The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan

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February 23, 2008 - May 23, 2008
Honolulu Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan is the first comprehensive exhibition of Bhutanese Buddhist art in the United States. Working together with the Royal Government of Bhutan’s Department of Culture and the Central Monastic Authority, the Academy has been granted unprecedented access to the sacred arts of the country during an extensive four-year research program. This groundbreaking exhibition, which requires accompanying Bhutanese monks to live in Honolulu for its duration, showcases rare religious Buddhist visual and performing arts.

Bhutan is the only country in the world to adopt Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism as its official religion, and the particular form of Buddhism found in Bhutan permeates all aspects of culture and the arts. Bhutan is remarkable for the antiquity and continuity of its Buddhist teachings, with the first temples in the region established during the 7th century. The arts of the two main branches of Vajrayana Buddhism in Bhutan, the Drukpa Kagyu and the Nyingma schools, are represented the exhibition.

The Dragon’s Gift comprises 117 works of art, including two-dimensional thangkas painted in mineral pigments and appliquéd in silk, gilt bronze sculptures, and ritual objects ranging in date from the 8th to the 20th centuries, with especially strong examples from the 17th through the 19th centuries. The majority of the art works in the exhibition come from active temples, where they continue to serve religious purposes. Due to the sacred nature of the art, monks will accompany The Dragon’s Gift to each venue, and will remain in residence, performing the necessary ritual observances.  With just a few exceptions, none of these items have ever been on display outside Bhutan. 

As a key part of this project, the museum's Asian Paintings Conservation Studio (note: this closed in 2009) undertook a three-year project to train Bhutanese monks in advanced techniques of Himalayan painting conservation. This involved workshops and on-site conservation at temples in Bhutan and the training of Bhutanese monks in Honolulu. Consequently, the thangka paintings included in the exhibition were all responsibly conserved before display, preserving them for future generations, while the monks trained by the Academy are now using the skills they acquired to continue conservation work in their home monasteries.

An extraordinary aspect of the exhibition is the documentation of ritual dance forms, or cham, by the museum in conjunction with Core of Culture, a Chicago-based nonprofit dance preservation foundation. For the exhibition, an extensive digital database of more than 300 hours of video documentation, including the performances of numerous rare, nearly extinct cham rituals, was created. This unique dance research played a key role in the exhibition’s conceptual and interpretive structure. The database was available to the public during the exhibition, as well as two components devoted to dance: a gallery of high-definition video screens showing footage of actual dances; and an installation of photographs of cham dancers by Herbert Migdall, photographer in residence for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. Cham was also featured through video installations in other galleries, since there is often an intimate connection between dance and arts (such as painting and sculpture) in Bhutanese rituals. After the exhibition, the museum gave one copy of the cham database to the Royal Government of Bhutan, and one copy to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York, the largest dance archive in the world.


The exhibition is divided into 12 sections. The sections are organized according to conceptual aspects of Buddhism in Bhutan and will provide viewers with a structure with which to understand the richly symbolic content of Tantric Buddhist art. 

Section One: Buddhas
Shakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism in the 5th century B.C., is the first image encountered in the exhibition. Paintings depicting his life and previous incarnations complement sculptural representations. Depictions of the five cosmic Buddha Families, such as an elaborate sculpture of Aksobhya, provide a broader definition of Buddhahood.

Section Two: Bodhisattvas
Bodhisattvas, beings who defer their own attainment of complete Buddhahood to assist others on the path to enlightenment, are highly venerated in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. This section introduces such popular and revered Bodhisattvas as Manjushri, shown in multiple forms including a sumptuous painted thangka of the White Manjushri, Vajrapani, and Avalokitesvara.

Section Three: Padmasambhava and the Treasure Revealers
Padmasambhava, who spread Buddhism to parts of Bhutan in the 8th century, is an important figure in all forms of Bhutanese Buddhism. This section will illustrate multiple manifestations of Padmasambhava in both peaceful and wrathful forms.  It will also include narrative paintings of Padmasambhava’s life story, a variety of sculptures reflecting regional styles, and dance content to illustrate his importance in Bhutan. 

Padmasambhava is closely associated with the “Treasure Revealers” of the Nyingma School, particularly in Eastern Bhutan.  These Treasure Revealers discovered texts and other religious treasures previously hidden by Padmasambhava centuries after the latter’s death. Portraits of the Treasure Revealers are included in this section of the exhibition.

Section Four: Arhats and Mahasiddhas
This section introduces extraordinary adepts who attained high levels of spiritual insight. The Sixteen Arhats are represented by an outstanding and complete set of paintings from the 18th century. The Mahasiddhas, Indian sages who employ unconventional means to achieve enlightenment, are also represented in painted thangka.

Section Five: Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), a charismatic historical figure, was the founder of modern Bhutan. A revered lama, Zhabdrung came to Bhutan from Southern Tibet in 1616. He soon unified the country, established a unique system of governance, and built a series of local fortress–monasteries (dzongs) that still function as centers of political and religious administration. Zhabdrung figures prominently in almost every Buddhist temple in Bhutan. He is represented in both paintings and sculptures.

Section Six: Deity Yoga
A wide variety of spiritual figures comprise the Buddhist pantheon in Bhutan. Many of these deities are the focus of Buddhist ritual practices such as visualizations and mantra chanting. This section introduces these figures, the concepts they represent, and associated practices.  Examples include a powerful yab-yum sculpture of Vajrasattva and his consort, representing the feminine wisdom and masculine “skillful means” (upaya) that lead from ignorance to enlightenment.

Section Seven: Guru Yoga
The teacher-disciple relationship is very important in Vajrayana Buddhism. Teachers are regarded as Living Buddhas and impart secret teachings and initiations to their students. Lineages of Buddhist teachers figure prominently in both texts and works of art. Historical figures from both the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, many unique to Bhutan, are represented, with examples in painting, sculpture, and a remarkable embroidered thangka of the important master Je Thrinley Gyaltshen.

Section Eight: Mandala
Perhaps no visual expression of Buddhist thought is as mysterious and attractive to the Western viewer as the mandala. Intricate spiritual diagrams that are considered maps leading to wisdom and spiritual knowledge, mandalas are powerful tools employed in the quest for enlightenment. A variety of painted mandalas will be presented along with references to associated ritual practices.

Section Nine: Ritual Dance (Cham)
Buddhist ritual dances, or cham, will be illustrated both on a series of high-resolution video screens, and in works of art. The Academy’s dance documentation team, under the direction of the Core of Culture Foundation has spent several years in Bhutan creating a digital archive that documents many previously unknown Buddhist dances. Buddhist dance in Bhutan is both a spiritual practice in itself and a means of communicating Buddhist teachings.

A gilt repoussé Buddhist altar will be installed in a dedicated gallery as a key adjunct to the exhibition. This altar will be based on an example from Trashigang Goempa, an important monastery near Thimphu. The altar will be furnished with a variety of sacred objects as a site for pujas (rituals) conducted by the monks who will accompany the exhibition, and to give the viewer a sense of temple interiors in Bhutan.

Following its debut presentation in Honolulu, the exhibition traveled to the Rubin Museum of Art, New York; the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; and the Museum Rietberg, Zürich.

The Dragon’s Gift is documented with a fully illustrated catalogue including all works of art in the exhibition and new photography of many important works of art in situ in Bhutanese monasteries. Each chapter mirrors the sections of the exhibition as outlined above. The catalogue, published by Serindia Press, is a major scholarly contribution to the field of Himalayan studies and includes essays on many aspects of the Buddhist art and history of Bhutan by American, European, and Bhutanese scholars.

Read the New York Times article about the exhibition.