For years, only those who climbed to the fabled “roof of the world” glimpsed the sacred treasures of the Dalai Lamas. Now, the Western World will get a firsthand look at the items used in lavish ceremonies and daily rituals at the Potala Palace by the Dalai Lamas and their courts when nearly 200 rare objects go on display for the first time outside of Lhasa, Tibet.
“Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World,” now showing at The Bowers Museum, is the first stop on a two-year tour of the United States.
“There are other collections, collected piecemeal...But this is the greatest collection within Tibet itself,” said Robert Warren Clark, a guest curator at the museum and former interpreter at the Dalai Lama’s office in Dharmasala, India.
“We’ll see the things here that Marco Polo might have seen when he went to Xanadu.”
Among the items shown are a gilt silver prayer wheel that once held thousands of individual inscriptions, or mantras. A person held the prayer wheel, and during countless rotations of the wheel, repeatedly changed the mantra, sending out multiple prayers.
A seal of the fifth Dalai Lama that was made of sandalwood and inscribed in Chinese, Manchu and Tibetan is also on view. It shows the importance of this Dalai Lama, who built the Potala Palace and served as both the secular ruler and spiritual teacher of Tibet, a dual role held by each subsequent Dalai Lama.
There’s a skull cup that features a human skull on a mount of gold and embellished with turquoise. The skull was believed to have come from a high-ranking lama who donated it before his death. The show also features a thangka, or devotional painting, with a wrathful deity, Vajrahasa, raising a sword and assuming a threatening pose.
The exhibit caps two years of negotiations among the museum, the Cultural Administration of Tibet and Chinese officials. Agreements were reached on two occasions but later nullified, including once because of the United States’ pending invasion of Iraq, said Peter C. Keller, the museum’s director.
The show's politics
The museum also sought the input of the current Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 following an abortive uprising against communist Chinese rule.
The Dalai Lama has said while it is important Tibetan art be viewed by the public, the public should understand the works are on display in the United States because the Chinese government acquired it through conquest and occupation.
“From the very beginning, I have been trying to keep a very neutral political stance. I don’t want, as much as I can, politics to get in the way,” Keller said.
But pro-Tibet supporters said politics must be part of it.
“From the Tibetan point of view, this is stolen art. It rightfully belongs to the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet,” said Dennis Cusack, a board member of the Tibet Justice Center, which advocates a free Tibet.
Cusack said pro-Tibet organizations are considering an “education effort,” which may include people outside the exhibit offering information about Tibet to museum-goers.
Since construction began in A.D. 700, the Potala has loomed over Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. The palace was left empty after the Dalai Lama fled until 1979 when it was opened to the public as a museum.
While Lhasa has been transformed from an ancient Tibetan city to a congested modern metropolis, the Potala and its massive collection of Buddhist art have been carefully preserved. The palace was designated a World Heritage Site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1994, requiring it be preserved in its original state.
Keller and exhibit curators said they were unsure what they would find at the palace until they began to go through the items.
Curator Terese Tse Bartholomew said the biggest find was a storage room full of thangkas, devotional paintings. She said among the thangkas in the room were two featuring Sakya Yeshe, a monk who so impressed the Chinese that they gave him enough money to build the famed Sera Monastery.
“Nobody knew what happened to these thangkas. Our only knowledge of them was from black and white pictures in a book,” said Bartholomew, who is also curator of Himalayan Art and Chinese Decorative Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
Bartholomew said she and others were careful not to select items that were not “under worship” by Buddhists.
“The Potala palace is a huge pilgrimage site. You just can’t take things that are under worship. What we did was pick from the museums, items that are no longer under worship,” she said.
The exhibit takes visitors through four areas of Tibetan culture. In a portion of the exhibit focusing on history, visitors will learn about the culture through panels, illustrated timelines, murals and objects, such as a gilt copper sculpture of Songtsen Gampo, a rare surviving image of the king who united Tibet in the seventh century.
Another portion of the exhibit explores Tibetan ritual objects, including examples of prayer wheels — printed prayers that are rolled up and placed inside a wheel while a worshipper recites a mantra.
Another area examines the country’s paintings, sculptures and textiles, including 20 thangkas. It also examines the life of Tibetan nobility and features costumes and jewelry used in ceremonial rituals.
Rounding out the exhibit is a projection system, which will flash scenes of Tibet —from its mountains to chanting monks — on giant screens.
“Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World” will be on view at the Bowers through May 16, 2004, before traveling to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas, from Oct. 16, 2004-Jan. 8, 2005; the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City from Feb. 8, 2005-May 8, 2005; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, June 12, 2005-Sept. 11, 2005.
Other cities may be added to the tour.