L'Araba Fenice: An Artshop in Ladakh

Buddhist Folk Art from India Indian Art Ladakh Leh

Wonderful paintings in a dusty art shop in Leh, Ladakh, September '22.

On a busy and very dusty corner in Leh is a women's co-operative called Dzomsa where we refill our water bottles and take our laundry. Ladakh is a cold high altitude desert and water is a precious commodity. Dzomsa has a sign saying how many plastic bottles you've saved by refilling there - it's over 200,000.

I've stepped out of Dzomsa's doorway numerous times but never really noticed the shop on the opposite corner - an art shop with dusty windows. Coming out of Dzomsa in September '22 I looked more closely and saw an Indian miniature painting of a snow leopard - a rare creature that inhabits a few pockets of mountains in Ladakh. We've never seen a snow leopard in the wild but we know we've been near them when trekking in the mountains - we've seen their footprints in mud at the side of streams. I looked at the name on the shopfront: "L'Araba Fenice" and knew I'd heard those words before, and only recently.

Tantric Painting of a Giant Bird, a Simurgh, & Elephants

Tantric Painting of a Simurgh & Elephants

Detail of a Tibetan Thangka Painting of Manjushri

Detail of Tibetan painting of Manjushri

Inside, the shop was a treasure of unusual paintings. The owner was a delightful Kashmiri man who'd been there for many years. Everything is catalogued, like a bookshop. I can't believe that in 20 years of regular visits to Ladakh I'd never been inside. I ask him about the name of the shop. I think he says it's Italian "The Arabian Phoenix". My memory isn't too clear but I tell him it's the name of a bookshop and there's a film about it. I'm wrong on both counts.

Indian Painting of a Hand with Energy Symbols

Indian Painting of a Hand with Energy Symbols

Back home in the UK I try to get to the bottom of this phrase that has caught my imagination and discover a 5 episode BBC radio play "A Bookshop in Algiers", an adaptation of a book by Kaouther Adimi. I heard the last episode in which the bookshop has closed but an ex-employee dreams of re-opening it and calling it "L'Araba Fenice".
These images are from a few of the paintings we bought there with some information about them.
See all our paintings here.

Detail of Four Harmonious Friends painting from the Jataka TalesDetail of Four Harmonious Friends Painting from the Jataka Tales

Painting of a mythical Simurgh

In the first painting nine elephants are in the grip of a huge white bird. The bird is Simurgh, a benevolent Phoenix like bird. Although benevolent, in some other paintings the Simurgh swoops down on a mythical creature called a Gajasimha (a giant elephant lion, a makura hybrid creature) which is flinging around several small elephants. There is a ferocious battle between the two creatures; in Islam the Simurgh represents purity & healing). The myth and image were brought from Persia to India by the Moghuls around 1600 where it may have merged with the garuda, the sunbird.

Thangkha Pinting of Manjushri

A canvas thangka painting of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, signed by the Nepalese artist Bimod Tamang. Manjushri is wielding the flaming sword that cuts through all delusions. By his left shoulder is a lotus and books representing the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha.

Indian Hand Painting with Symbols

In this enigmatic Indian painting of a hand decorated with symbols the hand is set against a tea brown background covered with writing, probably Sanskrit, surrounded by an Indian red border. The symbols include weapons, a conch and a hand.

Four Harmonios Friends Painting

The last image is a painting from Buddhist folklore with a bird sitting on a hare which is standing on a monkey, which in turn is sitting on an elephant underneath a fruit-bearing tree.
The story behind the painting relates to the Buddha's teachings about the realisation of our interdependence, unity, cooperation and friendship for the greater good. All the animals are benefitting from the fruit of the tree which each in their different ways has helped to grow.
Read more about this fable in our blog The Four Harmonious Friends.

See all our paintings here.

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