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Magic carpets from the Himalayas

March 1, 2008

City Guide Magazine, NY, USA
February 28th, 2008

An exhibition of Buddhist meditation carpets from a private Swiss
collection will be presented by London dealer Rossi & Rossi at the
Neuhoff Gallery, Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, New York, from
Monday 17 to Tuesday 25 March 2008. Voyage in the magic realm: Tantric
carpets from the Himalayas will comprise 15 tantric carpets from
Tibet, China and Mongolia dating from the late 18th and 19th
centuries, offered for prices from $15,000 to $150,000. These
extraordinary carpets were commissioned for revered Buddhist
sanctuaries. Their unusual imagery of skinned humans, bound demons,
skulls and severed heads derives from the cremation grounds of north
India where yogis practised meditation. The exhibition coincides with
New York's Asia Week, other dealer exhibitions and the International
Asian Art Fair.

Woollen carpets have provided practical comfort and aesthetic pleasure
in Tibet for more than a millennium. They are used for sitting (kha
gang ma), sleeping (kha gdan, nyal gdan) and to adorn the walls,
ceilings, pillars (kha 'thum), doorways (sgo yol) and, occasionally,
the floors (sa gdan). Traditionally, many Tibetans are periodically
itinerant (for trade, pilgrimage or grazing) and the easily portable
woollen carpet was multi-functional.

The carpets featured in this exhibition, however, are chiefly
associated with social activities and religious practices well beyond
the mundane. Their potent imagery attests to their use in a variety of
public and private Buddhist rites, particularly those associated with
worship of the protector deities. They were seats of power during
meditation or important ceremonies; served as platforms for special
ritual implements; established the sacrificial ground for esoteric
rituals of invocation and exorcism; were symbolic offerings to the
protective deities; and some indeed may have been used as effigies in
ritual performances.

Several wool, cotton and dye examples come from Ningxia in north-west
China. One features a male effigy, naked and bound at the ankles and
wrists by heavy chains, within a ritual triangle (dharmodaya), each
corner supported by a severed head. This carpet is unusually large by
Tibetan standards, 202 x 171 cm, and is likely to have been
commissioned for a particular use. The iconography indicates that the
carpet was used as a mat on which to conduct rites associated with
destruction of the effigy (ling ga). Such bound human figures are also
known as lu (glud), 'substitute offering' or 'scapegoat'. They were
presented as appeasements to wrathful deities and served as potent
visual symbols of negative forces to be ritually destroyed.

Another carpet represents a flayed male (g.yang gzhi) whose arms
stretch overhead as if bound at the wrists. He has the fangs of a dog
or a wolf and his mouth is held in a grimace. The striated inner
surface of the skin is clearly indicated, as are the genitals of the
ritual offering. The hands and feet of the effigy extend into the
carpet's border, partly obscuring the array of freshly severed heads.
The image may be compared with several other published examples, each
unique in physiognomy and body type but otherwise clearly representing
the same ritual offering of a flayed male with long hair,
symmetrically arranged on a red ground. They would have served either
as symbolic offerings to the Buddhist protector deities, or as seats
for meditation. A third wool, cotton, and dye carpet, probably from
China, depicts a flayed elephant.

The only textile in the exhibition is a felt canopy with a silk fringe
which comes from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It would have
surmounted a ritual space in which offerings were made and rituals
performed to protect from harm or vanquish enemies. The symmetrical
design shows the skins of two blond-haired males, their legs knotted
together, eyes extended well beyond their sockets, lifeless hands
grasping the tails of dragons whose long bodies wind through human
skulls. At the centre is a ritual triangle (dharmodaya) resting on a
sea of blood (khrag mtsho), and other accoutrements of ritual practice
are also displayed in this extraordinary ritual textile.

Among the Tibetan pieces is a wool, cotton and dye carpet or door
cover featuring two skeletons (cittipatti) linking arms in a macabre
dance. Each skeleton holds a skull cup and a ritual mace surmounted by
a skull; tiger skins adorn their bony hips. Such imagery is often
found at the entrance to or within secret chapels (mgon khang)
dedicated to the protector deities of Tibetan monasteries. Indeed, it
has been suggested that this carpet may have been used as a door cover
to a gonkhang. A host, striped curtain behind the figures resembles
the striped cloth sometimes used as door coverings in Tibetan
establishments. The carpet's size, 126 x 171 cm, may reflect the
unusual shape of entrances to the gonkhang, which Giuseppe Tucci
(1894-1984) noted to be 'low and narrow'. It is possible that the
carpet had other uses, including that of a mat for placing ritual
implements, or as some other appropriate accoutrement in the protector
deities' highly specialised ritual environment. It may also have been
used as a seat for meditation, as cittipatti were considered special
protectors for practitioners of Vajrayogini meditation. This carpet
was published in Rituels Tibetains: Visions secretes du Vth Dalai
Lama, by Nathalie Bazin, Paris, 2002. Published in the same book is
another Tibetan wool, cotton and dye carpet with a male effigy which
shows a flayed man (g.yang gzhi) symmetrically arranged on a sea of
blood (khrag mtsho). The powerful effigy has striking features with
dark piercing eyes, scowling red lips, prominent cheekbones and wears
large hoop earrings while his thick hair stands up in waves.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a scholarly catalogue Tantric
carpets from the Himalayas written by Dr Jane Casey, an art historian
specialising in Tibetan art. She studied the history and philosophy of
science at Harvard University, before studying Himalayan art at
Harvard. She was Chairman of 'Towards a Definition of Style: The Arts
of Tibet', an international symposium held at the Victoria and Albert
Museum, London, in association with the School of Oriental and African
Studies, University of London (1994); and co-curator of Sacred
Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet organised by The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1998-99).

Rossi & Rossi was founded in London in 1985 by Anna Maria Rossi who
has been active in the field of Asian art for over 30 years. In 1988
she was joined by her son Fabio who started travelling to Asia with
his parents at an early age and moved to London in 1983 to attend the
School of Oriental and African Studies. Together, Anna Maria and Fabio
Rossi have established a reputation as leading dealers in traditional
Indian and Himalayan art as well as contemporary Asian art,
particularly Tibetan. Among their clients are such institutions as The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the
Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Tokyo National Museum.

*Exhibition dates: March 17 to 25 March 2008

*Location: Neuhoff Gallery, 4th Floor, Fuller Building, 41 East 57th
Street, New York, NY 10022, USA. Tel. +1 212 838 1122,
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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