People throughout human history have been fascinated with mountains. Their majesty fills us with wonder; for many , the mountains are religious abodes, while for others they are nature’s challenge, meant to be conquered! The Himalayas in Asia boast of some of the world’s highest peaks and consequently have attracted many explorers and expeditions over the years.
Explore the Himalayas through the paintings of Nicholas Roerich, as we retrace the artist’s journey through the mountains that he fell in love with.
There is one thing that’s better than mountains, and it’s mountains that we haven’t climbed.” – Vladimir Vystovsky, Russian bard.
If you’re not looking to climb the Himalayas anytime soon, let the art of Nicholas Roerich offer you views which will make you travel to the mountains inside your mind.
Himalayas : A series of paintings by Nicholas Roerich
Nicholas Roerich was a trained painter and lawyer, an archaeologist, poet, historian, scenographer, scientist, traveller, philosopher and a crusader for peace and protection of culture. Those are too many mountains for an individual to climb, but Roerich mastered it all, including the Himalayas when he decided to embark on his exploration.
Celebrating his legacy, the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi once held an exhibition of his works. This is what the introduction read:
Drawn inexplicably to the vast mountain ranges of the Himalayas, like no other painter, Roerich was able to grasp and depict the subtle-most shades, hues and tones of the mountains, and their ethereal transparency. He was proclaimed the ‘Master of the Mountains’. He sensed the subtle spirit and harmony of the mountains, their solemn, mighty essence and significance for humanity as the symbol of the purest, highest aspiration towards beauty and knowledge. ‘Treasure-house of the Spirit’ – thus Roerich used to call his beloved Himalayas.
Exploring the Himalayas
In December 1923, Roerich and his family arrived in Darjeeling, India in search of a mythical kingdom called “Shambhala”. Not to be found on any map, the Roerichs travelled across 25,000 kilometres of uncharted road to find the Kingdom that the Buddhists, Hindus, Tibetans and local healers so firmly believed in.
According to legend, with the spread of materialism, humanity would deteriorate and the people of Earth would unite under an Evil leader. This leader would attack the Kingdom of Shambhala with terrible weapons and that’s when he would be defeated, ushering in a new Golden Era of peace and harmony. Hinduism associates Shambhala as the birthplace of Kalki, the 10th incarnation of Vishnu.
Roerich’s travels across the Himalayas resulted in over 500 paintings that not only depicted the mountain-landscape & awe-inspiring ranges, but also captured monasteries, monks, and local architecture and styles of buildings, that he would come across. He also documented the flora and fauna, and folklores of the different regions. Looking into his paintings therefore, is like understanding the culture that lives within the Himalayan ranges.
A View of the Kanchenjunga from Sikkim
It is unlikely that you’d be able to catch a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga from Gangtok the way Roerich did, but there is a specially marked viewpoint which will give you a decent photograph on a clear day. Tashi View Point is a short drive from the city center and where we got our view from!
In Darjeeling though, the view from Tiger Hill is breathtaking. Watching the sun rise and reflect on the Kanchenjunga is one of those things you just have to do in a lifetime! For this, one must reach Tiger Hill by 4:30 am – who said the mountains are an easy thing?
Tashiding Monastery, Sikkim
On the 20th of February, the Roerichs visited the Tashiding Monastery in Sikkim (near Pelling) and witnessed the Bhumchu Festival. The best time indeed to visit this monastery is between February and March. This festival is held on the first full moon after the Tibetan New Year, and it is here that the prediction for the rest of the year is made, looking at the “Holy Water Vase” and the water level inside it.
At this Festival, Roerich met a Sikkimese artist who demonstrated his own local style of painting. On heading back to Darjeeling, Nicholas Roerich started his famous series, “Banners of the East” – portraits of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders!
Mount Kailash :
Do you notice how in each of the paintings, the sun is invisible and yet part of the painting? You just can’t seem to figure if the sun is rising or setting; if the light is inside or behind the painting!
There are some things in the world that are inexplicable and the Mount Kailash is one such phenomenon. Located at the heart of six mountain ranges in Tibet, it is literally the axis mundi of the world – a celestial center that provides a connection between earth and heaven, physical and spiritual worlds. Home to the Gods and the sacred Mansarovar Lake, the Mount Kailash is considered holy by Hindus, Buddhists, & Jains alike. Each year thousands undertake a pilgrimage for spiritual (and adventurous) reasons but nobody has ever managed to climb this mountain!
Kinnar Kailash :
The Kinnar Kailash range can leave you awe-struck especially because it changes colour at different points of time in the day! Spending a whole day from sunrise to sunset, you can spot up to 28 different colours!
Roerich’s reverence for the mountains is so evident in such studies of the mountain-peaks and ranges. The sacred Kinnar Kailash in the Kinnar ranges (on the Shimla side) of Himachal Pradesh are of religious importance to Buddhists and Hindus and the ancient text Mahabharat goes on to introduce Kinnaur as the place where Pandavas spent their exile! In fact, it is said to be Shiva’s winter home and host to the annual January-meetings of the Gods and Goddesses!
Khoksar village is the gateway into Lahaul, and the coldest place in the region as well. It is situated at the banks of the River Chandra, which remains laden with snow throughout winters and is a sight you cannot miss!
When the Rohtang Pass closes, Lahaul seems to transform into a different world altogether. Back when the Roerichs travelled, these were uncharted roads, and there weren’t many people heading out for their summer or winter trek! Journeying into this painting below would have been so scary, and yet so rewarding! Don’t you think?
Buddhist Monks of Lahaul
While many of Roerich’s paintings feature monks, and sages, this particular one is a favourite! The Mahayana monks in the painting, stop by the Sissu falls while returning from Lahaul. The majesty and tranquility of the mountains pitched alongside the speeding gush of the waterfall, and the calm divinity of the monks makes this painting so full of emotions.
The waterfall is a little off the Leh-Manali highway and one of the most picturesque sights that is not to be missed! Lahaul is known for its fascinating Buddhist art and culture. Lahaul is dotted with monasteries & these are great spaces to view Thangkas, ancient murals, and golden statues of Guru Padmasambhava – the second Buddha who established Buddhism in Lahaul back in the 8th century! He traveled through Lahaul-Spiti, onward to Himachal, Ladakh, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh to spread Buddhism.
As per legend, there was once a lama (monk) at the Tayul Monastery in Lahaul. With great knowledge, he became proud and egoistic. One day, he insulted the Rinpoche (spiritual teacher) who then expelled him from the monastery. Initially, the lama wandered around the valley, but one day, unable to bear the insult, he jumped into the river at Tandi (where the Chandra and Bhaga rivers meet). His spirit haunted and troubled local passersby. So they got together and invited all the monks of Lahaul to perform a big ceremony and freed themselves of the spirit of the Lama.
When the Roerich’s travelled through the Himalayas, they came across some breathtaking sights, one of them being this shooting star at the Changtang plateau, which lies partly in Ladakh and partly in Tibet. Aptly termed to be the “Roof of the World”, the stars seem closest from here. The Roerichs camped here – and this masterpiece was created!
Interestingly, an art catalogue stated this comet to be “Eucalypedes” but Google knows nothing of a comet named like that. It does however know of a comet called the Eclipse comet spotted over Tibet – but that was only in 1948. Apparently there is a prophecy which says that this 1948 comet will become a planet, “Urusvati”, knocking off Saturn with its gravitational force and will come in between Earth and Venus serving as a new home for a new humanity. What is spooky is, Urusvati is also the name of the Himalayan Research Institute founded by the Roerichs. Could the Roerichs have known that Shambhala really exists?
Traces of Buddhist History in Ladakh
The ancient people of Ladakh seemed to have been sculpture-enthusiasts. The mountains of Ladakh especially around Zanskar are strewn with sculptures – some on rock boulders, other carved out of the sacred juniper tree. Roerich obviously came across these and painted them onto his canvas.
Traveling from Srinagar to Leh, you also get to see this spectacular Maitreya Buddha overlooking the old trade route near Mulbek Monastery!
The Lamayuru Monastery, Leh
This is one of the largest monasteries in Leh, Kashmir. According to a legend, Sakyamuni (the Historical Buddha), Lamayuru’s valley was a clear lake where Nagas (holy serpents) lived. The Bodhisattva Madhyantaka foretold that the lake would be emptied and a monastery built there. Much later, in the 11th century an Indian Buddhist scholar, named Naropa came to Lamayuru and spent many years meditating in a cave, nearby. Naropa then caused a split in the surrounding hillside and the lake emptied through this opening, revealing a dead lion. On this spot, Naropa built the first temple at Lamayuru, the Singhe Ghang (Lion Mound). Other historical accounts relate that in the 10th century the King of Ladakh (cured of his leprosy by a Lama) ordered the building of Lamayuru Monastery and placed it under the supervision of Rinchen Zangbo as a tribute. Each year, in the fifth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar , a masked dance is performed as part of the Yuru Kabgyat festival which is said to be extraordinary and beautiful to watch!
Lake Sheshnag, Kashmir
The Sheshnag lake is one of the most ancient pilgrim spots in the country, visited by scores of devotees on their way to the Amarnath Temple. It is the strong belief of locals that “Sheshnag, the King of Serpents” still resides inside the lake.
According to Tibetan myths, Nagas (the serpent spirits that inhabit the underworld, lakes and waterbodies) are guardians of treasures and concealed teachings hidden in the Himalayas. This is interesting because Hindus believe in the story of Lord Shiva who left his Serpent, right here before he took Parvati into the cave nearby to tell her the secret of the Creation. It’s almost as if the Serpent was a guardian to this secret !
The Roerichs made the mountains their home and finally settled in Naggar, Kullu. The two-floor home is now a museum of paintings and Roerichs’ collectibles including many souvenirs they picked up during their Himalayan journey. This painting depicts the entrance of the home which has a 14th century stone-image of the hero Goga Chauhan and Narsingh – one of the many mountain-deities believed to the the protectors of the valley.
NicholasRoerich used to paint with powdered mineral rocks procured along the route of his expedition across the #Himalayas ⛰ This gave his #paintings a matte-finish & heightened their luminosity ! Check out the blues (lapis lazuli) & browns (ochre) in his art!? AllahabadMuseum pic.twitter.com/4vHDCdL9R9— HeritageLab ?? (@MedhaviGandhi) February 23, 2018
Next time, when you’re exploring the Himalayas, do stop by at the Roerich Art Gallery in Naggar and travel through the mountains with his paintings.
Each of the paintings by Roerich have colours that are definitely not exaggerated and even viewing these paintings is an experience to cherish!