Finding Krishna in Tibet - Perceval Landon

Finding Krishna in Tibet - Perceval Landon
“Gems and wrought gold, never sold – brought for me to behold them;
Tales of far magic unrolled – to me only he told them,
With the light, easy laugh of dismissal ‘twixt story and story –
As a man brushes sand from his hand, or the great dismiss glory.”

A Song in the Desert
By Rudyard Kipling (1927)

‘A Song of the Desert’ is a poem written in 1927 by Rudyard Kipling in remembrance of his friend, Perceval Landon, who had died that year at the age of 59. In 1904, aged 35, Landon had accompanied the Younghusband Expedition to Lhasa. The ‘expedition’ was a military one, sent to forcibly open up a trade route between Tibet and British India. Landon was one of four correspondents, what we might now think of as ‘embedded journalists’, who travelled with the British Military Force, sending reports back to various newspapers in Britain and India. Along the way, as did many members of the British expedition, Landon acquired and collected various trinkets, curios, and objets d’artsome of which he later donated to the British Museum. One of these objects is currently the centrepiece of an exhibition at the BM, titled: Krishna in the Garden of Assam (closing August 15th 2016).

The Vrindavani Vastra (British Museum)

The Vrindavani Vastra is a nine metre long textile, made up of twelve strips of woven silk, each figured with depictions of the incarnations of Vishnu and scenes from the life of Krishna as described in the 10thcentury Hindu text, the Bhagavata Purana. The textile, which is thought to have been created around 1680, was discovered by Landon in the monastery at Gobshi, near Gyantse in southern Tibet. But how did this textile depicting Hindu religious scenes end up in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet some 300 years or more after it was originally made?

 Krishna in the garden of Assam: the cultural context of an Indian textile
The exhibition, along with an accompanying book and film, by my friend and colleague, Richard Blurton, explains the fascinating detective story of archival research and contemporary fieldwork which has helped to rescue and restore the cultural context of this very rare work of art. Very few textiles of this kind from this period, which originate from the Assam region of northeast India, have survived; and indeed, the weaving techniques used to create such a cloth are no longer practiced there. For almost 80 years after it was given to the British Museum by Landon the textile has languished in obscurity, wrongly classified as being of Tibetan origin due to its provenance, it is only now that the real facts regarding its history have come to light. 

Yet many questions still remain unanswered. Not least the manner in which Langdon acquired the textile – it is not known if the item was bought, bartered, ‘appropriated’ or stolen. There were certainly instances of looting which occurred during the Younghusband offensive, but equally there were also many instances of trade, barter, and salvage from rubbish heaps. What sets Perceval Landon apart from his peers in the Younghusband mission though is his attitude and appreciation of Tibetan art and culture. Whilst many of Landon’s contemporaries clearly appreciated the magnificence of the flora and the spectacular scenery of the Himalayan ranges through which they were travelling, they frequently deplored the perceived squalor and superstitions of the local communities and the social systems of the cultures they encountered. Frequently they looked down on the local art and technologies as ‘primitive’ and ‘antique.’ 

Writing about the British occupation of Lhasa, Landon’s fellow correspondent, Edmund Candler, observed that the British officers haunt [the] bazaars searching for curios, but with very little success. Lhasa has no artistic industries; nearly all the knick-knacks come from India and China. Cloisonné ware is rare and expensive, as one has to pay for the 1,800 miles of transport from Peking. Religious objects are not sold. Turquoises are plentiful, but coarse and inferior. Hundreds of paste imitations have been bought. There is a certain sale for amulets, rings, bells, and ornaments for the hair, but these and the brass and copper work can be bought for half the price in the Darjeeling bazaar.”
Landon’s eye was attuned very differently. An uncommonly artistic correspondent, his own two volume account of the expedition, simply titled Lhasa (1905), was illustrated with his own photographs and watercolour paintings. And, as Clare Harris has noted, Landon frequently uses an artist’s vocabulary to describe what his camera and his watercolours could not; for example, describing the entrance to Lhasa’s Jo Khang thus: “Granite, dun, grey, yellow, pointing white, Prout’s brown yak hair curtains, dull crimson pillars, valance Isabella-colour, sacred monogram gold, sky ultramarine.” Landon was a great champion for what he termed as the ‘National Art of Tibet.’ He and Laurence A. Waddell acted as members of the official Collecting Committee, allocating the most significant discoveries to the official Government collection. Certainly, many such items were collected during the mission at all social levels from the officers to the soldiers, and hence, a great number of Tibetan art works in museum collections across the world have frequently been found to derive from this source, with many family heirlooms still surfacing and being taken to museums for identification even to this day.

It is thanks to Landon’s discerning eye that we have this remarkable textile, an Indian artefact long preserved in a Tibetan sanctuary, unknown and misunderstood but prized and highly valued nonetheless, transcending cultures over the course of three centuries. At last, its story is finally being unfolded.

 Richard Blurton - Curating Krishna in the garden of Assam

The British Museum, London
21 January - 15 August 2016 (free entrance)  

References and Further Reading:

Krishna in the Garden of Assam, by T. Richard Blurton (The British Museum Press: London, 2016)

The Unveiling of Lhasa, by Edmund Candler (Thomas Nelson & Sons: London, 1905)

‘Officers, Gentlemen and Thieves’, by Michael Carrington, in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2003), pp. 81-109

Bayonets to Lhasa: The British Invasion of Tibet, by Peter Fleming (Rupert Hart-Davis: London, 1961)

The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and the Representation of Tibet, by Clare E. Harris (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2008)

Lhasa, by Perceval Landon (Hurst and Blackett: London, 1905)

Tibet: A History, by Sam Van Schiak (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2011)

Perceval Landon (standing, far left) & Rudyard Kipling (standing, far right) on Glovers Island during the Boer War, circa 1900 (Getty Images)

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