Whose Himalaya is it?
In the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an 18th-century cloth painting that tells a unique story of Himalayan indigeneity. Measuring 14 feet long, the painting depicts a pilgrimage to Gosaikunda, a lake almost 4400 metres above sea level that is regarded as holy by Hindus and Buddhists, especially those belonging to the Tamang ethnicity. The painting is a cartographic representation of the pilgrimage to Gosaikunda from Kathmandu: the stupas and pagodas of the city give way to steep cliffs and finally the holy lake. Featured in the painting are aristocrats, pilgrims, ascetics, merchants, soldiers and porters, and women in their finery. Gods bow in reverence to the three streams that flow into Gosaikunda – perhaps a recollection of the lake's mythical origins.
Anybody who's been to Gosaikunda will marvel at the fact that the painting correctly depicts the Bhairav Kund and Saraswati Kund, smaller lakes that the waters from Gosaikunda flow into before becoming part of the Trishuli river. But beyond such topography, the painting also represents how the world appeared to indigenous communities living in the Himalaya – and in the Subcontinent. True pictorial representation of the landscape was regarded as secondary. "Seldom, if ever, does nature come to occupy the foreground," writes the art historian B N Goswamy. The depiction of landscape is that of a "brief illusion of space, of planes being established in a methodical if not quite scientific manner."