Gypsum Decor from the Varakhsha Palace: the Issue of Reconstruction
Among the art masterpieces of Uzbekistan a special place belongs to the carved gypsum plaster (ganch) that decorates the avian (veranda) of a palace in Varakhsha, a medieval settlement located in Bukhara oasis. During an expedition led by V. A. Shishkin in 1930s-1950s several thousand ganch fragments (1) were recovered from under the sand; these are now kept in different museums in the country, including the National Museum of History of Uzbekistan in Tashkent.
Unlike paintings, the fairly large areas of which survived on the wall surface in different halls of the Varakhsha palace, giving an idea about the composition of the painting panels, ganch decor was found only as debris in several dumps created as a result of the palace reconstruction (2). Perhaps this explains the fact that until present the history of art has not known of any attempts to reconstruct the throne hall interior in the Varakhsha palace. Only few individual panels were recreated on the basis of the original carved ganch fragments (3). Two of these panels, a hunting scene and a fabulous creature with a bird's body and woman's head, can be seen on display at the National Museum of History of Uzbekistan. Meanwhile the museum's collection has a whole range of fragments that allow restoration of several new panels.
This collection, although relatively small in size, gives a fairly comprehensive idea both about the technique of performing ganch carving, and about ornaments and themes of the ganch panels.
The ornaments used to completely cover the walls of the palace's avian and served as background to portray plants and animals, humans and fabulous creatures whose figures were often performed in high relief that transformed into sculpture. The plane of the walls was broken by cornices, engaged columns and niches.
The motifs of the ornaments are quite diverse: these are the combinations of geometrical shapes, squares and diamonds sometimes complemented either with flower rosettes positioned at the centre of a square, or pearl-circles, the so-called "Sasani pearls". Narrow border-bands contain small flowers made of hearts and diamonds with pearls; the ornament on the engaged columns is quite interesting: the overlapping fish-scales.
More complex are the vegetable ornaments present in plane panels as well as in the border-bands outlining the panels - the flower ribbons, and in the decorative circles with a flower rosette at the centre. Apart from stylized vegetable ornaments, the decor of Varakhsha avian features a rather naturalistic presentation of a vine.
Pictorial elements of the decor are just as diverse. The mastery of the Varakhsha ganch carvers is amazing if one looks at the "portraits", the images of human faces, in the collection of The National Museum of History of Uzbekistan. There is no careful or detailed modelling of a shape: faces are wrought with only a few bold chisel movements, yet they stand out by an exceptional expressivity of the modelling.
The hunting scene is, no doubt, the most vivid among the themes in the palace decor: realistically pictured animals and the hunting rider are captured in their headlong flight and pursuit.
Apart from the hunting scene, the Varakhsha decor uses mythological themes too: the NMHU collection has the images of a woman-bird and a dragon. The latter was perhaps the embodiment of evil powers, fighting which is one of the favourite motifs in Oriental art.
Common landscape elements in the carved ganch of Varakhsha were water reservoirs, in which among the waves interpreted as spiral lines fishes splashed, portrayed individually or in groups, or in two or three of them in twisted clusters. Sometimes the carver placed flower bells amid the waves.
Among the fragments of Varakhsha ganch quite numerous are the images of partridges which, apparently, constituted a large sculpture frieze.
The carved plaster fragments from the collection of the National Museum of History of Uzbekistan do not merely give the picture of a peculiar throne hall decoration in the Varakhsha palace; complemented with painted ornaments and themes, they enable the reconstruction of both individual ornamental motifs, and the entire walls. Several decorative circles, as well as several panels that employ different combinations of geometrical shapes and various border-bands, can be restored. Significant number of fragments picturing fishes and waves allows a whole panel to be reconstructed, in which fishes of different size would be splashing in a pool with waves. The hunting scene could be matched with an ornamental background of fragments with flower rosettes.
Thus, owing to the work of sorting out the collection of carved plaster decor, with time new panels and graphic reproductions of the Varakhsha palace avian will be available for the viewers to admire.
1. Шишкин В. А. Варахша. М., 1963.
2. Алпаткина Т. Г. Ганчевый декор дворца Варахши из фондов Государственного музея Востока: новые открытия// Материальная культура Востока. Вып. 3. М., 2002.
3. Алпаткина Т. Г., Ажиметов К. А. Панно с плодами граната из дворца Варахши// Материальная культура Востока. Вып. 5. М., 2008 (в печати).