Nicholas Roerich and the Search for Shambhala

We are currently living in the Kali Yuga and a new Golden Age won’t begin for about 427,000 years. However, mini-Golden Ages will occur within the current Dark Age. Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya (Sri Acharyaji) said that a mini-Golden Age would begin around 2012-2013, corresponding with the new age marked by the end of the Mayan calendar (1). And when Nicholas Roerich traveled through Asia in the 1920s, he encountered many lamas who said that the time of Shambhala was imminent.

The Russian symbolist painter and explorer was fascinated (some say obsessed) with the myth of Shambhala. Shambhala has different meanings, but is most commonly seen as a legendary hidden village in Inner Asia, a place Roerich believed in literally. Others say there is an inner Shambhala, a state of enlightenment that all humanity can one day reach. The legend Roerich was most familiar with was Shambhala as an earthly link to heaven, located in a secret valley somewhere in the Himalayas. The great mahatmas of all ages reside there waiting until the time when Rigden Djapo, the ruler of Shambhala, leads his army in the final battle against the forces of evil.
After their destruction, the era of Shambhala will begin—an era marked by peace, beauty, and truth. Similarly, the Vishnu Purana describes Shambhala as the birthplace of Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu who will usher in the next Satya Yuga (Golden Age). Krishna, who lived on the earth more than 5,100 years ago, was the eighth avatar of Vishnu, right around the start of the Kali Yuga. The most recent avatara of Vishnu was Gautama Buddha.

Nicholas Roerich, "Krishna. Spring in Kulu."

Nicholas Roerich, “Krishna. Spring in Kulu.” Kulu Series, 1930

The Roerich family arrived in the port of Bombay, India, on Dec. 2, 1923, the start of many years of exploration in Central Asia. By the end of the month they were settled in the English resort town Darjeeling and marveled at the view of Kanchenjunga. They briefly lived in a house that was a site of pilgrimage due to legends that the fifth Dalai Lama had resided there. Coinciding with their journey was an important event in the myth of Shambhala—the flight of the Tashi Lama, Thubten Choekyi Nyima (the ninth Panchen Lama), from his country. In the Buddhist world, this event “was a sign that the coming of the New Era, the era of Shambhala, was at hand” (2).

In Heart of Asia: Memoirs from the Himalayas Roerich recounts many tales of Shambhala he heard on his expedition. One Tibetan lama recounted that he met a Hindu sadhu when on a tour of the holy places of India. They spoke different languages to each other yet could understand each other: “Only in the time of Shambhala shall all languages be understood without previous study because we hear and understand not the outward sound, and we see not through the physical eye but through the third eye, which you see symbolized on the forehead of our images—this is the eye of Brahma, the eye of all-seeing knowledge. In the time of Shambhala, we will not need to rely only on our physical sight. We shall be able to avail ourselves of our great inner forces” (3).

Nicholas Roerich, "Dorje the Daring One." Banners of the East Series, 1924

Nicholas Roerich, “Dorje the Daring One.” Banners of the East Series, 1924

Throughout their journey the Roerichs met people of many different faiths who all knew a similar legend to that of Shambhala or the Golden Age. They met an old grey-bearded Moslem who spoke of Muntazar, “the Moslem symbol corresponding to the Kalki Avatar of the Hindus and to the Maitreya of the Buddhists” (4).

Nicholas Roerich, "Maitreya the Conqueror." Maitreya Series, 1925-1926

Nicholas Roerich, “Maitreya the Conqueror.” Maitreya Series, 1925-1926

Another story involves the Tibetan teacher Tsong-Kha-Pa who helped found the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. His commandments indicate that every century the Arhats attempt to enlighten the world, but so far none have been successful. It is said that “until Panchen Rinpoche (the Tashi Lama) consents to be reborn in the land of the pelings (Westerners) and, as spiritual conqueror, to destroy the age-old errors and ignorance, it will be of little use to try to uproot the misconceptions of the pelings” (5).

Nicholas Roerich, "Tsong-Kha-Pa." Banners of the East Series, 1924

Nicholas Roerich, “Tsong-Kha-Pa.” Banners of the East Series, 1924

In his travel diary Roerich quotes extensively from the Vishnu Puranawhich speaks of the end of Kali Yuga, “when barbarians will be masters of the banks of the Indus.” Of this Dark Age it states:

There will be temporal monarchs, reigning over the earth, kings of churlish spirit, of violent temper, addicted to falsehood and cruelty. They will inflict death on women and children, and they will seize the property of their subjects . . . . their lives will be short, their desires insatiable. People of various countries will intermingle with them. Wealth will decrease until the world becomes wholly demoralized.

Property alone will confer rank; wealth will be the only source of devotion. Passion will be the sole bond between sexes. Perjury will be the only means of success in litigation. Women will be objects merely of sensual gratification. A rich man will be reputed pure. Fine attire will be the mark of dignity. . . .

At the end of Kali Yuga there will be mixed castes. Merciless robbers will flourish. Under cover of religion, men will preach irreligion. And the Mlechhas [barbarians], in the guise of kings, will devour men. Armed with a coat of mail and with weapons, Vishnuyasha’s son Kalki, will annihilate the Mlechhas, establish order and dignity, and lead the people on the path of truth. (6)

In the painting below, a warrior in an ancient costume sends an arrow to the Tower of Shambhala, which announces that he is headed there.

Nicholas Roerich, "Shambale Daik (Message of Shambala)" 1931

Nicholas Roerich, “Shambale Daik (Message of Shambala)” 1931

Where is Shambhala? The earthly Shambhala is often said to be in the extreme north. Consequently, it is said that the rays of the aurora borealis are the rays of the invisible Shambhala (7). For example, Roerich’s painting Bridge of Glory represents, according to Sina Fosdick, former director of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York: “The aurora borealis—Prof Roerich painted some of the great wonders of various countries on his travels. The Maitreya Buddha, who is being awaited by Buddhists throughout the world, will come over the bridge of glory. The second coming is linked with America” (8).

Nicholas Roerich, "Bridge of Glory." 1923

Nicholas Roerich, “Bridge of Glory.” 1923

Shooting stars are another cosmic phenomena that are seen as a sign of the imminence of Shambhala. The painting below depicts a Tibetan watching a shooting star light across the sky.

Nicholas Roerich, "Star of the Hero." 1933

Nicholas Roerich, “Star of the Hero.” 1933

Yet another sign of Shambhala is said to be certain wonders of nature. The painting below shows hot springs and rich vegetation in the midst of barren, snowy mountains, creating a micro-climate.

Nicholas Roerich, "Drops of Life." Sikkim Series. 1924

Nicholas Roerich, “Drops of Life.” Sikkim Series. 1924

One of Roerich’s paintings shows Rigden Djapo, the ruler of the Shambhala, bringing the great scroll of the future in the Tibetan concept of Maitreya. According to Fosdick, “His waiting horsemen ride throughout the whole world carrying his messages.”

Nicholas Roerich, "Command of Rigden Djapo." 1927

Nicholas Roerich, “Command of Rigden Djapo.” 1927

Maitreya is also alluded to in a painting of sacred caves that Roerich mentions in his travel diary. The painting shows three Mahayana Buddhist lamas who live in caves decorated with ancient frescoes. According to Fosdick, the rider on the red horse indicates that their meditation is on the coming of Maitreya.

Nicholas Roerich, "Power of the Caves. Maitreya Series," 1925-1926

Nicholas Roerich, “Power of the Caves. Maitreya Series,” 1925-1926

One rarely seen painting by Roerich is hanging in the Zanabazar Art Museum in Mongolia. When visiting Mongolia, Roerich discovered that they too believed in the imminence of the era of Shambhala. Before leaving the capital city of Ulan Bator, Roerich presented the Mongolian government with the painting below, which even though in tempura, looks very much like a traditional Buddhist tangka and also depicts Rigden Djapo (9). Photographs from the Central Asia expedition in 1927 show that Roerich’s party flew both a tangka of Shambhala and the American flag at their camps. 

Nicholas Roerich, "Rigden Djapo—Ruler of Shambhala (The Great Horseman)"

Nicholas Roerich, “Rigden Djapo—Ruler of Shambhala (The Great Horseman)”

Mount Kailas was another subject of Roerich’s paintings. The holiest mountain in all of Asia, hermits are said to live in its caves “filling the space with their evoking calls of righteousness” (10). Just north of Mount Kailas lies Shambhala, and the painting shows three pilgrims riding through the snow on buffaloes toward a glowing monastery.

Nicholas Roerich, "Path to Kailas. Monastery."

Nicholas Roerich, “Path to Kailas. Monastery.” 1932

Another legend that relates to Shambhala is that of Gesar Khan. A legendary Buddhist hero, Gesar Khan’s next incarnation will be in Northern Shambhala. He will unite with his army, destroy evil, and establish peace and prosperity throughout the entire earth.

Nicholas Roerich, "Gesar Khan." 1941

Nicholas Roerich, “Gesar Khan.” 1941

The myths from so many different cultures tell the same story of the birth of a hero or god who will gather his army to conquer over darkness. The painting Warrior of Light depicts one of the warriors who will defeat the enemies of Shambhala—the vision is of a winged white warrior and his horse in the clouds, armed with Beauty and Light.

Nicholas Roerich, "Warrior of Light." 1933

Nicholas Roerich, “Warrior of Light.” 1933

Seeking the physical Shambhala was another theme Roerich explored. This painting shows three seekers descending a mountain, behind them a stone with the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” and “Maitreya Sangha” carved into it. In the distance are rising mountain peaks, perhaps the pathway to Shambhala.

Nicholas Roerich, "Stronghold of the Spirit"

Nicholas Roerich, “Stronghold of the Spirit”

Roerich never came across the earthly Shambhala, but in his life he did much to preserve its legacy. The Roerich Pact (The Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments) is an inter-American treaty that says the defense of cultural objects is more important than the use or destruction of that culture for military purposes. It was signed on April 15, 1935, and though it is not international law, its ideas have been influential in setting standards for cultural preservation.

Endnotes:

  1. Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya. Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way. International Sanatana Dharma Society, 2015, p. 73.
  2. Decter, Jacqueline. Messenger of Beauty: The Life and Visionary Art of Nicholas RoerichPark Street Press, 1997, p. 105.
  3. Roerich, Nicholas. Heart of Asia: Memoirs from the Himalayas. Inner Traditions, 1990, p. 88.
  4. Ibid., p. 104.
  5. Ibid., p. 93.
  6. Vishnu Puranaqtd. in Roerich, p. 100.
  7. Roerich, p. 132.
  8. Archer, Kenneth. Catalogue of the Collection of Paintings and Theatrical Designs at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York.
  9. Decter, p. 129.
  10. qtd. in Decter, p. 157.