What is the link between Kashmir and Buddhism? History traces the link to seventh century, when Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited India and Kashmir was a flourishing centre of Buddhism which rivaled the importance of Magadha (in modern-day Bihar), where Buddha had lived and preached.
The Chinese pilgrim found many stupas and thousands of monks in the valley of Kashmir. Xuanzang stayed there and studied under a renowned Kashmiri teacher,” notes art historian Benoy K Behl, who is all set to screen his documentary film named ‘The Monasteries of Rinchen Zangpo’ at Gulmohar Hall, India Habitat Centre on April 21.
The story goes like this – when Western Tibet King Yeshe ‘Od (947-1024) – came to the throne of Guge, his kingdom comprised of present Indian territories of Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur, and Guge and Purang in Western Tibet. By then, Buddhism had declined in the Trans-Himalayas. What troubled the king most was that even the little practice of the religion which continued in small pockets was a decadent and corrupted form of the original faith. Around 975 AD, the king sent 21 young scholars to Kashmir, which was then one of the greatest centres of Buddhism, to learn about the pure faith and to bring back that knowledge and scriptures,” Behl shares.
Of the delegation of 21 monks to Kashmir, 19 of them died during the difficult journey but Rinchen Zangpo was one of the two who survived. Under the supervision of ancient Tibetan scholar and translator Zangpo, Kashmiri art painters were invited by Western Tibet King ‘Od and the subsequent kings to build 108 monasteries and make paintings and sculptures inside them, in Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur during the period of 10th-11th centuries.
“The painters and sculptors from Kashmir brought with them a highly sophisticated form of art, which was deeply rooted in the classic Sanskrit texts of India. The masters from Kashmir would have also trained local artists and there was a marvelous blending of the local idioms with the developed styles coming from Kashmir,” says Behl.
Behl, who has been researching ancient art history for the past 28 years, travelled to these monasteries and documented them as part of the film produced by Doordarshan.
During ‘The Second Great Coming of Buddhism’ in Tibet, Lahaul – Spiti, Kinnaur and Ladakh, the Kashmir art painters were in reckoning. All the monasteries and the temples were painted and sculpted by these artists. These monasteries and their art laid the foundations of the later traditions of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas,” notes the filmmaker.
The valley of Kashmir was one of the greatest centers for the development of the philosophy of aesthetics of India and it is here that Abhinavagupta, the great aesthetics philosopher, lived. The art contained in these monasteries is among the most wonderful art created by humankind,” he mentions.
It represents the continuation of the classic idiom of Indian art, as seen in the Gupta period sculpture and the paintings of Ajanta. In this valley, which was the meeting place of many cultures, we also see the artistic influences of Bactro-Gandhara, Persia and Central Asia.
On the significance of the ancient art history for the younger generation, he says it is a valuable record of the thoughts and the vision of one of the most ancient civilisations in the world. “It is most important to be able to find the sources of peace, joy and beauty. There is no value to life, no matter how much money we may make, if we do not know how to awaken the joy, the grace and the peace which there is within us. This sublime heritage of ours holds the key to unlocking the happiness which can pervade our lives,” he says.