From the Himalayas to the Heartland
Sep 24
Nov 5, 2022
Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong

When two turbaned Samarkandis reached the borderland of the Middle Kingdom, they offered the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1464–87) a magnificent foreign beast, a lioness. The long journey across the Central Asia heartland had tired the animal; nevertheless, it appeared majestic. The court painter dutifully reproduced this scene. The resulting painting, The Lioness (1483), will be featured at Rossi & Rossi in From the Himalayas to the Heartland, on view from 24 September until 5 November 2022.

Over the painting is a fu, or prose, written by Chenghua, himself. The emperor was well versed in the art of poetry and calligraphy, and his fu speaks of this unique tribute, which was sent by Sultan Ahmed of Samarkand. It describes, at length, the mysterious and portentous animal of the distant western states and is signed with the sultan’s personal seal. 

This event was documented in The Standard History of the Ming (Ming-Shih), under the section titled Samarkand, in the fourth chapter named Western Region. Such an offering illustrates the workings of the imperial Ming dynasty’s tribute system, in which a network of trade, ritualistic and diplomatic exchanges existed between the Emperor of China and the heads of state of various nations in Asia. The Ming emperor was recognised as the centre of power and representatives of other polities were required to journey to the Chinese capital periodically. They brought distinct treasures from their respective lands to present to the emperor as gestures of good will and solidarity. 

Exhibited alongside The Lioness is a selection of precious objects from Mughal India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Tibet. Exquisitely fashioned, these works exemplify the artistic achievements and refined styles of craftsmen from the Himalayan region. Sword hilts, stucco heads of deities, pendants, lamps and more carry the ways of life, folk and religious, of those inhabiting both the Himalayan mountain ranges and the Indian subcontinent. 

Amongst the highlights of the exhibition is an ornate ceremonial knife from nineteenth-century Bhutan. Decorated with Buddhist symbols, this dagger has a tapered, double-edged iron blade with double grooves. The gilt silver hilt is covered with a chiselled foliate decoration and turquoise inlay, whilst the cap-shaped pommel is embellished on the front with a pierced design of a parasol with two fish against a background of foliage. The parasol represents protection from harmful forces and the two fish symbolise the benefits of a state of fearlessness. The back of the pommel is chiselled with a honeycomb trellis resembling ancient armour designs. 

The scabbard’s fine openwork parcel-gilt silver covering is decorated with Himalayan dragons and Buddhist symbols amidst densely entwined foliate work. The sheath is studded with small turquoise chips in box settings. A dagger of this quality almost certainly would have been made for a member of the Bhutanese nobility.

Today, artists from the region continue to work in innovative ways. Tsherin Sherpa (b. 1968), a Nepali artist of Tibetan descent, honours local artistic traditions of carpet-making by creating a series of carpets in collaboration with contemporary design studio Mt. Refuge. Fabricated from highland Tibetan wool and Chinese silk, his textiles derive inspiration from folklore, religious tales and cultural symbols of the Tibetan plateau. The resulting works reflect Sherpa’s approach to contemporary art, one in which tradition and modernity are in constant negotiation. 

The Lioness
With an imperial inscription by the Chenghua Emperor on silk, which dates the work to the first of the lunar sixth month in the guimao (corresponding to the date of 5 July 1483), and one imperial seal that reads 'Treasures from Vast Territories' (guangyun zhibao 廣運之寶)
Central Asia
Ink and pigment on paper
242 x 287 cm (95 ¼ x 113 in)
Head of an old man, perhaps an ascetic
4th-5th century
Unfired clay with polychrome
15 x 11 x 24 cm (6 x 4 ¼ 9 ½ in)
Ceremonial Knife
Ca. 19 century
Silver, gilt, iron and turquoise
Knife: 37 cm (14 ½ in), case: 26.3 cm (10 ¼ in)
Crutch hilt
18th century
Jade on gilt-bronze mount
H 6.3 cm
Mughal period, 18th century
Gem-set white metal with enamel inlay
H 13.5 cm
Mughal period, 18th century
H 12 cm
Torso of Brahma
Ca. 12th cenuty
Central India
Pink sandstone
55.8 cm (22 in)
Tsherin Sherpa
The Tak
Highland tibetan wool and chinese silk wrap cotton
167 x 122 cm
Tsherin Sherpa
The Mother and the Cubs
Highland Tibetan wool and Chnese silk wrap cotton
167 x 122 cm
Erbossyn Meldibekov
Branding on leather
Size Variable