Nirvana with pelicans
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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