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Art and Devotion at a Buddhist Temple in the Indian Himalaya

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Sixteenth-century wall paintings in a Buddhist temple in the Tibetan cultural zone of northwest India are the focus of this innovative and richly illustrated study. Initially shaped by one set of religious beliefs, the paintings have since been reinterpreted and retraced by a later Buddhist community, subsumed within its religious framework and communal memory. Melissa Kerin traces the devotional, political, and artistic histories that have influenced the paintings' production and reception over the centuries of their use. Her interdisciplinary approach combines art historical methods with inscriptional translation, ethnographic documentation, and theoretical inquiry to understand religious images in context.

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5 Chapters

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1 • Nako’s Sociopolitical History and Artistic Heritage

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The western Himalayan region is situated in the most extreme mountainous landscape in the world, claiming such mountain ranges as Ladakh, Zangskar, and the Great Himalaya. Despite the demands of this high-altitude, semiarid environment, village life in the western Himalaya has long existed and is less isolated than one might think. Villages are linked to one another via intricate trade and pilgrimage routes, which have allowed for the exchange of various commodities and the sharing of religious images, texts, and teachings over centuries.1 Even now, during the summer months, many of these old routes still serve as primary thoroughfares and trade corridors. It is within this geographic context and along these paths that this book is situated.

Poised at the lower end of the Spiti valley, approximately 3,637 meters (11,932 feet) above sea level, is the village of Nako. This once-prosperous settlement, which boasts eight functioning temples, is set within the district of Khu nu (Kinnaur), one of the twelve administrative districts of Himachal Pradesh formed in 1960. Since the 1962 Sino-Indian Border Conflict—when China invaded India’s Himalayan border regions and claimed them as part of Tibet, and therefore Chinese territory—travel to this region of Kinnaur has been restricted. Only with an Inner Line permit is one allowed to visit places that lie between Jangi and Sumdo (see fig. 1.1). It is this stretch of approximately eighty kilometers that is known as the Upper Kinnaur region, which is less an official or administrative term than it is a descriptive one.

 

2 • Forgetting to Remember: Gyapagpa Temple’s Shifting Identity

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Tibetan Buddhism often places a strong emphasis on memory. Supernatural powers of recollection, for example, are among the great abilities acquired through enlightenment; the saṃsāric state, by contrast, can be described as amnesic.1 In artistic contexts, this ideal of perfect recollection has often found visual expression in the form of maṇḍalas, iconographic compositions of highly orchestrated constellations of deities housed within precisely rendered geometric forms. Another visual tool used to catalyze a more pragmatic level of mnemic engagement2 is the illustrated lineages of Buddhist teachers who have mastered and taught Vajrayāna practices. Wall paintings such as the ones found at the Gyapagpa Temple include painted lineages that are carefully and deliberately used to communicate the veracity and heritage of a specific teaching and lineage. This lineage works in concert with the larger iconographic program including deities, Buddhas, and bodhisattvas, all identified with accompanying inscriptions. But what happens when these carefully crafted identities—both divine and human—are forgotten? In this chapter I look at precisely this problem.

 

3 • Mapping Drigung Activity at Nako and in the Western Himalaya

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The task of tracing Nako’s ’Bri gung (Drigung) religious history has been a challenging one in large part because there is no documented religious history for Nako and no known inscriptions that provide substantive political and religious information. Given the paucity of such textual and inscriptional information at Nako, the artistic remains become that much more crucial in piecing together Nako’s devotional history. Although research on Nako’s early painting programs of circa twelfth century have been studied and published, the material of the late medieval period has been neglected. This body of work, and in particular the Gyapagpa sixteenth-century painting program, is of crucial significance in piecing together what has otherwise remained an opaque religious history for Nako and the surrounding region of Kinnaur.

As the last chapter established, the murals at Nako’s Gyapagpa Temple unequivocally align the temple with the Drigung community of the larger Bka’ brgyud (Kagyu) tradition. One of the most revealing pieces of information from this temple’s iconographic program was the six-person lineage painted on three of its four walls. While this has been useful in establishing the temple’s sixteenth-century religious affiliation, many other questions linger. For instance, who are these lineage members and what lineage, exactly, is being referenced? A survey of various texts listing Drigung abbot lineages has not yielded correspondences with the particular combination of names, or partial names, depicted in Gyapagpa Temple.1 Furthermore, I have consulted several scholars of West Tibetan and Drigung history from India and Tibet, but none has been able to identify the lineage depicted.2 The inability to identify this six-member group as part of an established and recognized Drigung lineage raises the possibility that Nako’s grouping represents a lesser known and little documented—Drigung lineage, specific to this area of Kinnaur. That there are no other temples in the region with Drigung iconography makes it impossible to verify that what we see at Nako is, in fact, a local lineage.

 

4 • Gyapagpa Temple’s Painting Style and Its Antecedents

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Based on the insights of the last two chapters it is clear that the Gyapagpa Temple’s sixteenth-century painting program was the result of a vital ’Bri gung (Drigung) resurgence that affected much of the western Himalayan region during the late medieval period. Given this temple’s significant role in piecing together the region’s religious history, a lingering question must be raised: How could this valuable historic document have gone underanalyzed for so long? The answer to this question is enmeshed within at least two interconnected issues regarding trends in South Asian, and specifically Tibetan, art historical scholarship. As for the first of these two issues, there has generally been a tendency to document, analyze, and publish Tibetan art from earlier rather than later periods. Much of Tibetan art history has focused on earlier material of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries.1 Indeed, this is the case with the late sixteenth-century paintings at the Gyapagpa Temple, which were overshadowed by neighboring eleventh- and twelfth-century painting programs, both in the compound and in surrounding villages, such as Tabo. Antiquity was not always the deciding factor, however. It would seem that issues of connoisseurship also came into play when scholars neglected Gyapagpa’s paintings. Likely, its now faded paintings with limited modeling and sometimes clumsily executed lines inspired scholars to look at other sites, with similarly dated murals, such as at the religious and political centers of Tabo, Tholing, and Tsaparang.

 

5 • Origin and Meaning of a Revival Painting Tradition

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With stylistic connections made between the Gyapagpa Temple paintings and the larger Ngari style of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this chapter will address the origin of this style, its shifting significations, and the multiple ways in which it has been used and interpreted. Central to this discussion is my argument that this late medieval painting tradition is in fact a revival of the eleventh-century style from the same area. A review of the scant scholarship about fifteenth-century painting traditions of Mnga’ ris (Ngari) reveals that scholars have differing opinions about this subject. A critical dichotomy surfaces, which tends to present the later Ngari painting tradition as either a continuation of the eleventh-century style or as a separate style altogether. This difference between these positions is a critical one. Based on analyses of both visual and textual evidence, I argue that the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century painting style was indeed a separate style, which was a revival of the eleventh-century Khache painting tradition. I suggest further that the fifteenth-century resuscitation of this older painting style is reflective of the Guge kingdom’s objective to fashion itself as a continuation of the former dynasty. In so doing the later kingdom is communicating an ideological message about its connection to, and continuity with, its predecessor of the eleventh century. Based on this hypothesis, we can understand the fifteenth-century painting style as a carefully constructed visual system that worked to signify the fifteenth-century kingdom’s legitimacy and legacy through its association with the eleventh-century dynasty.

 

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