Category Archives: Tibetan Art

Seto Gumba (Druk Amitabh Mountain)- The White Gomba of Nepal

Seto Gumba
Last week we drove up to the Seto Gumba (Druk Amitabh Mountain)- The White Gumba in Kathmandu, locally referred to as Nepal’s Potala Palace. The trip up the mountain was a little fraught. The monastery only opens to the public on Saturdays, and is a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike. The road up the mountain is narrow in places, and the traffic gets a little clogged.
However, it is well worth the effort. Entry is through the wide gate beautifully decorated with dragons and Buddhas, and from which there are spectacular views back across the valley. Entry to the site was free, which was surprising considering the huge expense it must take to maintain the monastery and sculptures. The White Gomba was constructed fairly recently, and on a grand scale. We walked around the beautifully landscaped grounds marvelling at the numerous huge gold statues of Deities including Padmasambhava, Tara, and several statues of the Buddha. The monastery itself is large and consists of a number of white buildings in Tibetan style. Approximately 300 nuns reside and practice in Seto Gumba. Everyday, they wake up at various Buddhist 3am and finish their day at about 11pm. The youngest nun is about 9 years’ old and the oldest, about 60 years’ old. They come from remote places in Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul, Bhutan and Sikkim.
The main temple room is a wonder (no photos allowed here) with finely decorated ceilings and walls of copper statues, and another huge Padmasambhava statue. From the large open spaces around the white buildings you can look out over the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. The White Gumba is a “must see” for visitors to Kathmandu.

White Gomba

White Gomba

Seto Gumba


The Buddha From Space

Buddha from Space

Earlier this year we were presented with a swastika-emblazoned statue, apparently 1,000 years old, that had been carved out of a meteorite and looted from Tibet by the Nazi ethnologist Ernst Schäfer in the late 1930s. The story and chemical analysis appeared in an article from the Meteoritical Society’s publication “Meteorics and Planetary Science”.

Of course fallen meteorites have been interpreted as divine messages by many ancient cultures since prehistoric times, and they were often used to carve works of art. In Tibet, meteoritic iron (regionally referred to as namchag meaning “sky iron” in Tibetan language) used to be carved, but that tradition died out a long time ago, and only ancient artifacts are known. However, figurative sculptures of gods carved from meteorites are unknown. This sculpture made of a meteorite (approximately 10.6 kg in weight and approximately 24 × 13 × 10 cm in size, was thought to be unique in both religious art and meteorite science. Known as the “Iron Man,” the seated figure is wears a large “swastika” on his midsection. It was thought the statue might portray the Buddhist “diety” Vaiśravana and originated in the Bon culture of the eleventh century. The swastika, in this case backward facing, holds a number of religious meanings in Hindu and Buddhist culture (see our earlier blog).

The narrative was, however, just a little too good to be true. There were a few slight catches. According to two experts who have since given their verdict on the mysterious Iron Man, it may have been a European fake. It was probably made in the 20th century, and it may well not have been looted by the Nazis. The bit about the meteorite, though, still stands.

According to Buddhism specialist Achim Bayer, the statue bears 13 features which are easily identifiable by experts as “pseudo-Tibetan” .

These include the 24cm-high statue’s shoes, trousers and hand positioning, as well as the fact that the Buddha has a full beard rather than the “rather thin” facial hair usually given to a deity in Tibetan and Mongolian art. In his report, Bayer says he believes the statue to be a European counterfeit made sometime between 1910 and 1970.

It had been claimed that, having been brought back by the Nazi ethnologist Ernst Schäfer from Tibet in 1938, the “Iron Man” remained in a private collection in Munich until 2007. But the German historian Isrun Engelhardt, who has studied Schäfer’s trip to Tibet in depth, has cast doubt on this suggestion, questioning the statue’s absence on the date, place and list of items brought back.

Buchner, the author of the original article, stresses that his team was only looking into what the statue was made of – a rare form of iron with a high content of nickel – not where it had come from. While they felt able to say the material most likely came from the Chinga meteorite, which crashed to earth 15,000 years ago, the researchers admitted that “the ethnological and art historical details … as well as the time of sculpturing, currently remain speculative”.

Amulets- Magic and Medicine


Small Blessings: Amulets, Magic and Medicine


We attended a short talk on the amulets at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford at the weekend . The museum is using a recent award from the Designation Development Fund (DDF)  to explore and interpret their huge collection of religious and folkloric amulets collected by the French ethnologist Adrien de Mortillet more than a century ago and acquired by Sir Henry Wellcome before its transfer to Oxford.

The 2500 objects in the collection came from various cultures from around the world. Often completely unique and personal, utilizing auspicious materials and symbolism, amulets were made for various purposes, e.g., to avert evil or disease, or to bring good luck in harvests, journeys, or war. Yet a theme that unites them, and one which the project will seek to explore, is that the people who created and used them believed they had the power to alter or affect the world around them. In this sense amulets can help us understand the human need for well-being and the universal concepts of hope and belief.

Windhorse Imports often acquire Tibetan amulet boxes. Tibetan Amulet boxes or “ghau” are generally made from metal in a repousse style of construction. The purpose and function of these is for protection when travelling. They sometimes have a small window on the front with a religious image inside. Typically the front is very ornate and decorated with the Eight Auspicious Symbols and other motifs. Amulet boxes are also commonly used to store all manner of sacred materials such as small texts, blessing cords, consecrated medicine, relics, and the like. Objects such as this were generally carried when travelling some distance away from home, such as on pilgrimage, or for extended business trips.

The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan

Lost Buddhas

It was announced by UNESCO last year that Afghanistan’s historic Bamiyan Buddhas would not be reconstructed. The monuments were destroyed by the Taliban 10 years before as part of its campaign to rid Afganistan of pre-Islamic structures, Whilst experts were split on the feasibility of reconstruction, UNESCO would not support a rebuild project, citing concerns over funding priorities and authenticity. Replicating the colossal monuments could cost between eight and 12 million dollars. Less than half of the original stone used to build the statues remains. The decision is a serious disappointment to Hazara people as the statues were potentially a huge tourist attraction that could have brought wealth back to the region. However recent archaeological research has uncovered significant new finds in the area and even raised the possibility that a there is a third monument awaiting discovery.

In 632 B.C. a learned Chinese monk named Xuan Zang travelled by land from China to India in search of the original Buddhist scriptures and teachings. Xuan Zang’s travelogues offer a unique insight into the political, social and religious conditions of this region in those times. Xuan Zang had travelled to India through present day Afghanistan, and he was keen to visit Bamiyan and the huge Buddha statues there. According to Xuan Zang’s detailed descriptions however, there were three images of Buddha. In addition to the two standing images there was a third image of a reclining Buddha at the base. This reclining Buddha was described as being 1000 feet long, although it finds no mention in subsequent history anywhere.

The smaller standing image was 114 feet high and the taller image was 165 feet high. They were not completely carved from stone, but had their detailing finished in a cement formed by grinding earth, hay and horse’s hair. They were then painted in colourful colours. Afghanistan’s extremely dry climate ensured that this cement coating and paint layer survived for centuries. Xuan Zang stated that the smaller image was painted gold. The Buddhas would have had Greek influences(see our earlier blog on Greco-Buddhist Art). Beside the rough hewn shelter in which the Buddha images stood, there were many small cave like structures cut in the adjoining walls which had wall paintings, enhancing the grandeur of the scene.

The Buddha images had survived a number of serious upheavals in the region. Bamiyan suffered from the ravages of Genghis Khan in 1272, and signs of the destruction are still visible in form of some of the ruined local forts. However, Genghis Khan’s soldiers were scared of touching the Buddha images and they were saved. Subsequently the Mughal Emperor Aurangjeb in the 17th Century, attempted to have Bamiyan Buddhas disfigured, although his soldiers were not able to achieve much, except for some slight damage to the Buddha faces. In modern era, Iranian king Nadir Shah Afshar, (Assassinated 1747) and Amir Kabul Dost Muhammad Khan (1843-1864) carried out several attacks on the Buddha statues with cannons.

Finally in 2001, despite International outrage, the Chief of Taliban in Afghanistan, Mulla Umar ordered the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas. Using local forced labour the Taliban planted powerful mines near the Buddha images and they were both destroyed. At the time they were blown up, the statues were the largest Buddha carvings in the world

In 2003, United nations declared Bamiyan as a world heritage site and efforts were started to save whatever remained at Bamiyan. Although the statues are now gone, efforts are now on to save the caves which once housed them. A joint Japanese-Afghanistan group has been working for the last four or five years on the excavation and restoration of Bamiyan antiques. In September 2008 an archaeologist from this group, Anwar Khan Faize found <span> </span>some remnants of a reclining Buddha at the foot of the standing Buddha images. Further excavations found it to be 64 feet long, but it can not be considered as the figure in Xuen Zang’s description. Recently some traces of a Buddhist Vihara and a palace were also discovered. The sleeping Buddha described by Xuan Zang in 632 CE has not yet been found. Since Xuan Zang is famous for his accurate description, many historians firmly believe that the figure exists. If these traces are discovered, the world can have some consolation from the incalculable loss suffered by the mankind after having lost it’s cultural heritage; the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Buddhism and the Swastika

In January of this year a jewellery store in Brooklyn USA was forced to stop selling Buddhist swastika earrings. Politicians claimed that the earrings were the latest example of anti-Semitism in New York and New Jersey and demanded the store immediately stop selling them. This, despite the fact that the symbol faced in a different direction to the Nazi swastika as most Buddhist, and even neo-Pagan swastikas do.

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