SAMYE MONASTERY, CENTRAL TIBET, 8TH CENTURY C.E. This was the first monastery to be established in Tibet. It was founded by Shantarakshita, who was from Nalanda University in present-day Bihar. The monastery building is designed on the model of the Odantapuri Mahavihara, which was close to Nalanda. This is the only surviving representation of what ancient Indian mahaviharas looked like.
Traders in caravans of ancient times connected China, Europe and India. On these routes, besides the exchange of goods there was the sharing of ideas about the meaning of life and the eternal truths. The concepts that took the deepest root were those of Buddhism, which Indian traders spoke about. They included the concepts of “samsara” and “maya”, the illusory nature of the material world around us. They spoke about the many temptations of the natural world that always led to dissatisfaction and pain and explained that the way to remove the pain of existence was to do away with the desires that caused it. Indic philosophy did not really speak of gods or external forces, but was a science of life.
These ideas must have struck deep chords in those who heard them because by the beginning of the First Millennium C.E. many great Buddhist stupas and temples stood in Central Asia and China. Kumarayana from Kashmir was one of the greatest Buddhist teachers of the 4th century. He became the guru of the king of Kucha and later married his daughter, Jiva. Their son was named Kumarajiva.
Princess Jiva took Kumarajiva to Kashmir, the land of his father. There the young boy studied Sanskrit and the Buddhist scriptures for 13 years. On their return to Kucha, Kumarajiva became famous as the finest-ever translator of the Buddhist scriptures. It is believed that China attacked and annexed Kucha as the ruler was keen to take Kumarajiva to his own court. Today, there is a beautiful sculpture of Kumarajiva installed by the Chinese government in front of the Kizil Caves near Kucha. There also stands a large temple dedicated many centuries ago to the white horse that Kumarajiva rode.
Lotus Sutra and other translations of Kumarajiva remain extremely popular in China. Others too have translated the same sutras, but it is said that there is a poetic quality and charm in Kumarajiva’s writings which the later translations do not have.
In the 8th century, Santaraksita from Nalanda University in Bihar built the first monastery in Tibet. However, he found that the people of the Tibetan plateau continued to live in fear of evil spirits and would not easily take to Buddhism. In 747 C.E., at his suggestion, Guru Padmasambhava, also of Nalanda University, was invited to help spread the Buddhist faith in Tibet. The story of Padmasambhava’s conversion of the people of the trans-Himalayan lands is the greatest epic story of the entire region. The Guru swept across the mountains, performing the Cham, or the monastic dance of the lamas, with which he purified the land and established Buddhism. The faith continues to flourish in the lands he visited, including Ladakh, Spiti, Kinnaur, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
When King Yeshe Od (947-1024) came to the throne of Guge, his kingdom consisted of the present Indian territories of Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur and Guge and Purang in western Tibet. By then, Buddhism had declined in the trans-Himalayas.
What troubled the king most was that even the little religion that was practised in small pockets was a decadent and corrupted form of the original faith. Around 975 C.E., the king sent 21 young scholars to Kashmir, at that time one of the greatest centres of Buddhism, to learn about the pure faith and to bring back that knowledge and the scriptures. These young men, full of zeal, set out on what was a long and difficult journey. Nineteen of them died in the travel to and from Kashmir.
One of the two scholars who survived the journey and returned after 17 years, Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), became famous as Lohtsawa, “The Great Translator”. He supervised the construction of many monasteries and temples, exquisite and brilliant jewels of the faith set in the midst of the vast spaces of the trans-Himalayan desert.
As many as 108 monasteries were believed to have been constructed in this period in the kingdom of Guge. King Yeshe Od and the subsequent kings who continued his work invited artists from Kashmir to build the monasteries and make the marvelous paintings and sculptures inside them. The painters and sculptors brought with them a highly sophisticated form of art deeply rooted in the classical Sanskrit texts of India. They also trained local artists as can be seen in the marvelous blending of the local idioms with the developed styles of Kashmir.
The earliest surviving paintings in Tibet, of perhaps the 11th century, are found in the Dungkar Caves, in a very remote part of western Tibet. These paintings were made either by Kashmiri painters or by those trained by them.
The northernmost lands that Buddhism reached were Buryatia in Siberia and Mongolia. By the 13th century, Vajrayana Buddhism had taken deep root in Mongolia. The greatest Buddhist king of Mongolia was Zanabazar, of the 17th century. Besides being the builder of many temples, he was himself a great artist. The finest Buddhist art that survives in Mongolia was made by him. He was deeply devoted to the deity Tara, and many of the finest images he made were of her.
Buddhism came to Buryatia in the middle of the 17th century from Mongolia and Tibet. By 1741, Buddhism was recognised as one of the national religions of Russia. Buddhist temples became centres of learning where Sanskrit, Tibetan and Mongolian languages and manuscripts were studied. In Soviet times, these Buddhist temples were all destroyed.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Buddhism is being revived in Buryatia. In the middle of the expanses of Siberia, it is most interesting to come across monks, all of whom speak Hindi as they have received their Buddhist education in India. It is wonderful to see the revival of this vision of life, of the search for the truth beyond the illusory nature of the material world, in these lands so distant from where Buddhism was born.
By the 17th-18th centuries, the Russian region of Kalmykia, south of the Volga river, had become the first Buddhist part of Europe. Kalmykia was on a northern branch of the Silk Route. Here, too, after Soviet times, Buddhism has seen a revival. Lamas from Ladakh conduct religious ceremonies for the reverential people of Kalmykia.
Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 34 years. He has taken over 35,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made over a hundred documentaries on art history. This series carries photographs from his photographic exhibition on Buddhist Heritage of the World, which is currently on display in Nara in Japan and in the French Reunion Island. It was also displayed earlier this year in London, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, Leh, New Delhi and at the International Buddhist Conclave in Varanasi. The series has photographs he has taken in 19 countries/regions across Asia and in one part of Europe which has a 300-year-old Buddhist heritage.