2010 Student-Faculty Fellows: Hobart And William Smith Colleges

Independent Student Research on Traditional Tibetan Art in Dharmsala

Mentor: Tenzin Yignyen
Students: Alyson Feldman-Piltch, Yanli Guo, Margaret Horner, Rashid Perkins, Andrew Upton


Hobart group with Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu school, at his residence in Gyuto Monastery, Sidhpur, Dharmsala

Project Abstract

Students listening to a lecture by Tibetan statue master Penpa Dorjee at Norbulingka Tibetan Arts Center in Sidhpur, Dharmsala

This research project was initially projected to be undertaken in Tibet. When passports were denied to us by the People’s Republic of China, we began making arrangements to study in Nepal. However, when it became apparent that anticipated political unrest in Nepal would make research there problematic, we asked for and received permission from the Freeman Foundation to conduct our study in Dharmsala, India, where our mentor grew up and has a broad range of contacts to facilitate our investigations.

The focus of our research is on better understanding the techniques and methods used to produce traditional Tibetan arts including Thangka painting, embroidery work, carpet weaving, wood carving and the making of traditional Tibetan dresses such as chubas. Such art demands great patience and embodies the close interaction between the artist teachers and their student understudies. The respect of students for their teachers and the compassion and care of the teachers for their students is readily apparent.

We discovered that the unique Tibetan artistic skills have been retained in the Tibetan communities in India and that they are intricately linked to the positive intentions and spiritual dedication of the artists to the creative process and their determination to preserve Tibetan culture. The majority of the Tibetan arts were created for the purpose of spiritual development, to foster compassion, patience, concentration, mindfulness, respect and moral discipline. They were not learned to gain worldly profit.

Our investigations led us to visit many centers of traditional Tibetan arts, monasteries and nunneries, a library, temples, schools and the Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institutes. We met and interviewed many Tibetan artists, scholars, and monks and interacted a great deal with Tibetans of all walks of life.

Students witnessing Tibetan embroidery class , at Norbulingka Tibetan Arts Center in Sidhpur, Dharmsala

Alyson Feldman-Piltch

My research focuses on Tibetan textiles, and although not conducted in Tibet. I was able to pursue my research in Dharmsala since a great number of Tibetans have relocated there. My study included interacting with the Tibetan tailor and fashion designer, Phurbu Tsering, who discussed the fabric used to make chubas and other pieces of traditional Tibetan clothing. He also discussed the increasing reliance on synthetic materials by weavers as substitutes for kochin and silk. Tenzin Norbu, a master thangka maker, spent time explaining how embroidery and appliqué are applied to thangkas, and of the use of horse hair, wrapped in very thin strands of gold, to fasten and hold the borders of thangka together. I visited the Handicraft Co-op Center where the manager explained that the traditional technique for weaving carpets is still used today. I also spent some time in the Tibetan Government in Exile Library locating texts that highlight the meaning of symbols used in textiles and the variations in textiles from region to region in Tibet.

Students watching Tibetan thangka painting class at Norbulingka Tibetan Arts Center in Sidhpur, Dharmsala

Yanli Guo

My research focuses upon the development of Tibetan thangka painting, its importance in Tibetan culture and religion, and the processes used to create thangka and the consecration of them. I discovered that artists in Dharmsala still paint thangkas following traditional measurement patterns taught for thousands of years and continue to use natural painting material to ensure the better quality of the painting. A good thangka usually takes a painter several months to years to finish, depending on the size of the image and the details in the painting. Traditionally, students learned to paint thangkas by staying with their teachers for fourteen to fifteen years. Currently, they often go to art school and study with a thangka master for three to five years. It is believed that the best thangka painters are those with the purest motivation and spirits. The consecration of a thangka is extremely important because it rids any impurity from the image and thereby empowers the painting by allowing the spirit of the Buddha and deities to reside in the image. Subsequently, those viewing the thangka receive good karma including happiness, health and success.

Tibetan stone carving at Norbulingka Tibetan Arts Center in Sidhpur, Dharmsala

Margaret Horner

My research in Dharmsala focused upon Tibetan sculptures and was facilitated by my access to books and manuscripts not available to me in the United States and by meeting, observing, and conversing with master sculptors and monks. I met with the master sculptor at the Norbulingka Art Institute, who produced the majority of sculptures housed in the Namgyal Monastery. At the monastery, I was able to meet with several high-ranking monks to discuss the meaning embodied in the sculptures and rituals linked to them. I also studied the art of sculpture making and the materials utilized in the production of sculptures. In addition, I examined the process by which sculptures are consecrated. Finally, I explored the making of sculptures out of butter. Now back at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, I am studying the influence of Indian, Chinese and Nepalese art on Tibetan sculptures.

Hobart group in front of Gyuto Monastery in Sidhpur, Dharmsala

Rashid Perkins

My research is focused on Tibetan architecture. For hundreds of years, Tibetan architecture has resonated as one of the world’s treasured achievements. Structures like the Potala Palace, the Norbulinka, the Dalai Lama’s summer and winter homes in Lhasa, and the vast array of monastic complexes are admired and well worth study. While in Dharmsala, I spent quite a bit of time in the Tibetan Government in Exile Library examining books and manuscripts focused upon the building plans for Tibet’s capital, Lhasa and buildings in neighboring provinces. Textual study was complemented by personal interviews I had with several Tibetan architects. I also conscientiously photographed Tibetan temples and monasteries in Dharmasala to augment these other findings.

Fire ritual ceremony performed by Namgyal monks at Tibetan main temple, Tsuglakhang, Dharmsala

Andrew Upton

My goal in my research inquiry is to uncover the hidden reservoir of feelings behind and related to the creation and dissemination of traditional Tibetan dress; who wears it, why, where do they buy it, how does wearing traditional clothing make them feel? In short, I seek to study what traditional clothing tells us about the Tibetan people, especially those in exile. To discern this, my project is divided into two parts: 1) the technical–meeting with tailors, seamstresses, costume designers and others at art institutes, fashionistas, a pop star, and by studying the texts regarding the technical in local libraries; and 2) the popular–talking with everyday people, shopkeepers, café workers, monks, nuns, street vendors, and Tibetan youth about traditional dress. In doing this, I gathered an incredible amount of data including over 900 pictures, about a third of which are dedicated specifically to clothing, and 200 pages of journal entries which include: notes, sketches, interviews, opinions, technical aspects of clothing, fashion ideas, and how the pop culture affects new trends in fashions of the day. In the realm of personal interviews the most interesting were those conducted with everyday people and explore the questions about why they do or do not wear the traditional chuba.