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Preserving Bhutan’s Sacred Art

Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts A 19th-century thangka, part of the

Photo: Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts

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.

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