In 1972, American photographer and writer Thomas Laird traveled overland from Europe into India on a mission to document works of art designed to transform human consciousness. Now, nearly 50 years later, his mission has been achieved in a single, monumental book: “Murals of Tibet.”
The SUMO-sized publication by TASCHEN presents—for the first time—130 of the rarest and most precious murals of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. “Murals of Tibet” is as much a definitive guide to the art of the Himalayas as it as a masterpiece in itself. In honor of this landmark in the preservation of Tibetan culture, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama personally signed and blessed all 998 copies of the Collector’s Edition.
Arranged to reflect a route of spiritual pilgrimage, the book transports readers across space and time to murals that are located in the farthest reaches of the Tibetan plateau, and span more than 1,000 years in history. It took Laird over a decade, and five treks across the Himalayas, to capture the murals, many of which are made fully visible for the first time in the book.
“These murals are often invisible when you go to Tibet,” says Laird. “If you have a mural that’s 10 x 30 feet, and there are pillars in front of it, you can’t see the whole thing from any one place; the image that you come out with is only in your mind.”
“Murals of Tibet” brings these images out of the mind and onto the page in their full, unobstructed glory. This unprecedented technical and artistic achievement only recently became possible thanks to a cutting-edge, multi-image capture and render method that Laird developed. Such a technique has allowed Laird to create what are neither photographs nor facsimiles, but the world’s first, complete renderings of Tibetan wall murals in life-size resolution. Using this photographic ‘stitch system,’ Laird was able to piece together hundreds of images to recreate the large-scale murals—and preserve for posterity many works now housed within crumbling structures.
Although the bulk of the work that would become “Murals of Tibet” did not begin until 2008, Laird’s relationship with the art dates back to the early 70s when he was living as a photo-journalist among the Sherpa people in the Kathmandu Valley. Despite initial technical failures to document the murals, Laird said he developed an obsession with the project after witnessing the emotional wisdom in the approach of the artists he encountered.
“It was seeing their behavior—the mindful attempt to not allow greed, anger, ignorance, lust, and pride to dominate the body, speech, and mind—that made me realize that the murals are intended to educate us about emotional wisdom,” he says. “That’s what gave me the passion to solve the technical problem.”
The theme of emotional wisdom is one that runs deep in the Tibetan artistic tradition. The murals have historically served as a keystone in the transmission of Buddhist narratives and techniques for educating the heart. The works have the power to generate what the Tibetans call “liberation through seeing.”
The murals reproduced from the Dalai Lama’s private chapel in the Lukhang, for instance, contain nearly 200 scenes illustrating highly-advanced meditation techniques and the experiences that they engender. In many cases, these murals are the only visual depictions of such techniques and serve as an invaluable source of instruction and motivation for spiritual practitioners.
The practices and wisdom communicated by the murals are relevant not only to Buddhists but anyone interested in the education of the heart. Asked about his hopes for “Murals of Tibet” and the wisdom it contains, Laird reflects, “It’s too important to let the mission be trapped by any one religion. The murals are part of Tibetan heritage, but they are also part of a bigger work. They contribute to the worldwide chorus of songs being sung about educating the heart.”
While the decades-long journey of creating “Murals of Tibet” may be over, its story is only just beginning. Countless narratives within the murals have yet to be fully explored; others may have yet to be discovered. The book will remain an invaluable source of insight for future generations, whether it’s scholars seeking to unpack the murals’ meaning, Tibetan painters and copyists looking for artistic inspiration, or practitioners searching for spiritual wisdom.
For now, the book can be seen on display at various museums and libraries worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as in any of TASCHEN’s 14 stores.
If you would like to purchase “Murals of Tibet”, please use the links below. Your purchase of this book is another way of supporting our work. Ten percent of proceeds benefit the Mind & Life Institute.
SUMO edition: $12,000 USD / 10,000EUR / 9,500GBP
The SUMO-sized Collector’s Edition is limited to 998 copies, each signed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, with a bookstand designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect and humanitarian pioneer Shigeru Ban.
Art Editon A: $30,000 USD / 25,000EUR / 22,500GBP (only 40 available)
Purchase Art edition A »
Art Editon B: $30,000 USD / 25,000EUR / 22,500GBP (only 40 available)
Purchase Art edition B »
For those interested in learning more about the book, more information—as well videos and podcasts about the making of the book—can be found on TASCHEN’s website.