The Himalayas have some of the highest inhabited regions in the world, and perhaps some of the oldest as well. Much of Himalayan architecture, painting and sculpture traditions are rooted in religious practices. Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon Shamanism, and tribal cultures form the major wisdom traditions that have nurtured singular art forms in the Himalayas.
In the Buddhism of the Himalayas– Vajrayana – art objects are used as aids to spiritual practice. Thangkas, for instance, sacred paintings, help the practitioner visualise the deity – a key step in creative visualisation aimed at enhancing the positive qualities of the practitioner by using the power of his or her imagination. The thangka itself does not hold mystical powers – it is a utilitarian, and beautiful, object whose magic lies in what it can enable a practitioner to do. Idols of the Buddha, too, though given a lot of respect, are not worshipped in the strictest sense of the word. Rather, they are venerated as pointers to a state of perfection – Buddhahood – the potential for which is inherent in all of us.
Vast swathes of the Himalayas, from Tibet and Bhutan to Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Lahoul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, are overwhelmingly Vajrayana Buddhist. Afghanistan represents an even earlier phase of Buddhist art, in fact its very first one. At some point between the second century BCE and the first century CE, the historical Buddha was sculpted for the first time in Gandhara, which covered parts of modern-day north Pakistan and eastAfghanistan. Before this, he was alluded to through symbols, such as the bodhi tree, a stupa, and so on, in accordance with his own wish not to be idolised and worshipped.
The fact that the Gandhara sculptures came to exist at all was a result of a split in the community of followers. Two groups emerged – the Theravadins, who wished to preserve the dharma as it was, and adherents of Mahayana, ‘the great vehicle’, who wished to welcome winds of change.
One of the changes that occurred was the appearance of images depicting the Buddha as a human being. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great circa 330 BCE, Gandhara must have been a hotbed of Hellenic culture. Sculptors mixed themes from the Buddha’s life with Greek sculpting techniques, and Buddhas with perfect aquiline noses, thin lips, wearing togas and sandals emerged, destined to become the definitive image of the Buddha, the way we imagine him all these centuries later.
That on the same soil from where his first images emerged, the Buddha’s likeness should be blasted out of mountainsides at Bamiyan in the twentieth century, is an irony that is indicative of the truth of the Buddha’s own teaching – that of impermanence and change.