None of the artists painted the mountains like my father. His Himalayas radiate the incomparable wealth of …untold greatness and high ideas, which are the symbol of the word “the Himalayas’. He really deserves the title of The Master of the Mountains’,” Svetoslav Roerich had said of his father Nicholas Roerich. While Svetoslav was a painter of great talent himself, it is his father Nicholas, the Russian painter-philosopher, who can unequivocally be called The Master of the Mountains. In ways that may be difficult to imagine for most of us today.
For it is in the mountains that he appears to have found what he sought — peace, beauty, light, transcendence. Though highly regarded as an esoteric thinker-artist of his time, Nicholas Roerich remains an enigma nearly seven decades after his passing. It’s almost as if he had been personifying the Latin maxim occultus sed invaderet — hidden in plain sight.
Born Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich in St Petersburg, Russia, on 9 October, 1874, he was raised in the comfortable environment of an upper middle class Russian family with its advantages of contact with the writers, artists and scientists who often visited the Roerichs. Tracing his ancestry to Riga (present-day Latvia), Roerich looked back upon his Balto-Slavic roots with great affection.“Latvia has always been close (to me) because of its folk legends, and my ancestry,” he had said.
Hinting at the Scandinavian origins of Roerich, the Russian modernist writer Aleksey Remizov wrote: “From the Varangian Sea, after so many centuries once more arrived in Russia, at this time no more as Rurik, how he was dignified in Novgorod, but (as) Roerich. And as once he builds his stone city. Remembered like a dream and told about seas where he navigated with his squadron of soldiers, about giants, about a snake, about the rigorous angel and about how Russia was built…”
At a time when Russia was being slowly pulled apart, Roerich found himself gravitating towards the East. It was when the Bolsheviks had scored a victory in the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). Just after the February Revolution of 1917, Roerich tried to take an active part in politics of art — by demanding protection of art from vandalism and desecration in Moscow and St Petersburg. But within months, he was disillusioned with the goals of the Communists. Roerich’s antipathy to Soviet-style Communism was based on his fears that the Marxist-Leninist doctrine would thoroughly destroy and distort Russian traditions. This, sadly, proved prophetic.
In December 1923, the Roerich family (wife Helena and sons George and Svetoslav) reached India and set off on their landmark Central Asian expedition from Darjeeling, present-day West Bengal. This journey of exploration would take them into Chinese Turkestan, Altai, Mongolia and Tibet. It was an expedition into uncharted regions to study the religions, languages, customs, and culture of the inhabitants.
A New York Times (NYT) report on the expedition, in its Mid-Week Pictorial, dated 4 February 1926, read, “For the first time in history, an explorer into the terrible passes of Central Asia has had as his weapons an easel and brush instead of the implements of a hunter or scientist. Professor Roerich, the world-renowned artist, who is now on an art expedition into Central Asia, has just crossed the passes of Karakorum, Sasser and Kardong (Khardung La), perhaps the most formidable passes in the world.”
Impressively, Roerich had ventured into the frozen barrenness of the Himalayas at a time when even its most formidable denizens prefer to hibernate. The NYT article aptly described the difficulties of terrain and weather that would have been unsurmountable for most others. “Anxiety has been felt over the expedition in view of the fact that these passes are the most difficult in the world, each being higher than Mont Blanc, and beecause the weather this season has been unprecedentedly severe. The present route of the caravan is considered the most unfamiliar in the world. The three passes are each more than 18,000 feet in height. Although Karakorum is the highest, being 18,209 feet, the Sasser Pass is the more difficult, due to the glaciers which are full of deep crevasses so dangerous to traverse. Owing to lack of supply bases, also, the caravan has been compelled to take food and forage for a year,” the NYT reported.
The expedition led by the master-painter was one of the largest assembled at the time, consisting of about 100 pack horses and riding mounts, 16 mules, 16 yaks and including mountain rams. There was also a staff of about 60 ‘natives’, consisting of Tibetans, Kirghiz, Ladakhis and others.
WHICH BEGS the question: What was Nicholas Roerich (accompanied by close friends and family) exploring or looking for, in the dead of winter, in the highest, most treacherous mountains of the world, for almost five long years, from 1923 to 1928?
The website of the New York-based Nicholas Roerich Museum might have a clue. Elaborating on the perils of the expedition, the website mentions, “Roerich tells us that 35 mountain passes from 14,000 feet to 21,000 feet in elevation were crossed. But these were challenges he felt born for, believing that the rigour of the mountains helped a man to find courage and develop strength of spirit. Roerich’s Banners of the East series of 19 paintings depicting the world’s religious teachers… was a testimonial to the unity of religious striving and the common roots of man’s faith… Eastern religious figures and concepts appear in the paintings, important among these being the images of the Lord Maitreya — the Buddhist Messiah, the Kalki-Avatar of the Puranas, Rigden Jyepo of Mongolia or the White Burkhan of Altai — all of whom are described in legends that link them with the Ruler of Shambhala, who is ‘destined to appear on earth for the final destruction of the wicked, the renovation of creation and the restoration of purity.”
Staying close to its determined course, the Roerich Art Expedition sent to New York more than 150 paintings, covering an entire panorama of the East and including paintings of some of its most sacred legends. The expedition also gathered one of the most remarkable collections of Tibetan sacred banner paintings from the monasteries.
WHEN THE expedition ended in 1928, the Roerichs settled down in a Himalayan hamlet named Naggar, in the valley that lies at the end of the habitable world — Kulantapeetha (present-day Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh). There they spent the last years of their lives in a modest home of wood and stone, and near a museum of several rare artefacts — the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute and Museum.
In Naggar, Nicholas Roerich’s vision of the Urusvati (the ‘morning star’), crystallised, in his own words, thus: “The ‘Urusvati’ place of research, place of science, must be built in the Himalayas, within the borders of ancient Aryavarta. Again the human spirit, purified by the continuous currents of the Himalayas, will search in tireless labour, the unique conditions of the heights, the unique luminescence of the planetary bodies and their astrochemical rays, radioactivity, and inexpressible treasures are preserved only in the Himalayas.”
It was in Roerich House — his Naggar home — that Roerich welcomed two
future prime ministers of India — Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The latter recalled her meeting with the Roerichs, saying: “In 1942, me and my father spent a few days with the Roerich family. It was a memorable visit to a gifted, wonderful family where each of the members was a remarkable personality. I remember Nicholas Roerich especially well, a man of the most extensive knowledge and vast life experience who looked deeply inside everything he contemplated. A man of few words, he radiated discreet power that seemed to fill all the space around him.”
IN THE surreal environs of the Urusvati Museum, there are several outstanding pieces of personal memorabilia and resplendent paintings that leave tourists speechless. One such artefact is a framed print with these cryptic lines written on it: “In the foothills of the Himalayas are many caves and it is said that from these caves, subterranean passages proceed far below Kanchenjunga. The deep passages proceed to the splendid valley.”
Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, Kalachakra Tantra, interested Roerich deeply, to the extent of fuelling speculation that Roerich’s Central Asian Art Expedition was, in fact, only a ruse for a closely-guarded search for Shambhala or Shangri-La, that land of magic and mysteries which has eluded countless more souls than it may have revealed itself to.
Roerich is reported to have first learnt about the Kalachakra Tantra from one Agvan Dorjiev in St Petersburg. Later, in Darjeeling, he met the Lama Ngawang Kalzang, well-versed in Kalachakra Tantra or the ‘time teachings’.
THE BANNER of Peace was a distinctive flag designed by Nicholas Roerich. It consists of three red spheres surrounded by a red circle. Its most famous depiction was in his painting Madonna Oriflamma with Banner of Peace (left). The banner symbolised religion, art and science encompassed by the circle of culture, and the past, present and future achievements of humanity guarded within the circle of eternity.
“I was asked to collect information (about the) Banner of Peace. It turned out that the symbol of the Holy Trinity has been scattered all over the world. The ‘Three Treasures’ of Tibet talk about the same thing. One can see the same symbol on Christ’s chest in the renowned painting by Memling. The same has been depicted on The Madonna of Strasbourg. It is on the shields of the crusaders and the coat of arms of the Templars. The famous Caucasian swords — the gurdaa — bear the same symbol. It is on the images of Kesar-Khan and Rigden-Dzhapo. It also is on Tamerlan’s Tamgaa. It existed on the Pope’s emblem. It is on the image of Holy Trinity. It is on the coat of arms of Samarkand. It is on ancient Ethiopian and Coptic antiquities. It is on Mongolian rocks. It is on Tibetan rings. The steed of happiness on the Himalayan Mountain passes bears the same flaming sign. It is on all the brooches of Lahuli, Ladakhi and Himalayan Mountains. It is on Buddhist banners. And that is why the symbol was chosen for the all-uniting Banner as the symbol that has passed through centuries, more exactly, millennia.”
Nicholas Roerich, 24 May 1939
“Kalachakra,” Roerich wrote, “is the doctrine which is attributed to the numerous rulers of Shambhala. But in reality this doctrine is the great revelation brought to humankind, by the lords of fire, the sons of reason who are and were the lords of Shambhala” (Schule der Lebensweisheit, 1990, pp. 79, 81).
The life’s work of Roerich culminated in the signing of the Roerich Pact on 15 April 1935 in the White House in Washington in the presence of the then president Franklin D Roosevelt and members of the Pan-American Union.
The current year marks the 80th anniversary of the Roerich Pact, which declared the need to protect of cultural artefacts and activity in the world — during both war and peace — and prescribed the method by which all sites of cultural value would be declared neutral and protected, just as the Red Cross does with hospitals. Indeed, the Roerich Pact is often called the Red Cross of Culture.
The Master of the Mountains’ admirer-followers extended far beyond politicians and included writers like HP Lovecraft, who wrote to his friend James F Morton that “there is something in his (Roerich’s) handling of perspective and atmosphere which to me suggests other dimensions and alien orders of being — or at least, the gateways to such.” Lovecraft’s iconic work At the Mountains of Madness was said to have been influenced by Roerich’s renderings of Tibet’s glacial precipices.
Roerich breathed his last on 13 December 1947 in Naggar, where he was cremated. His ashes — in keeping with his will — were scattered on the slopes of the mountains he loved so much. The Master found, at last, a spot under the Himalayan morning star.