Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Provenance & Himalayan Art

Introduction to Himalayan Art

Subjects, Topics & Examples:
- Description (below)
- Pilgrimage & Tourist Art
- Turning a Blind Eye (Article)
- Temple Shop Art (with certain qualifications)
- Suspect Art (with certain qualifications)
- Fake Art
- Confusions
- Others...

- Pilgrimage Art: Overview
- Pilgrimage & Temple Shop Art
- Pilgrimage Art: Cityscapes
- Tibetan tourist thangkas in the Kathmandu Valley (Article Review)

Jeff Watt, 2-2024

Is cancel culture coming to Himalayan Studies? Remarks on a recent critique of the life and work of Mary Shepherd Slusser. La cancel culture arrive-t-elle dans les études himalayennes ? Remarques à propos de critiques récentes sur la vie et l’œuvre de Mary Shepherd Slusser. Charles Ramble. 61 | 2023.
Provenance & Himalayan Art

by Laura A. Weinstein, 2-March-2024

The three objects currently included in this set have been repatriated by the Rubin Museum of Art to Nepal. The Bhairava mask which is a large ritual object created for communal use during the Indrajatra festival (wherein the mask's open mouth is linked to an earthen pot filled with rice beer and Newar devotees drink from its mouth as a blessing from their ancestor god Hatha Dya, with whom Bhairava is closely associated) was reported to have been stolen on the 8th of March 1995. The two apsara reliefs in wood were architectural elements that appeared in in-situ photographs published in Mary Slusser's two volume series "Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley" Vol. 1-2. Princeton University Press, 1982. As both dates of removal from Nepal precede the 1972 UNESCO agreement and the Nepalese patrimony law of 1956 they are considered illegally removed from their country of origin. See the Rubin Museum of Art's statement on the Bhairava mask here: "Bhairava_Press_Release"

However, provenance is a particularly complicated subject when it comes to portable artworks originating in the Himalayan regions, particularly sculpture, as many were created as personal, devotional objects and tokens of pilgrimage while others were commissioned by a temple and thus produced for ritual efficacy and collective ownership by a distinct group of people or for ritual or decorative use within a particular site. Buddhist artwork from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Tibet, and China have all produced the aforementioned forms of art, which have been passing across modern-day borders for commercial and non-commercial purposes since the 1st century at the very least. Consider the ivory Yakshi found at Pompei as an example (recently on display in the Met's "Tree and Serpent" exhibition), which typically resides in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples: see the sculpture here

Northern/Northeastern India, Nepal and Tibet/China are, perhaps, the most significant modern-day countries pertinent to this discussion on the issue of provenance among Himalayan art/artifacts. Newars, the indigenous society of the Kathmandu valley (not a race, ethnicity, or class) have been itinerant artists since the end of the Gupta period, during which Nepal was closely intertwined with Northern India.

Pawo Tsuglag Trengwa, a Tibetan historian and Kagyu lama from the sixteenth century, praised Newar artists as the makers of metal artworks highly valued by the emperors of the Yarlung dynasty from the 6th to 8th centuries. And, of course, Princess Bhrikuti Devi of the Licchavi dynasty was the primary consort and queen of the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo (605?–650 CE), and is credited with bringing the great Phakpa Lokeshvara sculpture to Tibet, which still resides in the Jokhang. The Jokhang in Lhasa is considered one of the holiest temples across Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The temple was constructed in the 7th century by Songtsen Gampo. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and continues to attract pilgrims and tourists from around the world.

With the flourishing of Buddhist Tantra/the Vajrayana tradition around the same time in Northeastern India, particularly around the great Mahayana learning centers of Vikramshala and Nalanda (both in modern-day Bihar), Newar artists began to work there alongside Indian and Kashmiri artists, as exemplified by the Nalanda manuscript in the Asia Society Museum collection, which will be in the Met’s 2025 exhibition on the art of Nepal and Tibet.

Thereafter, Newars were strategically positioned to control trade routes for caravans crossing the Indo-Tibetan frontier. To engage in trade in Tibet, Newar families would send members to cities like Lhasa, Shigatse, and Gyantse, where they would live for extended periods and, naturally, intermarry with local Tibetans. Historical records credit the Newar artist "Manibhadra" as the chief sculptor who created the first of eighteen commemorative chörten at Densatil Monastery, which was established on the modest meditation site of the revered lama Phagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo by his closest followers. For English reference, see this article by Todd T. Lewis History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Nov., 1993), pp. 135-160 (26 pages), Newar-Tibetan Trade and the Domestication of ‘Siṃhalasārthabāhu Avadāna, which is a great read touching on this topic, although it includes much more above the specific Avadana referenced in the title.

By the thirteenth century, Newar artistic influence had spread throughout Tibet, including at Sakya Monastery, where the main sutra hall contains some of the largest surviving examples of Early-Malla sculpture. Another renowned Newar artist, Anige, is known for constructing an impressive torana at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. Anige's reputation reached as far as Beijing, where Chogyal Phakpa (b.1235 – d.1280)—the imperial preceptor to Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan—invited him to lead their royal sculpture workshop. The renowned Newar artist is memorialized in a sculptural portrait at the Miaoying Temple in Beijing which can be seen today.

As a result of this complicated history, after the 13th century the line between what is “Nepalese” and what is “Tibetan” when it comes to སྐུ་ or sculptural images of deities—which are ritual objects, not “art” in the Western sense— is extremely blurred in they eyes of nonexperts. However, iconographic differences can be easily discerned by those well-versed in these complex subjects. A crowned Buddha Shakyamuni, for instance, would hardly ever have been commissioned for a distincly-Tibetan setting or created by a Newar artist for a Tibetan. This is one small but accurate piece of insight into this centuries-long issue which is now pervading click-bait media generated by those who see things in black and white due to lack of expertise. A lawyer who is deeply entrenched in these efforts to repatriate Nepalese objects, recently misidentified a distinctly-Kashmiri bronze figure in the Seattle Museum of Art as Nepalese. This posting on X (formerly known as 'Twitter') has since been removed.

Tibet, for instance, should be firmly distinguished from modern-day Nepal and some of these attempts at repatriation can be extremely harmful to the cause of Tibet, as many main-stream media outlets have provided platforms to people who refer to Himalayan art with no mention of distinct countries within the realm. This is extremely problematic. Tibetans traveled by foot to escape the cultural revolution with their possessions in hand and many of those are objects that have been sold to art dealers out of necessity; for survival. Many wanted to save things as dynamite was being used all over Tibet to destroy temples, monasteries, and hermitages during the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution in China, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, Tibetan monasteries were extensively damaged and destroyed. This period was characterized by Mao Zedong's campaign to eliminate the "Four Olds" (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas) and to enforce ideological purity and loyalty to the Communist Party. As part of this campaign, many religious sites, including Tibetan monasteries, were targeted for destruction or repurposing, and monks and nuns were subjected to persecution and forced labor.

Nonetheless, Tibet is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region and part of China. The United States has a Memorandum of Understanding with China which supersedes the UNESCO agreement. The details of this MOU can be found here. While the MOU focuses on pre-Tang period artifacts and large artifacts that exceed 200 years old, there is a strong argument against abiding by this MOU when it comes to Tibetan cultural heritage, which was intentionally destroyed by China itself, as mentioned above. Nonetheless, this is rule of law in the United States. Moreover, a recent conference in Munich, Germany revealed that the Palace Museum (and therefore, the PRC) will be revealing documentation surrounding artifacts which left China surrounding the Boxer Rebellion. It is unclear what affect this will have on Tibetan artifacts, but Sino-Tibetan artifacts such as Ming- and Qianlong-period Tantric Buddhist figures and textiles will almost certainly be affected by this promised participation. You can see the details of the "Traces of the ‘Boxer War’ in German Museum Collections– A Joint Approach conference and workshop" which took place on the 22-23 of February and 2-3 of March 2024 through the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin website.

In Nepal, however, there is a 1956 internal patrimony law, but many argue that this was not internally enforced so the only possibility of a claim being made is if there is an in-situ photograph of the object after this date; while the United States and other countries are not required to abide by foreign laws, they should abide by the *UNESCO convention if that country has ratified the agreement as the United States and many other countries have. However, in addition to potential claims by foreign governments, other U.S.-based government entities-such as the United States Department of Justice or the New York District Attorney's Office ("DANY") have established new precedents that have had a massive affect on global perspectives on repatriation. DANY has essentially established legal precedent to abide by external patrimony laws, and to seize and repatriate Nepalese objects on the grounds that they were unlawfully taken from their countries of origin despite those laws not being enforced within the countries of origin. The people writing on these topics also deprive the Nepalese and Tibetan agents involved in corruption and in some cases fully-willful albeit technically illegal in Nepal (where a patrimony law was in place by 1962) selling of these objects of cultural property by shifting the blame entirely on outsiders and scholars such as Mary Slusser, as referenced in the Charles Ramble article provided above, on this page. Where legal issues are not present, bad PR is a looming issue for museums due to this waterfall of events.

Bangladesh is also a particularly interesting case. There is currently no interest in making claims on cultural heritage and much of the material originating in this region related to Vajrayana and Hindu art (Himalayan art) originated in the Pala period (9th-12th century) of Indian history (this includes Bangladesh, the modern Indian state of Bengal, and the modern Indian state of Bihar). It is critical to note that many objects that originated in Bangladesh have been reattributed to Northeastern Indian states based on socio-political factors and the fact that Bangladesh is 90% Muslim and has no interest in these artifacts. Both Buddhist and Hindu subjects in both stone and bronze sculptures were in danger of complete destruction by 1971 when the partition between India and Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, occurred. During the partition of India in 1947, many people were displaced and migrated between India and Pakistan due to religious violence and political instability. Hindus and Sikhs living in what became Pakistan migrated to India, while Muslims living in India migrated to Pakistan. The exact number of people who were forced to migrate or chose to move is not precisely known but is estimated to be in the millions. As both Pakistan and Bangaldesh became distinctly Islamic domains, icons were destroyed. People like Dr. David Nalin can be credited with salvaging things at this time, as he was there developing and teaching doctors how to administer oral rehydration therapy to cure millions of cholera. His name, too, is being sullied by those who don't understand the great impact he has on saving artifacts that would have otherwise been obliterated. Nearly all of his collection has been given to museums.

India must also be addressed here, as the DANY has made India a point of focus since the case of Subhash Kapoor surfaced (he should not be confused with Kapoor Galleries, Inc., as they are distinct and separate entities and always have been). Moreover, the countries themselves are clamoring at all possibilities to reclaim things given the fact that new legal precedents have been established by the United States Department of Justice through DANY, whereby objects are being repatriated on the grounds that the country of origin can fulfill a burden of proof by providing a dated, in-situ photograph or archaeological survey that post-dates the internal patrimony law of that country of origin. In the case of India, photographs from the Indo-French Institute Pondicherry (IFP) are being utilized as much as possible, although the archive which was once accessible online is no longer accessible and researchers who have interest must contact them directly about specific objects or travel to Pondicherry to gain access to the archive itself. This has less of an impact on Himalayan artifacts, but a massive impact on South Indian bronzes.

To conclude, the United States, the majority of museums aim to become part of American Alliance of Museums which does encourage its members to adhere to ethical standards and best practices related to the acquisition and stewardship of cultural property, which are in line with the principles of the *UNESCO Convention. It is not, however, an explicit requirement for membership. Many museums are just beginning to conduct provenance research on Himalayan artworks, as it has become a hot media topic due to the interest of young Nepalese activists and American and European lawyers who are eager to repatriate as much as possible. However, the conversation has become about "Himalayan art" in general, which is incredibly problematic. We cannot forget about the Cultural Revolution and the fact that millions of Tibetans live in exile. We cannot ignore the fact that Nepal is a separate country that historically produced tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of artworks for Tibetan patrons. We must distinguish Northeastern Indian and Kashmiri artworks from Tibetan ones, as well and that requires the work of art historians dedicated to this particular field. As previously stated, all those involved must strive to distinguish between personal, devotional objects and tokens of pilgrimage versus those commissioned for collective ownership or for a particular site (architectural fragments, for instance). Art has always moved and will continue to move, justifiably so in many cases related to the antiquities born in the Himalayas.

*The UNESCO “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Paris, 14 November 1970” is an international treaty to combat the illegal trade in cultural property, particularly artifacts. It was signed on 14 November 1970 and came into effect on 24 April 1972.

Laura A. Weinstein, 2-March-2024, updated 5-March