Photographer Thomas Laird on his 30-year commitment to saving Tibetan Buddhist murals
Not all of the murals in Tibet can be seen or studied, and many of them are disappearing. Thomas Laird's photographs could be the last evidence that these murals ever existed
Photographer Thomas Laird has spent nearly half his life documenting and preserving Buddhist murals in Tibet.
He says it allowed him to better understand Asia. He developed a close relationship with the Dalai Lama over the course of his project.
Not all of the murals in Tibet can be seen or studied, and many of them are disappearing. Laird's photographs could be the last evidence that these murals ever existed, he said.
Thomas Laird first visited Tibet as a journalist in 1986. Since then, he has committed his life to a unique mission – saving and preserving the murals of Tibet. We meet at the India Art Fair, where his work has been made available for the first time in the country. His passion for the project, which has spanned half his life, is clear; his eyes well up, and his voice cracks. “I cry easily talking about this, I tell myself how lucky I have been to have had the opportunity to do something like this,” he says. Murals of Tibet, a project that has also been showcased in Europe, has been decades in the making. Through it, Laird says he has been transformed. “I am an American, but now I understand Asia a lot better — the spiritual journeys here, the history. You in India are so lucky to have access to so many great texts and various philosophies,” he says.
Laird came to India for the first time in 1972. He then settled in Kathmandu, initially as a photojournalist. “When I first saw the murals, I realised they were evidence of Buddhist philosophy, its very essence, and that they were disappearing. Even if you are allowed access into these temples, not all of the murals can be seen or studied. It was a problem that I thought everyone should be concerned with,” he says. After seeing the murals and noting their poor condition, Laird decided to photograph them. But access to some of the monasteries was restricted. “I just kept going back, again and again. I would spend time looking at them, making notes. I told the monks that this was not just an art project, but also a historic one. This could become the last evidence that these murals ever existed,” he says. He is the first photographer to have been allowed inside a number of chapels and monasteries, like the Lukhang temple in Lhasa.
Some of the murals Laird has captured date back 1000 years. On an aesthetic level, they are stunning, merging art-forms and the symbolism of the ages, such as the Pala and Gupta periods. “Some of these are new even to India. For example, there is no Pala mural on the Indian mainland. It allows one to see the roots of Indian civilisation that have been destroyed here, but preserved in Tibet, at least till now,” he says.
Murals of Tibet isn’t just overwhelming in its scope, but also revealing. It presents a form of Buddhism known as ‘Tantric Buddhism’ that is largely unknown in Asia, where the religion assumes a more serene nature. This form of Buddhism appears in murals that are a far cry from the peaceful, meditative Buddha we are all used to seeing. “Tantric Buddhism is still a touchy topic in the Buddhist community. Some would rather not have it shown to the world. They are quite secret. North India was once the centre for Tantric Buddhism. I have recorded them with the intention of preserving history. Art historians will obviously look at it in many ways, but I don’t see the conflict in recording and preserving them. They are important,” Laird says.
Laird’s photos aren’t just images of the murals, they are creations. When he began working on the murals a couple of decades ago, Laird knew he had to invent a method which would allow him to capture details in order to achieve the level of preservation he was aiming for. “The process, in a way, is simple. I take hundreds of photos of the same mural, and then I stitch them together,” he says, “But as simple as it is to describe, it is difficult to execute. When I began doing this, no one had attempted anything like it. I was recreating actual-sized murals. So these are images have run into feet, and many gigabytes of memory on my computer.” Laird points to a corner of a mural where some sacred text has been inscribed, and then shows me another image where the text can be read, crystal clear. “You cannot miss a thing, and that was the point. These are the real thing. They can be reproduced to the same overwhelming scale of the originals,” he says.
But the process and its challenges, the 65-year-old believes, aren’t just the technicality of it all. On the day, so many things have to be managed, from the light to the angles from which you will shoot, and the kind of shooting distance all of this has to be executed within. “I needed 30 years because we quite literally invented a methodology, and with every mural, the challenge would be different. Sometimes there would be a door in the way, sometimes an object, and so on,” he says, smiling.
A Buddhist convert himself, Laird has had a close relationship with the Dalai Lama, who has signed each copy of his book published by TASCHEN. “It was overwhelming that I got the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama’s own commentary about Buddhist philosophy,” Laird says. But being so close to the world he is trying to save, and investing in it so wholeheartedly, has there ever been a moment when he felt overwhelmed? “Of course, I have spent 30 years of my life studying these murals. The destruction of Bamiyan (the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha in 2001) only made me realise how this crucial part of world history was in the danger of disappearing. This sense of responsibility is both a passion and a burden at times. But the Dalai Lama always said to me that the bigger these challenges feel, the greater I must summon the inner strength to pull through. I’ve only enjoyed this weight on my shoulders,” Laird says.
—All photos courtesy @ Thomas Laird
Murals of Tibet has been published by TASCHEN and brought to India in association with the CMYK bookstore
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