The Sacred Arts of Bhutan: The Dragon’s Gift

Sacred Arts of Bhutan. DRUKPA KUENLEY, 18th century, Phajoding Goempa, Thimphu

THIS IS A highly important exhibition because it is the first in the United States devoted to the Buddhist arts of Bhutan. With the exception of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, there is almost no Bhutanese art on exhibit in museums. This, combined with the relative inaccessibility of that mountain kingdom, has limited Western exposure, knowledge of and understanding of the artistic and cultural traditions of Bhutan and this exhibition promises to break the bonds of those limits. The Sacred Arts of Bhutan explores, in depth, the rarely seen sacred arts of Bhutan.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk (r 2006-), like his father King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, is a hugely popular monarch who has made great strides for the nation’s infrastructure and economy which has traditionally been financed by India’s Ministry of External Affairs. A highly critical 1987 article in the UK’s Financial Times that growth was too slow was met by a now-classic response from the monarch at the time, ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product’.

The essence of that statement was a commitment to build an economy, suitable for Bhutan’s unique culture, based on Buddhist spiritual values. A 2005 survey found 45% of Bhutanese reported being very happy, 52% reported being happy and only 3% reported not being happy. Care to compare those figures against those of the West?

Vajrayana Buddhism

Although Tibet is a de facto Tantric Vajrayana Buddhist nation, Bhutan is a de jure one and Bhutan’s main branches of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Nyingma and the Drukpa Kagyu, are represented in the exhibition. The depth of religious faith in Bhutan is reflected in its arts and this exhibition comprises 117 of them, including thangkas, ritual objects and images, most of which have never been seen outside of Bhutan. The Sacred Arts of Bhutan exhibition has been divided into specific sections, some of which are: Buddhas;  Bodhisattvas; Padmasambhava and the Treasure Revealers; Arhats and Mahasiddhas; Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel; Deity Yoga; Guru Yoga; Mandala and Ritual Dance, amongst others.

Sculpture in Bhutan

In deciding on an object’s origin, one relies on knowledge of specific characteristics that distinguish the origin of one work of art from another. In the case of Himalayan bronze images,  those characteristics can determine whether it is Nepalese, Tibetan (central, eastern or western), Sino-Tibetan, Kashmir, Swat Valley, Pala, etc. Two outstanding images in this exhibition have characteristics that cannot be attributed specifically to any of the above – a 19th-century gilt bronze image of Vajrasattva in yab-yum and an 18th-century gilt bronze Maitreya.

The mudra and asana of each are iconographically orthodox, but the details are puzzling. The base of the Vajrasattva, normally of double lotus petal form, is a single band of open flowers, possibly peonies. The Maitreya is seated on a dias, again iconographically orthodox, but the four corners of the base are raised on triangular cloud-form feet. It would appear that these design components are indeed Bhutanese. Whether it is an image, ritual object or thangka, this exhibition of the sacred arts of Bhutan promises to be a head-scratcher. Like the recent Bon exhibition at the Rubin, it will be a rare opportunity to be exposed to and challenged by hitherto understudied aspects of the Buddhist arts in the Himalayas.

Painting Conservation for Thangka

A major part of the preparation of the Sacred Arts of Bhutan includes a three-year project to bring Bhutanese Buddhist monks to Honolulu where the Academy’s Asian Paintings Conservation Studio has been training them in advanced techniques of painting conservation. This work is being done both in Honolulu and within temples in Bhutan itself so that the trained monks will be able to return and teach others in their home monasteries. This rare effort is a stroke of genius as it means that paintings in Bhutan that might be lost to incorrect handling will be preserved for future generations.

The Sacred arts of Bhutan exhibition will travel to the Rubin Museum of Art in the autumn of this year, to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in the spring of 2009 and to other venues not yet confirmed. The fully illustrated catalogue, the work of an international team of scholars, includes all of the works of art in the exhibition, plus numerous photographs of many other important works in situ in Bhutanese monasteries. To create cohesiveness, the catalogue has been organised in the same sections as the exhibition itself.


The Sacred Arts of Bhutan runs from 23 February to 23 May, at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 South Beretania Street, Honolulu, Hawaii,

A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.