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Indiana University Press
Art and Devotion at a Buddhist Temple in the Indian Himalaya

Art and Devotion at a Buddhist Temple in the Indian Himalaya

by Melissa R. Kerin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253013064
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/29/2015
Series: Contemporary Indian Studies Series
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 10.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Melissa R. Kerin is Assistant Professor of Art History at Washington and Lee University.

Read an Excerpt

Art and Devotion at a Buddhist Temple in the Indian Himalaya

By Melissa R. Kerin

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Melissa R. Kerin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01309-5


Nako's Sociopolitical History and Artistic Heritage

The western Himalayan region is situated in the most extreme mountainous landscape in the world, claiming such mountain ranges as Ladakh, Zangskar, and the Great Himalaya. Despite the demands of this high-altitude, semiarid environment, village life in the western Himalaya has long existed and is less isolated than one might think. Villages are linked to one another via intricate trade and pilgrimage routes, which have allowed for the exchange of various commodities and the sharing of religious images, texts, and teachings over centuries. Even now, during the summer months, many of these old routes still serve as primary thoroughfares and trade corridors. It is within this geographic context and along these paths that this book is situated.


Poised at the lower end of the Spiti valley, approximately 3,637 meters (11,932 feet) above sea level, is the village of Nako. This once-prosperous settlement, which boasts eight functioning temples, is set within the district of Khu nu (Kinnaur), one of the twelve administrative districts of Himachal Pradesh formed in 1960. Since the 1962 Sino-Indian Border Conflict — when China invaded India's Himalayan border regions and claimed them as part of Tibet, and therefore Chinese territory — travel to this region of Kinnaur has been restricted. Only with an Inner Line permit is one allowed to visit places that lie between Jangi and Sumdo (see fig. 1.1). It is this stretch of approximately eighty kilometers that is known as the Upper Kinnaur region, which is less an official or administrative term than it is a descriptive one.

Today, two routes take the traveler to Upper Kinnaur. One of these requires travel through Lahaul, over the Kunzum Pass, and into Spiti. The other is through Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, along National Highway 22, which follows the Sutlej River. As Nako is not located directly on the Sutlej, a link road of seven kilometers connects Nako to the highway. Traveling by jeep from Shimla, it generally takes two days to reach Nako, although it can be done in a harrowing single day's jeep ride. The village is set high on the side of a mountain well above the Sutlej River. As Jogishwar Singh explains, "The Satlug valley is the largest valley in the district but is steep and does not lend itself to much settlement or cultivation along its banks. Hence the villages are mostly situated at heights above the river." Behind Nako, one can glimpse the sharp peak of the highest mountain in Kinnaur — Leo Purgyal, at 6,791 meters.

Upon arriving in the Upper Kinnaur district, it becomes evident that this area is geographically and culturally quite different from the lush environs of the lower region. From the lower region came a great deal of the materials for commercial trade with Tibet, such as deodar wood and indigo. As semiarid Upper Kinnaur is within the "monsoon shadow," its soil is friable and water scarce. The villages manage to subsist on the cultivation of peas and potatoes, as well as apple orchards planted in the lower climes. Given the challenges of high-altitude agriculture, trade is very important in this part of Kinnaur. The villages of this upper district of Kinnaur consistently traded with their eastern and northern neighbors, Tibet and Ladakh.

Although the modern-day boundaries of Kinnaur are clearly delineated, this was not always the case. Moreover, it seems that the names Khu nu or Kinnaur were not consistently in circulation. Deborah Klimburg-Salter makes the point that early texts, such as the eleventh-century biography of Rin chen bzang po (Rinchen Zangpo), do not include the place name of Kinnaur or Khu nu. By the fifteenth century, however, Khu nu is specifically mentioned in the Mnga' ris rgyal rabs. Indeed, Khu nu is mentioned in other post-fifteenth century texts or documents, indicating that the name had come into use by the fifteenth century, if not slightly earlier. Other secondary sources indicate that the name Khu nu was used around the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, Giuseppe Tucci uses "Kinnaur" in his translation of the travel itinerary of Stag tshang ras pa (Tagtsang Repa), also known as O rgyan pa ngag dbang rgya mtsho (Ogyanpa Ngawang Gyatso) (1574-1651), a seventeenth-century Buddhist monastic and pilgrim. The colophon states that the text was sponsored by the king of Ladakh at the time, Seng ge rnam rgyal (Senge Namgyal), which would date the text to about the seventeenth century, contemporaneous with the monk's life. Lastly, a nineteenth-century pilgrimage text featuring the Kailash region mentions Kinnaur with regard to a 'Bri gung (Drigung) monastery operative in the thirteenth century.

None of these texts, however, provides specific information about the location of the Kinnaur region. It is likely that the boundaries of Kinnaur shifted and were redrawn over time. For instance, Klimburg-Salter mentions that Tucci identifies the area "south of the Sutlej and eastward to Charang" as Kinnaur. Such a region would be much smaller than the current boundaries and would not include Nako. What complicates things further is that while Kinnaur is mentioned in several of these historical contexts, Nako is not. Given the dearth of textual documentation for Kinnaur, and Nako in particular, it is useful to think of Upper Kinnaur and Nako as part of a larger cultural zone that included Spiti in the west and Mnga' ris (Ngari) in the east. The material evidence in Nako and throughout the Spiti valley and its side valleys (the Hango, Pin, and Lingti valleys in particular), as well as Ngari, suggest that there was a rich and consistent flow of Buddhist transactions within this extended area.

Political Profile

Politically, Kinnaur's structure is difficult to identify. Up until the sixteenth century there is no evidence of state formation. Until this point, the small settlements of Kinnaur are thought to have ruled themselves, creating a network of fiefdoms throughout the Kinnaur region. As Singh states, "It is quite likely that villages existed under some sort of system of governance without there having been a state as we understand the term." Although Kinnaur, and its individually governed villages, Nako among them, were certainly connected to the powerful kingdoms of Ladakh and Guge through a network of pilgrimage and trade routes, as well as marriage alliances, the exact nature of Kinnaur's political relationship with these two powerful political entities during the late medieval period cannot be clearly determined. It is likely, though, that Nako, fell under, if even loosely, Guge rule, as did neighboring Spiti from the tenth through seventeenth centuries. By the seventeenth century, a major shift unfolded in West Tibet's political structure; it fell under Central Tibetan rule. The fifth Dalai Lama campaign to unify all parts of Tibet under a centralized authority affected Guge and all of the Ngari area. The satellite, but important districts of Spiti and Kinnaur were split up under different political entities. Part of Kinnaur was subsumed within the Indian Bhashar rule, the reasons for which will be explained later.

Although the critical dearth of historical records leaves many questions about Kinnaur's political relationship to Guge, what is likely is that it, along with Ladakh, loomed large on Kinnaur's political horizon. From the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, Kinnaur was situated between two distinct political centers, that of Guge in the Ngari region and Ladakh, which lies north of Kinnaur. The resurgent Ngari suzerainty developed in the late fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries under the rule of Rnam rgyal lde (Namgyalde [born 1372]), which is discussed in more detail in chapter 5. His rulership at the end of the fourteenth century marks a particularly interesting period in Ngari's history because it ushers in a time of financial security and military strength. This productive period came after what can only be understood as a nebulous and undocumented period of rule in West Tibet from 1277 to 1372. The royal chronicle written in the fifteenth century says very little about this hundred-year period. In fact, a single paragraph is devoted to it, a paragraph without mention made to rulers' names or other particularities that this chronicle readily mentions elsewhere in the text. Rather than documenting occurrences, this paragraph of the chronicle relies heavily on metaphor to describe the "royal feats" of the kings and princes who "did not leave anything undone." This section of the chronicle is at odds with what is otherwise a detailed account of royal family members' names, place names, patronage deed, and religious associations. Although little can be gleaned from the textual sources about this hundred-year period, it is an essential period for one to understand in order to appreciate the significance of the Guge kingdom and its art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

This relatively undocumented period directly corresponds to the period of foreign rule by the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty, which lasted for nearly a century (1271-1368). It should be noted that some scholars are hesitant to suggest that the Yuan dynasty had a direct effect in this western region — which was physically far removed from central Tibetan political orbits — because of a dearth of substantive evidence suggesting direct Yuan control. As Roberto Vitali's critical reading of the Mnga' ris rgyal rabs reveals, the hundred-year interruption in West Tibet's suzerainty coincides with an escalation in Sakya, and therefore Yuan, control of Ngari. Moreover, based on a translation of documents from Zha lu (Shalu), a Sakya pa monastery in Central Tibet, Giuseppe Tucci also suggested that West Tibet was indeed under the control of the greater Yuan Empire during the fourteenth century.

Fifteenth-century rulers such as Namgyalde, and subsequent rulers, carefully fashioned the newfangled Guge kingdom, through text and image, to reflect the values and patronage of the august sovereignty of the Pu hrang (Purang)–Guge kingdom of the eleventh century. This is made explicit by the very commission of the fifteenth-century chronicle, in which the latter kingdom depicts itself as a continuation of the earlier eleventh-century Purang-Guge kingdom.

While the Guge kingdom's presence was prominent in the western Himalayan region, Ladakh was another powerful kingdom in the fifteenth century that was very much part of Kinnaur's orbit. The kingdom of Ladakh to the northwest was a steadily growing empire that promoted Bka' brgyud (Kagyu) Buddhism, switching from Drigung in the late sixteenth century to 'Brug pa (Drukpa) in the early seventeenth. Ladakh's strong association with Drigung Kagyu is of particular interest given that Nako was home to a Drigung community in the sixteenth century. This may have fostered some direct interaction between the two areas. Politically, however, Ladakh threatened Guge, the political entity that likely controlled some of Kinnaur. The two kingdoms were at odds with one another during the late medieval periods, vying for political control and religious patronage. Ladakh invaded Ngari at several points during the sixteenth century. Eventually, by the seventeenth century, Central Tibet saw an opportunity to thwart Ladakh's presence and to bring West Tibet within its fold. The several-year struggle, commonly referred to as the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war (1679–84), brought success to Central Tibet, who had relied heavily on the support of the Indian Bashahr kingdom, the capital of which was located in Rampur, in the area now called "Lower Kinnaur."

The so-called Namgia Document, or Treaty, found by Tucci at the monastic site of Namgia located at the confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti rivers and approximately twenty kilometers southeast of Nako, narrates the political relationship at the end of the seventeenth century among four polities: Bashahr, Ladakh, Guge, and Central Tibet. This document reveals that once Ladakh gained power over Ngari, Central Tibet intervened. After strategically garnering the support of the Indian hill kingdom of Bashahr, Central Tibet overtook Ladakh in the late seventeenth century. With Bashahr's defences in place, Ladakh was essentially surrounded on the east and west fronts, and was quick to accept defeat. As outlined in the Namgia Document, once Ladakh was overtaken, Central Tibet gained control of "upper Kinnaur," which was then "ceded to the Raja of Bashahr who had cooperated with the Lhasa troops." That Upper Kinnaur became the bargaining chip for negotiations between the Central Tibetan government and the Bashahr kingdom reveals the value of this region, which was rich with materials and trade routes. The raja of Bhushahr understood that this upper region of Kinnaur was not simply a semiarid land of little agricultural potential, but that it served as the threshold of major commercial thoroughfares running between India and Tibet. This deal, therefore, was a financially prudent one on behalf of the Bashahr kingdom.

The question remains, however, what constituted "upper Kinnaur"? It may well have been the area now considered the Upper Kinnaur region — Jangi to Sumdo. If so, this would have included Nako, which would suggest that it was a tributary of the Guge kingdom in West Tibet. Thus, although Nako, and more broadly Kinnaur, may have been officially subsumed within the Guge kingdom, it is likely that it was not directly governed by Guge. Moreover, the boundaries of various regions, not just Kinnaur, and the alliances among the feudatories in the western Himalaya likely blurred and shifted over time, preventing any conclusive insights about Nako or Kinnaur's precise relationship with the West Tibetan kingdom.

As for Nako's — or even more broadly, Kinnaur's — political relationship with well-established Indian kingdoms, such as Brahmour (Chamba), it is too specious to suggest any concrete relationship. The areas of what are now east and west Himachal Pradesh were connected economically through trade. Chamba, as a well-defined Hindu kingdom by the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth century, offered little to Buddhistcentered Nako as a model of governance, religion, or even art. Chamba looked to Gangetic India for its political and artistic prototypes while Nako, and much of Kinnaur, looked to Tibet. Their discrete sociopolitical identification is borne out through the material and architectural evidence surrounding each community. Nako's seismically active and brittle terrain could never accommodate Chamba's stone temples, which were fashioned according to Nagra prototypes; moreover, the meaning and association that such a lithic temple would communicate — Hindu India — would not reflect Nako's identity as a Tibetan Buddhist village. Subsequently, there are no immediate or obvious linkages between the areas except for what was likely an active trade corridor running between them into Tibet. Only with more detailed research in these northern reaches of India will we gain insight into such subtle, yet likely important, avenues of exchange.

That Nako does not have any extant textual record, such as a royal chronicle, genealogy, or lengthy inscriptional record, nor is it ever mentioned explicitly in the fifteenth-century Mnga' ris rgyal rabs (Ngari Gyalrab), helps to buttress the point that Nako never assumed a powerful political position. Rather, the village seems to have resided at the margins, both physically and politically, of the major power centers controlling the region to which it belonged. This peripheral political position should not eclipse Nako's central religious role. Given the accumulation of Buddhist art and the numerous temples constructed in Nako from about the twelfth century onward, this village must have had a substantial body of patrons and enough wealth to uphold robust patronage practices. This would indicate that Nako may indeed have been an important node along pilgrimage and trade routes running through what was once considered the larger Ngari kingdom. Indeed, Nako's material evidence, such as inscriptions, temples, wall paintings, and sculptures provide a valuable historical record that provides insight into Nako's religious history and its potential connections to both Ladakh and Ngari.


Excerpted from Art and Devotion at a Buddhist Temple in the Indian Himalaya by Melissa R. Kerin. Copyright © 2015 Melissa R. Kerin. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Technical Notes

1. Nako’s Socio-Political History and Artistic Heritage
2. Forgetting to Remember: Gyapagpa Temple’s Shifting Identity
3. Mapping Drigung Activity in Nako and the Western Himalaya
4. Gyapagpa’s Painting Style and its Antecendents
5. Origin and Meaning of a Renascent Painting Tradition


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author of Temple to Love: Architecture and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Bengal - Pika Ghosh

A meticulous and discerning piece of scholarship, one that is skillful in employing multiple methods—visual, linguistic and ethnographic—to create a fuller picture of a region we knew little about. . . . [A] pleasure to read.

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