A six-foot tall sculpture of the Maitreya Buddha catches the eye as soon as one enters the Himalayan Art Gallery inside Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). The seated clay figure, created by Lhasa-based sculptor Chhemet Rigzin, has been placed inside a recreation of the shrine found inside Tibetan monasteries. Arrayed before it are various offerings — butter lamps, water, and replicas of the brightly coloured ritual cakes called Torma, usually made of flour and butter.
For visitors who are unfamiliar with the ceremonial practices of Tibetan Buddhism or have little chance of experiencing and observing them, a visit to this recreated shrine can shed a great deal of light on religious and cultural practices that are at once familiar and strange. As Assistant Director (Gallery), CSMVS, Manisha Nene, explains, “The museum has a rich collection of Himalayan art and it was felt that without this effort, our visitors would find it difficult to understand the context within which much of this art was produced.”
The gallery, which re-opened on May 8, was closed for a year, during which period extensive restoration of the collection was undertaken.
Among the many treasures that are now on display is a 16th century gilt bronze sculpture of King Songsten Gampo, who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet, thanks to the influence of his two queens, one from China and one from Nepal. The king is venerated by Tibetans as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, considered to be the protector of Tibet. Other prized objects on display include a 13th century gilt bronze sculpture of the Maitreya Buddha from Nepal and a Laksha Chaitya Thangka, a Tibetan Buddhist cloth painting, representing the ritual in which a devotee makes a symbolic offering of one lakh chaityas (stupas) to the preferred deity.
The exhibits also include evidence of the many crosscurrents of influence that came to shape religion and culture in the Himalayan region. Nene points to the apron and cap made of human bones, used by monks during Tantric rituals, as one of the many aspects of Tantricism that influenced the immensely complicated Vajrayana Buddhism, the dominant practice in Tibet. She says, “You will also see some familiar Hindu deities with unfamiliar names among those worshipped in Nepal, such as Vaikuntha-Kamalaja, which is a composite, androgynous form of Vishnu and Lakshmi, just like Ardhanarishwara is a composite form of Shiva and Parvati. This form is worshipped only in Nepal, which also has a cult of Indra, and a festival called the Indra Jatra. Interestingly, some people worship Mahabhairav — a form of Shiva — during the Indra Jatra.”
It’s been just over a week since the Himalayan Art Gallery opened, and if the crowds that throng it on a Wednesday afternoon are any indication, it is set to become one of the more popular galleries in the museum. If so, this is thanks to the effort put in by the curatorial team, led by Nene, which undertook extensive research — travelling to Nepal and Tibet — to document the intangible aspects associated with the tangible objects on display. The research has resulted in seemingly small, but significant touches such the documentaries on the making of Tibetan Thangkas or metalware that are screened inside the gallery, or a wall that features a row of prayer bells (with information and instructions for visitors), as well as the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags and the “mani stones” inscribed with the chant of “Om mani padme hum”. These curatorial interventions make it easy to understand the place that the rituals and objects of Himalayan Buddhism have in the daily lives of the people who live in that region.