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


Light in the Desert

The lamas consecrate a suburgan in the name of Shambhala. In front of the image of Rigden-jyepo they pour water on a magic mirror; the water runs over the surface of the mirror, the figures become blurred and resemble one of the ancient stories of magic mirrors. A procession walks round the suburgan with burning incense and the head lama holds a thread, connected with the top of the suburgan, wherein various objects of special significance have been previously deposited. There is an image of Buddha, there is a silver ring with a most significant inscription, there are prophecies for the future and there are the precious objects: “Norbu-rinpoche.” An old lama has come from the neighboring yurtas and he brought a small quantity of “treasures”—a piece of mountain crystal, a small turquoise stone, two or three small beads and a shiny piece of mica. The old lama had taken part in the building of the suburgan and he brought these treasures with the insistent request to place them into the opened shrine. After a long service the white thread that connected the lama and the suburgan was cut and in the desert there remained the white suburgan, defended only by invisible powers. Many dangers threaten these shrines. When caravans stop for a rest, the camels spoil the edges of the base; curious deer jump upon the cornices and try the strength of the picturesque images and ornaments with their horns. But the greatest danger comes from the Dungan-Moslems.

The Mongols have a saying: “If a suburgan can resist the Dungans, then it is safe for ages.” Round the bonfire, stories are told of the destruction of Buddhist sanctuaries by Dungans. It is said that the Dungans light bonfires in the old Buddhist caves, which are decorated with ancient murals, in order to burn and destroy these frescoes with smoke. The people, with terror in their eyes, tell how in the Labran province, Dungans demolished the statue of the Maitreya himself. Not only did they persecute the Buddhists, but also the Chinese followers of Confucius. The Mongols say, that though it is difficult with the Chinese, the Dungans are still worse—they are absolutely impossible. They are regarded as inhuman, cruel and bloodthirsty. One remembers all manner of atrocities that took place during the Dungan uprising. One sees ruins on every hill, and everywhere there are stones in formless heaps. In the mind of the people almost all these remnants are somehow associated with the name of Dungans. Here was a fort built by the Dungans; there were fortifications destroyed by the Dungans; here was a village burnt by the Dungans; and that gold mine became silent after the Dungans had passed through it; there again was a well which the Dungans had filled with sand in order to deprive the place of water.

A whole evening was devoted to these horrible stories.

And around the bonfire one could again see the ten raised fingers, and how they attested the cruelty of the Dungans.

The bells on the camels of the caravan are of different sizes and sound like a symphony. This is an essential melody of the desert. The heat during the day kills everything. Everything becomes still, dead. Everything creeps into the coolness of the shadow. The sun is the conqueror and is alone on the immense battlefield. Nothing can withstand it. Even the great river, even the Tarim himself, stops its flow. As claws in agony, are projected the burning stones, until the conqueror disappears behind the horizon, seeking new victories. Darkness does not dare to reappear. Only a bluish mist covers the expanse, without end and without beginning. To this bluish symphony, what kind of a melody may be fittingly added? The symphony of bells, soft as old brass and rhythmic as the movement of the ships of the desert. This alone can complete the symphony of the desert and as an antithesis to this mysterious procession of sounds, you have a song accompanied on the zither by the untiring hands of the baksha—the traveling singer. He is singing about Shabistan, about fairies, which come from the highest planes down to the earth, to inspire the giants and heroes and the beautiful sons of the kings.

He sings about Blessed Issa, the Prophet, who walked through these lands, and how he resurrected the giant, who became a benevolent king of this country. He sings about the holy people behind this very mountain and how a holy man could hear their sacred chants, although they were six months’ distance away from him. In the stillness of the desert, this baksha joins the bells of our caravan. Some holiday is held in the next village, and he is going there to present his sacred art and to relate many stories about all sorts of wonderful things, which are not a fairy tale, but the real life of Asia.

The first camel of the caravan is adorned with colorful carpets and ribbons and a flag is placed high above his load. He is an esteemed camel, he is the first. He takes all the responsibility of filling the desert with his ringing and he steps proudly on. And his black eyes also seem to know many legends.

But instead of a baksha with holy songs, some rider overtakes us.

And high penetrating notes imperatively pierce the space.

This is a Chinese heroic song.

I doubt whether you can ever hear these heroic and sometimes Confucian chants in the European quarters of the harbor cities of China.

But in the desert the feeling of ancient China, of the Chinese conquerors of immense spaces even penetrates the heart of a contemporary amban. The rhythm of the camel bells is broken. The chimes of the horse of the amban are thundering. And the large red tassel is waving on the neck of a big Karashar horse, gray with stripes, like a zebra. And another tassel is hung on the breastplate of the horse. Under the saddle, there is a big Chinese sword. The points of the black velvet boots are curled upwards. The stirrups have gilded lions. Complicated is the adornment of the saddle. Several rugs soften the long ride. From Yarkend to Tun-huang, it is a two months’ journey to follow the ancient Chinese road where jade and silk and silver and gold were transported by the same riders, with the same songs, with the same bells and the same swords. Noisily the amban with his retinue joins us. The camels are behind and the horses are inspired by this noise and by the piercing sounds of the chants. This is something similar to a passage of the hordes of the grandsons of Chingiz-Khan.

A small city. Another amban comes out of his yamen, surrounded by fenced walls, to greet our Chinese traveling companion. Both potentates with great ceremony greet each other. It is like something from an old Chinese painting. They are so glad to see each other and they hold each other’s hands and enter the big red gates. Two black silhouettes in the sandy-pearl mist, guarded by two armed warriors, are painted on both sides of the clay wall.

Allah! Allah! Allah!—shout the Moslems, preparing for the Ramasan, when they fast during the day and can only eat at night time. And to avoid falling asleep they fill the air around the town with their shouts and songs.

But quite another shout is to be heard from the vicinity of a great tree. Two Ladakis of our caravan are singing some prayers dedicated to Maitreya. So the songs of all religions are gathered round one bonfire.

On old stones, throughout the whole of Asia, are to be found peculiar crosses and names, written in Uighur, Chinese, Mongolian and other tongues. What a wonder! On a Mongolian coin is the same sign! In the same way the Nestorians have trespassed the desert. You remember how the great Thomas Vaughan cites a Chinese author of the early Christian era in Sia, on how the sands, as silk waves, have covered everything of the past. And only a pink line in the East crosses the silhouettes of the sand dunes.

Moving sands. Like miserly guardians they defend the treasures which sometimes appear on the surface. Nobody shall dare to take them because they are guarded by hidden forces and can be given out only at a predestined time. From the earth are spreading some poisonous essences. Do not lean over the ground, do not try to raise from the ground that which does not belong to you. Otherwise you will fall dead, as falls the robber.

An experienced rider sends a dog before him, because the dog will first feel the influences of these earthly essences. Even an animal will not dare to enter the forbidden zone. No bonfires will attract you in these hidden places. Only some vultures will fly high over the mysterious land. Are they not also guardians? And to whom belong the bones, which glimmer so whitely on the sands? Who was this intruder, who dishonored the predestined dates?

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: