The South Asia collections at the Victoria and Albert hold some 60,000 objects including textiles, paintings, sculptures, and ceramics; it ranges from items as small as plugs for pierced ears to full size statues of Buddhist deities. We spent so much time in the Jameel (Islamic) and Nehru (South Asia – Sub-Continent) Rooms that there was no opportunity to see the Himalayan galleries next door. However as we walked down the corridor we did catch glimpses of some remarkable works of South East Asian art from Nepal and Sri Lanka.
This copper ritual crown set with imitation stones was crafted by an unknown artist in Nepal and the inscription dates it to Nepal Samvat 797 or 1677 CE. It would have been worn by a hereditary Vajracharya priest of the Kathmandu Valley. Originally an order of celibate Buddhists that vow was forsaken by Nepalese adherents to the tenets of Vajrayana in the 13th century.
The priests command the highest caste in the Newar Buddhist communities of the Kathmandu Valley. They are highly revered as teachers and upholders of Vajrayana, one of the three major branches of Buddhism. The sect takes its name from the ritual Vajra (above right) which traces its origins to Indra, the Hindu deity of rain and thunder. For Buddhists the Vajra symbolizes the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force), and figures as a ritual tool in many ceremonies.
This ceremonial ladle dates from the 1700s and was created by an unknown artist in Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. From 1592 until 1815 the Kingdom survived attempts by first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British to conquer and colonize the area. In 1815 the nobility overthrew their King and recognized George III as their ruler and came under British “protection”.
The ladle was for sacrificial use. The silver bowl is in the shape of a coconut with chased ornamentation. The carved ivory handle bears the figure of a deity (?) or priest (?) and is partially encrusted with jewels and gold inlay.
There was a long tradition, dating back to the 7th century, of Newar craftsmen from the Kathmandu Valley working for wealthy Tibetan patrons and this Avalokitesvara from the 14th century is a stunning example of that work – again by an unknown artist.
Cast in copper, gilded and bejewelled it represents the Bodhisattvas in his popular manifestation as Padmapani or Lotus Bearer. Padmapani is one of the enlightened beings who voluntarily postponed passing into nirvana in order to help others gain salvation. His right hand is in the lowered gesture of granting wishes and his left is cast to hold the stem of a lotus or padma – perhaps a living flower or a missing gilded representation.
The stillness and serenity of the figure speaks to the state of harmony which the Boddhisattva aspires to achieve. The sensuous contrapposto of his sleek, androgynous body indicates his ties to the human world.
Displayed opposite Avalokitesvara the goddess Sitatara (the White Tara) was widely worshipped in Nepal and Tibet. She can be seen as the female manifestation of the Padmapani.
Painted and gilded copper, and set with semi-precious stones, turquoise, imitation rubies and lapis lazuli the figure dates to the 14th century. Once again it is the work of an unknown Nepalese artist, created for Tibetan worshippers.
Looking back over these photos and doing a bit of research on the V&A site I once again became aware of the vast amount of art there is to see in that one gallery alone. It may necessitate another trip to London in an effort to see more of the treasures. Sigh – what we do for art!
On this day in 1930: After the mysterious death of Empress Zewditu, Haile Selassie is proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia.