Introductory Note: Carroll Dunham, a medical anthropologist from Princeton University, lives in Nepal with her photographer husband Thomas Kelly. Both lead National Geographic tours to various sites in Asia. Whenever they bring groups to Mongolia, they try and bring them to our Roerich House as part of their itinerary.
One of their groups included the renowned Buddhist author Keith Dowman (“Flight of the Garuda,” “Old Man Basking in the Sun,” “Buddha’s Lions,” etc Tom and Carroll graciously assisted us in organizing a lecture for Keith at Roerich House.
Carroll also accepted our invitation to contribute an essay for our blog, “The Roerich Mongolia Monthly.”
-– Glenn Mullin, Blog Editor
The Roerich House Museum in Ulaanbaatar is a welcome Shambhala, a hidden treasure. It has an air of mystery surrounding it, and I think this would have made Roerich himself very happy. The pursuit of refinement and beauty was sacred for Roerich. This vision lives on in at the museum; for it is a place brimming with creative potential and possibility. For visitors to Mongolia’s emerging capital city of Ulaanbaatar, as well as for short and long term residents, it offers a wonderful introduction to Nicholas Roerich and his artistic and spiritual adventures with Mongolia and the Mongols.
The museum itself houses several dozen excellent oil copies and prints of Roerich masterpieces associated with his “Altai Himalaya vision.” In addition, the attached “Shambhala Café and Art Institute” offer a cultured refuge in the heart of the city, both exciting and educational. I came with a group of a dozen friends, fresh from the busy streets of Ulaanbaatar. The tranquility and beauty of the Roerich House was a welcome relief from the hectic urban pace.
It has been fun watching the Roerich House develop. Two years ago the house was a ruins that was scheduled for demolition, and the property around it a garbage dump for local residents. Then the work of restoration began.
On my second visit, I beheld numerous dedicated workers and volunteers sawing and pounding nails, bringing a condemned building back to life.
On my next visit, I was delighted to see that the basic structure of the house had been restored, and the inner walls finished and adorned with prints and paintings.
Something like sixty Mongolian artists from across the country had created pieces to be shown at the opening. The vibrant colors and evocative spiritual treatment of landscape evoked the ethos of Roerich himself, and demonstrated how the spirit of Roerich’s Pax Cultura is alive and well in Mongolian artists today. The museum and its café/gallery are ideal for hosting events for group lectures, or talks. On one of my visits I had the pleasure of helping organize a lecture and public blessing by the great Mongolian female mystic Green Tara of Hovst Province in southwest Mongolia. Later I had the pleasure of including her in a film I produced for National Geographic, with Wade Davis as the host of the program. On the next, I had the honor of helping bring Keith Dowman to the Institute for a lecture. I was delighted that both events were met with full houses.
Daniel Entin, the director of the Roerich Museum in New York, once wrote, “Roerich devoted himself to the search for the seed of good on the earth. He wanted to learn how this seed can be made to flourish, how it can be used to solve humanity’s vast array of problems in order to reach the goal of peace and planetary harmony. This search took him to many parts of the world, but the heart of Asia was for him the true source, the field in which this seed of good could be found.”
Daniel continued, “Roerich’s special interest was Shambhala. To some Western writers Shambhala is a heavenly paradise, but to Roerich it was the heart of the planet, the place to which we owe our existence, our spiritual survival, and our knowledge. He saw the search for Shambhala as the search for the solution to the problems of existence, for the vanquishing of obstacles, and for the discovery of the great freedom that lies beyond difficulty, tragedy, and destruction. “
Much of this is evident in Roerich’s extraordinary prolific work of art, as well as in his incredible life story. The Spanish artist Zuloaga said,” In the creative art of Roerich, I see that which I have always felt…. Roerich was great artist, great worker. His creations express proud and lofty sentiments.”
Boris Grigorief wrote, ” Roerich’s name is on the lips of the entire world. I am proud when I think that he is so able to arouse the human soul to such a profound extent.”
Nicholas Roerich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1874. When he was nine, a noted archeologist came to conduct explorations in the region and took young Roerich on his excavations. The adventure of unveiling the mysteries of forgotten eras with his own hands sparked an interest in archeology that would last his lifetime.
In 1895 Roerich met the prominent writer, critic, and historian Vladimir Stasov. Through him Roerich was introduced to many of the composers and artists of his time: Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and the basso Fyodor Chaliapin. At concerts at the Court Conservatory he heard the works of Glazunov, Liadov, Arensky, Wagner, Scriabin, and Prokofiev for the first time, and an avid enthusiasm for music was developed. Wagner in particular appealed to him, and during his early career, whene he was frequently hired to design stage sets for operas and ballets, he created designs for Wagner’s operas.
Musical terms and analogies can be applied to Roerich’s painting. He frequently related music to the use of color and color harmonies, and applied this sense to his designs for opera. As Nina Selivanova wrote in her book, The World of Roerich: “The original force of Roerich’s work consists in a masterly and marked symmetry and a definite rhythm, like the melody of an epic song.”
Roerich met Helena, daughter of the architect Shaposhnikov and niece of the composer Mussorgsky They were soon engaged to be married. Helena was an unusually gifted woman and a talented pianist. Later in life she authored many books. One of these, The Foundations of Buddhism, was penned while she was living with Nicholas and their son George in Ulaanbaatar during 1926 and 1927. Amazingly, it was published in Russian in Ulaanbaatar in the spring of 1927. (Of note, Daniel Entin, director of the Roerich Museum in NY, donated an original edition of this book to Prof Bira, when Bira visited NY in early 2011. Moreover, our friend Don Croner published an English edition of the book for our Roerich House Mongolia opening, in June of 2009.)
As head of the School of the Society for the Encouragement of Art, Roerich instituted a system of training in art that seems revolutionary even by today’s standards: to teach all the arts under one roof, from painting, music, and dance, to theater and the so-called “industrial arts”, such as ceramics, painting on porcelain, pottery, and mechanical drawing.
The cross-fertilization of the arts that Roerich promoted was evidence of his inclination to harmonize, bring together, and find correspondences between apparent conflicts or opposites in all areas of life. This was a hallmark of his thinking, and one sees it demonstrated in all the disciplines he explored. He constantly sought to break down compartmentalization. (It was this talent for synthesis, which enabled him to correlate the subjective with the objective, the philosophical with the scientific, Eastern wisdom with Western knowledge, building bridges of understanding between such apparent contradictions.
As Garabed Paelian affirms in his book Nicholas Roerich, “Roerich learned things ignored by other men, perceived relations between seemingly isolated phenomena, and unconsciously felt the presence of an unknown treasure.”
Perhaps it is this “unknown treasure” that in Roerich’s paintings speaks to the viewer who is attuned to that underlying meaning, and further explains the transcendental feelings that some experience through his canvases.
Thus begins Roerich’s chapter in Altai Himalaya, on his time in Mongolia. He writes of the Lewis machine gun everyone is amused at that resides in the dining room (now a viewing room in the museum.) “Let them know we have enough arms!” he writes.
His writings indicate his journey’s focus was artistic and spiritual, as well as a search for a formula for world peace. He travelled from India on a caravan adventure of incredible physical arduousness with his wife and elder son George. Roerich tells us that the expedition had to cross thirty-five mountain passes from fourteen to twenty-one thousand feet in elevation during the journey, one example of the strenuous nature of the undertaking.
Roerich believed that the rigor of the mountains helps a person find courage and strength of spirit. And in spite of any obstacles they met, the Roerichs’ belief in the essential goodness of life and the spirituality of man was reinforced wherever they went.
Roerich and Shambhala
He wrote, “Some of the Mongolian lamas know a great deal. Whenever we asked them questions, their answers showed deep knowledge. But then, it is not so easy to win their confidence in spiritual matters. All places in Mongolia are enveloped in legend.”
He describes his time in Mongolia, traveling down through the Gobi to Tibet, encountering bandits. He writes: “Limitless seems the Central Gobi. White-pink-blue- and slaty black. The gales bury the flat slopes with layers of stones. None must not be caught in this stony gale. The danger of the Gobi is that wells may have dried. Sometimes the mouths of the wells are filled with fallen animals. Again, it is necessary to don Mongolian kaftans. Precautions are necessary. We approach the city of the notorious robber Ja Lama on camels and hasten across the broad, swift stream.
Tibetans tell Roerich about the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1904, when the Dalai Lama escaped the British invasion of Lhasa and went for safety to Mongolia. According to the stories, when the group reached the Changtang crossing, the men and horses felt a severe tremor. The Dalai Lama explained to them they were at the hallowed border of Shambhala.
Roerich shows the Mongols books on New York, “They whisper: “It is the attainment of Shambhala!”
A devastating torrent sweeps down a canyon and destroys their camp before they see a remarkable black eagle flying above them.
“Seven of us began watching this unusual bird. At this same moment another of our caravaneers remarked, “There is something far above the bird.” And he shouted in his astonishment.”
Roerich continues, “We all saw, in a direction from north to south, something big and shiny, reflecting the sun, like a huge oval moving at great speed. Crossing our camp this thing changed its direction from south to southwest. And we saw how it disappeared in the intense blue sky. “
Many years later this extraordinary experience led to rumors of “Roerich UFO spotting.” In fact, something of a legend of Roerich and UFOs emerged over the decades.
At the end of their 1925-1928 expedition through the various Mongolian kingdoms, and also Tibet, the Roerich family settled in the Kullu Valley. at an elevation of 6,500 feet in the Himalayan foothills, with a magnificent view of the valley and the surrounding mountains.
Here they established their home and the headquarters of the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute, which was organized to study the results of their expedition, and of those explorations that were yet to come. The Institute’s activities included botanical and ethnological-linguistic studies, and the exploration of archeological sites. Under the direction of their father the two Roerich sons, George and Svetoslav, established a collection of medicinal herbs, and made extensive studies in botany and ancient medical lore, as well as in Tibetan and Chinese pharmacopoeia.
Roerich created a flag he called the Banner of Peace. The design of the Banner shows three spheres surrounded by a circle, in magenta color on a white background. Of the many national and individual interpretations of this symbol, the most usual are perhaps those of Religion, Art and Science as aspects of Culture, which is the surrounding circle; or of past, present, and future achievements of humanity guarded within the circle of Eternity. The symbol can be seen in the seal of Tamerlane, in Tibetan, Caucasian, and Scandinavian mystical symbols, and on Byzantine and Roman artifacts. The image of the Strasbourg Madonna is adorned with it. It can be seen in many of Roerich’s paintings, most notably Madonna Oriflamma, in which Woman is depicted as the carrier and defender of the Banner. This sign and the motto of Pax Cultura that accompanies it, symbolizes Roerich’s quintessential vision for humanity.
As he wrote: “Let us be united — you will ask in what way? You will agree with me: in the easiest way, to create a common and sincere language. Perhaps in Beauty and in Knowledge.”
Roerich’s efforts to promulgate such a treaty resulted in his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by the University of Paris in 1929. Then on April 15, 1935, Pax Cultura was drafted as an international treaty, known as “The Roerich Peace Pact,” and was signed in the Oval Office in the presence of President Roosevelt and two dozen world leaders. This treaty is still in force.
In 2009 I was able to bring Keith Dowman, our guest teacher at Lapis Sky Wilderness Retreat Camp in Arkhangai, and the author of over a dozen books on Dzogchen philosophy, to give a lecture at the Roerich House. The lecture was open for all,
Then in 2010, my husband and I, working with Acupuncturists Without Borders, were able to bring a group of fifteen acupuncturists to Mongolia to exchange healing knowledge with traditional Mongol healers, and also to exchange ideas on treatments for alcohol addiction, In connection with this, I was able to help bring Naron Delkekh, the emination of Green Tara, to Roerich House for a lecture and also to give belessings to individuals.
When my husband and return to Mongolia this summer of 2011, we won’t miss the chance to bring our two National Geographic Groups with us to Roerich House, and treat them to an experience of one of the most positive aspects of modern Mongolian life, namely, the present efforts throughout the country to revive the traditional culture that was destroyed during the Soviet period.
This is wonderfully exemplified by the effort to restore the Roerich House, and make the world aware of the great role that Mongolia played in the 1920s in inspiring this great artist, humanitarian and social activist in his creation of the Roerich Peace Pact, a document for which he was nominated by the University of Paris for the Nobel Peace Prize, two years after he left Ulaanbaatar.
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