Today we had the joy to visit the Roerich Art Gallery and Estate located in the village of Naggar, near Manali in the Indian Himalayas. Expecting to view paintings, we discovered the story of a unique family and their adventures that make Indiana Jones look like Telly Tubbies. The estate and gallery were established by Nicholas Roerich; a Russian painter, writer, archaeologist, theosophist, scientist and philosopher. At an early age he became a very famous artist, whose paintings are displayed all around the world.
But what struck me were the two major Asian expeditions that Roerich and his wife completed. In 1925 the Roerichs – together with their son George and six friends – began the five-year-long ‘Roerich Asian’. The expedition’s challenging itinerary ran through Sikkim, Kashmir, Ladakh, China (Sintzian), Russia (including Moscow), Siberia, Altai, Mongolia, Tibet and unexplored areas of the Trans Himalayas.
This unique expedition’s significance and its itinerary’s uniqueness and collection of materials, can justly claim an exceptional place among major expeditions of the 20th century. Their trips make our little cycle tour look like a day at the kindergarten.
Their remarkable journey lasted from March of 1925 to May of 1928. For the first time, dozens of new mountain peaks and passes were marked on maps, archeological monuments were discovered, and incredibly rare manuscripts were found. Enormous scientific material was collected; books were written (“The Heart of Asia”, “Altai – Himalayas”); and about five hundred paintings were created. The official mission of this expedition, as Roerich put it, was to act as the embassy of Western Buddhism to Tibet. For Western media his expedition was presented as an artistic and scientific enterprise.
Helena and Nicholas Roerich.
However, nobody was aware of the couple’s true destination: the city of Shambhala, a place not to be found in any map.
Shambhala is a fabled city-kingdom of the Himalayas, believed by Buddhists, Hindus and local shamans to exist simultaneously on the physical and the spiritual plane. For millennia, the legend of the underground kingdom played an important role in every Tibetan tradition and eventually, rumors of its existence reached the West.
The Roerich expedition began its trek closely monitored by the British, the USSR and the Americans, as well as the Japanese, the Mongolians and the Chinese. In search of Shambhala, they would go through 35 mountain passes, cross the Gobi desert, and chart tens of alpine peaks for the first time. But from the beginning, they were beset with extreme weather, local rebel groups, armed bandits, poison grass which took their horses down, and caravan looters they could not avoid.
Between the summer of 1927 and June 1928 the expedition was thought to be lost, since communication with them ceased for a year. They had been attacked in Tibet and then the expedition was detained by the Tibetan government for five months. They were forced to live in tents in sub-zero conditions and to subsist on meagre rations. Five men of the expedition and 92 out of their 105 animals died during this time.
In March 1928 they were allowed to leave Tibet, and trekked south to settle in India, where they founded a research center, the Himalayan Research Institute in Naggar.
If this was not enough, Nicholas conducted another long expedition in 1933 and then became a dedicated activist for the cause of preserving art and architecture during times of war. Nicholas earned several nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.