'Stairway' to the Light; Himalayan Religious Icons Shine with Spiritual Beauty

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

'Stairway' to the Light; Himalayan Religious Icons Shine with Spiritual Beauty


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The newly opened exhibit "Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is an eye-popping visual journey through the hybrid, fantastic religious art that flourished for 1,200 years on "the roof of the world" - as the Himalayas, including 29,035-foot-tall Mount Everest, are called.

Kalidasa (circa A.D. 400) , the greatest of India's poets, characterized the Himalayas as " 'a stairway to Heaven,' " writes organizing exhibit curator Pratapaditya Pal in the informative, lavishly illustrated catalog.

The mainly Buddhist and Hindu religious icons made by anonymous artists in this 163-object exhibit might be thought of as the "stairs" that lead to Kalidasa's "heaven," the highest level of spiritual experience, what Buddhists call "enlightenment." The yearning expressed here to connect with the gods and attain the ecstasy of enlightenment gives the exhibit a beauty and intensity rarely matched.

The Himalayan art of this exhibit is a hybrid of Indian and Tibetan civilizations - with additional influences from China and what was then Persia that penetrated via the Central Asian Silk Road.

Three of the handsomest Buddhist bodhisattva images in the show are presented in the first gallery. Arranged in a superlarge case, they are from the three expansive cultural zones into which Debra Diamond, curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, organized the exhibit: the areas that are now Nepal, Kashmir and Tibet.

Bodhisattvas are among the most moving and unselfish of Buddhist holy men, for they delay their own enlightenment to help others achieve it. The "Bodhisattva Manjusri" ("Manjusri" means "one with a sweet appearance") is a suavely modeled 12th-century gilded bronze from Nepal. It exudes the youthful, smooth and restrained sensuality of the Nepalese style. Just a few incised lines indicate the lower drapery, or "dhoti." Stylized lotus blossoms decorate the arms and the elaborate necklace that encircles his neck. The torso swells ever so slightly, and the facial expression is sweet and gentle.

These bodhisattvas reflect the differing iconographic and aesthetic interpretations that traveled with pilgrims and traders through the regions. The richly decorated 11th-century "Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara," for example, represents the Kashmiri aesthetic. As the bodhisattva of compassion, he offers one hand in the gesture of giving while the other holds a lotus in full bloom.

These Avalokiteshvara decorations are more elaborate and naturalistic than those from Nepal. For example, the long flower garland - similar to the Hawaiian lei - descends from the right shoulder and down the legs and then curves upward to the right shoulder. Ribboned garlands fall from the crown.

The incised circular and "flying clouds" patterns on the dhoti may have come originally from Persia and China. Certainly the "wet drapery" of the dhoti, in which the cloth clings to the hips and legs, echoes those of the earlier, fourth-fifth century B. …

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