The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan

The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan
February 20 – May 10, 2009
Unprecedented access to Bhutan’s religious world provides the first comprehensive exhibition focused on the nation’s Buddhist culture

Guru Dragpo Marchen


Located in the Himalayas to the east of Mount Everest and Nepal, Bhutan is unique as a sovereign nation that has maintained its culture, arts, and religious and political traditions intact. Bhutan is one of the few countries in Asia that was never colonized by its neighbors or Western powers. From February 20 through May 10, 2009, the Asian Art Museum presents The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan, the first exhibition of its kind to focus on the Himalayan nation’s Buddhist culture. The exhibition provides an exceptionally rare opportunity to view some of the most sacred and beloved Buddhist arts of Bhutan. Many of the objects remain in ritual use in temples and monasteries and have never before been accessible to a Western audience. In an unprecedented effort, the exhibition also documents ritual Buddhist dance forms through video footage that will be shown on monitors situated in the galleries. The exhibition comprises more than 100 works of art dating from the eighth to the twentieth centuries, including thangkas (paintings on cloth), gilt bronze sculptures, and ritual objects. Bhutanese monks will remain in residence at the Asian Art Museum for the duration of the exhibition, performing daily ritual observances for the sacred artworks.

“The recent coronation of Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, Bhutan’s first democratic king, introduced many to this remote Himalayan nation steeped in tradition,” says Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. “The Asian Art Museum is pleased to bring to San Francisco the remarkable exhibition under royal patronage The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan, which provides an unprecedented view of Bhutan’s spiritual and artistic traditions that are so inextricably woven into its culture. The unprecedented access granted to the organizers and the resulting exhibition are a gift from Bhutan to the world.”

“In the eyes of the Bhutanese, these objects are not ‘art’ in the conventional sense, but are sacred images, supporting Buddhist practices,” says Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of Himalayan art at the Asian Art Museum and guest curator of The Dragon’s Gift. “The daily veneration of the objects by the monks who will remain in residence at the Asian Art Museum throughout the exhibition testifies to their spiritual significance. Even in the temples in Bhutan, these sacred works are rarely seen. Perhaps one object at a time might be brought out for ritual use. I cannot stress enough what a remarkable opportunity it is for Western audiences to see these works. The phrase ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ is overused, but in this case it most certainly applies.”


Bhutan, with a population of roughly 700,000 is comparable in population to San Francisco, yet its geographic range is similar to the size of Switzerland. Located in the Himalayas to the east of Mount Everest and Nepal, Bhutan is known as Drukyul, the land of the Thunder Dragon,” by speakers of Dzongkha, its official language. Bhutan has the distinction of being one of the few countries in Asia that was never colonized. It also has the distinction of adopting an uncommon official policy of defining the quality of life through Gross National Happiness, emphasizing mental and spiritual well-being over material prosperity. Bhutan is the only existing Vajrayana (“Tantric” or “Esoteric”) Buddhist kingdom in the world, and the Drukpa lineage is the dominant school and state religion. The country is well known for its vigorous efforts to preserve its Buddhist heritage and traditional culture, which remain vibrant and active today. Since the 1960s the country has embarked on deliberately slow-paced reforms with the intention to preserve its own identity. Foreign dignitaries and the media were allowed into Bhutan for the first time during the coronation of the last king in 1974. Foreigners to this day are still restricted, with only 20,000 tourists allowed access each year on heavily supervised trips.

The Dragon’s Gift Exhibition Layout

A gilt bronze figure of the Buddha Vajrasattva who enjoys a lofty status in the Buddhist pantheon greets visitors as they first enter North Court. Loaned from Dongkarla Kunzang Choling, an isolated temple perched atop a steep mountain, this artwork provides a fitting introduction to the exhibition. Inaccessible to Western visitors, the temple is barely accessible to even the Bhutanese who must endure a strenuous seven-hour hike in thin air to an elevation over 14,000 feet to reach it.

The Lee Gallery provides an introduction to the exhibition and a map of Bhutan marked with the places of origin of the artworks on view. The rest of the exhibition is divided into ten sections designed to introduce the visitor to the richly symbolic content of Tantric Buddhist art. In the Lee Gallery, the Buddhas section includes Shakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism in the fifth century BCE, depicted through paintings of his life and previous incarnations as well as sculptural representations. A brilliantly colored scroll painting showing the Buddha Shakyamuni as a luminous, golden figure in the supreme moment prior to his enlightenment is one of the works encountered (catalog #16). Circling the central Shakyamuni figure in this rare painting are 16 arhats, or sages, each with different attributes, minutely observed and rendered. A section devoted entirely to the Arhats and their representations in Bhutanese Buddhist art is also included in this gallery.

Among the sculptures on view in the Lee Gallery is the oldest artwork in the show dating from the seventh or eighth century (catalog #1). The image of the seated goddess called Kongtesedemo, a protector of Buddhism, is made from cast copper alloy with cold gold. It is from the collection of the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro, which is the only lending institution in the exhibition that is a museum. All other artworks come from active temples and monasteries.

To enter the Hambrecht gallery where the exhibition continues, one can pass through a temple gate handmade by Bhutanese carpenters. The Hambrecht gallery includes a section on Bodhisattvas, deities who defer their own attainment of complete Buddhahood to assist others on the path to enlightenment. A colorfully rich thangka depicting the white form of the Bodhisattva Manjushri emerging on a lotus from a lake filled with ducks, geese, and jewels is one of the highlights in this section (catalog #21). A section entitled Deity Yoga illustrates spiritual figures who are the focus of such Buddhist ritual practices as visualizations and mantra chanting. This section introduces these figures, the concepts they represent, and associated practices. A tiny, gem-studded gilded bronze statue showing the deity Vajrasattva and his consort in an erotic embrace evokes the principle of feminine wisdom and masculine action that together lead one from ignorance to enlightenment (catalog # 15).

The Hambrecht gallery also holds one of the cornerstones of the exhibition, documentation of Cham, or Buddhist ritual dance. Cham dances are both spiritual practices in themselves and a means of communicating Buddhist teachings. The first Asian art exhibition organized by art and dance historians working together, The Dragon’s Gift illustrates Buddhist ritual dance both on a series of high-resolution video screens and in works of art. Over the course of several years, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, in conjunction with the Core of Culture, a Chicago-based nonprofit dance foundation devoted to dance preservation, compiled more than 300 hours of video documentation of cham. Four video monitors and a selection of thangkas illustrate the dance.

In the Vinson gallery on the east side of North Court, a Buddhist altar specially commissioned for the exhibition and made in Bhutan will be on display. The Buddhist monks in residence at the Asian Art Museum throughout the exhibition will be stationed here on a daily basis. The monks will perform ritual observances of the venerated objects by ritually bathing them every day at 11 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. These rituals are open to the public and will be conducted throughout the galleries.

Visitors can spin a Bhutanese prayer wheel before entering the Osher gallery where the exhibition continues. The Osher gallery includes a section on Stupas and Mandalas. Representing the Buddha’s mind, a stupa is an object of worship varying in size from a small ornament up to a huge monument. Stupas can be three-dimensional representations and also can be depicted through paintings. The exhibition has examples of both on view. A mandala is used as an aid to meditation or for initiation. They are diagrams that form geometrical configurations of spiritual space and human consciousness. A rare “complete mandala” representing many of the deities in Buddhism is one of the highlights in this section (catalog #46). Padmasambhava, lovingly known as Guru Rinpoche (“Precious Teacher”) in Bhutan and elsewhere and credited with introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan, has a section devoted entirely to depictions of him and illustrated stories of his life.

The distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese religious practice is the result of a thematic fusion of two Buddhist schools: Nyingma and Drukpa Kagyu. Osher gallery houses a section on each of these traditions. Each section shows distinctions of each school through video footage of cham dance and sculptures of important saints and teachers, as well as thangkas depicting them and the story of their lives. Drukpa Kagyu is the official state religion and the predominant sect of Buddhism in Bhutan. The exhibition focuses on its history and the various personalities associated with it. One of the greatest figures in the history and development of Drukpa Kagyu Buddhism is Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (1527–92) who wrote expansively on a wide variety of religious topics and systematized the Drukpa Kagyu teachings. A highlight in this section is a didactic thangka depicting key moments in his life (catalog #81). The exhibition concludes with ritual objects from various Bhutanese monasteries used for worship.

Conservation Project
An important aspect of The Dragon’s Gift focused on the conservation of the many paintings and sculptures housed in the temples. Led by Ephraim Jose, Asian Paintings Conservator of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, these efforts were mostly carried out by the Bhutanese monks working closely with western-trained conservators. The goal was to provide education and materials for the monks to learn to properly care for the artworks on their own. Mark Fenn, Associate Head of Conservation at the Asian Art Museum, also played a principal role in this project. He documents his experience in detail in the exhibition catalogue.

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. The catalogue, published by Serindia Press, is a major scholarly contribution to the field of Himalayan studies and includes essays on many aspects of Buddhist art and history Bhutan by American, European, and Bhutanese scholars. A DVD of a sampling of ancient cham dances is included with the catalogue. The fully illustrated catalog is available at the Asian Art Museum store ($49.95 softcover,. $65 hardcover). 415-581-3600 or

Exhibition Tours
The Asian Art Museum will provide a complementary audio guide of the exhibition, as well as complementary tours every day the museum is open through the run of the exhibition at
10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 1:30 pm.

Related Programs
The Asian Art Museum will offer a diverse programs related to the exhibition. An opening ceremony will be held on, Friday, February 20, at 10 a.m. and will include ritual observances led by the Bhutanese monks in residence as well as a ribbon cutting ceremony. Please refer to the exhibitions programs press release, visit, or call (415) 581-3500 for more information.

Media Preview
A media preview for The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan will be held on Wednesday, February 18, 2009. Doors open at 11 a.m., remarks begin at 11:15 a.m. The Annual Press Luncheon will immediately follow at noon with a presentation of the 2009-2010 exhibition calendar. Please RSVP by Friday, February 9 to or call (415) 581-3713.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Department of Culture, Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs of the Royal Government of Bhutan. The art conservation, dance preservation, and educational programs of The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan are made possible through the lead support of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.

Major support for The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan is provided by the E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Michael and Patricia O’Neill Charitable Fund, Susan Pillsbury, and Lawrence and Joyce Stupski. Additional support is provided by Le Burta G. Atherton, the Freeman Foundation, Hotels & Resorts of Halekulani, Japan Airlines, Drukair, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the W.L.S. Spencer Foundation.

Presentation at the Asian Art Museum is made possible by support from the Columbia Foundation, American Express, the Shau-Wai & Marie Lam Family Foundation, Carmen M. Christensen, Frances Bushell, Richard C. Blum and The Honorable Dianne Feinstein, John and Heather Little, and Doris Shoong Lee and Theodore Bo Lee.

Asian Art Museum