Nicholas Roerich Estate Museum in Izvara
Nicholas Roerich
Estate Museum
in Izvara


Tibetan Art

The women of this district wear a head-dress of the form of the Kokoshnik—so typical of the Slavonic countries of Europe. At an altitude of fifteen thousand feet, we also found ancient stone sanctuaries like those of the Dru-idic sun-cult—but of this we shall speak later in detail. Hence, when we, freezing in Chunargen, called Tibet jestingly the Land of the Niebelungen, we were closer to the truth than we could have foreseen. Recalling all the assimilations and imitations of Tibet, it is really impossible to speak about Tibetan art. Really it is difficult to recall architectural, sculptural or pictorial monuments which do not find their source in the refined treasures of India and China.

Let us also not forget the technical influence on Tibet on the side of Nepal. Nepal itself has not created original forms and was nurtured by the influence of India. In paintings, Nepal is without distinction, but good Nepalese metal workers and goldsmiths from time immemorial, carried into Tibet a specific form of technique.

Just before me I have two excellent images of old Tibet: the image of Buddha in which you immediately discern the Hindu type and Hindu influence. Another of very fine work, is an image of Dalai Lama the Fifth, justly called the Great. This image recalls the fine Chinese work and probably came from Derge. Now Tibet does not make images of such perfection.

Authorities say that the best Sino-Tibetan objects are to be found through China. And that is so. Again, the Nepalo-Tibetan images can easily and justly be attributed to Nepal and India.

A collector once hearing my opinion that an original Tibetan Art did not exist, became worried, and asked me whether it was at all worth while to collect this art. To this I replied: “Of course it is worth while. Surely you do not love and value these images for the sake of Tibet as such. Be it a Chinese or Nepalese hand that made them, is this not immaterial to you? You are interested in the results of craftsmanship. And whether you place the object in the Chinese section of your collection or whether in the Indian-Nepalese one, does not influence the characteristics of craftsmanship nor does it diminish the value of iconographical symbology.”

One consequently observes the very curious fact, that east of Lhassa, China, in certain respects, begins at once; whereas to the west there is the influence of Nepal, although even in some monasteries of Ladak we noticed Tankas of a comparatively recent date and of decidedly Chinese meaning and expression. There is also much Chinese influence in Sikhim. Visiting monasteries, one often meets typical Chinese images in gold on black backgrounds, and statues of Chinese dragons and lions. In the Sikhim monasteries one observes incidentally, a custom which certainly merits praise. None of their sacred objects are for sale, and they are all entered into special inventory lists; which indicates already a certain degree of cultural self-consciousness. In Tibet and in the western provinces of China this rule unfortunately does not yet apply.

An interesting instance of western influence, we saw in Tibet where we found a peculiar coin minted in Unan, representing Queen Victoria in Chinese garments. The popular appreciation of silver Indian rupees produced this strange imitation in which is seen the unique spell that the name of Queen Victoria cast throughout the expanses of Asia.

After mentioning the interpretive arts, such as painting, sculpture, wood and metal work, one cannot omit also to refer to the condition of Tibetan architecture. Of architecture in Tibet one may say about the same as of the other arts: It is based on the Chinese. In the old constructions one may notice a considerable solidity and a certain sweep of fantasy. Looking at them, there involuntarily comes to mind that it would not be difficult to furnish these monumental many-storied structures and their effective balconies, terraces and cornices with the latest innovations of the American skyscrapers. But this strikingly decorative quality is to be found only in ancient constructions, where the large architectural planes are set into beautiful proportions by elaborate multicolored ornaments. All the new houses, however, having lost in constructive grandeur, also lose the sharpness of accurate craftsmanship. As often happens, a misguided emulation of “civilization” destroys the most characteristic parts and the Tibetan house of to-day resembles rather a clumsy badly built box in its construction.

As regards temples, one must say that voluntary contributions have apparently become rare and, whereas in old temples one sees work of wrought-gold and finely carved ornaments, in the more recent temples only shoddy gilt clay images, cheap tin and poorly carved wood-work are to be found.

One still sees the curious Tanagra-like pottery, which in its proportions reminds one so much of the antique amphoras. The appearance of the clumsy, heavy Tibetans of to-day seems to have little in common with these fine and elaborate lines. These forms were certainly created in the past under the effect of a different psychology.

The same thing is apparent, also, when you compare the new swords with the ancient ones, or when comparing the present-day headwear with the family heirlooms inherited from their grandmothers.

Among the artistic handwork and ornaments, the so-called “dzi” beads have quite a special place. They are considered as sacred objects and many legends and beliefs have gathered about them. Some say that these stones are of natural origin, like the onyx. Others say that they are found in the excrements of cranes and also in the dung of yaks. Others say that they are found during the field work and that they spring out of the grass with a special cracking sound. And the people add that if one dzi springs out, others may usually be found near that place.

In view of the sacred and guarded peculiarities of the dzi, the price for them has risen to fifteen hundred rupees, depending on their properties. An oblong bead with one white eye is high in price, but still higher is the dzi with nine eyes. For some strange reason the seven-eyed dzi is completely unknown.

Naturally in view of the great value of the dzi, which brings health, wealth and good fortune, there have appeared many imitations in China. But the Tibetans and the Sikhimese easily discern them from the old ones. Incidentally, this is not very difficult, for the present day dzi is much coarser and sharper in line, and is devoid of that special transparency, which is so typical of the old dzi.

In view of the definitely outlined designs, the possibility of a natural mineral origin of the dzi must be absolutely rejected. Of course, they are the handiwork of very old times. The story that dzi are found when working the fields and usually several dzi together, would lead to the same conclusion. Only one question remains unsolved: From where did the dzi originally come into Tibet, and to what people did they belong?

Museum Address: 188414, Izvara Village, Volosovo District, Leningrad Region, Russia.
Phones: +7-813-73-73-273 (group tours); Phone/Fax +7-813-73-73-298 (general)
Museum Director: Cherkasova Olga Anatolievna E-mail: