The Dragon’s Gift, The Sacred Art of Bhutan exhibition explores Buddhist art, including the religious dances, cham, that are part of Bhutan’s tsechu, festivals.
In 2008, The Honolulu Academy of Arts (now called Honolulu Museum of Art) organised a ground-breaking exhibition on Bhutan, focusing on religious Buddhist art with a special emphasis on the ancient ritual Buddhist dances that continue to be practised in the country today. Bhutan is the only country in the world to adopt Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, as its official religion, and the particular form of Buddhism found in Bhutan permeates all aspects of culture and the arts. Bhutan is remarkable for the antiquity and continuity of its Buddhist teachings, with the first temples in the region established during the 7th century. The arts of the two main branches of Vajrayana Buddhism in Bhutan, the Drukpa Kagyu and the Nyingma schools, were represented in the exhibition.
Bhutan’s Sacred Art
The exhibition showed 117 works of art, including two dimensional thangkas painted in mineral pigments and appliquéd in silk, gilt bronze sculptures, and ritual objects ranging in date from the 8th to the 20th centuries, with especially strong examples from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Most of the art works came from active temples, where they still serve as consecrated objects of veneration. Due to the sacred nature of the art, monks accompanied The Dragon’s Gift to each venue, and remained in residence, performing the necessary ritual observances. The majority of these items had never been on display outside Bhutan.
As a key part of the project, the Academy’s Asian Paintings Conservation Studio undertook a three-year project to train Bhutanese monks in advanced techniques of Himalayan painting conservation. This involved both workshops and on-site conservation at temples in Bhutan and the training of Bhutanese monks in Honolulu. Consequently, the thangka paintings in the exhibition had been conserved before display and preserved for future generations, as the monks trained by the museum took the techniques they had acquired to continue conservation work in their home monasteries.
Ritual Dances, Cham
An important aspect of the exhibition was the documentation of ritual dance forms, or cham, by the Honolulu Academy of Arts in conjunction with Core of Culture, a Chicago-based non-profit dance preservation foundation. For the exhibition, an extensive digital database with more than 300 hours of video documentation, including the performances of numerous rare, nearly extinct cham rituals, had been prepared. This unique dance research played a key role in the exhibition’s conceptual and interpretive structure. Cham was featured through video installations throughout the exhibition, since there is often an intimate connection between dance and the arts in Bhutanese rituals. A copy of the cham database is held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York, the largest dance archive in the world.
Buddhist Art in Bhutan
As Terese Tse Bartholomew explains in the exhibition catalogue, ‘Buddhist art came into Bhutan with the introduction of Buddhism to the region, which is traditionally attributed to Padmasambhava in the 7th century., and from Tibetan centres of Buddhism. Depictions of the vast array of Buddhist deities accord with the descriptions stated in the sacred texts, which give strict instructions for the deities’ body proportions, colours, attributers, mounts, clothing, ornaments, and the positions of hands and feet. The artists, painters, and sculptors follow these rules firmly, including specific measurements (such as the distances between facial features, measured in finger widths). Only in the background of paintings could artists exercise some degree of flexibility and creativity.
The metal images of Bhutan employ two methods: smaller images are cast in the lost wax technique and larger images are hammered out in the repoussé method, in which metal sheets are riveted together. Newar craftsmen of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley are masters of these two methods and are generally credited with introducing these techniques to Bhutan, as well as to Tibet, China, and Mongolia. Newar craftsmen prefer to work with copper alloy, and nearly all metal images in Bhutan are composed of this material.
The Art of Compassion
As the Venerable Lopon Pemela commented in the catalogue, ‘In the Buddhist arts, there is a common thread that runs through each discipline: compassionate aspiration for the enlightenment of sentient beings. Whether it is an artist who is a Buddha emanation, a sacred ringsel from the cremated body of a high lama, or a thangka painting of an enlightened being, the Buddhist principle of liberation for all is the prominent theme. The art both represents and embodies Buddha nature. These embodiments offer all beings a chance to recognise their own inner Buddha. These arts help point the way toward the true essence and process of revealing this Buddha nature – the real blessing of Buddhist art’. 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 the exhibition have characteristics that cannot be attributed specifically to any of the above – a 19th century gilt bronze image of Vajrasattva in yab-yum position 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 dais, 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.
The exhibition, in its first location in Honolulu, was divided into a number of sections, organised according to conceptual aspects of Buddhism in Bhutan to provide a structure to understand the richly symbolic content of Tantric Buddhist art. Shakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism in the 5th century BC, was the first image encountered in the exhibition. Paintings depicting his life and previous incarnations complement sculptural representations. Depictions of the five cosmic Buddha Families, such as an elaborate sculpture of Aksobhya, provide a broader definition of Buddhahood.
Bodhisattvas, beings who defer their own attainment of complete Buddhahood to assist others on the path to enlightenment, are highly venerated in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. This section also introduced such popular and revered Bodhisattvas as Manjushri, shown in multiple forms including a sumptuous painted thangka of the White Manjushri, Vajrapani, and Avalokitesvara.
Padmasambhava and the Treasure Revealers
Padmasambhava (also popularly known as Guru Rimpoche), who spread Buddhism to parts of Bhutan in the 8th century, is an important figure in all forms of Bhutanese Buddhism. Bhutan has many important pilgrimage places associated with Padmasambhava. The most famous is Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest monastery which is built on a sheer cliff wall about 900m above the floor of Paro valley. It was built around the Taktsang Senge Samdup (stag tshang seng ge bsam grub) cave where he is said to have meditated in the 8th century. Later he travelled to Bumthang district to subdue a powerful deity offended by a local king. According to legend, Padmasambhava’s body imprint can be found in the wall of a cave at nearby Kurje Lhakhang temple.
This section illustrated multiple manifestations of Padmasambhava in both peaceful and wrathful forms. It also included narrative paintings of Padmasambhava’s life story, a variety of sculptures reflecting regional styles, and dance content to illustrate his importance in Bhutan. Padmasambhava is closely associated with the ‘Treasure Revealers’ of the Nyingma School, particularly in Eastern Bhutan.
The Treasure Revealers discovered texts and other religious treasures previously hidden by Padmasambhava centuries after the his death. Portraits of the Treasure Revealers were also on show in the exhibition.
Arhats and Mahasiddhas
This section introduced extraordinary adepts who attained high levels of spiritual insight. The 16 Arhats were represented by an outstanding and complete set of paintings from the 18th century. The Mahasiddhas, Indian sages who employ unconventional means to achieve enlightenment, also were represented in painted thangkas.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), a charismatic historical figure, was the founder of modern Bhutan. A revered lama, Zhabdrung came to Bhutan from Southern Tibet in 1616. He soon unified the country, established a unique system of governance, and built a series of local fortress–monasteries (dzongs) that still function as centres of political and religious administration. Zhabdrung figures prominently in almost every Buddhist temple in Bhutan, and was seen in the exhibition in both paintings and sculptures.
A wide variety of spiritual figures comprise the Buddhist pantheon in Bhutan. Many of these deities are the focus of Buddhist ritual practices such as visualisations and mantra chanting. This section introduced these figures, the concepts they represent, and associated practices. Examples included a powerful yab-yum sculpture of Vajrasattva and his consort, representing the feminine wisdom and masculine ‘skilful means’ (upaya) that lead from ignorance to enlightenment.
The teacher-disciple relationship is very important in Vajrayana Buddhism. Teachers are regarded as Living Buddhas and impart secret teachings and initiations to their students. Lineages of Buddhist teachers figure prominently in both texts and works of art. Historical figures from both the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, many unique to Bhutan, were on show with examples in painting, sculpture, including a remarkable embroidered thangka of the important master Je Thrinley Gyaltshen.
Perhaps no visual expression of Buddhist thought is as mysterious and attractive to the Western viewer as the mandala. Intricate spiritual diagrams that are considered maps leading to wisdom and spiritual knowledge, mandalas are powerful tools employed in the quest for enlightenment. A variety of painted mandalas were presented along with references to associated ritual practices.
Ritual Dance (Cham):
Buddhist ritual dances, or cham, were illustrated –both on a series of high-resolution video screens and in works of art. The Academy’s dance documentation team, under the direction of the Core of Culture Foundation, had spent several years in Bhutan creating a digital archive that documents many previously unknown Buddhist dances. Buddhist dance in Bhutan is both a spiritual practice in itself and a means of communicating Buddhist teachings.
A gilt repoussé Buddhist altar will be installed in a dedicated gallery as a key adjunct to the exhibition. This altar will be based on an example from Trashigang Goempa, an important monastery near Thimphu. The altar will be furnished with a variety of sacred objects as a site for pujas (rituals) conducted by the monks who will accompany the exhibition and to give the viewer a sense of temple interiors in Bhutan.
The exhibition was a rare opportunity to be exposed to and challenged by hitherto understudied aspects of the Buddhist arts in this area of the Himalayas.
A catalogue including all works of art in the exhibition and new photography of many important works of art in situ in Bhutanese monasteries was published by Serindia Press, with chapters mirroring the sections of the exhibition as outlined above, ISBN 978932476361. A CD of Cham dances also accompanies the catalogue