Tag Archives: India

The Secret Society

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

****

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

 

 

Advertisements

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 kinds 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. Their’s is an unique culture: the Newars are the sole remaining Buddhists who follow the Sanskritic Indic Mahayana tradition of Bihar, Bengal and Kashmir, 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 ritual art creation of mandalas and thangkas (‘paubha’ in Newari; ‘pata’ in Sanskrit). This mastery of religious art ties in perfectly with the Newars’  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 dance 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 outlines the rituals required to consencrate a vihara (monastery). The manual was in turn based on a older 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 known as the Golden Temple), know that prior to the building of that 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.

Finally, these dance forms remain a vital part of Newar cultural life, as can be seen in this recent video of the dancer Raj Sakya performing the tantric text Manjusri-Nama-Samgiti in a Buddhist courtyard in Patan.