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Figures from the Roof of the World

This specal Object in Focus exhibition illustrates Tibetan art and beliefs in one of the last areas where Tibetan Buddhism flourishes today – Ladakh. Collected by British Envoy Thomas Douglas Forsyth in 1870, the figures depict Tibetan Buddhist deities, disciples, magicians and monks.

Accompanying the figures is a display of photographs taken in Ladakh in 2012 by Dr Louise Bacon and Dr Ken Teague, on display in Gallery Square.

Bacon and Teague's journey, following in TD Forsyth’s footsteps, enabled them to confirm the identification of the figures in the Horniman collection, and to research the techniques of their construction, still in use today, which have informed the conservation of the figures in the exhibition.

Buddhism in Ladakh

Buddhism, founded by Sakyamuni Buddha (c.566–486 BC) in eastern India, spread in various directions, including northwest to Ladakh during the reign of the Mauryan Emperor, Asoka (c.270–230 BC).

From the Kushan period (c.78–144 AD) onwards images were made as reminders of the Buddhist faith and aids to meditation and worship. In Ladakh the kings or nobility fostered the cult of Maitreya the Future Buddha with many statues, some were colossal.

Buddhist teachings developed from 0–1000 CE to include ideas about Cosmic Buddhas of the directions and their emanations as bodhisattvas with benign and ferocious forms.

From about the 8th century onwards a fresh wave of Buddhist teaching reached Ladakh carried by Indian masters, Siddhas, including Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche. These were developed by local teachers such as Marpa and Milarepa. The followers of these teachers founded monastic orders in Ladakh and Tibet which persist in Ladakh today. The most well known leaders of these orders are the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, of the ‘Yellow Hat’, Gelugpa, school. In Ladakh the school of ‘Red Hats’, Kagyupa, is also strongly supported.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, many Ladakhi monks studying in Tibet returned to their homeland and reinforced the local Buddhist tradition.