The 108 objects presented here are essential entry points to the world of Himalayan visual art, material culture, and religion. They include hanging scroll paintings, sculptures, drawings, pilgrimage maps, architectural sites, ritual items, textiles, and more, ranging from the Neolithic to contemporary times. The number 108 is auspicious, rooted in the ancient Indian Vedic tradition and its reverence for sound, as represented by the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. As part of religious practice, the fifty letters are repeated twice, along with the letters representing the eight sections of the alphabet, totaling 108 and making what is known as a garland of sounds. The number is therefore considered sacred in Hindu and Buddhist traditions; there are 108 prayer beads, 108 volumes of the Buddhist canon, and so forth.
Defining Himalayan Art in This Project
Objects from Tibet and Nepal were first seen, collected, and presented in the West in the nineteenth century, initially as ethnographic curiosities and gradually as examples of artistic traditions. In comparison to other fields of Asian art, the study of Himalayan art is still a young, developing area.
Himalayan art has often been grouped with Indian and South Asian art or with Chinese and, by extension, East Asian art. In actuality it bridges and traverses the regional spaces defined by these somewhat arbitrary academic divisions, and it disrupts fixed labels of regional groupings of Asian art, such as East Asian or South Asian art. In this project we use the term Himalayan art to highlight cross-cultural exchanges between various regional cultures. Within this broader framework, Himalayan art encompasses artistic production from the greater Himalayan mountain range, the Tibetan Plateau, and connected Mongolian areas of Inner Asia. The essays use this more expansive definition to emphasize cultural connectivity and exchange between these related traditions.
Himalayan art visually expresses the religious cultures of , , and , and integrates indigenous beliefs from these regions. Traditional areas of cultural production were in northeastern India, Nepal, the western Himalayas, and Tibetan and Mongolian regions, as well as Buddhist Central Asia and imperial centers of China. The scholarship of the past century has continuously built on previous advances in the study of the art, religion, and history of these diverse lands, making it increasingly evident that Himalayan art reflects uninterrupted cross-cultural exchange in which artists and their works, forms, and methods have traveled and transformed in each area, supported by the patronage of rulers, aristocrats, religious teachers, and ordinary people.
The 108 featured objects represent cross-regional connections and engagements with ritual and visual expressions of Hindu and Buddhist esoteric, or tantric traditions, which persist over a significant time span and continue to this day across culturally diverse areas. These artistic expressions trace their origins to Indic traditions and regional centers of Buddhist culture, such as the Himalayan kingdoms of , , , and , the , and Buddhist Central Asia. Tibetan Buddhists first sought, cultivated, and patronized these visual idioms. As Tibetan religious and artistic traditions flourished in close dialogue with their neighbors, Tibetan Buddhist culture inspired foreign patronage and expanded to the courts of Tangut, Mongolian, Chinese, and Manchu rulers, initiating the creation of distinctive new forms of Buddhist art.
The religious diversity of these regions includes the intersection of Hindu, Buddhist, and Bon belief systems, as well as local indigenous traditions. Yet Buddhism is the common thread that ties these different cultures together, and it is the main focus here.
Cultural Exchange across Regions
Buddhist visual culture initially flourished due to the patronage of artists, the construction of Buddhist institutions, and translation projects initiated by rulers who sought to fortify their polities and power. Lay people and monastics also contributed to this flourishing through their pursuit of Buddhist teachings, practices, and pilgrimage. Even though kingdoms and empires rose and fell, and their boundaries changed over time, Buddhist cultural production continued across these areas. Objects embodying Buddhist religious concepts and material culture were transmitted to and adopted in the ancient Tibetan kingdom, spurring Tibetan Buddhist culture to rapidly mature and extend across the breadth of the Himalayas, the entire Tibetan Plateau, and into Inner Asia. These movements and connections are represented in the art objects, architectural sites, and material technologies highlighted in these essays.
Bringing Buddhism Home from Northeastern India
As the cradle of Buddhism, where Buddha Shakyamuni taught and traveled, northeastern India is home to many Buddhist sacred pilgrimage sites, the most important being Vajrasana at , the place of the Buddha’s awakening. In the ancient past, when Buddhism in India was supported by kings and laity, Buddhist culture flourished, leading to the subsequent establishment of great Buddhist universities. The Indian emperor Ashoka (third century BCE), who supported and helped spread Buddhism with the expansion of his realm, became an exemplar of universal kingship (chakravartin), by which rulers across Asia would later claim political legitimacy.
Until the late thirteenth century, India was the source of much Buddhist material and visual culture in the form of texts, portable sculptures, and mementos from sacred sites. Buddhist teachers, visiting monks, traders, and pilgrims carried these objects to their own lands, including Tibet, western Himalayan regions, Nepal, and beyond.
Networking Buddhist Kingdoms: Kashmir and Western Himalayas
, a fertile valley nestled between the highest ranges of the Himalayan mountains, was a revered land of Buddhist learning, arts, and culture from the eighth to the end of the thirteenth century, attracting Tibetan Buddhist travelers. Kashmir’s position as a major destination on trade routes that traversed the neighboring Western Himalayas and connected Western and Central Asia facilitated their travels. Until the fourteenth century, Kashmir was an important center of Tantric Buddhism, where Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhists went to study, collected books and images, and invited Kashmiri teachers and artists to decorate newly established temples in the Western Himalayan kingdoms, such as Ladakh. The legacy of Kashmir and its close cultural connections remained an important aspect of Buddhist visual culture in the western Tibetan Kingdom of Guge long after Buddhism declined in Kashmir.
Centers of pilgrimage focused on both Hindu and Buddhist tantric goddesses linked Kashmir with the greater sacred geography of the Himalayas, which is also a prominent feature of religious culture in Nepalese regions.
Nepalese Cultural Sphere: A Power Source of Artistry
Other major centers of Buddhist culture included Himalayan kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley, which became especially significant with the decline of Buddhism in India and Kashmir. Tibetan Buddhists went to Nepal in search of teachers and instruction in tantric practices, as many Indian scholars moved to Nepal where Buddhism remained a thriving tradition. Hindu and Buddhist cultures coexisted in Nepal, and the same artists often produced images for bothcommunities, creating a shared visual culture that continues today. Seasonal festivals and major rituals involved the participation of entire communities in the city-kingdoms of , , and Bakhtapur. Nepalese kings sponsored Hindu and Buddhist religious sites, including Buddhist institutions (bahas), and laity patronized the vibrant art guilds.
The arts of the Kathmandu Valley were well-known in Tibetan areas and beyond. Based on their skill and willingness to travel, Newar artists from the Kathmandu Valley have always been in high demand throughout Tibetan regions and Inner Asia. Historical accounts and artistic evidence testify to the important role of Nepalese artists in Tibet under the patronage of Tibetan religious institutions and rulers for the development of artistic traditions across the Himalayan range and further east.
Tibetans as Agents of Cultural Exchange
The kingdom of Tibet came into existence on the fertile valleys of the central . From these lands Tibetan rulers expanded their domain into an empire that absorbed parts of Central Asia including important trade routes. They established military alliances and competed with their eastern neighbors, and encountered Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian cultures. They also actively traded with the surrounding regions and controlled major trade routes, increasing cultural exchange. At the height of Tibetan Empire (ca. 608–866), during the rule of Tri Songdetsen (742–ca. 800), Tibetan military advanced deep into areas held by the Chinese Tang Empire (618–907), capturing much of its northwestern territory, even briefly the capital .
According to traditional historical accounts, Tibetan rulers and emperors intentionally embraced Buddhism, making this foreign faith a state religion of their land. Surviving early sites testify to the royal engagement with Buddhist visual representations of power, and early translation efforts lay the groundwork for the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibetan regions. The indigenous religious beliefs, the foundation of the non-Buddhist tradition later referred to as Bon, coexisted with the nascent Buddhist establishment. Following the initial power struggle for influence, during the second dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet in the tenth through the thirteenth century, the indigenous belief system defined itself in relation to Buddhist traditions.
After the assassination of Emperor Langdarma in about 842, the Tibetan Empire fragmented, and Tibetan Buddhist institutions declined with the loss of aristocratic patronage. Yet Buddhist tradition continued, especially in the eastern areas of the former Tibetan Empire, where a few Tibetans revived the practice of Buddhist ordination with the help of Chinese monks. They gradually reintroduced monastic Buddhism to central Tibetan areas.
Tibetan royal descendants fled to different regions and established local centers of authority. Kyide Nimagon, a scion of the ancient Tibetan imperial house, founded a kingdom that included Ladakh in the Western Himalayas and western Tibetan areas () in about 912. He intentionally fostered close ties with his neighbor to the west, the kingdom of Kashmir, a center of arts, learning, and commerce. After his death (ca. 930), his sons divided the realm and ruled in three Himalayan kingdoms—Ladakh (known as Maryul in Tibetan), Guge-Purang, and Zanskar. One of the imperial descendants, the prince-monk Yeshe Wo (947–1019/1024), was instrumental in the second diffusion of Buddhism in western Tibetan areas that ultimately affected the rest of Tibetan regions. His patronage of the arts, such as at Tabo Monastery, testify to artistic engagement with Kashmir and the fostering of a thriving Buddhist culture.
To revive Buddhism, Tibetans travelled to India, invited Buddhist teachers to Tibet, and upon return, established new monasteries with patronage from their followers and local rulers. One such important Indian teacher was Atisha Dipamkara (982–1055), who stayed in the Kathmandu Valley before traveling widely in Tibetan areas. He worked with Tibetan translators, laying foundational teachings of the Kadam Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Another prominent Indian scholar, Shakyashribhadra (1127–1225), the abbot of the famous in northeastern India, instructed his many Tibetan students—themselves known scholars—on all Buddhist topics, including Vinaya (monastic discipline), philosophy, tantric practice, and insight.
The tenth through thirteenth century is often referred to as the Tibetan Buddhist Renaissance, a time when Tibetan Buddhists not only received, translated, and codified Buddhist teachings but also defined their own systems for structuring this knowledge and created a vibrant Buddhist culture. Extant murals of the early temples from this era, such as at Dratang, exemplify cultural and aesthetic connections, as well as a local cosmopolitan environment. Tibetans founded their own lineages of transmission directly from teachers to disciples, often centered around monastic centers of learning and at numerous hermitages. These new lineages, known as the New Transmissions (sarma), are distinct from the ancient (nyingma) tradition.
This period also saw the consolidation of the ancient tradition’s textual production, with the compilation of the early biography of the legendary Indian masterPadmasambhava and the emergence of the associated treasure (terma) tradition. According to the legendary accounts, Padmasambhava identified specific locations as hidden lands (beyul), such as , that would be safe havens for Buddhist communities in times of need.
Some new lineages became known by the fundamental characteristic of their teachings; for instance, Kadam (“Instructional Precepts”) and Kagyu (“Precept Transmissions”). Often the new traditions assumed names after the monasteries where they originated—Sakya, Drigung,Zhalu—or after the place of origin of their founder—Dakpo Kagyu andShangpa Kagyu. Most of the teachers of these traditions were also patrons of the arts, leading to emergence of local artistic traditions.
During this period Tibetans also introduced the means of religious succession using the Buddhist concept of reincarnation (tulku), which was later systematized and employed to ensure religious and political stability. This system spread beyond Tibetan regions, implemented by the Bhutanese, Mongolians, and Manchus.
Around 1247 the Mongol Empire incorporated Tibetan areas, dividing its patronage of Tibetan teachers and their traditions among Mongol princely houses. As a result, Buddhist monasteries, such as and Zhalu Monastery, flourished as never before, becoming centers of cultural production. Instead of ruling directly, the Mongols granted suzerainty of central Tibet to the Sakya hierarchs raised in the Mongol court, upheld by Mongolian garrisons. Tibetans who resisted Sakya-Mongol rule, like those at , were suppressed. Mongolian support included maintaining a postal relay communication and travel system that connected Tibetan regions to other parts of the Mongol Empire, and many Tibetans ventured east to the Mongol Yuan courts in China and Inner Asia.
As a result of these exchanges, Chinese art entered Tibetan monastic collections, gradually inspiring Tibetans to adopt certain Chinese artistic conventions, such as landscape, into Tibetan painting. In the fifteenth century the famous central Tibetan artists Menla Dundrup and Khyentse Chenmo incorporated Chinese-inspired landscape elements, including blue-and-green color schemes, into their painting, initiating a Tibetan artistic revolution once dominated by Indian, Kashmiri, and Nepalese aesthetics.
The seventeenth century was a turbulent time in central Tibet. In 1642 the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682), aided by monasteries of the Geluk tradition and Mongol military force, became the first of the theocratic rulers of a unified Tibet, which had been fractured since the collapse of the Tibetan Empire. As part of his claim to power, the Great Fifth promoted himself as an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, identifying himself as the Tibetan emperor returned, and thus the rightful inheritor of the ancient Tibetan state. The Potala Palace in stands as a monument to this idea. Those perceived as being on the losing side of the civil conflict, including the Jonang, Karma Kagyu, and Bon traditions, were suppressed in central Tibet and largely relocated to the eastern Tibetan regions of and .
One important initiative of the Great Fifth’s government was the centralized systematization of institutional knowledge in key fields of learning, such as history, medicine, astrology, and the arts through collection, codification, and production. These systems were widely disseminated through printing, networking, and the founding of medical colleges and artist guilds.
Bhutanese Consolidation and Fortification of Transmission Lineages
The earliest temples in what is now the Himalayan kingdom of (Druk) are said to be contemporaneous with the seventh-century introduction of Buddhism in Tibet. Buddhist transmission lineages, in particular the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, fostered close ties between Bhutan and Ladakh, Nepal, and Tibet. In the seventeenth century, facing pressure from Mongol-backed Geluk authorities in central Tibet, many Kagyu teachers moved to Bhutanese areas where they had supporters. The Drukpa Kagyu teacher Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594–1651) unified these disparate lands under his religious and temporal authority, establishing a system of governance and defending Bhutan from Tibetan and Mongol military incursions. His successors further codified religious education and ritual practices, including cultural production. Temples and establishments associated with Geluk and Sakya traditions were ceded to new Drukpa ownership and redecorated. Some communities in the eastern region retained Bon practices or followed hybrid Buddhist-Bon traditions, many of which survive. The institution of the regent (Druk Desi) controlled temporal matters through the late nineteenth century. A particularly effective leader, Druk Desi Jigme Namgyel (1825–1881), consolidated significant influence and power. His son, Urgyen Wangchuck (1862–1906), rose to prominence, becoming the first king of Bhutan in 1907.
Central Asian Crossroads Connecting Civilizations
Traveling merchants, monks, pilgrims, local populations, and even armies of various empires mixed and integrated at the oasis centers along the trade routes connecting Asia and the West. They were among the donors, visitors, and artists who created and contributed to the famous Caves located at the juncture of the trade routes of the so-called . The caves were decorated from the fourth century until around the fourteenth century, when overland routes were largely abandoned in favor of sea trade, and the site lost its vibrant patronage.
The diverse visual traditions, belief systems, and languages found in murals, statues, and texts testify to these rich cross-regional and cultural connections. Tibetans were among the powers who ruled the area during the height of the Tibetan Empire, and their presence is documented in the material culture of Dunhuang. Tanguts formed a cosmopolitan state, known in Tibetan as Minyak and in Chinese as Xixia, which had a significant impact on the artistic production in the area and on Tibetan and Inner Asian religious culture, despite the state’s destruction in 1227. Woodblock printing was one means by which texts and images were produced and widely disseminated. The status of Buddhist teachers in the Tangut Empire consolidated the priest–patron relationship. This model came to be especially consequential for Tibetan teachers and Mongolian emperors of the Yuan dynasty in China and Mongolia, ultimately affecting the Tibetan religious and political landscape.
Mongolians Connecting through Conquest and Conversion
Mongolians have been widely active in the political, religious, and artistic life of the Tibetan Buddhist world, especially the western Mongols, or Zunghar, with former territories in present-day province, China; the eastern Khalkha Mongols in the current state of Mongolia; various groups in modern-day Inner Mongolia; and the Buryat and Kalmyk Mongols in areas that are now part of Russia.
In the thirteenth century, the Mongols conquered most of Asia and established the largest contiguous empire in world history, facilitating the spread of Tibetan visual culture to the Chinese heartland. When Qubilai Khan (r. 1260–1294) founded the Yuan dynasty in 1270, he established a government modeled on a Chinese system, but he relied heavily on peoples from other areas of his empire, such as the Uyghurs, Tanguts, and Tibetans. Qubilai Khan took special interest in Tibetan Buddhism, appointing Tibetan teachers as the highest religious authorities in the land. The relationship between the Mongol emperor Qubilai and his first Tibetan imperial preceptor Pakpa (1235–1280), often characterized as a priest-patron relationship, became a model invoked by subsequent imperial courts and Tibetans for centuries.
Under Mongol rule, skilled artisans were sought from all over the empire, and the head of the Yuan imperial atelier was a Nepalese artist, Anige (1244–1306). Although little by his hand survives, many luxury objects in Chinese media of lacquer, porcelain, and silk bear a distinct Nepalese aesthetic.
In the late sixteenth century, a massive second conversion of the Mongols to Tibetan Buddhism was more deeply rooted, a conversion so thorough that the religion became essential to Mongolian identity. Tibetan Buddhism became a cultural and political rallying point for the fractured Mongols and other Inner Asian groups. Zanabazar (1635–1723), Khalkha Mongol’s incarnate lama, leader of Mongolian Buddhism, and direct descendant of Chinggis Khan, was also a famous artist who embodied these aspirations. From the seventeenth century to modern times, the Mongols once again played a key role in Tibetan culture and politics and Tibetan relations with China. In fact, the lingua franca among these cultures was often Mongolian. The Dalai Lamas, in turn, gained the authority to confer the title of “khan” on Mongol leaders.
Chinese and Manchu Emperors Emulating Qubilai Khan’s Imperial Model
In the centuries following the fall of the Yuan, Qubilai Khan’s model of rulership was recognized widely across Asia.
After the collapse of the Mongol Empire and the establishment of the Ming dynasty, the Chinese court continued to use Mongol imperial Buddhist vocabulary symbolic of divine rule. The Yongle emperor (r. 1403–1424), whose power base was the former Yuan capital of Beijing, took a special interest in Tibetan Buddhism, fostering a great deal of new Tibetan artistic tradition in the sixteenth century.
The Manchus, like the Mongols, were a people from north of the Great Wall who conquered China. The Manchu elite also assumed Tibetan Buddhism as a means for political legitimacy to rule their vast multiethnic empire. Positioning themselves as the rightful inheritors of Qubilai Khan’s legacy as rulers of a united Buddhist Inner Asia was a key strategy to bring the various Mongolian confederations, who had their own aspirations for Buddhist state building, under the Qing domain. Workshops of Mongolian and Chinese artisans in artistic centers, such as in Dolonnuur, produced images and objects on a large scale, including monumental sculptures, which were sent all over the Tibetan Buddhist world.
Persisting and Evolving with Modern Times
A forced encounter between Tibetans and the West occurred in 1903 to 1904 when the British military invasion from India reached Lhasa, and the disintegration of the Qing Empire in 1912 following the encroachment of European colonial powers coincided with the 1911 Mongolian and 1913 Tibetan declarations of independence. These events had profound consequences. The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the annexation of Tibetan cultural regions into it resulted in many Tibetans fleeing into exile. One practical outcome was the study and flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism internationally. However, the communist revolutions in Mongolia and China, the terrible persecutions of the 1930s socialist period in Mongolia and Russia, the forced reforms of the 1950s in Tibet, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 across China decimated religious and cultural institutions, especially Buddhist monasteries. These violent disruptions led to the dispersal of many artworks to collections around the world.
In China, after regulations on religious practice were relaxed in the 1980s, Tibetans revived traditional cultural production and restored many monasteries. This led to the wider popularization of Tibetan Buddhism and its visual culture, sparking commercial interest in China and abroad. There was a similar rise in popularity for other forms of cultural production, including modern and contemporary art.
Other Himalayan regions, such as Sikkim, which was absorbed into India in 1975, created opportunities to promote not only religious but also political and business interests by establishing popular Buddhist tourist sites. Likewise, Ladakh, , and other cultural regions combined their cultural and economic interests to maintain their communities, often with the help of foreign investments and tourism.
In the Kathmandu Valley, art and craft production continued as part of generations of caste-related traditions. Metalworking, wood carving, stone carving, and painting still thrive in the region today. With Nepal’s opening to The world in the 1950s, its art, culture, and environment became the focus of foreign interest, and tourism became the main source of the country’s economy. Nepalese artists embraced modernism and gained support from not only regional patrons but also international tourists and collectors. An appreciation of Nepalese traditional art created a demand in collecting and contributed to the removal and theft of art objects from Nepal, some of which entered private or museum collections abroad. Many museums have since returned such objects to Nepal as part of the recent repatriation movement.
Artistic and religious traditions of these cultural regions continue to flourish locally and internationally. Artists who create modern art that builds on local traditional forms while engaging with global contemporary development carry on the cross-cultural connections and movement of people, ideas, and objects.
Thank you to the Humanities Advisory Group members who provided valuable feedback for this essay: Kerry Lucinda Brown, Isabelle Charleux, Wen-shing Chou, Ariana Maki, Annabella Pitkin, Andrew Quintman, and Gray Tuttle.
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