Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery
Dr. Olaf Czaja and Dr. Adriana Proser
Asia Society, Feb 2014
Archaeology doesn’t excavate only in deserts, overgrown jungles, and remote and forgotten places. Golden Visions of Densatil, exhibited at the Asia Society from February 19 through May 18, presents the admirable and thorough fruits of a kind of archaeology that operates in museums and private collections, rather than in the field. Its accompanying catalog superbly reconstructs the religiously-motivated artistic content of Densatil monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist site that existed from the 13th century until the 20th.
The objects of the archeologist are typically located beneath the earth, and in the far past, its challenge of reconstructing a lost world complicated by damage wrought by natural elements and the long, obscuring space of time. Time alters objects almost beyond recognition, but so too do the concerted acts of individuals. Art historians who attempt to bring back into clear view a lost culture are confronted with effects of intentional obscuration by human beings, rather than the slow, steady, but impersonal efforts of time.
Golden Visions of Densatil reconstructs the art of Densatil, a monastery forcibly plundered during the Cultural Revolution. While far from anomalous, China’s wide-scale obliteration of religions in the middle twentieth century stands as a recent instance of the terribly effective application of human intention to compress what it would take the raw elements hundreds, if not thousands, of years to accomplish.
The exhibition’s catalog brings together the monastery’s history, the efforts by scholars to reconstruct its works of art by reference to similar pieces, and catalog entries for the exhibition’s works. While only the basic evidence of the former monastery remains on site, photographs from a 1948 Italian expedition provide a template for reconstructing the interior design and artwork of the monastery.
Densatil monastery was built in the late 12th century, beginning as a structure to commemorate Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170), a Buddhist monk who ventured to the remote Western Tibet in order to find isolation to meditate. Initially he lived in caves, and then in the traditional thatched hut of yogis. The hut became a symbol of the Phagmo Drupa school. Despite his efforts to seek solitude, Dorje Gyalpo’s former students found him.
After his death in 1170, they enclosed his humble hut in the main hall of the eventual Densatil monastery. Field notes by Giuseppe Tucci from the 1948 expeditions describe a hut in the main hall, showing the continuity of tradition in the monastery, and the link between wandering ascetics and the monastic order.
The introductory essay by Olaf Czaja cogently presents the monastery’s history, and the construction of the tashi gomang stupas that are the central artistic remains represented in the exhibition. These eight foot tall structures are multi-tiered, and teem with Buddhist figures: from graceful, dancing apsaras, to stern guardians of the law, to meditating Buddhas. Although the individual sculptures that made up the tashi gomang at Densatil are lost, the exhibition brings together a string set of representative images, from other tashi gomang.
An important section connects tashi gomang with practice, pointing out the structural aspects of the stupas that mirror mandalas. “When an adherent of Buddhist faith saw a tashi gomang stupa, he therefore had a sculptural delineation for the path towards enlightenment right before him.” Since these stupas were built to commemorate Dorje Gyalpo, the practice of an individual and monks’ connection to his lineage were linked to the path described in mandala form.
Grainy black-and-white photographs from the 1948 provide not only a reference for the monastery’s tashi gomang, but also but the intimacy and a sense of closeness to these structures that monks must have experienced. Shot in scant light inside the monastery’s main hall, these images’ low angle evoke a feeling of magnificent, powerful images held for centuries in a mountain monastery, closely enshrined in a sacred place. This sense of immediacy with the stupa’s gilt copper sculptures is ably complemented by scholarly exegesis on each individual sculpture’s purpose in the whole. The lovely photos of the exhibition’s catalog entries present, as it were, shining realizations of each figure beyond mere pictorial representation.
The casebound volume is generously-sized, and printed on heavy paper, with minimal show through. Its design is direct, and features numerous figures, maps and diagrams illustrating the monastery’s physical plan, and the complex structure and iconography of Densatil’s tashi gomang stupas. A timeline places the monastery in context and marks important events in its history, and a helpful glossary of terms provides a welcome aid to readers unfamiliar with Buddhist terminology, figures, and schools. A 32 page preview is available online, as is an extremely rich website.