Himalayan Art: Art of the Divine Abode

, University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

Red Avalokiteshvara (Padmapani), Nepal, dated by inscription to 1852. Thangka; ink, color, and gold on fabric. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Edward W. Forbes, 1947.49. Image: © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

The summit of snow which touched the sky
Is matchless insight without equal.
The sun and moon turning around its peak
Are meditation radiating wisdom and compassion.
Marpa Lotsawa (c. 1012–1097), from The Life of Milarepa (1992)

“Himalaya” literally means the abode of snow. Understood as a divine abode in Indic mythology and envisioned as the immortal realm of “Shangri-la” by later western interpreters, the Himalayas and the kingdoms therein abound with holy sites related to Hindu, Buddhist, and Indigenous belief systems, such as Bon. Art and architecture of the Himalayas developed to support the devotional and liturgical needs of communities among whom tantric Buddhism found ready support. The vibrant art and culture of the Trans-Himalayan region is as varied as there are mountain peaks, valleys, and glacial lakes.

Diverse artistic expressions and innovative religious iconographies across the region challenge colonial-era misconceptions of Himalayan insularity. The inspiration for spiritual transformation and devotion that flowed naturally from the mountainous environment bursts into a religious space in the form of brilliant paintings and exquisitely carved sculptures adorned with semi-precious jewels. This space of transformation was activated through the art of ritual, employing a complex system of ritual languages created to serve the needs of practitioners seeking transcendence in this life.

Drawn from the museums’ rich Asian art collections, this installation complements a Harvard undergraduate course that explores the art of the Himalayan region, focusing on the major cultural centers such as the Kathmandu Valley and Buddhist sites across the Tibetan plateau, while examining the history of reception and imagination of the Himalayas in the west. The course is taught by Jinah Kim, George P. Bickford Professor of Indian and South Asian Art. In addition to displaying painted scrolls that pictorialize Buddhist teaching and methods for tantric visualization, the installation includes a group of objects that exemplify the centrality of ritual for both mundane and soteriological gains. Also on view is a set of Chinese paintings dating from the 19th century that depict the installation ceremony of the ninth Dalai Lama.

The University Teaching Gallery serves faculty and students affiliated with Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. Semester-long installations are mounted here in conjunction with undergraduate and graduate courses, supporting instruction in the critical analysis of art and making unique selections from the museums’ collections available to all visitors.

This installation is made possible in part by funding from the Gurel Student Exhibition Fund and the José Soriano Fund.