China lid taken off Tibetan treasures

On the Path to Void
August 1, 1997

For over 30 years after the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950 the country was closed to all scholars. Even before 1950, access was strictly limited by the Tibetan elite. So no one knew the full extent of the stupendous artistic heritage locked away on the high plateau when the full wrath of Mao's Red Guards fell upon it.

Scholarly attention had to restrict itself to the Tibetan cultural zones that lie beyond the borders of Tibet itself: to Ladakh and Himalayan India, to northern Nepal, and to Bhutan. It is only in recent years that China has allowed non-Chinese scholars in to begin to assemble a record of what remains inside Tibet proper, and to encourage Chinese scholars to do the same.

This magnificent book, with a foreword from H. H. the Dalai Lama, is divided into three sections. H. E. Richardson, Philip Denwood, Thomas Pritzker and Roger Goepper contribute chapters on architectural monuments and Michael Henss, Erberto Lo Bue, Sheila Bills, and Chandra Reedy write on sculpture, while there are six chapters on painting and fabric images by Henss and Goepper again, along with Jane Casey Singer, Valrae Reynolds, Ge Wanzhang and Victoria Blyth-Hill. There are accounts of the development of monumental and other architecture, of sculpture, thanka paintings and fabric images, and more technical chapters on bronzes and thanka paintings.

The best chapters describe specific sites in detail. Pritzker's chapter on the tenth-century Tabo monastery, Erberto Lo Bue's on the 15th-century Great Stupa of Gyantse, and Henss's on the wall-paintings of western Tibet, are superb, although inevitably far too brief. In most chapters the often magnificent colour and monochrome plates take pride of place, while the text, which is sprinkled thinly, is secondary.

Part of the book's purpose, as expressed by its editor, the redoubtable Pratapaditya Pal of the Art Institute of Chicago, is to introduce the richness of Tibetan art to an Indian readership. But, although this is a richly illustrated and highly informative volume, its text makes few concessions to the uninitiated.

H. E. Richardson informs us that "The largest temple, the Yumchenmo Lhakhang, is attributed to Trisongdetsen. It is a square building with earth walls supported on a wooden framework. In addition to the image of the Yumchenmo (the Prajnaparamita) and the goddess Machags Padma on the main altar, there was a fourfold Kunrig Namparnangdze like that at Lhodrak Khomting Lhakhang, surrounded by the Buddhas of the Ten Directions."

In the absence of a chronology, an outline of the pantheon, or a glossary, these details will mean little to the nonexpert. As the editor freely admits, the volume is far from being comprehensive, but one is puzzled nonetheless by the presence of only three very brief mentions of Bhutan, which is very much a part of the Tibetan cultural realm and the only nation-state with a government that actively promotes a school of Buddhism that originates in Tibet.

The regular display of gigantic appliqued fabric images for public veneration is described interestingly by Reynolds, but there is no mention of the fact that this ritual forms the climax of annual festivals at Paro, Punakha, Thimphu and elsewhere in Bhutan.

Many of the contributors have published books on their respective subjects, and each chapter's bibliographies point the way to more detailed studies.

Michael Hutt is lecturer in Nepali, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

On the Path to Void: Buddhist Art of the Tibetan Realm

Editor - Pratapaditya Pal
ISBN - 81 85026 33 5
Publisher - Marg Publications
Price - $95.00
Pages - 284

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