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The Sacred Murals of Sarnath, India

Buddha Idol at Nyingma Institute, Sarnath

Have you ever had a project take over your life completely? Artist Kaveri Singh found herself in this very situation – and emerged with an incredible, transformative experience. An autodidact, Kaveri was born and raised in India and has been painting since she was 3 years old. She moved to Los Angeles about 20 years ago and has since amassed a clientele of famous celebrities and renowned designers, such as Joanna Poitier. She also worked on the celebrated Brody House recently bought by Ellen Degeneres. Her thriving schedule was soon to be altered.

The Universe decided there was something I was meant to do.  It had a plan and sometimes, in spite of yourself, you just have to get out of its way. Kaveri Singh

A historic project was coming together in India. The director of the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute knew her father, a Tibetan Lama, was looking for a special artist to head an all-encompassing mural project. The Sarnath Sacred Murals were to honor and reflect the life of the Buddha as the temple is located near where he taught. “They googled ‘Tibetan Sacred Trees’ and found a blog post I had written about the subject. It was literally just that one act. I thought it would be an extensive interview and that I would be given a lot of guidelines such as the height, exact placement… but instead, he gave me ownership. He said ‘This is going to be about you, this is going to be about your art. It’s time for you to go back home’. This almost impossible mission in India was handed to me and I had to give everything to it. I should have been walking away but no part of me ever thought ‘no’.  I had to close up shop, I had no idea as to where I was going, how I was going to do it and of course, make sure as I was going to do right by it. I was thrown off the deep end and had to SWIM.”

Concept Drawing for the Sacred Murals Projects at Sarnath, India

Birth of Buddha Mural Painting at Sarnath, India

Concept Drawing at the Sacred Murals Project, Sarnath, India

The team came together from several countries. They eventually numbered at a little over 30 artists and included Annabel ArmstrongLucretia Moroni and Kaveri’s husband and studio partner, TJ. “There are challenges in both living and working in India and yet the right team with the right skill levels came together organically for the six months. I couldn’t dictate it if I wanted to!” The Sarnath Sacred Murals were to encompass five panels on four walls. One of the challenges was making the murals, the largest panel of which was 45’ x 23’, look cohesive and as if one artist painted it. A way this was achieved was by managing the palette very closely. Every color was premixed, matched and given to the team. Kaveri explains, “The color palette was based on Indian colors. It couldn’t be Chinese, it couldn’t be Italian. For instance: Pink. India is 80% agriculture – the soil is dust and so the light is dust and the dust is a very faint shade of pink. That’s the pink we achieved. If you look at the sky in the Sarnath murals and if you were to step outside, they are the same and it is what actually exists. The murals were rooted in India and found in India.”

Sacred Mural Inspirations drawn from Stone Relief Work at Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India

Many of the murals’ decorative elements would be inspired by the nearby Dhamek Stupa, the location where Buddha was said to give his first sermon. The carved stone relief, bands of flowers and lotus leaves were incorporated into the architectural ornamentation. In addition to the murals, ornamental work and trompe l’oeil, there was also glazing – lots and lots of glazing.

We painted through color glazes. Even with the ornamentation and figure painting, we did these layers of very thin glazes and if were to look at the work as whole, it feels like a watercolors.  I have a tendency to underpaint with all the colors in layers and washes with nothing too opaque. The results have a soft edge with quite a bit of light. The totality is the feeling of being in a dream.

Nature Inspired Sacred Murals of Sarnath, India

Mural Depicting Buddha's First Sermon under the Bodhi Tree

Nature Inspired Meditation Room at Sarnath, India

Buddhist Monks Gather at Nyingma University Hall

While a Tibetan sacred tree is the centerpoint, a skyscape painted on the ceiling and trompe l’oeil ornamentation helps tie in the space’s architecture to the murals. “If anyone walked into this temple from any location and religion, they would find something they could relate to – they wouldn’t be uncomfortable. We married the cultures. When you stand in the middle of the hall all you see is the tree, which is well represented and much like the West tradition of painting, and each leaf is articulated which is much like the East tradition of painting. The outer is in harmony with the inner, with all cultures.” It seems as if no detail or idea, be it literal or hypothetical, was left without care.

Volunteers from around the world unite for the Sacred Murals project

Volunteers at Work on the Sacred Murals Project of Sarnath

International Camaraderie between Volunteers of Sacred Murals Project at Sarnath, India

Kaveri has since returned to LA and resumed her still-thriving studio – even working on an Indian-inspired home that is now owned by a world-renowned singer. [And yes, click on that link. Trust me on this.]  And as to the blog that began her life-changing whirlwind? She hasn’t written a post since. It was as if that post was meant to reach out across the world, touch the right person and then its journey was complete. The temple was officially inaugurated on December 13th, 2013, with a planting of a Sacred Sapling from the Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka. Over 600 monks from 9 countries escorted the sapling to the opening and prayed for peace in the world. Kaveri reminisces, “It was a life-changing experience in so many ways. I really learned what it meant to have faith.  It put me in touch with the teachings of the Buddha.” The beauty of these sacred murals have touched many — and it touches the heart to know that the talent of so many international artists will live on for hundreds of years in the energy of the murals that honor an exemplary human life.

10 comments

  1. Great article Regina! I just got back from India and saw these murals. They are truly divine. So nice to hear this back story. Thanks for sharing it

  2. Beautiful murals and a beautiful story. too!

    • Kaveri and the team did an outstanding job – just adore the project! I hope you have a chance to see them on one of your beautiful trips to India.

    • Ah, I see it is north of Varanasi. Haven’t been there yet but will some day and I will remember this!

  3. It was wonderful to see my old school mate Kaveri Singh’s work! This project is beautiful as are the paintings of the Buddha, replete with his nobility and his divinity. Bravo Kaveri and all the artists on the Sacred Murals Project!

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