Kashmir and Tibet : A Forgotten Past

Last year the Himalayan Club sent a request to His Holiness The Dalai Lama asking him for a private audience for the members of the Himalayan Club. And His Holiness decided to give a private audience last year in April. A Group of members of the Himalayan Club along with family members went for the same to McLeodganj. I alongwith my wife and little baby daughter also went along the delegation.

We had the audience, and though I am not a religious person, I really like listening to His Holiness as what he speaks makes sense to me. And hearing him in person at his residence was quite an experience. After His Holiness finished his talk we all went to get blessings from him and a photo op. I wanted him to bless my daughter and I had a brief exchange
with him wherein I told him that I am from Kashmir. He smiled and told me that many Tibetan monks used to go to Kashmir to gain knowledge and there is an old relationship between Kashmir and Tibet.

Of course I have been trying to dig up some of the relics of Kashmir's Buddhist past which included the Monastery at Harwan, where the 4th Buddhist Council was held in the first Century as well as the Gilgit Manuscripts, which is the oldest manuscript found in the Indian sub-continent and one of the most sacred Buddhist scripture ever discovered (I have covered both of these in previous Posts).

But as my search continued that it wasn't just Buddhism that went to Tibet from Kashmir. It went much further than that. A whole bunch of scholars and craftsmen from Kashmir went to Tibet as a part of this cultural exchange. This included the best craftsmen and sculptors. There is a great similarity between all the Buddhist iconography in Stone and Bronze made in Tibet with all such iconography found in Kashmir from the Buddhist era in Kashmir which started around the time of the Great Kushan Emperor, Kanishka in the first century till the time of Lalitaditya in the 8th century wherein slowly Buddhism started disappearing from Kashmir till it disappeared in the 12th century. The sculptors and craftsmen in Kashmir shifted to Hindu iconography and making statutes of Vishnu and his Avatars. But their Buddhist tradition continued to thrive and evolve in distant Tibet. As an example I present to you two Bronze statues of the Tara. The one on the left is a 9th century Tara from Kashmir and the one on the right is a White Tara from the 17th century from Tibet. In Spite of the geographical distance and a difference of almost 800 years the similarities are still quite uncanny.

There are records of Kashmiri craftsmen going to the ancient Kingdom of Guge in Central Tibet to decorate the Buddhist monasteries being built there. Tibetan Chronicles also mention that the great Tibetan scholar Rinchan Sangpo visited Kashmir thrice in order to take Kashmiri craftsmen to Tibet to re-organise Buddhist arts in Tibet. It is said that Rinchen built a Hundred and Fifty Temples in Tibet with the help of 75 Kashmiri craftsmen. The 16th century monk, Lama Taranath also records the great contribution of Kashmiri craftsmen to Tibetan painting and metal casting.

Kashmir being historically at the crossroads of great civilizations constituted a great melting pot with cultural influences from all over. Before its emergence as a strong Kingdom in the 8th century Kashmir was a part of the belt ranging from Southern Iran to Gandhara to Bacteria to Kashmir were a part of the great belt of Buddhism and such similar sculptures have been found all over Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and onwards to Tibet.But of course over a period of time Buddhism disappeared from all these areas and all the cultural traditions and Buddhist arts and crafts shifted to Tibet and a part of it to Mongolia as well.

Of course Buddhism in Tibet has evolved into its present form of Tibetan Buddhism over the age. But scratch and look under the surface and its a reflection of the tradition and culture that was followed by populations all over the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush and further into Afghanistan and Southern Iran. Buddhist art in Tibet is a legacy from the past of all these regions and especially Kashmir. Looking at Tibetan Buddhist art now I see it as a mirror into the past showing the arts and crafts of our ancestors long forgotten in the land of their origin but still thriving in Tibet. Much like Buddhism itself.

As of today "Himalayan Art" as its called is considered Religious iconry art representing Hindu, Buddhist and Bon and the three main categories it is divided in are Tibet, Kashmir and Nepal. This is the wide classification of Himalayan Art and it wouldn't surprise me if a link is found as to how Nepalese Art was also influenced by Kashmiri art coming in from Tibet.

Pic of Tara, also known as Arya Tara and Jetsun Dolma in Tibetan Buddhism, is a female Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism who appears as a female Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism. She is known as the Mother of Liberation and represents the virtues of success in works and achievements. She is originally supposed to have originated as a form of Goddess Durga and entered the Buddhist deity fold over a period of time.

Kashmir Tara pic from Shri Pratap Singh Museum, Srinagar and the Tibet Tara from the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai. Both pics from October 2017.