Nicholas Roerich: Himalaya
Banners of The East
Greetings of the Season, dear Reader! I am returning after a while but have not forgotten Notes from Beyond.. and this time, my post is about a subject that has been very much in my thoughts these past few months, particularly with the publication of my book, ‘The Fractured Himalaya, India Tibet China 1949 to 1962’ by Penguin, India (Check it out and buy a copy - I promise that it is an interesting read and the reviews by some very respected voices, have been good!). For my book title I used the term ‘Himalaya’ in the singular and not the plural ‘Himalayas’ because I like to think of these awe-inspiring mountains as a unique cultural and spiritual ‘space’ rather than ‘spaces’. And, (a spoonful of telepathy here!) as I picked up Roerich’s book I realized that he, too, regarded these mountains as a composite space- imbued with holiness, spirituality, untold secrets about divinity and a communion with the gods, linked historical and geographic alignments and, so much more.
I bought this book on the internet site, Ebay two decades ago, and I have treasured it since. This is the original edition, copyright 1926 by Corona Mundi, New York, limited to 500 copies, of which this, my copy, is numbered at 30. I am happy to share some of its contents with you in this post.
Roerich’s voice sounds a great reverberant note, as the preface to the book observes, when he faces ‘the white ramparts of the world’—the Himalaya mountains whose summits veritably ‘surmount the heavens’—his message being that all men and women speak an international language of ‘Love, Beauty and Action.’ May I add for all those of you who are in New York, or have a chance to visit, do not miss going to the Nicholas Roerich Museum there. It is simply fabulous with a wonderful collection of the artist’s paintings, a jewel of a place still hidden away from many who are unaware of its existence. The address is : 319 W 107th St, New York, NY 10025 (https://www.roerich.org). Do not also miss the Roerich Art Gallery and Museum in Naggar, Himachal Pradesh (www.trawell.in/himachal/manali/nicholas-roerich-art-gallery-and-museum). The building that houses the latter gallery was once the residence of Nicholas Roerich, and the Himachal Pradesh Government and the Russian Government have formed a trust to run this art gallery as the Roerich Heritage Museum.
Nicholas Roerich was born in St. Petersburg (later called Leningrad by the Soviets, and now St. Petersburg, again) on September 27, 1874. He grew up on his family’s old estate at Isvara, and ‘his days were devoted to outdoor wanderings’, where his fascination for the undulating terrain of the land as well as ‘visages of antiquity’ grew. He had ‘beheld the image of beauty’. He went on to study both law and art, excelling academically in both, although his heart and soul were in artistic creation. His first painting, ‘The Messenger’, exhibited in 1896, was bought by no less an astute connoisseur (‘the greatest honor Russia could bestow upon the young artist at this first appearance’) than the famed Pavel Tretyakov, who gave his name to the magnificent Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The Roerich ‘effect’ was great on America, too. When the exhibition of his works opened in New York in 1920, his paintings ‘laid claim to the love of thousands’, for their strength lay beyond the merely visual and intellectual, for they added to these qualities, ‘the ingredients of immortal things—truth which speaks directly to the hearts of men‘, a truth that ‘America recognized as calling to her own spirit of creation’. The American poet, Mary Siegrist said of Roerich, ‘If as Dostoyevsky believes, beauty will save the world, then this man will do much to relight the worlds’s old altar-fires’. It was as if an America, long typified as being purely materialistic, was in her reception to these paintings, remembering her ‘morning-twilight’ as a ‘virgin country’ and looking toward a ‘tomorrow linked with great fulfillment’. Roerich had, through his art, ‘wielded thunderbolt’, ‘gathered and released the clouds, now as swift couriers of morning, now as the lowering, sullen evening hosts, now as dark vessels brimming with rain’, for he knew the secrets of the skies. He, who loved Russia, and spoken about its beauties and the inner significance of the Russian people, was looking into the future now, and if he loved Russia, as he asked, ‘why should I not love America’ and her wonderful qualities ‘as a young country’. He spoke of the need to ‘think more broadly’, to be less confined by borders and boundaries, especially when it came to the arts and sciences. Just as with people, he felt objects should not be confined to their place of creation, that these objects should be given freedom, ‘to move about and to bring new conditions of life where they are at the time most needed.’ Again, to quote Mary Siegrist, he was architect, archaeologist, educator, poet, painter, prophet with the last three categories forming the peak , and imparting to his works of art, a peculiar ‘iridescence that is his alone.’ He always followed his ‘own line of light.’ No man, woman or child could stand before his paintings and not get back ‘sounds of the infinite sea’ beyond, listening with the inner ear, seeing with the inner eye, bringing back ‘some tidal wave of beauty.’
Then, after beholding America, he traveled to India and Tibet. He was already a cynosure of Indian eyes. Ravindranath Tagore said, before Roerich’s creations,’How great is your art!’ Roerich was hearing the call of Asia —for in his words, ‘There is pitched the tent for all travelers and seekers.’ It was a view that saw only ‘mutual ignorance’ as constituting the borders between Asia and America and Europe, where a ‘haughty Western civilization’ had blinded the Europeans. Roerich was the first to say:’I wish our priests would think about Buddha in the same manner that the cultured Lamas speak of Christ. Only in such sympathetic understanding lies the guarantee of future growth.’
‘Upon the mountain reverberate the drums and kettle-drums. A long procession winds its way along the curves of the path, with colored lanterns and torches held high. It is coming toward us. The rising moon glows amid red fires..’
In India, Roerich discovers the Himalayas. He is, like countless travelers before him, irrevocably drawn. He writes in his essay, ‘Banners of The East’, which is part of the book I am speaking of: ‘Was it perhaps an eagle who darted from the rocks? A rebounding sweep through the air! Across the gulley, the Sikhimese are shooting from the bows. And in the whizzing of the flying arrows, in the vibrating of the string, in the tension of the lips, in the acuteness of the eye, is echoing something remote yet still vital…’.
He writes of ‘two worlds’ in the Himalayas. One is the world ‘of the soil—full of the enchantment of these parts’, of deep ravines and hills that rear up to the cloud-line ‘into which melts the smoke of villages and monasteries’ —an earthly world ‘full of diversities’ where a stately larch tree ‘stands beside a blooming rhododendron.’ Where ‘all is entangled.’ Then, there is that second world—the strange, startling ‘new ramparts mounting the clouds’, where above the twilight, ‘glimmer the sparkling snows:
‘Erect, infinitely beauteous, stand these dazzling, impassable peaks. Two distinct worlds, intersected by a mist.’
‘Much laughter is heard in Sikhim. The nearer to Tibet, the more communicative are the people and more often one hears singing accompanied by a pleasantry. The air is cleaner here.’
He speaks of the gongs in the Himalayan temples that ring out with such great volume, reminding him of a ‘beautiful legend of the Chinese emperor and the great lama. In order to test the knowledge and clairvoyance of the lama, the emperor made for him a seat from sacred books and covering them with fabrics, invited the guest to sit down. The lama made certain prayers and then sat down. The emperor demanded of him, “If your knowledge is so universal, how could you sit down on the sacred books?” “There are no sacred volumes”, answered the Lama. And the astonished emperor, instead of his sacred volumes, found only empty papers. The emperor thereupon gave to the Lama many gifts and bells of liquid chime. But the Lama ordered them to be thrown into the river, saying, “I will not be able to carry these. If they are necessary to me, God will bring these gifts to my monastery.” An indeed, the waters carried to him the bells, with their crystal chimes, clear as the waters of the river.’
He writes of Kashmir: the place through which have passed the hordes of the Mongols, where the roads to Pamir, Lhasa and Khotan traverse, where lies the mysterious cave of Amarnath— so many have passed by way of Kashmir, where lie ‘the old ways of Asia’. Kashmir greets him in March, in a mood that for him recalls Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps - the Rite of Spring, the vivid spring sky is afire with stars, the mountains azure, their slopes aglow with fiery processions whose flaming circles proclaim the end of winter frosts, whose songs proclaim the arrival of Spring. He writes of Srinagar–city of the sun—awash with tourists: ‘Upon the road are many Fords. In the hotel dining room are seen the faces of Americans. In the jewelry shop, side-by-side, hang two paintings—one of the view of Delhi, the other the view of the Moscow Kreml(in). Among the crystals into which one gazes for destiny; among the sapphires of Kashmir, and the Tibetan turquoises, are shimmering green Chinese jadeites—and like a garden, many colored, are spread the borders of the embroidered kaftans. Like precious shawls the rooms of the museum are strewn with minute Iran-designs and bound by destiny, “Gandhara unifies the cleft branches.”’ This was Srinagar, a century ago.
He mentions Gilgit and Chitral, the roads to these destinations more difficult than the road to Ladakh, violet and purple rocks, blue snow peaks. He speaks of an evening enjoying a rich Kashmiri meal, an ‘apotheosis of mutton and spices’ , of Kashmiri singing, Persian and Arab songs besides those in Kashmiri, and Urdu, the entire midnight passing ‘without contradictions’ —a midnight of understanding and a feeling of universal good. The caravans in Ladakh, when meeting, greet each other always with the question, ‘Whence do you come?’ and never with ‘Who are you?’, movement having ‘effaced personality’. Above the caravan sound the calls, ‘Shabash (Good way ahead’) or ‘Kavarda (khabardar)’ to signify danger, attention. In the Ladakhi villages he smells ‘incenses, wild mint, sage, apples and apricots’. When they ascend the height of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, the ‘clarity of color and the magnitude of the vista surpassed all before’. ‘It is just like Lhasa’, one of their fellow-travelers comments. It was a time when golden barley was being harvested. ‘Rows of people with flowers on their heads carry on their backs sheafs of golden wheat and sing stirringly and glowingly, singing in a seeming garland of sound’.
Then, on to Xinjiang, China, crossing the Karakorum- the black throne of barren mountain ranges like many travelers before him.
Here our book ends, although the story continues. Roerich made India his home for the rest of his life, and his identification with this country was a permanent one, as if he had finally come to rest after all his journeys in search of that beauty of life, the dream that had captured his imagination from his childhood days on his parents’ estate outside St. Petersburg, as if the spirit of Russia had co-mingled with the soul of India. It was the perfect union.