Langs, a zombie?

The day would wax sunny—and by sunny I mean sunlight that flays the skin off—and come afternoon, that high, shrill wind would start again, scoring our faces with a million tiny pinpricks of dust. In that phantasmogoric landscape, it was difficult to tell fact from fantasy. The whistles of our constant companions, the marmots, sometimes took on a distinctly sinister, unearthly pitch. As we walked, the moon waxed every night until at the Changpa camp of Rajungkharu, it rose above a far mountain like a gigantic searchlight, turning the black night into an eerie bone-white landscape.

Then there were the Changpa people. The entirety of the Changthang are dominated by them and their flocks. At major Changpa camps like Pongunagu and Nuruchen on the Tso Kar, Rajungkharu and Gyamalhoma, were raised their ubiquitous black and white tents. Their traditionally the black yak-hair tents are slowly giving way to the newer white ones made of a sort-of parachute material, there were signs of growing prosperity on the back of their pashmina trade. The most startling of these were their SUVs. I felt it was a trick of the mind when, wile approaching Rajungkharu, I saw far off, the beetling shape of an SUV crawling over what seemed like a perpendicular slope. I learnt later that it was jeep service to ferry people to Leh to attend the visiting Dalai Lama. At these camps, eery morning would begin with the bleating of sheep and goat as the flocks were herded and milked, before setting off for the day’s grazing. On Horlam La, a Changpa on a horse appeared suddenly, riding towards us full tilt. It was quite a charge. At the last moment he wheeled his mount around, shouted a “Juley!” and galloped off. Later that day, we saw another band of horsemen cross a small pass, again at full speed. I felt I’d wandered onto a set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The final day’s walk was probably the most euphoric one. Starting out from our highest camp yet at the 5,150m Gyamalhoma, we threaded our way through a deep rocky defile, with surreal overhangs and a chilly stream passing through. As the valley climbed higher the peaks of the ice-plateau of the Mentok range came into view. We walked up through the gravely hills and up to the Yarlung Nyau La, a whopping 5,450m high. And there, spread out some 3,000 feet below us, were the waters of the Tso Moriri,  all 120sq km of it, a deep lilac carpet laid across a vast valley.  Across it darted a multitude of low clouds, and across the lake rose the summits of Chamser and Lungser Kangri, the highest peaks in the Changthang.  It felt like I’d walked into a Roerich painting. We raised a toast to the lake with some rum, and stumbled down the dusty slopes for the long walk into the void.

Tantric Buddhist Dance in a palm-leaf Manuscript

In the Himalayan regions, there exist many forms of popular Buddhist dance forms, usually performed during festivals or harvests. Some of these, like the one at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh or the ‘Lama Dances’ of Sikkim are known the world over. Specifically, they are forms of tantric dances, performative manifestations of the highly ritualised Vajrayana Buddhism.

Many lesser known forms of Tantric Buddhist dances exist, none more so than those recorded by the Newar Buddhists of the Kathmandu valley. Theirs is a unique culture: they are the sole remaining Buddhists who follow the Sanskritic Indic Mahayana tradition, complete with an artistically complex system of Vajrayanic modes of worship whereby  tantric Vajracharya priests officiate over community rituals as well as devotional and life-cycle ceremonies.

As is evident with Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana lays great emphasis on the creativeness of religious ritual, incorporating vividly visual sadhanas or meditational techniques, as well as the use of theatrical gestures and the creation of mandalas. This is married to  the community’s continued excellence in the plastic, decorative and performative arts, with master craftsmen producing stunning works of sculpture and painting for at least a thousand years now.

Professional artists, many of whom also double up as religious specialists, have, as a rule, assiduously maintained a corpus of sketchbooks, filled with line-drawings of models, annotated instructions, as well as their religious and spiritual interpretations.

Many of the historical ones have been collected and published, and recently I came across some stunning sketches of tantric Buddhist dances from the 18th century, in the scholar Gudrun Bühnemann’s book Buddhist Iconography and Ritual in Paintings and Line Drawings from Nepal.

These sketches were made on palm-leaf manuscripts, and they portray the Parikramavidhi, the ritual walk around a site to purify it before the construction of a mandala. Highly influential in Nepal, the Parikramavidhi was a detailed ritual manual written by a Newari Vajrayana monk named Kuladatta sometime in the 13th century, as a part of his book, the Kriyasamgraha-panjika, in which he gives the rituals required to consencrate a vihara (monastery). The manual was in turn based on a few texts like the famous Mayajalatantra and the renowned Bengali tantric monk Abhayakaragupta’s ritual compendium, Vajravali, written in the early 12th century CE.

Making full use of forms from the Indian classical dance tradition of the Natyashastras, the sketchbook visually shows the various mudras (gestures), abhinayas (stances) which are to be performed with prescribed mantras, by the officiating monks/priests. Dressed in full ritual regalia, they are to assume the roles of various tantric deities, bodhisattvas and directional guardians in order to purify the space.

Works of art like this manuscript, helps us get a deeper sense of the vibrant cultural and artistic lives of a people. So the next time you visit Patan, and see the wonderful Newari viharas like the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (popularly called the Golden Temple), know that prior to the building of the monastery or the various three-dimentional mandalas in its courtyard, many hundred years ago, Buddhist tantric adepts had probably performed a beautiful dance like this, to consecrate the site. The  performance must have been as arresting a sight as the Cham dance of Hemis.

Here are some panels from this beautiful manuscript.

In this panel, we see eight of forty-two stances or abhinayas to be performed by the principal master (Mulacharya) of the ritual. These are:

9. Vajraghantabhinaya in the Kurmapada stance facing east (of the mandala), evoking the Buddha Vajrasattva.

10. Vajrotkarsanabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing south, evoking the Buddha Akshobhya.

11. Vajravilasabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing west, evoking the deity Vajrakarman.

12. Garvadvayabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing north, evoking the deity Krodhalasya.

13. Bhramarijalabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing the centre, evoking the Buddha Vairochana.

14. Simhapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Yamantaka.

15. Simhavijrambhitapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Takkiraja.

16. Vajrasphotabhinaya in the Samapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Vajrasphota.

Each of these stances are adapted from the Natyashastra, where they are specified as standing postures for male performers.

Here’s another panel showing one abhinaya performed by an assisting adept, and seven abhinayas that evoke seven goddesses of ritual puja offerings, performed by the Mulacharya, while sitting in the yogic lotus posture, or padmasana.

65. Abhayabhinaya performed by the officiating adept in the north of the mandala.

66. Vajralasyabhinaya, evoking the goddess of beauty, Vajralasya.

67. Vajramalabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the garland, Vajramala.

68. Vajragitabhinaya, evoking the goddess of song, Vajragita.

69. Vajranrityabhinaya, evoking the goddess of dance, Vajranritya.

70. Vajradhupabhinaya, evoking the goddess of incense, Vajradhupa.

71. Vajrapuspabhinaya, evoking the goddess of flowers, Vajrapuspa.

72. Vajradipabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the lamp, Vajradipa.

Many such  examples of the beautiful artistic traditions of the Newars exist. It’s a pity these aren’t better known.

Next up, I’ll be posting a peek into the Buddhist courtyards of Patan in the Kathmandu valley.

Nepal Trek Part 3: To Namche Bazaar

Continued from Nepal Trek Part 2

Next day to Namche. We start early, before the sun has found us, and we begin our walk in the shadow of Kwangde’s sheer granite east face as it stands out against a clear blue sky. Just outside Phakding, we cross the first of the famous suspension bridges. Bouncing alarmingly some 100ft over the raging river, Sonam assures me that these lifelines come with a fifty-year guarantee from the engineers, and the engineers are men who are held in high esteem. Watching a big herd of dzopkyos (yak-cow hybrids) crossing the bridge, I can see why.

The granite wall of Kwangde's eastern face lights up in the morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The granite wall of Kwangde’s eastern face lights up in the morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The track crosses and re-crosses the river quite a few times, as the river narrows into a gorge, through the villages of TocToc, Benkar and finally Chumoaa, where Sonam lives with his young wife Lakhpa, and tiny daughter Tenzing.

Sonam with his wife and baby boy in their house. Photo by Puneet K Paliwal
Sonam with his wife and baby girl in their house. Photo by Puneet K Paliwal

Refreshed by a powerful bowl of Sherpa broth courtesy the lovely Lakhpa we cross a small bridge over the Chumoaa Khola that comes down from the silvery heights of Thamserku- the tower of gold- and stop for lunch at the Monjo Yeti Mountain Home, just before the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park. Tuna sandwiches! In Monjo! I still couldn’t get used to the shock of such everyday luxuries.

Thamserku towers over the Chumoa Khola valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Thamserku towers over the Chumoa Khola valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Just outside the village is the entry post of the National Park where you register yourself, and then across another suspension bridge to the tiny village of Jorsale or Thumbug where an army post checks your papers. This is one of the many times on this trip that I thank my lucky stars that I’m from a SAARC country, as we’re casually waved through without any real check. Apart from the fact that it costs me only NPR100 a day to be in the national park, there seems to be great goodwill in the fact that me and Puneet are Indians. And I can see why as a few days later when I come across an incredibly high and ambitious water pipeline project financed by the Indian government. Add to that the fact that we are the only Indians in all of Solu Khumbu, and no wonder we get wide disbelieving grins everywhere, often mistaken for Nepalis. Despite the joys of Visa-less travel and our currency actually being stronger (if only 1.6 times so), rarely do Indians- apart from army climbing expeditions- venture here for their holidays. As a result, even Africans are considered less exotic than Indians in Khumbu, even if many generations of Sherpas have had close relations with Indians in havens like Darjeeling.

The forest walk past the Dudh Kosi outside Jorsale. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The forest walk past the Dudh Kosi outside Jorsale. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Out of Jorsale, after a pleasant walk beside the river as it passed through a heavily forested gorge, we come to the most famous suspension bridge of them all- the Larja Dobhan bridge. Hanging precariously from one rock face to another rock face almost a kilometre above the junction of the Dudh and Bhote Kosi rivers, it’s a scary, windy place, especially when the bridge starts bouncing under the hurried stride of nervous tourists rushing to get to the other side. Huge numbers of kathas (blessed scarves) and prayer flags flutter in the breeze, despite the fifty-year guarantee, as spiritual, just in case. From here the track climbs a steep and dusty 1600ft through pine forests to Namche.

The Larja Dobhan suspension bridge above the Dudh Kosi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The Larja Dobhan suspension bridge above the confluence of the Bhote and Dudh Kosi rivers. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

As we climb over the deep gorge of the Bhote Kosi, Thamserku and Kusum Kankharu get bigger behind us, and in front, the three peaks of Kwangde. But the pride of place on this trail is reserved for the Big E, viewed through the pines on a little spur halfway up the climb. When we got there, a gaggle of British and Japanese pensioners were oohing and aahing at the sight of their lives while a no-nonsense Sherpani sold oranges at NPR 80 a piece. There was Everest, it’s black summit pyramid looking like glass in the harsh noonday sun, smoking behind the stupendous curtain of the Nuptse ridge, with Lhotse for company. It is quite a sight. Just below the crest I could see the Hillary Step, that famous rock outcrop which is the gateway to the summit ridge. In less than a month, it would be the site of major traffic jams as scores of would-be summiteers paid through their nose to be hauled up to the patch of snow and rock that was the highest point on earth. On May 23, 2010, 169 climbers reached the summit of Everest.

A first view of Everest, peeking above the Nuptse ridge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
A first view of Everest, peeking above the Nuptse ridge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

An hour and some later we’re up in Namche, the horsehoe-shaped metropolis of the Sherpas, in the loving arms of the Yeti Mountain Home. Along with us are a Dutch couple who’ve been haring around the region for a while and a French group on their way to Gokyo. We have our customary round of the reviving hot lemonade and coffee and cookies in a wood panelled lounge that is a joy for mountain lovers. Full of books on Nepal’s mountains and surrounded by old pictures of the region, one could spend hours here. But we had the sunset to catch. So we rush to our room, this time blessed with bay windows overlooking Namche the towering Kwangde Ri (Ri means peaks) beyond.

Another (hot) bath later, we head out to the view-point a short way above the lodge inside the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park. And here I see the mountain I’ve been longing to see the most- the eerie Ama Dablam.

he western face of Ama Dablam shining in the sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
he western face of Ama Dablam shining in the sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The classic South West view of the peak has to be one of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing mountain profiles in the world, alongside Matterhorn in the Alps and Changabhang in the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Although much lower than the Everest-Lhotse group at the head of the valley, Ama Dablam’s (which means ‘mother’s blessed pendant’) proximity to the viewer make it appear larger than life. It appears bathed in the soft orange glow of sunset, its famed hanging glaciers looking much like the congealed flourishes of an oil painting.

The twin peaks of Thamserku. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The twin peaks of Thamserku. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Right above us hung the twin peaks of Thamserku, looking like a gigantic Viking helmet, and far to the north, yet so close it took my breath away, there was Chomolungma, ‘Mother Goddess of the Earth.’

To be continued…

Nepal Trek Part 2: Up The Dudh Kosi

Continued from Nepal Trek Part 1

Although it is now the most visited region in the entire Himalaya, until 1949, Nepal and by extension the Khumbu region was closed to the outside world. Whatever little information existed about this wonderful land enclosed by some of the highest peaks in the world came from the prolific Sherpas. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Sherpas had been arriving at Darjeeling in search for work. At first as labourers and then increasingly as high altitude porters working under successive British Everest expeditions, by the 1930s they had distinguished themselves as climbers of real skill. Naturally acclimatised and used to the rigours of harsh terrain, the people soon became synonymous with the elite of Himalayan mountaineering. If you take a look at the significant early milestones of Himalayan mountaineering- the ascent of Kamet in 1933, the German attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1934, the ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936, the ascent of Annapurna in 1950 or the ascent of Everest itself in 1953- and you will find a bunch of renowned Sherpas at the heart of it all.

Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Sherpa people follow Tibetan Buddhism and soon after we start our walk there’s ample evidence of this in the intricately carved mani walls and chortens that litter the trail. Taking care to pass them on the left, we leave the upper ridges and start descending to the valley, passing through fields of wheat and barley, with the young river flowing swiftly to our left.

The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Crossing a subsidiary stream coming down from a deep valley to the east, we passed under the soaring Kusum Kankharu towering some nine and a half thousand feet over us.

The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Phakding is a short, two-hour walk from Lukla. We arrive a little before eleven, after a slow walk in the blazing sun, with much of the rest of the day remaining. And a good thing that was too. The first day’s walk is always the hardest. My legs feel like lead, and my much-abused sea level lungs gasp for breath at every little rise. Usually by the next day the situation improves. So I feel extremely glad when the red roofs of the Phakding Yeti Mountain Home swing into view under a rocky outcrop beside the river. Two smiling Sherpanis welcome us with warm glasses of lemonade and unending mugs of coffee and tea. Well, one could get used to this sort of thing.

The Mountain Home at Phakding
The Mountain Home at Phakding. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Mountain Homes certainly are lavish. In Phakding, the buildings are clustered around a wide courtyard. Inside the cosy drawing room, the walls are adorned with lovely portraits of Sherpa families and pretty decent paintings of some of Nepal’s famous peaks. Our room overlooking the river offers more luxury. Not least of which are a top-notch bathroom with a glass shower cubicle running hot water! I think the gratuitous bath and shampoo I enjoyed here has to be the first I’ve ever had on a trek. The electrically heated bed with its generous pile of blankets were beckoning, but we decide to go for a little acclimatisation walk instead in the forests on the other side of the river. But first lunch. And what a spread that is! Chicken sweet corn soup followed by spaghetti and fries and then a lovely buckwheat cake and coffee. If this is how one eats here, I might actually return fatter from the trek.

An hour’s happy scramble past a lower secondary school guarded by the eyes of all-seeing Buddhahood and Rimijung village’s potato farms brought us to Pemachoeling monastery, one of the oldest in the region. Surrounded by an old growth pine and birch forest, I hear the monastery before I see it.

Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

A prayer meeting was in progress and the deep thud of drums reverberated through the hillside. Inside, a young trainee abbot conducted the rituals under the watchful eyes of the head lama of the village of Nurning in front of a huge stern statue of Padmasambhava (the patron saint and guru of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism). Around the prayer hall lit up by lamps and surrounded by bright vivid murals of Bodhisattvas, local deities and row upon row of old manuscripts, monks chanted in rising and falling cadences, every now and then pausing to blow on the sandung and gyaling, or clash large hand cymbals, while a crumpled, ancient nun blew powerfully on a huge conch shell. The old couple from Rimijung who had requested the prayer were also present, sipping glasses of tea with their eyes fixed on the Buddha.

Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

We wandered around for another hour in the forest under lowering skies, while far to the north floated the temple-like spire of Tawecho. Later that evening as we sit around the wood fired oven in the lounge and sip our ‘happy hour’ drinks of hot rum toddy and leaf through mountaineering books, Sonam explains out how camping has died a painful death in the Khumbu region. If the Yeti Mountain Home is on the upper end even for the wealthy Europeans who make up the bulk of the tourists in this area, lodges with perfectly good facilities now stretch all the way up to Gorakshep, the last settlement of any kind on the Everest trail at a height of 16,942ft. No one wants the rough and tumble of camping any more, certainly not the guides. And since the trekking establishment of the region only promotes lodges, camping has actually become a more expensive option. Retiring to my electrically heated furnace of a bed, later that night, I shed a quiet tear.

To be continued…

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.

My travels in words and pictures

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