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Tabo, A Lamp for the Kingdom

Tabo monastery, situated in the Spiti Valley in northern India, was founded in the year AD 996, and is the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist structure in the Himalayas. Due to its location on the periphery between the Indian and Tibetan cultural worlds it has functioned as an intermediary between the two cultures, most particularly during the tenth and eleventh centuries when the second and final transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet saw a period of tremendous religious vitality in the region.

By Alex McKay


In more recent times the great Italian Tibetologist, Giuseppi Tucci, laid the foundations for a study of Tabo with a brief visit there, and his pioneering work is given due credit here. Tucci's esteemed pupil, Luciano Petech, has contributed an introduction to the history of western Tibet to this volume, an important essay which will be an invaluable basis for future research.

Tabo is most renowned for the beauty and variety of its artistic decoration, being open to influences from Central Asia, western Tibet, Kashmir and even Gujarat. There are numerous remarkable frescoes and sculptures surviving there, 234 of which are reproduced in this impressive volume - mostly in colour. These include many unique and outstanding works, indicative of the rich cultural heritage of the region. One of the main fascinations - at least for the historian - is that many of the figures depicted in the wall-paintings may be identified as historical characters, including both religious and secular individuals such as aristocratic patrons of the monastery. Nor are other sections of the population ignored, with depictions of pilgrims and nomads.
The volume describes the physical and historical setting of the monastery, with a proposed chronology of its first century of existence, includes an interview with the current abbot, examines its artistic and architectural heritage and discusses the emergence of an artistic style in the region. There is additional material concerning many related religious and cultural aspects of the region, in particular an analysis of clothing styles, a new translation by Steinkellner and Luczanits of an inscription first recorded by Tucci, along with an extensive bibliography.
This is an important contribution to the field by one of the foremost Himalayan art specialists, very reasonably priced, which will appeal to all those with an interest in the history, religion and culture of the Himalayas. The quality of its photographic reproductions also ensures its place on coffee tables as well as library shelves.
Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter, Tabo, A Lamp for the Kingdom: Early Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Art in the Western Himalayas: Thames & Hudson/Skira 1987: ISBN 88 8118 209 2, 289 pp.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. [nummer] | Regions |South Asia