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The Roerichs Of Himachal Pradesh: How A Russian Family Put Remote Kullu On The World Map

The people of Kullu, Naggar and Lahaul districts in Himachal Pradesh feel indebted to the painter Nicholas Roerich and his family for putting the region on the world map.

Russian painter Nicholas Roerich in Himachal Pradesh
Russian painter Nicholas Roerich in Himachal Pradesh Getty Images

It was after travelling all over India, Sikkim and Bhutan for two long years in 1923 and 1924 that Nicholas Roerich, his wife Helena and their two sons George and Svetoslav Roerich finally decided to settle in Naggar, Kullu Valley in the Himalayas. 

Despite its remoteness, the Roerichs fell for it because of its positive spiritual vibes and mesmerising beauty. It is not for nothing that Kullu is called the Valley of Gods even today!

Born in 1874 in St Petersburg into an aristocratic family, Nicholas Roerich chose to stay out of Bolshevik Russia after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Thus, Russia’s loss proved to be a gain for India and the world. The family spent 20 of their most productive years in Kullu Valley alone, churning out one masterpiece after another and bringing Naggar, Kullu and Lahaul on the artistic map of the world. Today, these masterpieces are displayed all over world -- from International Centre of the Roerichs in Moscow , to Chitrakala Parishad Bangalore, Allahabad Museum, Hall Estate Naggar in India and the Roerich Museum in New York. 

I had the opportunity of visiting the Roerich Museum in New York earlier this year. It has some of the most dazzling and impressive paintings of them all. From the moment one enters its portals, one is swept away by the snow-covered mountains of Lahaul and the cherry-blossom orchards of Naggar and Manali. Whereas the ground floor of the museum is dedicated to photographs of the family in Hall Estate Naggar, Lahaul, their Central Asian (1925-1928) and Mongolian expeditions (1934-35), the other floors are dominated by paintings depicting Naggar, Dusserah at Kullu, Koksar, Gondala, Khangsar Khar, the Palden Lahmo falls and others which are easily identifiable by a person familiar with the area even if the captions do not spell it out. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered a painting of my ancestral house Khangsar Khar entitled “To Kailas–Lahul 1932” , this being the second painting of the Khar (manor house) by Nicholas, the first being  “Dwelling of The Thakurs” which is in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. 

The Roerichs were passionate about Lahaul as they visited it continuously for four summers from 1929 to 1932 from Naggar. My uncle Thakur Pratap Chand, the then Rais and Vizir of Lahaul, helped them settle in village Gungshul above Keylong near the famous Shashur Gompa which is just 2 km from the main road today. Though the whole of Lahaul was a studio for Nicholas and Svetoslav having painted more than 130 masterpieces there, it was at this workshop which they specially built in Gungshul that the final touches were given. Whereas Helena kept herself busy with her writings, George excavated old graves, gathered folk songs and medicinal plants with the help of local Amchis (Vaids).

Helena Roerich in many senses was a true inspiration for Nicholas who often called her “She who leads”.  She was the granddaughter of Field Marshal Kutuzov who was responsible for the defeat of Napoleon in Russia in 1812. She was a modest person and often preferred to publish her work under a pseudonym. She was also deeply involved with the setting up and running of Urusvati – a research centre on the places visited by them in the Himalayas. Her philosophy “Living Ethics” remained her eternal pursuit and was the spirit behind the movement of Roerich Pact and the Banner of peace – a white flag with red circle encasing three dots of Art, Science and Religion.  

Today it is unimaginable that the Roerich Pact and the Banner of Peace which was signed in 1935 by 21 nations in the presence of the President of USA, Franklin D Roosevelt, at the White House was conceived and drafted in a remote place like Naggar!

When we look back this indeed is the finest hour for the people of present-day Himachal Pradesh and more so of Kullu as internationally the event was no less important than formation of League of Nations in 1920 or later the United Nations Organisation in 1945. We are indeed very proud of the Roerichs. Thank you Roerichs for making Himachal your home.  

(Ashok Thakur, IAS (retd) is a former secretary to Govt of India and Life Trustee of International Roerich Memorial Trust , Naggar. Views expressed are personal)

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