Category Archives: Art

The Secret Society

I dispelled the three worlds by means of amorous play
And I fell asleep in the sport of sexual union
How lovely, o Dombi, is your coquetry
The twice-born is outside, the kapalika is inside your hut
By you, o Dombi, the whole world has been disturbed
And for no reason, the Moon has been agitated
Some are there who speak ill of you
But those who are discerning do not remove you from
their throat
Kanha sings of the amorous Chandali
There is no greater harlot than you, o Dombi

***

This song, written sometime around the 10th century CE by the Buddhist siddhacharya Kanha or Krishnapada, is from the earliest collection of folk-songs in what was then the proto-Bengali language. Called the Charyagiti or ‘Songs of Realisation’, these songs were performed by a new kind of Buddhist adept, the tantric siddhas or ‘the perfected ones’ who weren’t monks. Followers of the esoteric ritual doctrines of the Vajrayana (the Way of the Thunderbolt), the siddha community of men and women rejected conventional society, and even the popular Mahayana Buddhism, for a life of intense yogic practice and ritualised sexual union.

Roughly speaking, the 8th to the 13th centuries CE were a great time for Buddhism in eastern India (and in some other regions like Kashmir). Under the patronage of the powerful Pala monarchy of Bengal and Bihar, the monastic universities of Nalanda and Vajrasana (Bodh Gaya) were flourishing, and new viharas like Vikramashila in Bihar and Somapura in Bengal (now Bangladesh) brought in fresher perspectives on popular Buddhism, especially the tantric way of Vajrayana.

In terms of folk culture, what the Vajrayana ushered in was revolutionary. Over a period of about 500 years, the arts boomed. From stone sculptures and metal casting to miniature paintings, mural paintings as well as large canvases on cloth, the effects were seismic, and international. As art historians Susan L. Huntington and John C. Huntington depict in their book Leaves From a Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pala India and Its International Legacy, under the Palas, the Buddhist heartland of Magadha in Bihar became a melting pot of Asian and Southeast Asian cultures, with monks and lay worshippers coming to worship, and carrying away with them examples of this burgeoning religious art, which would go on to influence their own countries.

This period was brought to an abrupt and tragic end, as the viharas first fell victim of the religious iconoclasm of invading Afghan armies and thereafter, without the institutional support of the monasteries, Buddhism was entirely eclipsed by a resurgent Hinduism.

However, while a unique religious and artistic way of life perished in the country of its birth, it continued to thrive elsewhere, most notably in Tibet and in Nepal. It is in this context that I came across an 11th century painting on cloth, from the Kathmandu Valley, in the online archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This gorgeous painting of the Chakrasamvara Mandala is called a paubha by the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley. Master craftsmen and artists for over a millennia, the Newars have always been part of the same cultural continuum as norther and eastern India. As traders who traversed the lucrative routes from the Gangetic plain to the Tibetan plateau and China, their role in transmitting Indian artistic styles—especially Buddhist art traditions—to Tibet is second to none. The famous Tibetan cloth painting style called the thangka, is basically the paubha by another name.

A paubha of the Chakrasamvara Mandala, c.11th century, distemper on cloth. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A paubha of the Chakrasamvara Mandala, c.11th century, distemper on cloth. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paubha itself is the Newar word for the eastern Indian pata, and the painting of the tantric deity Chakrasamvara in an erotic embrace with the goddess Vajravarahi, is one of the earliest surviving examples of a style that, in the 11th century, was thriving in contemporaneous Indian culture, especially in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.

The patachitra or painting on cloth, had been popular in India since at least the time of king Harsha Vardhana of 7th century Kannauj. Bana Bhatta, the author of Harshacharita, speaks of cloth banners being carried in processions, or being used by itinerant storytellers, as a visual guide to their tales. Indeed, the 8th century Buddhist tantric text, the Manjushrimulakalpa, even describes the process by which a pata of the Bodhisattva Manjushri should be made. Evidently then, this was a major form of painting style in India.

In fact, it still is, as the thriving cultural practice of patachitra production, especially in Bengal and Odisha, shows us. The end use of such painted scrolls too remains the same—a visual guide to telling a story. The only aspect of this that no longer exists in India is the Buddhist context of this praxis. In India, one could say that the Buddhist paintings of the Pala era were the high cultural incursion of a folk form that has since returned to its roots.

In fact, the trends were already there. A beautiful 12th century painting of the Buddhist goddess Shyama Tara (Green Tara) dispensing boons is actually a miniature watercolour illustration on a palm-leaf manuscript of the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, an important Mahayana sutra. This manuscript was executed in Bengal as a royal commission of a Queen Vihunadevi. More so than any large-scale painting, this miniature, with its rural setting, its depiction of dense foliage, the group of ecstatic devotees and benevolent, larger-than-life Tara—probably modelled after the commissioning queen—belongs more to a folk medium.

A close-up of 'Green Tara Dispensing Boons to Ecstatic Devotees'; Folio from a palm-leaf manuscript of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, c.12th century, Eastern India
A close-up of ‘Green Tara Dispensing Boons to Ecstatic Devotees’; Folio from a palm-leaf manuscript of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, c.12th century, Eastern India

What is remarkable, however, in this miniature’s relationship to the Nepali paubha, is not the deity, but the worshippers. In the Tara painting, these people aren’t monks, but seem to be a group of tantric adepts, led by a white-haired guru. Their ecstatic poses, ranging from the dancing figure in the bottom left corner to the supplicating figures closest to the deity, give a sense of utter immersion and profound bliss.

The Buddhist technical term for supreme pleasure is mahasukha or the ‘Great Bliss’, which is, in tantric terms, the same as nirvana. In this extreme yogic state, the adept is cut off from the ties of samsara, and perceives the world hidden behind the false
dualities of human sense perceptions. It is just such an adept who can lay claim to being called a siddha, and in turn continue the siddha lineage by becoming the Guru to his or her own disciples. The Vajrayana was primarily propelled by this community, some of whom were monks, while many others weren’t. When we look at the painting of the Chakrasamvara mandala, what catches the eye is the depiction of the siddha community in the background, those who are simultaneously visualizing and worshipping Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi through their tantric practice in cremation grounds.

And these aren’t just any cremation grounds, but the eight great Indian charnel grounds (maha-smasana) that are both actual spaces and internalised fields of meditation—Chandogra, Gahvara, Jwalakula, Subhisana, Attattahasa, Lakshmivana, Ghorandhakara
and Kilakilarava—with their own sacred trees (vriksh), protectors (dikpatih), serpents (naga) and clouds (megha). This cremation ground iconography, as well as the reference
to the kapalika in the song quoted at the beginning, serves to highlight the cultural realm and technical terms that tantric Buddhism shared with its great rival—tantric Shaivism.

Detail of the painting, showing Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini in their tantric embrace, while trampling on Shiva and Kalratri
Detail of the painting, showing Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini in their tantric embrace, while trampling on Shiva and Kalratri

Indeed, the myth of the tantric Buddha Chakrasamvara is predicated on his defeat of Maheshwara in a straight battle on Mount Kailash and the latter’s eventual conversion to
Buddhism. You can see this in the painting too: Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi can be seen trampling on Shiva and his consort, Kalaratri.

But let us return to the scenes depicted in the periphery of the mandala. In fact, the cremation ground scene can’t really be referred to as a ‘background’ in the conventional
sense. The figures and the locales underpin the entire mandala, as it is this community of divine creatures, siddhas, yogis and yoginis are the ones that are creatively giving form to the deities through their activities. In later Tibetan traditions, depictions of deities, mandalas and cremation ground communities became more rigidly stylised, as can be seen in the 15th century Tibetan thangka of the exact same scene, preserved in The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in California.

A 15th century Tibetan thangka (made by Newar artists) of the Chakrasamvara Mandala with a more stylised siddha iconography on the periphery. Mineral pigments and gold on cloth. Courtesy: LA County Museum of Art
A 15th century Tibetan thangka (made by Newar artists) of the Chakrasamvara Mandala with a more stylised siddha iconography on the periphery. Mineral pigments and gold on cloth. Courtesy: LA County Museum of Art

In these latter depictions, and indeed in modern thangkas that are being produced even today, the deities at the centre of the mandala overpower the periphery, and the community of freewheeling, anonymous tantrikas are replaced by rigid iconographic forms of well-known Indian mahasiddhas who formed tantric lineages to which all the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism owe their existence.

So who were the people depicted in the 11th century painting? They remain anonymous, lost to us as distinct individuals. To my mind, they best exemplify the community mentioned in the 8th century tantra called Guhyasamaja, which translates to ‘the secret society’. What were these anonymous men and women doing, convinced as they were of the efficacy of the tantric path to enlightenment looking for?

From texts such as the 9th century Hevajra Tantra, which is dedicated to the tantric deity Hevajra and his consort Nairatma and the slightly later Samvarodaya Tantra dedicated to the deities in the painting under discussion, we read about ganachakras or the ‘secret communion’ of like-minded yogis and yoginis in liminal spaces away from mainstream society. In these gatherings, adepts would seek out other members of the ‘secret society’
by means of choma or secret signs. Thereafter, under the leadership of the Guru, the men and women would perform ritual dances, eat ritual feasts of ‘impure’ substances like meat and alchohol, and engage in ritual sex, to the accompaniment of Charya songs and music. All of these activities would be celebratory and help the adepts to try and reach the state of the Great Bliss.

When we look at the 11th century painting, we see this is exactly what is being depicted—men and women dancing, having sex, talking, engaging in ritual meditation with skull arches and corpses and feasting, all the while surrounded by the pyres, human remains, jackals and skulls of the charnel ground, an ‘impure’ space, and thus perfect for such congregations.

Detail of yogis and yoginis in the charnel ground from the 11th century paubha
Detail of yogis and yoginis in the charnel ground from the 11th century paubha

The fact that the historical Krishnapada, with whose song we opened, was a prolific writer of tantric texts and commentaries, a notable pandita, and a prime disseminator of both the Hevajra Tantra and the Chakrasamvara Tantra as well as the cult of Vajrayogini/ Vajravarahi, goes to show the eclectic nature of this community. Some of them were also monks, but most were lay householders who studied the tantras with lineage Gurus, tantric priests (Vajracharya) and with monks in the viharas. To find echoes of that time, we need only visit a modern tantric sacred site like Tarapeeth in West Bengal or Kamakhya in Assam. Both sites are renowned for their powerful tantric female deities (the Tara of Tarapeeth, though under a Hindu guise, has the same core mantra as the older Buddhist Tara), and also for their adjacent cremation grounds, where even today you will find yogis and yoginis residing as members of a liminal community of tantric seekers.

In the popular Newari Buddhist imagination, the Kathmandu Valley is but a gigantic mandala presided over by Chakrasamvara. In the monasteries of Patan, one of the three main cities of the Valley, you will still find painters making similar paubhas, reciting Sanskrit tantras and sutras, and undergoing secret tantric initiations with their partners. Indeed, at the bottom right of the 11th century painting, you can see a depiction of the Newari couple who commissioned the painting of this paubha, so that they could, together, gain the paradise of Chakrasamvara. Although, we will never know who these people were, they live with us still, a guhya-samaja immortalised in art.

Select Bibliography

Per Kvarne Buddhist Tantric Songs: A Study of the Caryagiti

Rob Linrothe Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art 

Elizabeth English Vajrayogini: Her Visualizations, Rituals, And Forms

David Barton Gray The Chakrasamvara Tantra

David Snellgrove Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Indian Buddhists & Their Tibetan Successors

Ronald M Davidson Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement

Christian K Wedemeyer Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions

Nihar Ranjan Ray Bangali’r Itihash (A History of the Bengali People)

Nupur Chaudhuri and Rajat Kanti Ray Eros and History: Sahajiya Secrets and the Tantric Culture of Love

David Templeton Taranatha’s Life of Krishnacharya/Kanha

David N Gellner Monk, Householder and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Taj Magazine.

 

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Roerich’s Himalaya

The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is a place I love going to, although I must also say that I don’t visit it as often as I should. One of India’s few- and the best by a long shot- state-owned art galleries, NGMA’s collection is a medium sized but fascinating one. Leaving aside the Gallery’s collection of contemporary Indian art- which is sizable- its the permanent exhibits of the Bengal School of Art and those of other artists related to it like Amrita Sher-Gil, that keep drawing me back. There’s a degree of inventiveness and boldness to the work of this large body of artists that I find lacking in most of our contemporaries.
The collection that I never miss, however, is that of the Russian artist-philosopher-mystic-anthropologist-archaeologist-traveller Nicholas Roerich. His mountain paintings are unmatched in their breadth, depth and scope. Its almost like stepping into an alternate universe where mountains perform the roles of deity, habitat, scenery and a spiritual challenge all at once.

Pic: Kuluta 1936 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)

And that’s just on one level. At another, they are masterful studies in light and tone.


Pic: To Kailas, Lahul, 1932 (courtesy www.tanais.info)

Although Roerich has as distinct a style as any painter, no two mountain studies are similar, even when he’s painting the same mountain from essentially the same vantage point, as these superlative studies of Kanchendzonga show.

Pic: Kanchendzongka 1936 (courtesy www.tanais.info)

Pic: Kanchendzongka 1944 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)

In no other artist’s depiction of mountains have I seen geography consistently appearing as fully fledged characters. To look at a painting like Nanda Devi is to drown in that mountain’s divinity, sheer physical beauty, as well as the immense psychic power that she wields on the people who live in her shadow.

Pic: Nanda Devi 1944 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)

The 6 prints I have from NGMA are part of Roerich’s Himalayas series, which he contributed to sporadically over a period of roughly twenty years. This mammoth series alone has over 2,000 paintings- a testimony to Roerich’s prolific output. All, this master painter created over 7,000 paintings over many other series, which is staggering by any standards. However, the quality of his work never suffered.

Pic: Krishna (Spring in Kulu) 1929 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)

Pic: Sunset 1931 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)

Roerich’s interest in the range took many forms, each one mirroring one of his many pursuits. As a dedicated chronicler of culture both indigenous and shared, the plethora of disparate cultures and yet close cultural borrowings on both sides of the Himalayan crest fascinated him. He wrote,
“The Himalayas, in their full might, cross these uplands; behind them, rises the Kailasa, and still farther, Karakorum and the mountain kingdom crowned in the north by the Kuen Lun. Here also are the roads to the sacred Manasarowar: here are the most ancient paths of the sacred pilgrimage. In this region is also the Lake of the Nagas, and the lake Revalsar, the abode of Padma Sambhava. Here also are the caves of the Arhats, and the great abode of Siva, the Amarnath Caves; here are hot springs; here are the 360 local deities, the number of which testifies how essential are these very sites of the accumulation of human thought through many ages.”
The Himalaya’s greatest hold on Roerich, though, was in matters of the spirit. On completing his epic 1923-1928 expedition through Sikkim, Tibet, Kashmir, Ladakh, Siberia, Altai and Mongolia to collect and preserve cultural texts, he was so drawn to the great range that he set up both his home and his Himalayan Research Institute in Naggar in the Kulu valley. He considered the Himalaya a  symbol of humanity’s inherent hunger for transcendence through beauty and knowledge, a common cultural thread that he’d observed in his wide ranging travels. He called the range the “Treasure House of the Spirit.”
His paintings do justice to that claim, like his study of the Chandrabhaga river or the unforgettable Ice Sphinx.

Pic: Chandrabhaga 1932 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)

Pic: Ice Sphinx 1938 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)


People appear only at the margins of his mountain canvases, but they’re an important part of the whole, both grounding the soaring majesty of the backdrop as well as well as providing context for the allusive stories that he tells through his canvases.

Pic: Remember 1934 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)


Some of them bear strong influences of his earlier Iconographic art- tropes and symbolism that he adapts marvelously for his latter paintings.

Pic: The Messenger, 1946 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)


Over the years, you can see his style change. From real, tangible geography, his paintings seem to turn inwards, as he washes the paintings more, giving more of a hint of indistinctness and interpretive haze. They become even more metaphorical, but even then they’re never anything other than mountains, because that’s all they need to be in Roerich’s paintings. It reminds me of the Zen Buddhist saying, “You look at the Void, and the Void looks back at you.”

Pic: The Himalayas The Earth Yetis 1947 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)


Even without delving too deep in his symbolism, its impossible not to come away from this huge and varied body of art without a profound sense of peace.

Pic: Castle in Ladakh 1933 (courtesy http://www.tanais.info)


And to think he did all this, as well as create the Roerich’s Pact, and the theatrical designs for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring!

An edited version of this appeared in the Trek World magazine.