Q+A: Michel Peissel

In 1958, at the age of 21, the French anthropologist Michel Peissel walked 300 miles from Mexico’s Quintana Roo province to Belize, mapping 14 previously unknown Mayan ruins on the Yucatán peninsula. Then, after a couple of regrettable semesters at Harvard Business School, he led 25 expeditions into remote regions of Tibet, where he explored the tiny kingdoms of Mustang and Zanskar and discovered th elusive source of the Mekong River. An inventor (of a single-fan Hovercraft) and author (of more than 20 books), Peissel recently published Tibetan Pilgrimage: Architecture of the Sacred Land (Harry N. Abrams), which presents the country’s ancient chapels, monasteries, and fortresses. He also painted the book’s watercolor illustrations. I.D. spoke with this intrepid renaissance man in his farmhouse near Fontainebleau, France.

I think of you as a real-life Indiana Jones. How would you describe yourself?

As a man of action.

So we’re in agreement, more or less. You spent a year and a half painting images of Tibetan architecture for this book. Why not just take photographs?

Photography can’t reveal the details of architecture the way watercolor can. I wanted to show that some of the Tibetan fortresses stand out as the most brilliant in central Asia. Tibetan architecture is modern in its somber use of space and line. This distinguishes it not only in elegance, but also in the distribution of volume.

Clearly your artistic talent has been useful in your travels.

At the Tibetan border, when the police nab me, I get out my pad of sketch paper and do their portraits. I’m as interested in design as I am in Tibet. Since 1962, I’ve had a house in Cadaques, Spain, which was a remarkable center for architects and artists. I got to know Marcel Duchamp and his wife, Teeny (who was the ex-wife of Pierre Matisse). And Salvador Dali, who gave me lessons in technique. And the sculptor Mary Callery. And the artist Richard Hamilton. John Cage was gyrating around there, too.

With that kind of inspiration, who needs to leave town? But given that you’ve spent 45 years traveling intermittently through one of the world’s most exotic countries, tell us a few things you find striking about Tibetan design.

Tibetans love to adorn buildings with cloth; the decoration comes from their nomadic culture and use of tent materials. The building fabric is always flapping and rattling, and it’s a sight to behold when the sun catches it. Also, curiously, there are thousands of freestanding towers all over Tibet; no one knows their purpose.

Do Tibetan monasteries have clearer origins?

The earliest, such as the 8th-century Samye and 10th-century Tholing, were copied from India and assumed the round form of the mandala—a symbol that maps the heavens. But authentic Tibetan architecture makes use of sloping walls, long, open porches, red friezes in front, and small windows that get wider as they go higher—much of which is earthquake-resistant design. The monastery interiors have paintings and frescoes with Indian or Nepalese Buddhist symbols, but the exteriors reflect the landscape. Most buildings merge with their rock foundations: Their sloping sides are extensions of the hills around them. Rising from the monastery is a chorten—a design that originated in India as a monk’s tomb. In Tibet, chortens house manuscripts, and each part represents an element such as fire, water, or ether. Some Tibetans believe demons lurk in corners and chortens chase them away, but overall they’re symbols of faith.

What was the monastery’s historic role?

Originally they were universities built on the plains or in caves, at the sites of old hermitages. Or they replaced ancient fortresses—some as elaborate as entire cities—that had been abandoned by kings. For centuries, Tibetan culture was so rich and stable with its advanced agrarian economy that families could send every second son to a monastery to be educated. Eventually, they returned home to teach their elder brothers to read and write. When the monks became political, with the rise of the lamas in the 17th century, half the monasteries were turned back into fortresses, which the monks manned.

So spirituality and politics didn’t just exist side by side; they were under the same roof.

The buildings show that Tibet has had considerable cultural and political influence in Asia over the past 14 centuries, but this important fact is forgotten in light of the region’s recent political disintegration and its overplayed image as a land of monks. The Dalai Lama’s emphasis on Tibet’s pacific nature is but a lame excuse for Tibet’s failure to modernize under his administration and face the political pressures imposed by China and other neighbors.

There is yet much to cherish that is ancient. You mentioned another project…

Thanks to a grant from Rolex, I made a detailed study of Scythian art from 700 b.c. Theoretically, it vanished 2,000 years ago, but it can still be found being produced by blacksmiths in Tibet.

Does your work ever take you beyond Tibet?

I’m building a boat whose design is based on recent discoveries of Celtic shipwrecks and descriptions by Julius Caesar. In 2008, I plan to cross the Atlantic on it in 20 days to show that the Celts could have easily done the same.

Erika Lorentzsen is a freelance writer based in Paris.

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