A note on the origin of the sacred stone in Act One of ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’

   The idea came about incidentally during my researches about Nicholas Roerich. I had come across his name by chance in 1977 as a result of my interest in the graal, or grail, legends. Roerich was the custodian of a talismanic mineral which he usually referred to simply as ‘the Stone’. What interested me was that he seemed to imply a connection between this Stone and the stone of the graal, lapis exilis, which occurs in the German graal story Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. (Richard Wagner based his opera Parsifal on this story, but in it he changed the symbol to a cup or chalice which is the conventional and universally recognised symbol.) Only Wolfram’s story makes it a stone, and because of other facts surrounding his conception, it is for me and for many people the version of the legend which comes closest to revealing the truth about the graal.

   The fact that Roerich made a link between a material object and something thought of as merely a symbol made it essential to try to identify his Stone. The reader of Roerich’s books is left in no doubt that the talisman seemed to embody the meaning of his esoteric work. A central aim of this work was the promotion of a contemporary interpretation of the idea of Shambhala, the ‘promised land’ of the Buddhists. The ‘Shambhala project’, as it is now sometimes called, envisaged the creation of a Buddhist-Mongol theocracy to fill the power vacuum in Central Asia in the 1920’s, and its two leading figures, the Buriat lama Agvan Dorjiev and the Mongol leader Dr Tsyben Zhamtsarano, were well known to Roerich. Was the use of the Stone as a propitiatory talisman in this endeavour based on its connection with the graal, or did Roerich make only a poetic connection because of the nature and supposed powers of the talisman?

   Initially my researches to discover the facts about Roerich’s Stone took time, as little of the information was then in the public domain. The custodians of Roerich’s work were seemingly reluctant to disclose information about any matters which had esoteric or political ramifications. This applied particularly to the Stone, which had been employed both as an ‘instrument’ which, it was believed, had the power to conduct and enhance psychic energy over distance, and was also implicated with the Shambhala project, which had involved public figures. It was possible, of course, that the people I was in touch with  may not have known all the facts I wanted. Every statement and item of information about the Stone in Roerich’s books and elsewhere had to be assessed and collated in order to reconstruct its story. I had learnt early on that it was generally thought to be a fragment of a giant meteorite, but it was not until 1991 that I found out crucial details about certain of its meteoritic characteristics which, together with other information, enabled me to search for a match for the parent stone in the scientific record. Fortunately there was only one likely ‘candidate’. It was then a question of looking for other material about this stone in the scientific literature to corroborate my identification. This arrived in the form of information connecting it to the work of Roerich’s colleague Zhamtsarano in a paper on meteorites originally published in Ulan Bator in Mongolia in 1958. This evidence was better than I had dared hope for and gave the confirmation I needed.

   The main mass of Roerich’s Stone was thus identified as a giant iron meteorite known to the Mongols as the Silver Camel, and which they hold to be sacred. It weighs about twenty-eight tons, making it by far the largest known meteorite in Asia and the fourth largest on record. It fell in remote antiquity at a site close to the Bulgan river in the foothills of the Altai mountains in Mongolia, whose coordinates are approximately 47 degrees north and 91 degrees east. It was first scientifically studied by Russians, who  recorded it in 1898 and know it by the name Armanty. The Chinese, who dispute the Mongol claim of ownership of the stone, call it the Gobi or Xinjiang meteorite. However maps clearly show that the stone fell in Mongolian territory and that the Chinese falsified the coordinates they gave to support their claim.

   Identifying Roerich’s Stone after so long was a rewarding moment. However, although I was convinced I had uncovered an important fact which, if it had been known about, was certainly closely guarded, Roerich’s followers maintained their previous discretion and were entirely non-committal. Of course the possibility also existed that a piece of lost knowledge about the graal had been revealed, a topic that will be addressed later. The information I now had on the nature and origin of the Stone threw fresh light on aspects of Roerich’s work and travels, his mindset and his motivations. It cleared up much of the mythology which has accumulated around it, which some of his followers continue to take literally. Many of them know the giant meteorite ‘lying in Shambhala’ by the name ‘Chintamani’, and knowing this name is also used to refer to Roerich’s fragment, light could now be shed on a significant episode where this name was used.

   Roerich’s mentor in his mission on behalf of the Shambhala idea was Agvan Dorjiev, whom he had  met in St Petersburg by at least 1909. In a rare autobiographical anecdote, he related that it was during the construction of a Buddhist Temple in the then Russian capital and from Dorjiev himself that he first learnt about Shambhala and its future importance. Dorjiev was the prime mover in the Temple project, which was completed in 1913, and Roerich had worked on it as artistic advisor. I had in my notes an interesting piece of information given to me by a Russian friend, Layla Garrett, quoted from a letter from a researcher in St Petersburg, Constantin Ivanenko, to the effect that Dorjiev had concealed ‘a piece of the Chintamani crystal brought from Shambhala’ in the foundations of the Temple, presumably to have it function as a conduit of subtle energy to favour his Buddhistic endeavours. It was now possible to say that Dorjiev’s ‘piece of crystal’ was another fragment from the great meteorite in Mongolia, which was thus located at the very heart of the geographical focus of the dream for the earthly Shambhala. Undoubtedly through his participation in the Temple project, Roerich became fascinated by the Shambhala legend, and we can easily imagine that he also became acquainted with the lore about the revered sacred stone.  He would in due course receive his own talisman, the Stone, in Paris in 1923, and would take it with him throughout his epic travels in Asia in the years 1923-28. Given that the meteorite fragments of Dorjiev and Roerich had a shared origin, and an identity of function as propitiatory talismans in relation to the Shambhala project, it would be natural to infer that Roerich obtained his fragment from Dorjiev or, as seems more likely, a member of his circle, although I have no absolute proof of this at present. The Buddhist Temple still exists and was restored to its original use in 1990.

   It was only after Roerich had left Russia in 1917 during the Revolution, and had subsequently made his way to the United States and established his cultural and educational institutions in New York, that it became evident he was formulating an active role for himself in support of the aims of the Shambhala idea. In fact he was in a far better position to do this outside Russia than within, since he had freedom to travel and to raise funds from the Russian diaspora and sympathetic Americans. In large measure it was his way of staying in touch with his homeland and enabling him to pursue cultural purposes which for him represented ‘the ideal’. He also believed that he could return to Russia and negotiate an arrangement to live there and establish institutions similar to those in America, and to travel freely, but on his risky and clandestine visit to Moscow in 1925 this was quickly refused. He did however meet Dorjiev one more time, in Verkhneudinsk in the Buriat Republic in 1926, and worked with Zhamtsarano for six months in Ulan Bator in 1926-27.

   Another piece of information I had in my notes was that in his scenic designs for Diaghilev’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, Roerich had substituted the prominent image of the tree in Act One with the image of a sacred stone. He had made the change at a late stage, shortly before the work’s premiere in 1913. By this time also the Temple project was close to completion. Roerich would by that time have been well acquainted with Dorjiev’s aspirations about the future Shambhala, and given that he knew about the fragment of the Silver Camel installed in the Temple, it seems probable that in addition to other information about it he had received an impression of its physical appearance. It seemed to me, in piecing together the story of the Stone, that the likelihood of Roerich’s change of mind being inspired by this knowledge was much better than plausible speculation – it was obvious that the motive for such a change of image lay in the artist’s sympathy for Dorjiev’s ideas. But as evidence for this, how closely did Roerich’s depiction of the sacred stone match that of the meteorite?

   The renderings of the stone in Roerich’s designs do show a good similarity in size, form and characteristics with the rare photographs of the Silver Camel insitu, set in its shallow impact pit amidst a bleak mountain landscape, published in the Russian scientific journal Meteoritika in 1962. Roerich made several versions of the image in his designs for the ballet dated 1929, produced in 1930, and 1944, produced in 1948, and it seems they develop into a better likeness of the great meteorite, as if his knowledge of it improved. It is not impossible that originally he saw early photographs of it, although more likely he had formed his impression of it from Dorjiev, or from Zhamtsarano, who had written about it in a book and very likely had a field knowledge of it. It is noteworthy that in the 1930 production the stone became more vertical, and that in the 1944 designs he depicted it with reddish-brown hues, something which might be considered unrealistic were it not for the fact that it correctly represents the colour of the oxidised patina on the exposed surface of an iron meteorite. The images from Le Sacre are a further, visual confirmation that the identification of the parent meteorite of Roerich’s Stone is correct, since the image might easily have been at odds with the other evidence which has thus far created a coherent picture; in other words it is a corroborative cross-reference.

   An unresolved question is whether Roerich visited the site of the main mass during his sojourn in Mongolia. It is known however that he returned from Mongolia in 1927 with a number of additional meteorite chips, and that some or all of these were given to certain of his co-workers. I suggest that one of these recipients, Sina Fosdick, made a coded disclosure that the sacred stone in Le Sacre did in fact represent the great meteorite, and that she did this through her selection of pictures for the Roerich Museum booklet published in 1974 to commemorate the centenary of the artist’s birth. Out of a total of 22 plates, no less than six are of the ballet, and designs for Act One both open and close the text.

   In the light of its historical and scientific status, it is regrettable that the main mass of the Silver Camel now suffers the indignity of being located some 300 miles away from the site of its fall in Mongolia. In 1965 the Chinese authorities sent a detachment of forty men with a large tractor and a specially-built 24-wheel trailer to remove the great meteorite and transport it across the Gobi Desert to the city of Urumqi. The removal clearly appears to have been an illegal act, an inference based on the Chinese having given – and continuing to give – a false location for the fall site which places it 125 miles inside Chinese territory. The stone is now set on a plinth outside the Xinjiang Geology and Mineral Museum in the city.

   The issue of the nature and origin of the stone of the graal in Parzival has attracted many theories, and Roerich’s implication of a connection with his Stone would have been yet another. I tried to develop a plausible idea to explain this, involving the possibility of the transmission of a fragment from the Silver Camel to Jerusalem around the time of the Second Crusade, at a point where it could have become an element in the graal story. However eventually I had to dissociate Roerich’s Stone from my understanding of the graal, since it did not fit in with a group of inter-related facts derived from original texts and contemporary historical events which were creating a coherent picture of it. The crucial factor in this was my acceptance of the origin of Wolfram’s term lapis exilis in a medieval version of the legend of Alexander the Great entitled Iter Alexandri ad Paradisum. If therefore Roerich had believed in a connection between the Silver Camel and the graal, I now think this is very unlikely to be correct. Nevertheless, in no sense does it diminish the value of a poetic or metaphorical association, and this may well have been what he had in mind.

This text was sent to London ballet critic Neil Norman, for whom it was originally written, on March 26, 2007. Minor amendments and corrections have been made.


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