Bonpo: The Art of Ancient Tibet

Detail from one of the 10 thangkas that illustrate the life of Tonpa Shenrab, Eastern Tibet, 19th century, tempera on canvas. Gift of Mme D’Ollone, in memory of General Henri d’Ollone, 1947 © DR – MNAAG

BON, THE OLDEST spiritual tradition of Tibet, has greatly contributed to forming the specific culture of the country. Existing before Buddhism, which entered Tibet in the 7th century, Bon is considered to be a form of Shamanism (and is also practised in some areas of Central Asia). However, Bon is today a minority practice and was long ago replaced by Buddhism which underwent a spectacularly popular development in Tibet. Recognised in 1987 by the 15th Dalai Lama as the fifth Tibetan religious school (alongside those of Buddhism), its art nonetheless still remains insufficiently known to the wider world.

The first major exhibition devoted to Bonpo art washeld in 2007 at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (Bon: The Magic Word, catalogue available).This current presentation, by the Guimet includes a series of Bonpo thangkas that have never been on public display before. Ten of them recount episodes from the life of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of the Bon religion. The legend relating to his life says that after his arrival on earth, embodied as a young, married prince with a family, he started to spread and teach his doctrine, before renouncing everything later in life to live as an ascetic. These detailed paintings give the viewer an initial understanding of the iconography of this early religion.These specific Bon paintings were brought back by General Henri d’Ollone (1868-1945), after a mission he undertook from Hanoi to Peking that took him to Eastern Tibet in 1906-1909. These remote regions were almost inaccessible and unknown to the outside world at that time. Once back in France, the general published and account of his extraordinary journey in a book entitled Les derniers barbares (The Last Barbarians), published in 1911.

To accompany the thangka, Bonpo sculptures, photographs and documents from a private collection are also on show to contribute to a better understanding of Tibet and this little-known culture and religion.

Until 12 October at Musée Guimet, 6 place d’Iena, Paris, www.guimet.fr