One of our last field trips was to Norbulingka Institute, the Dalai-Lama sponsored school that serves as a training center for the traditional arts and produces the finest thangka paintings, textiles, metal statues, and woodwork in the Tibetan exile community. We arrived, and it was gorgeous—the architect (the same that designed Tara-la’s house…) made the buildings in the Tibetan style but the gardens in his native Japanese tradition:
This little gem is so Tibetan—a water-powered prayer wheel! A
Our first stop was the most impressive—the appliqué thangkas. Each of these takes an insanely long period of time and is made of hundreds of pieces. They’re really expensive, but with reason.
(That's Maitreya, the Buddha of the coming age.)
Our guide showed us the thread—red silk thread wrapped around a horse hair, which gives them strength. In the non-thangka textile section, they substitute the less-traditional fishing wire instead.
(Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha.)
Wood-carving secion! Our guide was slightly less than perfectly helpful, which means I don’t have much to tell you about this secion. They work in pine and teak.
…we came to their temple, in which everything was designed and built/painted by Norbulingka artists, from the 18-foot Buddha statue to the paintings of all the Dalai Lamas on the walls; the last two, since we have photographs of them, were painted in the hyper-realistic style that is beginning to be developed for this sort of occaions:
Also on display: a traditional-format poem written by one of the director-types. I don't know nearly enough Tibetan to understand it, but apparently one can read it in lots of different directions. Tibetan is so cool--this is something you can only do in a language where lots of the semantics happens on the level of the syllable. Some may also provide bonus points.
On the top floor of the temple is a private room reserved for His Holiness when he visits; Sarah College and lots of other institutions have these too. This one we got to visit though!
And this is the staircase to his private meditation room. Seems kinda steep for someone of his age, though maybe since it’s behind closed doors he can use this to practice flying.
View from the roof: lower Dharamsala is just to the left; McLeod is right behind those hills. You can see this place from the Kora route, which is the most outward-projecting part of town. The green roofs belong to “Lower TCV,” a branch of the TCV school system; this one is unique in that most of its students are fee-paying. (TCV is free for refugee, orphaned, and seriously poor Tibetans; others can go to CTA schools for free or pay for private education at someplace like this.) Even though this is about half an hour from McLeod—totally within bussing distance—it’s still a boarding school, which is what most Tibetan parents prefer. Interesting, no?
The crown jewel of Norbulingka is their thangka section.
We had the fortune to visit while they were working on a massive series of thangkas for all 14 Dalai Lamas, with scenes from their lives in the background. (The central deity or other figure in a thangka must adhere to very strict conventions, though the background is more flexible). The Thangka Master himself showed us around, including the piece he himself was working on—one of the four thangkas of the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Can you can pick out the part where he visited the U.S. Capitol?
Some of the detail on the sketch—the snow lions at the top of the image below are supporting His Holiness’ throne.
In another from that series, His Holiness visits Beijing (upper left), the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya (center) and some Indian dignitaries (lower right). The dark blue feet don’t belong to the Dalai Lama but to one of the deities surrounding him; this image is only the bottom-right corner of this thangka. Each one of those people is about two inches tall.
An artist contemplates Manjushri on this coral-colored thangka. Thankgas are usually done one white canvas, though sometimes the color of the deity is used—in the store I saw Green Tara and Medicine Buddha (blue) depictions where the skin of the deity was left as the background color; only the clothes were painted on. Black thangkas are also used, usually for wrathful deities like this one, which might be Yamantaka (a wrathful emanation of Manjushri)…
…but sometimes for peaceful ones, like this Thousand-arm Chenrezig:
Instead of making thangkas factory-style, each artist sticks with one from initial sketch through finishing touches for however many weeks or months it takes.
We ended the day by taking up every unused seat in the studio and trying our hand at copying a sketch of a Buddha’s face. Kinda corny, I know, but actually a lot of fun.
So we started with copying the grid…
and after two hours and some tips from one of the masters on how to draw the eyes, here’s what I made! Everyone’s were really impressive.