Densatil Monastery: Golden Visions in New York

Nagaraja, Central Tibet, 15th century, gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones, height 39.4 cm. The Kronos Collections. Credit: Richard Goodbody

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, art has been destroyed and culture assaulted. Sometimes it was by accident. Sometimes it was intentional for the purpose of total destruction of buildings and culture of an enemy. Sometimes it was for the purpose of plunder and greed. With Densatil Monastery, the purposes were twofold. It was a powerful move by the Chinese Red Guards and local Maoists to destroy the buildings and culture of an enemy – to them, the Buddhist hierarchy and its power. To make matters worse, plunder and greed were involved. If they had not been, this exhibition would never have existed and almost no trace of Densatil would remain.

The Densatil monastery complex was located in a mountainous and remote region southeast of Lhasa near the Tsangpo River and was founded in 1198 on the site where the revered monk Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170) had his hermitage. The simple first monastery grew into one of the wealthiest monasteries in Tibet in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Legend of Densatil Monastery

According to legend, the original idea of Densatil came in a vision during meditation by Jigten Gonpo (1143-1217) who was the founder of one of the six main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He saw the site where a monastery should be built, some 13,000 feet above sea level in Tibet’s Pure Crystal Mountains. Chakrasamvara also appeared in this vision, attended by almost 3,000 attendant divinities arranged in rows below him.

It was this tiered arrangement that inspired the shape of the tashi gomang stupa, which was the style thereafter used at Densatil. Used to house the cremated remains of ranking teachers, its name means ‘Many Doors of Auspiciousness’ and it was a style used only at Densatil monastery. In 1198, a grand council decided to commence building at Densatil. The project began and the first of Densatil’s 13th- to 15th-century tashi gomang was built in the 1270s and the last in the 1430s.

Co-curator of the exhibition, Adriana Proser, has written that ‘throughout the history of Buddhist Tibet, various schools/orders vied for religious and political power. This resulted in all kinds of political intrigue and even bloody battles at times. There was no separation of church and state’. In 1290, war did break out between the Drigung Kagyu School and the Sakya School and the original tashi gomang at Drigung was lost in a fire. Even after this, rivalry, disputes and animosity among some of the braches of Northern Buddhism erupted.

In the years surrounding 1400, the interior of Densatil was ablaze with golden light from the eight massive tashi gomang, galleries and freestanding images, all executed in heavily gilded copper alloy. It was in this state that Densatil remained until after the Chinese military invasion and annexation of Tibet and the rise of the Red Guards in the 1960s.

According to the Chinese machinery, the Mao-blessed Red Guards were in Tibet to ‘cleanse’ Tibet of anti-revolutionary factions such as the land-owning ruling class, ‘revisionists’, and the power of the monasteries.  The revisionists supposedly included the ranking general of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Tibet, other Chinese officials and scattered remnants of the old ruling structure. Their ‘crime’, amongst others, was wanting to teach the Tibetan farmers improved agricultural methods so that each one could develop economic independence and additionally felt that the Dalai Lama should return as a figurehead.

A Power Struggle Ensued

A power struggle ensued and the revisionists were overthrown, leaving the Red Guards and their local allies free to attack anything that they considered of ‘class nature’, which included land ownership, Buddhist works of art and even the stones of lamaist fortresses as they could be used by the people as building materials.

Densatil, as one of the oldest, most important and most beautiful in Tibet was doomed and when forces arrived at the site, total destruction was not on their minds as the monastery appears to have been systematically looted before being burned. Thangka were probably the first to be rounded-up because of their portability, as with smaller cast sculptures. Many walls were decorated with large panels cast in heavy copper alloy, but the most important parts of Densatil were the great tashi gomang.

The small tier supports each in the form of a freestanding female figure were probably very easy to remove as the independently cast images were already gone. The tiers themselves were problematic as they were constructed with heavy gilt copper alloy panels and reliefs, of which several are in this exhibition. Most were fitted securely into bezels or firmly attached to each other and could only be removed by literally prying them off the tashi gomang with tools. That is why these square, rectangular and round cast reliefs in the exhibition have torn and ripped edges that bear evidence of their forced removal.

The Monastery Was Destroyed

Despite the early beliefs that the entire monastery had been destroyed, systematic pillaging became obvious when pieces began appearing on the market that appeared as if they could have come from Densatil. I was in charge of the department at Sotheby’s, New York, that handled Himalayan art and until the mid-1980s, an ‘old’ thangka on the market was considered to be 17th or possibly 16th century. Suddenly, almost overnight, splendid 14th and 15th thangka began to appear at auction and in the hands of dealers – and it did not take much imagination to identify their source.

These were followed in the 1990s with numbers of gilt-copper alloy reliefs and were often openly identified in the auctions and by dealers as coming from Densatil. As the pillaging took place before the United States signed the UN Convention on National Patrimony in 1972, their exportation from their country of origin before that date made importation into the US completely legal. They continue to appear at auction, some in China, but largely in the West. The last large group of Densatil monastery material to be sold publically was at Christie’s New York a few years ago. It was a group of staggeringly beautiful pieces from a ‘Roman Collection’ and was sold predominantly to Chinese and Americans.

Where Did the Densatil Monastery Material Come From?

The question arises as to who possessed all the Densatil material coming onto the market and why it seemed to be a single source as several pieces would appear on the market at the same time. The answer may possibly lie with consistent reports over the years that the pillaging was allegedly done to order by a Chinese officer in charge of the Red Guards and everything was then transported back to China.

Since the early 1980s, an unsubstantiated rumour has circulated that a possible major player in this operation at Densatil had died and that a family member had inherited the material and began selling some of the thangka and that in the 1990s, they began selling the gilt-copper alloy works of art. That may or may not be true, but it ties in with the times thangka and then gilt pieces began to appear on the market.

Simply, I believe that Densatil Monastery sacking was an international crime against culture and, in some way, we should take some solace that greed saved what it did from total destruction.


Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, until 18 May at Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Avenue, New York,