Driving Bhutan’s single highway, a serpentine road hacked precariously into the side of a mountain and perpetually under repair, is an exercise in nerve. It averages 20 curves per mile, and requires honking before every one to warn the overloaded trucks and grazing cows that lurk around each bend.
More than 70 percent of this tiny Buddhist kingdom is forested, and outside our car window scrolled every possible shade of green: emerald rice paddies, thick jungles of wild marijuana, silver fir trees draped in moss, and misty, wooded hills laced with prayer flags and crowned with fortified monasteries, or dzongs. The local radio station provided the sound track, a strange mix that included a traditional Bhutanese folk song, a reading of the daily national astrology report, and Nelly Furtado’s club hit “Promiscuous.” Farther along the road, in even more-remote areas of this already remote country, we’d encounter ruby-robed monks wearing ubiquitous white iPod earbuds—signs of the kingdom’s recent foray into the globalized world.
I was heading out on a weeklong journey through the monasteries of far eastern Bhutan with Eddie Jose, a conservator of Asian paintings for the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and Tsewang Nidup, our guide. Jose was on a mission to find ancient thangkas—sacred scroll paintings used in Buddhist rituals and meditation—in need of repair. The trip was part of an ambitious five-year project helmed by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which has spent nearly $2 million assembling “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” the first international show focusing exclusively on Bhutanese sacred art and dance—and the first time many of these works have ever left their homeland. The exhibition will travel to New York’s Rubin Museum of Art in September and includes 65 thangkas restored by Jose and his students.
Rendered in mineral pigments using hair-thin brushes, these richly symbolic, intricate paintings depict Buddhist deities and scenes of religious instruction. Their beauty, believed to be a manifestation of the divine, is said to offer viewers protection, healing, and enlightenment. Their existence, meanwhile, represents to scholars of both religion and art a compelling (and as yet unstudied) history of 1,300 years of Tantric Buddhism. And for a conservator like Jose, they embody a number of technical challenges: many of these scrolls are filled with holes from gnawing rats and insects, damaged by smoke from temple lamps, and creased and torn from centuries of rolling and unrolling.
We were traveling almost as far east as the road would take us—nearly to India—because Guru Rinpoche, the Buddha reincarnate who in the eighth century brought Buddhism to Bhutan, passed through the region on his second missionary trip. Jose reasons that the thangkas in the distant area’s monasteries may be among the country’s oldest—and most vulnerable.
“Bhutan is the last frontier—Tibet is gone; Nepal’s culture is a fusion,” Jose had explained before the trip began. We were in his work studio, a performance hall with orange-and-gold walls, in Thimphu, Bhutan’s booming capital (population: 100,000). Jose, a stout Filipino with a predilection for Hawaiian shirts, has seemingly boundless reserves of energy, which is fortunate considering the daunting project he’s assigned himself: to train eight Bhutanese monks in the art of conserving thangkas over the course of 10 years. All around us, monks were hunched over wooden tables, repairing colorful scroll paintings and stitching silk brocade borders onto them. “Things will change in Bhutan—they already have,” Jose continued. “The best we can do now is to help preserve this heritage and art for future generations.”
Famously cloistered and tentative in its approach to the modern world, Bhutan, sandwiched between China and India in the Himalayas, is in the midst of an unprecedented transition. Foreign visitors were not allowed inside the kingdom’s borders until 1974, but in recent years the doors have opened wider. Television and the Internet arrived in 1999, cell phones in 2003, and luxury tourism in 2004, with the development of the high-style Uma Paro hotel and the first of six properties in Bhutan from Amanresorts founder Adrien Zecha. This past March, the country held its first democratic elections, moving from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one with a parliament.
The man behind Bhutan’s unshuttering—as well as its surprising political shift—is the former king himself, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, whose ambition since his 1974 coronation has been to modernize the country without destroying its cultural heritage. The king’s efforts—which include mandating a national costume, the kimono-like gho and kira—can seem a bit awkward. But consider what is at stake: Bhutan is one of only two countries in Asia that have never been colonized, and today it possesses the world’s purest Tantric Buddhist culture, transmitted unbroken from generation to generation since the eighth century. Bhutan also has no tradition of art conservation—an ominous absence, considering the flood of change at its doorstep.
In preparation for “The Dragon’s Gift,” the Honolulu Academy of Arts also hired Core of Culture, a Chicago-based dance preservation group, to record and archive the country’s Cham (ritual dances), which are, like the thangkas, at risk of disappearing. Karma Tshering, a Bhutanese filmmaker who is helping document the rarest of the dances step-by-step before the dance masters grow too old to perform them, says the project comes not a moment too soon. For him, it’s personal: “When these things are gone, our identity is lost.” Throughout my visit, the people I spoke with described this sense of accelerated loss, as young Cham dancers and would-be monks leave their villages to seek out tourism jobs in the cities, and modern imports—iPods and conservation techniques alike—blow through society for the first time. The future is inscrutable; the past, suddenly precious. There is a new awareness of the value of preservation.
Until recently, sacred objects in Bhutan were simply used until they fell apart, or repainted when they started to fade. The principle of impermanence, after all, is one of the hallmarks of Buddhism. But the prevailing thinking is shifting. In an interview with His Eminence the Tsugla Lopen, the director of a newly formed cultural preservation branch within the central monastic body, I brought up the apparent contradiction between Buddhism’s embrace of transience and conservation’s quest for permanence. The Lopen, a solemn man in saffron robes, suddenly broke into a grin. “Yes,” he said, while an assistant translated. “If we went strictly by the doctrines, we would let the thangkas deteriorate. But we are clinging to them for the sanctity of all beings—and that is central to Buddhism, too.” He takes a similarly pragmatic approach to the exhibition, which will send some of his country’s most sacred objects around the world for two years. The more people who see them the better, the Lopen believes. But in order to ensure that the objects retain their sacredness, three monks will accompany the exhibition to each city and bless the works every day.
We arrived at Trashigang Dzong, a 17th-century fortress and monastery set high on a cliff above two rivers, after three days on the road. The head lama greeted us in his office, then led us up and down a labyrinth of ladders and dark hallways to the main temple. We sat cross-legged in the dim and incense-filled room as a parade of young monks presented the temple’s 90 thangkas.
There were gold-leafed paintings of the Wheel of Life, images of wild-eyed, wrathful deities dancing on naked corpses, and depictions of serene green taras, the goddesses of universal compassion. With every reveal came gasps—at either the beauty of the work or the depth of the damage (some were literally in shreds). Unnerved by the monks’ rough handling, Jose demonstrated the gentlest way to roll a thangka: Grasp the silk border and keep steady pressure as you roll, taking care to smooth the wrinkles in the silk covering.
The daylight was fading, more lamps were lit, and yak-butter tea was brought around. This ancient temple had cell-phone reception. Its monks likely had e-mail addresses. And yet the modern world felt very, very far away.
Jaime Gross is a writer based in San Francisco.
It’s not as difficult to travel to Bhutan as you may think. A registered Bhutanese tour guide can handle all the details, securing the required visa and permits, booking your flight (on Druk Air, the country's only airline, from Bangkok, Calcutta, Kathmandu, or Delhi), and arranging for payment of the $220 daily minimum tourist fee, which includes basic accommodations, meals, and all transportation. (You’ll pay a premium to stay at one of Bhutan’s new luxury hotels, including the six Amans, Uma Paro, or the new Taj in Thimphu.) You won’t find a more reliable, knowledgeable, or enthusiastic guide to Bhutan than Tsewang Nidrup of Bhutan Expeditions (bhutan-expeditions.com.bt; 97-5/232-6266).
“The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan” will be at the Honolulu Academy of Arts through May 23, 2008. Future venues include the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (September 18 to January 5, 2009) and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (February to May, 2009).
If you can’t time your visit to coincide with one of Bhutan’s many annual tsechus (festivals featuring cham, or ritual dances), you can ask your guide to arrange for a demonstration performance at the Royal Academy of Performing Arts in Thimphu. Remember that the Bhutanese do not consider cham or tsechus entertainment. “Generally, they’re religious experiences to be witnessed once a year,” says Karma Tshering, the Bhutanese filmmaker helping document ritual dances for Core of Culture. “The masked dancer is not seen as an entertainer, but as a deity in a state of meditation, there to bless the crowd.” Therefore, it is important for visitors to stay off the ritual dance area, usually a stone or dirt courtyard, which is considered sacred. Also, always ask permission to take photos; if it is granted, stand behind the seated Bhutanese, not in front of or among them.