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.