Visitors to New York City’s Upper West Side may wonder about a peculiar cornerstone that adorns a twenty-four story skyscraper at 310 Riverside Drive. Embedded in the base of the towering deco-style structure – an architectural showpiece overlooking the Hudson -is a shiny black surface, engraved with a circle, within which are three spheres forming a pyramid, the year “1929”, and the initials “MR.” Within the stone, according to some accounts, is a casket containing secret papers and other mysterious paraphernalia. Today the Master Building, as the skyscraper is called, is a housing cooperative inhabited by well-heeled New Yorkers. In its heyday, however, it was a striking testament to the idealism and success of one of the most remarkable ‘gurus’ of the twentieth century, the Russian painter, writer, explorer, and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich.
From its opening just before the Great Wall Street Crash, to its closing in the aftermath of the Depression, the Master Building was headquarters for Roerich’s worldwide campaign to promote culture, peace and spirituality through the arts. Here Roerich established the Cor Ardens - “Blazing Hearts” - Art Association, and the Corona Mundi - “Crown of the World”- Master Institute of United Arts. Schools of architecture, painting, music, drama, interior design and dance, as well as galleries, auditoriums and lectures halls were housed within the Master Building, which was originally planned to taper to a Buddhist stupa (in the end five additional stories were added instead) and whose stylized brickwork shifts from dark to light as it soars upward.
Roerich is most known for providing the sets, costume design and inspiration for Sergei Diaghilev’s 1913 production of Igor Stravinsky’s raucous pagan ballet The Rite of Spring , which sparked riots in Paris and started the age of modernism in music. Yet in his day Roerich was a cultural mandarin who hobnobbed with presidents, impressed Tibetan lamas, was applauded by famous artists and writers – he counted H.G. Wells and the poet Rabindranath Tagore as his friends and President Herbert Hoover invited him to the White House - travelled through remote stretches of Asia, and was nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize. He created some 7,000 paintings, many of the Himalayas and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, all imbued with a peculiar color, fine line and dream-like lucidity; among his admirers was H.P. Lovecraft, who speaks of Roerich’s work in At the Mountains of Madness. The three spheres within a circle of the building’s cornerstone – a symbol that Roerich believed reached into prehistory - is the emblem of the Roerich Peace Pact, an international treaty designed to protect works of art and culture in times of war, which received Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signature in the White House in 1935 and was later adopted by dozens of nations.
But perhaps the most remarkable project of this mystical mover and shaker was his attempt to establish an independent Buddhist nation in the rugged and forbidding lands of northern Asia, what he called a ‘Sacred Union of the East’. In the 1920s and 30s, Roerich sought to spark a spiritual and political revolution in Tibet, Mongolia, China, and Russia, based on the ancient myths of the secret land of Shambhala, that would bring together Buddhists and create a spiritual and political force to be reckoned with. According to various legends, Shambhala is a mysterious land secluded in inner Asia. It’s mentioned in many ancient texts, such as the Kalachakra Tantra, an esoteric Tibetan Buddhist teaching concerning the ‘cycles of time’. The Zhang Zhung culture, which pre-dates Tibetan Buddhism, speaks of it, as does the much older Hindu Vishnu Purana, which calls Shambhala the birth place of the Kalki, the last incarnation of Vishnu, who will inaugurate a new Golden Age, the Satya Yuga. In trying to fuse disparate Buddhists into one people, Roerich portrayed himself as the reincarnation of the legendary Tibetan hero Rigden-Jyepo , who is associated with the Maitreya Buddha, whose return would, so the legend goes, inaugurate an era of universal brotherhood.
From Ancient Russia to the Mystic East
Nicholas Roerich was born in 1874 to a well-off St. Petersburg family. His father was a lawyer and notary public, with a deep love of the arts, and from an early age Roerich knew many artists, poets and writers. A fascination with Russia’s ancient past began when an archaeologist friend took young Nicholas to some prehistoric tumuli. Hands-on experience of Russia’s prehistory stimulated a passion for the past that remained with Roerich throughout his life. He early on showed artistic talent and by his teens Roerich announced that he would become an artist. His father thought this impractical and counseled studying law. They reached a compromise and at nineteen Roerich enrolled in the Academy of Arts and St. Petersburg University simultaneously, an early sign of the polymath to come. A painting of Kangchenjunga, the sacred mountain of the Himalayas, at his family’s estate in Isvara, fascinated young Roerich, and inspired a life-long love of the snow-capped peaks.
Roerich moved in a milieu any budding artist would dream of. By the age of twenty he had met the composers Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Stravinsky, as well as the basso Fyodor Chaliapin, whose portrayal of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust triggered a craze for the satanic in Silver Age St. Petersburg. At concerts he heard the music of Prokofiev and Scriabin – a noted Theosophist – and became a passionate Wagnerian. Wagner’s ideal was the Gesamtkuntswek, or ‘total art work,’ combining music, theatre, and poetry, an ambition embodied in his operas and which Roerich himself embraced. By 1906 Roerich was the director of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and had joined Diaghilev’s “World of Art” association, later becoming its president. On a tour of Russia he painted fortresses, monasteries, churches, monuments, Russian saints and legends, and designed religious art for sites in Russia and the Ukraine. His love of Russia’s past emerged in his sets and decorations for Borodin’s Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Ivan the Terrible. Roerich’s paintings were part of Diaghilev’s Paris exhibition of 1906 and it is no exaggeration to say that he was an indispensable part of the success of the Ballets Russe.
Yet there was another side to Roerich, a profound hunger for spirituality that emerged in his religious paintings and which came to dominate his life after his marriage to Helena Shaposhnikov, the daughter of a famous architect. Roerich met Helena in 1901; from the start they recognized themselves as cosmic twins and married soon after. From an early age Helena was subject to strange fits and had visions of her body in flames. She suggested Roerich read the yogis Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and the Bhagavad Gita, and introduced him to the work of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Helena later translated Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, into Russian; although Russian herself, Blavatsky wrote in English, and her works were banned in Russia for some time. Helena believed that she was in spiritual contact with Blavatsky’s own hidden ‘Masters’, highly evolved individuals who, Blavatsky claimed, resided in a secret monastery in Tibet; that she and Blavatsky shared a forename may have helped.
Helena entered trances in order to contact these adepts; among other things they told her that her fiery visions were the result of ‘new energies’ forming in her body. Nicholas soon made contact with them too, and with Helena they developed their own mystical teaching, Agni Yoga, named after the Hindu god of fire, as well as Helena’s spiritual spontaneous combustion. Agni Yoga, or ‘Living Ethics’, was communicated to the Roerichs by Master Morya, and in later years the Roerichs would claim that their mysterious journeys to the East were directed by the same Master, an esoteric Sat Nav system that impressed many acquaintances.
That Roerich should turn to the mystic East was not unusual. These were the last days of the Great Game, the geo-political chess match between Russia and Great Britain over influence in northern Asia. For years Russia had harbored dreams of a ‘Russian Asia’, and many northern Buddhists believed that they would do better under the Russians than under the British. The Tsar’s court was filled with lovers of the East, characters like Zhamsaran Badmaieff, a practitioner of Tibetan medicine, and Prince Esper Ukhtomsky, an Orientalist, Buddhist and Theosophist (he is sometimes identified as Prince Lubovedsky in G.I. Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men.) In 1909 Agvan Dorzhiev, a Buryat Buddhist monk , who was envoy and tutor of the 13th Dalai Lama, was allowed to build a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, which he dreamed would one day house the first Buddhist Tsar. Dorzhiev told Tsar Nicholas II that the Tibetans viewed Russia as a northern Shambhala; it was, the legend said, located north of India.
As Roerich worked on Dorzhiev’s temple, designing its stained glass windows, he became fascinated with the legends of Shambhala, which Dorzhiev used to promote his own dream of an independent Buddhist state under the protection of the Russian bear; the Mongols, Prince Ukhtomsky had told him, believed the Tsar was an incarnate Buddha. Sadly, this dream became a nightmare. The temple was sacked by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and Dorzhiev was arrested. He was saved from execution at the last minute by powerful friends, and spent years secluded in his temple. He was arrested again in 1937 during the Stalin purges and died in prison at the age of 85. (The temple, plundered and abused during the Communist regime, was re-consecrated in 1989 and is active today as a center for the practice and study of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.)
Journeys to the West
Some of Roerich’s paintings from this time seem to prophesize the catastrophe of WWI, a precognition he shared with the psychologist C.G. Jung and the Expressionist painter Ludwig Meidner, both of whom recorded similar visions. On the heels of war came revolution. Roerich had no love for the Bolsheviks – Bolshevism, he said, was “the distortion of the sacred ideas of humankind” – and he was saved from the worst of the revolution by his doctor, who suggested he go to Sortavala, in Finland, to recuperate from pneumonia.
Perhaps he simply knew which way the wind was blowing; in any case the exodus proved providential to Roerich’s career. From Finland the Roerichs – by this time they had two sons – went to Sweden, where his work was shown, and in 1919, they moved to London, where Roerich designed sets for Sir Thomas Beecham’s Covent Garden Theatre.
It’s believed that the Roerichs joined the Theosophical Society while in England. This would make sense. Since 1882 the society’s headquarters were in Adyar, India, and for some time Roerich’s real target was the sub-continent. But this required funds, and for the time being Roerich, like Columbus, steered west. In 1920 the Chicago Art Institute invited him to exhibit his work on a US tour. From autumn 1920 to the spring of 1923 Roerich’s work travelled across America, while Roerich designed sets for the Chicago Opera.
The Roerichs settled in New York where they began the work that would result in the Master Building. Roerich was feted in Manhattan. Charming, impressive and enigmatic at turns – he accentuated his Mongol-like features with a Fu-Manchu moustache and beard and had taken to Eastern garb - he began to gather followers. Two of them, Louis Horch, a successful broker, and his wife Nettie, financed much of Roerich’s work for the next decade and a half. Horch was convinced Roerich was a true teacher and prophet and, after clearing his debts, funded the first phase of Roerich’s world culture campaign. Later, on the site of his own mansion, Horch broke ground for the Master Building.
Roerich told Horch that his cultural activities were the exoteric, outer face of his work; the inner, esoteric side was its true raison d’être. This, Horch and the others learned, was the inauguration of a new age, that of the Maitreya Buddha and Shambhala. Roerich’s inner circle received special rings and secret esoteric names and were taught Agni Yoga methods of meditation.
The Search for Shambhala
Among the many activities that Horch funded was Roerich’s first attempt to discover Shambhala – or, failing that, to create it. But as we’ve seen, Roerich was not the first Russian to envision an independent Buddhist state. In Beasts, Men and Gods the Polish writer and traveler Ferdinand Ossendowski tells of his adventures in Mongolia as he fled the chaos of the Russian Civil War and rise of the Bolsheviks. Ossendowski learned of a mysterious subterranean city, Agharti, ruled by a secret ‘King of the World.’ Although very different in character, Agharti and Shambhala have often been conflated: while Shambhala is a land of peace and harmony, Agharti is generally characterized as a rather evil place, a totalitarian realm which the omnipotent King of the World rules via secret agents and surveillance systems. Ossendowski did not immediately reject these tales of a hidden world because he had already encountered an extraordinary individual who for a time was dictator of Mongolia.
Roman Ungern von Sternberg, a White Russia ex-lieutenant general, had set himself up as an independent warlord, and his raids on both White and Red Russian supply trains were so violent that he had earned the nickname ‘the Bloody Baron’. Ungern von Sternberg believed he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and he practiced a severe Buddhism that included gratuitous violence and a fierce hatred of Communists and Jews. After a brief association with the Japanese, he formed an ‘Order of Military Buddhists’ and succeeded in capturing Ulan Bator. He was eventually defeated by the Soviets and it is said that before his execution he chewed the Cross of St. George medal earned for his bravery, rather than let it fall into enemy hands.
Roerich, although peace-loving, had grander plans. The ostensible aim of the First Roerich Asian Expedition (1925-1929) - which trekked through the Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram and Altai Mountains, Mongolia, and the Gobi Desert on route to Tibet - was to provide inspiration for his painting, and ethnographic and artistic materials for his sons. But Roerich’s real aim was to spread the word about Shambhala. In The Heart of Asia Roerich speaks of a strange stone said to have reached Earth from another star, perhaps Sirius. Part of this stone resides in Shambhala, while a part circulates ‘throughout the Earth, retaining its magnetic link with the main stone.’ In Paris in October 1923, on route to India, Roerich is said to have received a strange package. Within it was a small box with mysterious decorations, containing a black meteorite. This, Roerich believed, was a piece of the Chintamani stone, the ‘wish-granting gem’ of Tibetan legend, which some associate with the legendary lapis exilis or ‘stone from the heavens’ of alchemy and the Grail legends. Roerich painted many canvases on the Chintamani theme and part of the aim of his expedition may have been to return the fragment to its source, thus initiating the return of Rigden-Jyepo, the incarnation of Maitreya, and the start of the new age.
Lamas and Commissars
Roerich’s more immediate aim was to make contact with the Panchen Lama, who had fled Tibet in 1923 over a disagreement with the Dalai Lama. The office of the Dalai Lama is better known in the west, but the Panchen Lama is of equal importance and is considered the spiritual head of Tibet while the Dalai Lama has a more secular role. (The current Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyiman, was taken into ‘protective custody’ in 1995 at the age of six by the Chinese authorities and has not been seen since.) Roerich believed that the then Dalai Lama was corrupt and that if the Panchen Lama returned to Tibet, it would embolden Buddhists across northern Asia to unite. The Panchen Lama’s return, he believed, could trigger the new age of Shambhala.
Readers interested in Roerich’s travels should read his fascinating Altai-Himalaya, which among other wonders records an early UFO sighting. But perhaps the strangest spot on his itinerary was Moscow. In London Roerich had written articles supporting the White Russians, and his remarks about Bolshevism were always negative. But now he realized his plans needed Soviet support; he also wanted to retrieve his library and art collection, confiscated by the Bolsheviks. A new phase of the Great Game had started, this time between the Soviets and Britain. The Soviets were making overtures to Lhasa, which was under British influence, and his remarks about Bolshevism notwithstanding, Britain considered Roerich a possible Soviet agent. But exactly which side Roerich was on was confusing: he was a Russian national whose expedition flew an American flag next to a Tibetan thangka. Both British and American eye brows were raised when, after a four month delay in Khotan, China, Roerich suddenly veered westward to Moscow.
Roerich had told the Soviet Consul in Ürümqi that he had material of great interest to the USSR – possibly intelligence about the British. He also told them that he had letters from the hidden Masters for Stalin, and, reminding them of Dorzhiev’s remarks about a ‘northern Shambhala,’ he announced that his and the Masters’ task was to ‘ unite Buddhism with Communism to create a great Oriental Federation’. This required retrieving the Panchen Lama from Mongolia and freeing Tibet of the British. Two months later Roerich was in Moscow speaking to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Educational Commissioner and a devotee of Madame Blavatsky. The Russians listened with interest but were unsure of Roerich’s real aims. After a meeting with the secret police, Lunacharsky told his fellow Theosophist that he should leave the USSR immediately: his countrymen suspected him of being an American spy.
When the British heard of Roerich’s plan, they counseled the Dalai Lama to prevent him from entering Tibet. They were convinced Roerich was working for the Soviets and that his plans for Shambhala included a Communist backed revolution. The Dalai Lama agreed and for several months Roerich’s party waited, south of the Kamrong Pass, in one of the coldest spots on the planet, for permission to cross the border. It never came. Their supplies dwindled; they had only summer tents for shelter; pack animals died and so did men. Appeals for help were ignored. Finally they were allowed to head to Sikkim, where they were escorted into India. Shambhala would have to wait.
Roerich took another shot at Shambhala a decade later, this time with backing from the US government. In 1929, Roerich met Henry Wallace, a Washington politician, Freemason and devotee of the occult, as well as a successful agriculturalist. Roerich had recovered from the first ‘Shambolic’ mission, and was vigorously promoting his Peace Pact , mentioned earlier. Wallace was enthused. He became a passionate supporter and lobbied strenuously for the idea; it was his support that led to FDR’s approval (other backers included Albert Einstein and Bernard Shaw). Another idea of Wallace’s said to stem from Roerich was the use of the verso of the Great Seal, with its Masonic all-seeing eye in a pyramid, on the back of the US dollar. Wallace told the Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau that Novus Ordo Seclorum could be read as FDR’s catchphrase “New Deal.” Only later did Morgenthau realize that Wallace had a different ‘new age’ in mind.
Wallace entered Roerich’s inner circle and was told about ‘the Plan’, the codename for Shambhala. It soon became clear that his agricultural expertise and position as Agricultural Secretary could be useful. In 1934 Wallace suggested to FDR that Roerich head a mission to Mongolia to collect samples of drought-resistant grasses. America had entered the Dust Bowl, the agricultural crisis following the Depression, and needed to develop methods of dry-land farming. Roerich, who had by this time settled in India, would lead a botanical expedition and gather helpful specimens. Roerich’s reputation as a possible Soviet agent, as well as a mystic, prejudiced Wallace’s colleagues against the idea, but he was persuasive, and with two government botanists in tow, Roerich headed into a northern Asia even more unstable than a decade earlier.
Things, however, quickly fell apart. Roerich’s ideas about the expedition were not those of the botanists, and his own personal escort of armed White Russian Cossacks did not help. While he did collect some grasses, Roerich spent more time visiting Buddhist monasteries, speaking with monks about Rigden-Jyepo and the imminent ‘War of Shambhala’, and perhaps showing them the Chintamani stone. Reports say he was convincing and that many monks believed him. It was clear Roerich had something more than grass in mind. In Inner Mongolia Soviet suspicions were aroused by the American-supported Russian mystic spreading rumors about a coming new age. Roerich’s remarks about the return of the Panchen Lama and the advent of Shambhala seemed to suggest that the US was backing a holy war against Communist rule. When reports of Roerich’s activities first reached Wallace, he dismissed them and continued to support ‘the Plan’, but when Louis Horch, who had recently filed suit against Roerich for $200,000 in unpaid loans, told Wallace that Roerich was assuring Mongolians of US support for an uprising, he tried to reel his guru in. That ‘the Plan’ would require a revolution had escaped Wallace. Roerich ignored Wallace’s messages and continued to recruit disaffected Buddhists until Wallace, realizing his mistake, terminated the mission. Soon after Wallace broke with his guru.
The End of the Master
By this time Horch had gained control of much of Roerich’s work, as well as the Master Building, appropriating them in return for the unpaid loans. He also testified against Roerich in a legal battle between his former guru and the US government for tax evasion. Roerich’s appeal was denied and the $50,000 he owed had to be paid. Roerich wisely remained in India for the rest of his life; he died in Naggar, Himachal Pradesh, at the site of his Urusvati Himalayan Research institute, in 1947. He continued to meet world-famous figures, among who were Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – both of whom were Theosophists.
Wallace would later regret his association with the modern day Rigden-Jyepo. When running for vice-president on FDR’s bid for a third term, copies of Wallace’s letters to Roerich – headed ‘Dear Guru’ – got into the wrong hands and the Democrats were only saved by a sex scandal involving their Republican opponent Wendell Wilkie. Both parties agreed to keep their secrets secret. But in 1948 Wallace, inspired by Roerich’s assurance that he would one day hold the office, ran as an independent candidate for the presidency. The ‘Guru Letters’ emerged again and hit the papers. Wallace now called Roerich a ‘disgruntled ex-employee’ and ‘tax-evader’, but his reputation as a mystic and the tone of the letters, asking Roerich for advice on political matters, scuppered Wallace’s already slim chances.
Roerich’s plan to initiate the return of Rigden-jyepo, incarnate Maitreya, and inaugurate the age of Shambhala may have been pipe dreams; it’s said that when the Panchen Lama heard of Roerich’s scheme he said he would have nothing to do with it. But however faulty his politics, Roerich’s vision was a vital ingredient in his art, which remains powerful and transformative. Intrepid tourists can see some of Roerich’s fantastic works in the wonderful Nicholas Roerich Museum at 319 West 107th Street, a few blocks north of the Master Building. Few who do realize that along with the spiritual inspiration for Roerich’s mesmerizing canvases was a real ambition to re-chart the map of Asia.
(I've contributed a Foreword to a new edition of The Visionary Art of Nicholas Roerich, by Jacqueline Decter, released sometime this month.)
Gyato, Tenzin The Kalachakra Tanta (London: Wisdom Publications, 1985)
Lachman, Gary Politics and the Occult (Wheaton: Quest Books, 2008)
Meyer, Karl and Brysac, Shareen Tournament of Shadows (London: Little, Brown & Co., 2001)
Roerich, Nicholas Altai-Himalaya (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2001)
- - The Heart of Asia (Kathmandu: Pilgrims Publishing, 2008)
-- Shambhala: In Search of the New Era (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1990)
Znamenski, Andrei Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy and Geo-Politics in the Heart of Asia (Wheaton: Quest Books, 2011)