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Nirvana with pelicans

mongolian buddhist exhib

Exhibition poster

The older I get, the more I know I don’t know due to a sense of time running out combined with wry recognition of my limitations. So when I hear about something

Mongolian bronze (late 17th-early 18th century)

unfamiliar that is mind-expanding, expressed with breathtaking beauty and accessible to me, I’m avid to explore it. For some strange reason the exhibition of Mongolian Buddhist art at Nice’s Musée de l’Art Asiatique kept slipping my mind. Perhaps because the venue’s a long-ish walk away through some insalubrious territory and I’m still resentfully nursing a post-‘flu. cough.  But no matter,  as the show was about to end I had to get going. So I did.

The Museum is an uncompromisingly contemporary structure of spare, economical design softened by the gentle curves of its circular form.  It stands

musee de l'art asiatique

Musee de l’Art Asiatique de Nice

surrounded by water in an enclave parsimoniously carved out of the botanical gardens.  Apparently spacious and light but nonetheless relatively compact, the building provides an ideal setting for moving around an exhibition with ease, enjoying the silence imposed by its  sturdy walls. A basement space serves for displaying more fragile, light-sensitive objects, such as parchments, prints and books. Inside, the permanent collection is predominantly Buddhist and – to a lesser extent – Hindu in theme. Outside the water laps at the decking around the ground floor.  Wildfowl are plentiful and varied – including, famously, a pair of pelicans.

Mongolian bodhisattva

Mongolian bodhisattva

The trip was definitely worth it. Not least for the relative reduction of my woeful ignorance. Buddhism, I learned,  arrived in Mongolia in 1247, when  Köden, brother of


Zanabazar (1635-1723), artist & Mongolia’s 1st lama

Güyük Khan, the military commander of Kokonur (now Qinghai), became a patron of the Tibetan Lama Sakya Pandita (head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism).  Adoption was rapid – at least among the highest echelons, for in 1260 Khubla Khan invited the head Lama of the Sakya sect, Pagspa, to the capital conferring upon him the title ‘Imperial Preceptor’. Throughout the Yuan dynasty the Sakya school enjoyed the patronage of the Mongol court.  This level of  investment explains how Buddhist art could flourish, enabling craftsmen to travel or be imported thereby allowing the sophisticated syncretic aesthetic of Indian Buddhism to serve as an important source of inspiration throughout the regions under the Yuan.

mongol monastery

Jetsun Dampa palace (19th cent. painting on cloth)

In the late 16th century the visit to Mongolia of the Third Dalai Lama resulted in the widespread diffusion of Buddhism in Mongolia, and Khökh Khot became the first Buddhist centre on Mongolian soil.


Erdene zuu monastery

The first Sakya-Pa Tibetan Buddhist monastery in what is now the Mongolian Republic was constructed on the site of Ghengis Khan’s former capital of Karakorum. Known by the name of Erdene zuu, it was built in 1585-86 by Abatai Setsen Khan of the Khalkha tribe. Later the complex was greatly extended and enclosed by massive walls. Today Erdene zuu is a World Heritage Site.

ErdeneZuuMonastery walls

walls at Erdene zuu monastery

Although Mongolian Buddhism tried to replace existing shamanistic practices, these continued among the nomads. And do to this day, largely because shamanism’s lack of hierarchy made it less vulnerable to persecution in the communist era. Perhaps fancifully, I’d also like to think that shamanism’s closeness to nature in all its forms combined with the fundamental equality of the sexes among practitioners also helped the ancient beliefs to prevail. For Mongolian nomad society is collaborative, and  females must possess skills and strength for a tribe to survive.

One image image among the contemporary photographs at the entrance to the exhibition struck me in particular. It shows a shaman in the Altai Mountains, a hunting eagle perched on his arm: man and beast in cautious harmony – a balance of powers.

As I sat outside after my extended tour, musing on what I’d seen and read and blissfully watching the peaceful, stately

pelicans patrolling their demesne, I wished I could go to Erdene zuu.  But a little of Erdene zuu came with me when I left, filling my mind’s eye with rich patterns picked out in every shade of red, bright green, vivid vermillion, glowing sapphire blue; bronzes of extraordinary workmanship; wooden carvings of an undreamed-of intricacy and – everywhere – the gleam of gold.  Such treasures! At least I got a chance to see some of them before they returned to where they belong.

And I’d enjoyed the pelicans’ stately circuits of the pool outside, interrupted only by occasional brief flurries of activity as they simultaneously dive for food, reemerging to resume their serene progress. A bit like being a Buddhist monk, it occurred to me frivolously, as I doggedly made my way back to the city centre. Those pelicans – très zen, as we say in these parts.  And who knows: maybe they were Mongolian Buddhist monks in a previous incarnation. How very fitting that would be for these silent patrollers of an edifice so much of which is dedicated to the art of their ancestors.

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  1. 15/11/2009 23:51

    That sounds like a fascinating exhibition, I would love to have seen it. I didn’t know all those facts about Buddhism either so thanks for enlightening me 🙂

  2. Minnie permalink
    16/11/2009 09:11

    Cherie: my pleasure – enlightening to all, one way or another. The two nice ladies on duty at the desk/shop laughingly confessed that they were still reeling after an onslaught of schoolkids. Lucky I missed those … but apparently the children loved it all (especially the fierce masks!).

  3. 18/11/2009 00:09

    What a wonderful post. Thank you!

  4. Minnie permalink
    18/11/2009 08:53

    Vanessa: now that’s praise indeed … thank YOU!

  5. 21/11/2009 13:10

    Thanks for taking us there.. I’m so glad you went along to the exhibition. I’ve always been intrigued by Buddhism, whilst not knowing much about it. Erdene Zuu sounds and looks incredible, and as for those pelicans – fabulous!

  6. Minnie permalink
    21/11/2009 13:43

    Karen: delighted you enjoyed it (+ pelicans), as it definitely exceeded my expectations. The two Buddhists I’ve known well – one a Sri Lankan scholar, the other an American devotee/student of Thai Buddhism – were among the calmest, most insightful and generous people I’ve met.
    Latest mad desire = to visit Erdene zuu on horseback!

  7. 22/11/2009 16:04

    Really interesting, and I do have a special fondness for pelicans although they’re confined to St James’s Park here in London.

  8. Minnie permalink
    22/11/2009 16:36

    Caroline: thank you. I’d forgotten all about those pelicans in St James’s – thanks for the reminder, as diverting mind-pix sorely needed at moment!

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