Nicolas Roerich, Mongol Tsam, 1928

- through Francois Leclercq

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Mongolian tsam by Nicholas Roerich, 1928. Painting, 90 x 143,5 centimeters. Taken from

Buddhism and Buddhist rituals, established in Mongolia for nearly 200 years, were wiped out by a Russian regime that ruled from 1921 to 1970. While Mongolia acquired a Western-style opera and ballet company through the Russia, their indigenous Buddhist tradition was decimated. and never fully recovered.

However, several international explorer-ethnographers and artists have produced remarkable visual documentation of Mongolian Buddhist monasteries. tsam (the Mongolian variant of the Tibetan word cham), among whom: the Russian Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), the Swede Sven Hedin (1885-1952), the German Werner Forman (1922-2010) and the Mongolian painter Urjingiin Yadamsuren (1905-1987). After 1930 in Mongolia, tsam was never again performed as an unbroken initiated tradition in the region of Urga – the traditional and historical name of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia – where Roerich lived for six months from September 1926 to April 1927. As a Russian, Roerich had the freedom to travel to Mongolia in the 1920s, to witness this great dance ritual that was once common in Tibet, Mongolia and Buryatia.

Roerich was an artist, archaeologist, lawyer, wisdom-seeking theosophist, and advocate of Russian Symbolist art, a movement imbued with spiritual intent and mystical implication. Roerich was interested in the same things as Freud and Rasputin: hypnosis, seance, altered states and trance. In his time, Roerich was a fierce protector of culture, especially during and after the war. He was a defender of culture. Today, Roerich is best known as an artist, whose paintings transcended their origin and era to become radiant examples of an individual painting style that captured moments of mysticism and beauty throughout the Roerich's spiritual journeys through the Himalayas and beyond. His work continues to speak to new generations through its unique style, content and intention.

Theosophists and others of Roerich's generation were criticized for their excessive romanticism and idealization of Asian spiritual traditions. These are just petty criticisms of what was, in some cases, the driving force behind these extraordinary individuals, who left excellent records for the world. There are indeed wise masters of ancient traditions in Asia. In fact, there are a lot of wise teachers on the cliffs – this is not an invented trope; I can share a number of stories of meeting spiritual teachers on cliffs. One day I will.

These cheap clichés of modern critics who cannot understand the kind of experiences people like Roerich had, attack the character and intentions of the cultural pioneers and become, rightly, outdated: they do not capture the humanity and do not serve as lenses through which to understand history. behavior. Roerich was interested in initiated mystery traditions, whether Egyptian, Tibetan or ancient Greek. Indeed, he identified and located some of these traditions during his travels, learning that Tantric Buddhism is absolutely based on initiated transmission and secret mysteries. Roerich's relevance has already outlived his critics.

Roerich aspired to express this sacredness in his art, not to exhibit it, reveal it, explain it, define it, or use it to advance an academic career. It shows the massive fabric installed on wooden structures to defy the landscape and the weather; his painting shows the elaborate mandala drawn on the ground, guiding the ritual. His painting shows dancers with the utmost seriousness and concentration, animating the entire inter-dimensional experience, which at that time included advanced mystical visualizations while collectively performing dances.

Roerich painted the mysterious rituals of the initiates, not their explanation. This is not at all a fanciful connection he has established between ancient, mysterious practices. Contemporary research in China since the 1980s has shown that many existing exorcist practices, including Tibetan Buddhism chamderive from very ancient rituals of blessing for long life and well-being, understood as a subject called Wu Nuo: exorcism by dancing masked shaman. In fact, Roerich's intuitions were correct. He was right: this Mongol tsam was indeed an example of an ancient, mysterious rite for initiates. He is the only person on earth known to have recorded this dance ritual.

The painting Mongolian tsam was created in Darjeeling in 1928. It was painted from memory and from sketches. THE thanks in the painting are probably not by Roerich but by a Tibetan monk please painter. This clearly indicates that Buddhist monks supported his work and even participated in it. Without Roerich's painting, there would be no trace of this dance, nor of this uniquely nomadic Mongolian way of staging the dances – in large spaces and with temporary scaffolding to support enormous embroidered icons.

The main Tibetan Buddhist deities of longevity and long life are represented in this religious dance rite: Amitayus, the Buddha of eternal life; White Tara, a maternal female deity, and Usnisavijaya, the many-armed protective deity to the right of the main Buddha. An endless row of monks is subtly outlined at the base of the embroidery. The observers appear in the shadows, wearing traditional clothing. Initiated dancing monks encircle the active meditation field of the detailed and colorful mandala on the ground.

At present, it is unclear where the painting is located. In 2017, he was in the custody of Russian police in connection with a money laundering case. I saw the painting in Ulaanbaatar in 2012. It's amazing and beautiful, and it's the only connection we have as to how tsam was formerly played in old Ourga.

Album cover Neutral by composer Gabriella Roth, with a painting by Nicholas Roerich. From
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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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