In the high Himalaya, mountain demons and Hindu deities fused with the Buddhist vision to create a magical art….
One of the last great remote areas of the world are the wind-swept mountain walled valleys of the Himalaya. Here a branch of Indian Buddhism has made its last stand and with it a strange mystical art that is rarely seen by outsiders. It is not a folk art growing up in utter isolation ; for as remote and nearly inaccessible as the Himalayan regions are, the crosscurrents of history have never quite bypassed them. These currents have reached them slowly, however, in time with the pace of the trade caravans that still traverse the deep river valleys and the tortuous passes of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim.
It was the caravans and pilgrims that carried the culture of India into the Himalaya, predominantly from the Buddhist centers of Kashmir and the great monastic institutions of the Ganges basin in Bihar and Bengal. As Buddhism fanned out into the Himalaya to become the religion of all Asia, its art models, carried on painted banners by plgrims, also traversed the silk routes of Central Asia and later reached Tibet, whence they slowly turned back upon the Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan and Sikkim as late as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries- a one millennium journey covering a linear distance of about six hundred miles. It is as if the love songs of medieval Provence had finally reached the Hebrides last year.
Geography sufficiently explains the slow pace of change, for these mountains comprise a natural barrier surrounded by barriers. On their south-eastern borders, where the Himalaya give way to the Indian plains, are vast malarial swamps and impenetrable savannas of fifteen foot high elephant grass. On the northern borders of the Himalaya at least forty mountain peaks average twenty thousand feet. Between these two borders lie roaring river gorges and rain-pelted valleys hemmed in by sheer mountain walls and rolling, barren ranges.
Each valley is a world unto itself, because for the most part one is linked to another by nothing save perilous footpaths, an occasional mule track, and dizzying rope bridges. Such a topography has naturally sheltered and nourished inbred ideas and timeless symbols.
The Buddhist faith is the inspiration and reason for Himalayan art- but the form of Buddhism that was carried to the mountains around the eighth century A.D. by the Indian guru Padmasambhava bears scant resemblance to the simple teachings that had been set forth about twelve hundred years before by the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. What the Himalayan people received was Buddhism in the vastly elaborated form it had taken during its long settlement in India. By the early years of the Christian Era the historic Buddha was deified and elevated into an eternal, absolute, primordial principle.
At the same time Indian Buddhism not only permitted the use of idols but took over a vast array of deities from the Hindu religion. The branch of Buddhism that became most popular in the Himalaya was V
yana. Vajrayana worship relied on magical formulas and magical ceremonies- and on the introduction of goddesses (Taras) and Buddhas-to-be ( Bodhisattvas) to the ever expanding Buddhist pantheon. Popularly known as Lamaism, this branch of the religion taught that the devotee could summon up a hug number of imagined deities by means of certain magical formulas.
Presumably, a novice monk could better fix his imaginationif the source of power was pictured in paintings and sculptures, and therefore the deities were described iconographically in the treatises of the fourth and fifth centuries, and later in even greater detail in the mystical Indian texts known as Tantras. These demi-gods in the Vajrayana pantheon essentially revolve around the five Dhyani Buddhas, identified with the four points of the compass and the cosmic apex, presided over by the supreme god, the Adi-Buddha. In this way, through the doctrine of an increasingly complex metaphysical thought, the Buddhist pantheon, which had begun with no god at all, was joined by hundreds of “emanations”.