Special issue on trees

Under Roerich’s canopy

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on July 06, 2018

Great unknown: The Himalayas served as a constant source of inspiration for the Russian painter

Home in the hills: Nicholas Roerich travelled extensively across Central Asia, collecting artefacts and medicinal herbs, before settling down in Naggar   -  PAYEL MAJUMDAR UPRETI

The Russian polymath best known for his paintings bequeathed to the Himachal town of Naggar a love and respect for the region’s abundant wealth of plant life

Cross the gurgling Chenab, pass a thicket of walnut and pine trees and a line of silver oaks. Enter the sprawling estate ahead and you are greeted with a panoramic view of the mighty Himalayas.

You could have missed it, for the Roerich Gallery in the tiny town of Naggar, a 30-minute drive from Manali, doesn’t fall on the regular tourist circuit. But this is where Russian artist Nicholas Roerich lived and worked — and where a museum pays homage to a man who wore many hats.

The estate, built at different levels down a mountainside blooms with petunias, morning glory and a host of other flowers. The apricot and walnut trees are cheerfully laden with pink and white blooms that look like snow from a distance. This is Roerich’s simple stone-and-wood house, with a first-floor balcony that goes around it, and yellow blooms cascading down to the porch. The rooms are locked, but visitors peering in from the balcony can get an idea of the painter who chose to settle in the Valley of the Gods.

Roerich was already an international name when he settled in Naggar, near Kullu. A friend of Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, he was known and respected by the intellectuals of India, but was a stranger to the people of the region. By the time of his death at the age of 73, he was like a cult figure in the town of Naggar, where he also founded the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute.

Roerich is best known today for his paintings, many of them depicting the Himalayas. But he was also a theosophist, philosopher, poet, botanist and a public figure, who found a confluence of thought in diverse interests, from architecture to geology.

Born in Russia, he lived in other parts of Europe and then moved to the UK and the US, where he found recognition, and his prolific work was installed in the now obscure Roerich Museum in Upper West Side, Manhattan, NYC. Concerned about preserving the social and cultural heritage of a world threatened by war, he came up with the Roerich Pact, or the Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions, an inter-American treaty signed by President FD Roosevelt in 1935. Its banner — three red dots arranged in a triangle on a white sheet of cloth — proudly hangs from the bannisters inside the Naggar Estate.

Roerich drew attention to and spent his life studying the indigenous knowledge systems of Asia. At the Urusvati institute, disciples studied subjects that fell under the broad spectrum of arts, science and philosophy. The genius behind the sets and costumes of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Roerich was a proponent of the symbolism movement in art, and looked at plant life in coexistence with the world of spirits.

Thanks to Roerich’s considerable reputation, the institute enjoyed the support of scientists such as Einstein, Robert Millikan, CV Raman and Jagadish Chandra Bose. The building today serves as a museum for his paintings.

The large clearing outside is overrun by grass, but stacked on one side are stone artefacts with religious symbols and deities carved on them, from Roerich’s travels. The institute also served as the resting place for memorabilia collected during Roerich’s Central Asian journeys. It accumulated valuable botanical, ornithological and zoological collections and constructed a building for a biochemical laboratory. Relics of some of these items are still on display at the Urusvati Museum.

The collections include indigenous daggers, swords, bows and arrows from Central Asia, crystals brought in to study the topography of various areas, vials of medicine, insects preserved as specimen and scientific instruments used in the lab.

Roerich’s interest in pharmacology and Eastern medicine led to extensive studies across the Himalayas, China and Manchuria. Between 1924-29. He travelled the length and breadth of Central Asia, crossing several mountain passes, studying cultures and collecting artefacts in the process.

Home in the hills: Nicholas Roerich travelled extensively across Central Asia, collecting artefacts and medicinal herbs, before settling down in Naggar   -  PAYEL MAJUMDAR UPRETI


Five expeditions were conducted in the valleys of Kullu, Lahaul, Kinnaur, Kangra, Ladakh and Zanskar in 1931-32 after setting up Urusvati institute. He returned to the US for the last time in 1934, and accepted an assignment from its department of agriculture to lead an expedition in China and Mongolia to study the effect of drought-resistant grasses on the ecology, as a possible means to relieve conditions in the dust bowl of America.

On returning to India, he directed scientific research in Urusvati and conducted expeditions to study the value and presence of ayurvedic herbs in the Kullu Valley. Obsessed with the concept of Shambhala — a mythical kingdom akin to paradise — Roerich’s interest extended into Tibetan medicines and mythology as well.

In a travelogue on his Himalayan expeditions, Altai Himalaya, Roerich describes the herbs he discovered and their uses: “Nature awaits here full of gifts. Charura, Parura, Orrura are the three important curative fruits against cough, cold and fever. Charura is like a yellow cherry; Parura like a green chestnut and Orrura like a yellowish-green crab-apple. All three are sharp to the taste and full of tannin.” Bhutia herbs such as sergi phurba, chuta are mentioned for fever, cold and inflammation, and native versions of the rhododendron were used to cure stomach ailments.

While the institute got funds from across the world, with the onset of the World War II, it fell into disrepair. After Roerich’s death in 1947, his son George tried — but failed — to revive it. Renovation works are currently on to preserve what Urusvati once stood for.

Urusvati is the Sanskrit for ‘Star of the Morning’. In Naggar, they are waiting for the star to rise again.

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Published on July 06, 2018
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