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Finding Roerich in the Himalayas

In the midst of the Himalayas, overlooking the Kullu valley, lies a small town that was once home to a famous Russian family. Midsummer suits Naggar*, which was formerly the capital of Kullu, and lies halfway between Kullu and Manali. The foliage is lush, the flowers in bloom, and the occasional slug makes its lazy way across my path. The clear sky allows for an unrestricted view of white capped peaks not so far away — a pristine beauty that has inspired landscape painters for generations. 

It was this beauty that likely tempted Nicholas Roerich to make Naggar his home in the latter part of his life. An artist, philosopher, scientist, scholar and quester, among other things, he lived in many places, but this small hamlet in India holds a special significance — not only in the numerous paintings that the artist and his son created, but also in what he gave back to the place where he lived out the end of his life. 

Nicholas Roerich lived in Naggar from 1928 until 1947 with his wife Helena and sons George and Svetoslav, and during this period they founded the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute, conceived the first international treaty for the protection of cultural values (the Roerich Pact), and wrote and translated books, including one on their school of mysticism, referred to as Agni Yoga or the System of Living Ethics. Svetoslav Roerich, an artist himself, lived in Naggar for many more years, and in 1992-93, he and his wife founded the International Roerich Memorial Trust (IRMT) which continues to preserve and honour the legacy of their family estate.

The Roerich family in Kullu valley, via Wikimedia Commons

From the balcony of my guest house, Alliance — one of several options for tourists — I can see the road winding up to Roerich Lodge. Apart from Naggar Castle, a couple of small galleries and the buildings managed by the IRMT, Naggar has little to offer other than trees and tranquility, yet a steady stream of tourists seems to make its way to the town. Not enough to be crowded; just enough to be diverse and interesting. Some never left, such as the owner of Alliance, Gilbert Veyrard, a Frenchman who settled here in the 1980s, and has run the accommodation with his wife since 1990. 

Alliance Guesthouse

Roerich Lodge

A short walk through the wisteria-clad street leads to Roerich Lodge, once home to the family, which is now preserved as a museum. On the ground floor of the white-painted wooden house is an art gallery created by Svetoslav Roerich in the 1960s, where both father and son’s paintings adorn the walls. The collection features 37 studies of the Himalayas by Nicholas Roerich, capturing these majestic mountains in every mood and light. For him, interested as he was in the spiritual, they represented ascent; the haven where legends and stories and texts such as the Vedas originated. The Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited the Roerich estate, described these paintings as portraying 
the spirit of those great mountains [...] They remind us of so much in our history, our thought, our cultural and spiritual heritage, much not merely of the Indian past but of something that is permanent and eternal.
Twelve paintings by Svetoslav are also on display, among them portraits of Nehru and of Nicholas Roerich himself. 

Nicholas Roerich with Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Mohammad Yunus, via Wikimedia Commons

The upper level of the house offers a view of the sprawling Kullu valley, and the rooms have been preserved as they would have been lived in, and can only be viewed through the windows. Among these are Helena Roerich’s immaculate study, where she wrote and translated several books; the Roerichs’ bedroom; the living room; Svetoslav’s studio which later became his wife’s study; and the library. The garden and estate park are also rich in a variety of flora, now reviving the interest of botanists. 

Continuing up the road from the lodge, I come upon a collection of memorial slabs, also maintained by the IRMT. These belonged to the Kullu rajahs — the Rajput princes who ruled Kuluta from Naggar Castle — and date back to the middle ages. They were originally located in cremation sites, but were transferred to the Roerich Estate for preservation and upkeep as they were being weathered or sinking into the ground. Ever the scholar, Svetoslav wrote about the motifs and imagery on these steles in his book Art in the Kullu Valley

A beautiful tree-lined walk further uphill leads to the Uruswati Himalayan Research Institute, founded in 1928 by the Roerichs to study the materials they brought back from their Central Asian expedition. It comprises two buildings: a research lab for scientific and biochemical studies, and an administrative building with a Museum of Natural Sciences, a research library, and rooms for visiting researchers. 

The institute flourished, conducting research into numerous disciplines including archaeology, Tibetan medicine and culture, natural sciences, anthropology, astronomy, biology, and chemistry, among others, making it one of the most distinguished academic institutions of its times until the financial crisis forced its suspension in the late 1930s. Today, the institute is a museum that houses the equipment and texts from those days, in addition to an exhibition on the Roerich Pact and Russian folk art and crafts. Efforts are underway to revive the institute as a centre for academic research. 

It was also here in 1929 that the Roerich Pact — an international treaty on the protection of artistic and scientific institutions and historical monuments — was conceived and drafted in several languages by Nicholas Roerich and George Shklyaver, a doctor of law and political sciences. Following conventions in Bruges and Washington in 1931-33, it was finally in 1935 that the Pact was formally signed by the USA and 21 countries in the Americas at the White House. In India, the Pact was keenly supported by several eminent personalities including Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, and S. Radhakrishnan. Represented graphically by what became known as the Banner of Peace, was re- initiated with dedication after the destruction caused by World War II. The Indian government formally approved the Pact in 1948 when it was free from colonial rule. 

Also in the vicinity are the samadhi of Nicholas Roerich and the memorial of Svetoslav and Devi Rani, as well as the Helena Roerich Academy of Arts for Children (within the Cultural-Educational Centre), which offers classes in various Indian and Russian visual and performing arts. The Estate and IRMT continue to foster ties between the two countries. 

In a letter to Yuri Roerich dated June 29, 1959, Svetoslav wrote, 
This year Kullu was especially beautiful. The more you travel, the more you become convinced that it is difficult to find [a] more beautiful place. 
The Russian artist in the room next to mine agrees. She is visiting Naggar for inspiration and the Roerich legacy, before traveling on to Manali, and perhaps further, to paint the mountains that continue to capture the imagination.

*I visited in June 2015