The January/February 2008 issue of “Orientations“, one of the best Asian art magazines out there, was dedicated almost exclusively to the subject of the art of Bhutan, in conjunction with the landmark exhibition “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan”, which brought Bhutanese art to the West in a major and organized way for the first time, showing at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Rubin Museum (NYC) and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2008-09 before moving on to Paris, Cologne, and Zurich. Demand for this issue was so great, they reprinted it recently, and were most kind to email me to offer me the chance to purchase a copy.
Loyal readers will remember that I reviewed the exhibition many months ago when I saw it at the Rubin; while I find the architecture of Bhutan stunning and impressive, and Bhutan’s traditional dances amazingly colorful and fascinating, the paintings and sculptures displayed in the exhibition were indistinguishable to me from those I have seen time and again in the Tibetan Art sections of various museums. Every nation from China and Japan to England, France and Holland have produced gorgeous works of art of a secular nature. Where are Bhutan’s secular landscapes, portraits, and other pieces? Where is the range and breadth of the nation’s artistic endeavors? More to the point, perhaps, what truly sets Bhutanese art apart from that of Tibet and its other neighbors, outside of the kinds of details that only an expert would recognize?
This issue of Orientations, packed with beautiful color photos, does not answer that question, nor does it introduce new genres of Bhutanese art, but it does complement the exhibition beautifully, illuminating the history of Bhutan’s art, and iconography of its Buddhist paintings and tapestries, while including as well discussions of dzong (fortress monastery) architecture and traditional dance, those two aspects of Bhutan’s arts that do stand apart and which have captured my interest to a far greater extent.
One of the most distinctive, colorful, and stunning aspects of Bhutan’s art is Cham dance. As you can see on the cover of the Orientatons issue, and in this video courtesy of the Rubin Museum (via YouTube), the dancers wear many layers of fluttering, colored textiles, and in many dances animal masks as well, further reinforcing for the viewer a sense of ritual, of communing with or channeling the gods, and perhaps of recalling myths or other stories. This is far from pure dance for entertainment.
Joseph Houseal, director of Core of Culture Dance Preservation, writes on the role of dance in Bhutan’s art and religious practice. He and members of the Core of Culture staff enjoyed the privilege of viewing, filming and otherwise documenting numerous ritual dances in Bhutan over a two-year period, as well as being granted unprecedented access to certain paintings and sacred spaces.
As Houseal writes, “an authentic understanding of Bhutanese culture, religion, and philosophy would be incomplete – indeed inaccurate – without understanding the prominence of dance.”
To that end, the Dragon’s Gift incorporated both dance and the fine/visual arts together, something rare and unusual if not exactly revolutionary in the museum world, bringing great life and energy to the exhibition (or so I would imagine. In fact, the day I visited this exhibition everything was sadly quite quiet and still).
Indeed, dance and painting are intertwined in Bhutan to an extent I would never have imagined. Houseal describes how what might at first look merely like Buddhist paintings depicting generic movement/dance actually reflect very particular choreographic movements, and can be read as guides to performing particular sacred dances. In fact, many paintings are seen as terma, sacred texts passed on through the generations to be uncovered, discovered, deciphered by (or “revealed” to) a terton (“treasure-revealer”), and interpreted into actual dances when the time is right.
There is no parallel in the West for “this genesis of choreography,” dances being created based on the deciphering of texts and paintings, many revealed to tertons in visions and dreams, which are immediately shared with a trained choreographic scribe who can then transform it into live, performed dance and preserve it for the future through oral tradition and the living memory of initiating the next generation of monks in its choreography.
While these are beautiful, colorful dances, and are quite frequently referred to as “sacred dances” in English, Houseal is sure to point out that Cham, as this form of ritual dance is called in Bhutan, is far more like danced yoga, danced meditation, or ritual meditation than “dance” per se, which would emphasize the artistic, creative, expressive, or entertainment aspects of the activity. Cham is powerfully sacred, spiritual, and meditative, and like most forms of ritual in esoteric Buddhism, which emphasizes the sacredness of the hidden, different “dances” can only be viewed or danced by certain levels of the populace. Some dances are forbidden to be seen by women or foreigners; some cannot be seen by laypeople; some can only be seen by monks of a certain level of experience, knowledge, or rank; and some, I would imagine, can only be performed in private, witnessed only by the dancers themselves and by the gods. One particular dance described by Houseal is so sacred that only the head dancers of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, those initiated into this dance, may look into the sacred altar which contains the raven masks worn in the dance. Houseal and one colleague are today the only foreigners in history to have witnessed this dance in person.
It is thus all the more special that these dances have been recorded, documented, and in part brought to us in the West, to view, experience and enjoy. It may be difficult for the Western view to appreciate the sacredness of these dances, that they are holy rituals and not entertainment, but even so, it would be a great shame for these energetic, colorful, profoundly beautiful dances to remain hidden to the world.
I look forward to obtaining a copy of the catalog for the Dragon’s Gift, which includes a DVD of a number of Cham dances.
The dzong is the most striking and distinctive form of Bhutanese architecture. Imposing fortress-monasteries set high atop mountains or built right into the cliffsides, they are intriguing for combining functions of castle and cathedral, secular and religious, which were historically kept separate in most cultures around the world. From Christianity-dominated medieval Europe to ancient Israel to Buddhist/Taoist/Shinto China, Korea and Japan, secular centres of government (palaces, castles) were distinct from cathedrals, shrines and temples not only in location (i.e. literally separate buildings), but also in architectural style. Not so in Bhutan. The Trashichho Dzong in Thimphu today houses both the offices of the king & central government and the residence of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot).
Dzongs serve as the centres of each of Bhutan’s administrative regions, which are also called dzongs. The space within each fortress-monastery is divided between secular administrative offices, headed by a penlop, and religious spaces, inhabited by monks.
Dzongs are hefty, imposing structures with solid white walls and few windows or openings on lower levels. A thick red stripe near the top of the wall, sometimes punctuated by golden accents, serves as the only decoration or accent below the roof, which is made of intersecting timbers in a manner akin to that used further East, though in a decidedly different aesthetic style, and painted a deep red.
Difficult as it may be to imagine, given our romanticized ideas today of the peaceful, idyllic, Shangri-la that is Bhutan & Tibet, dzongs did serve as martial fortresses before the country was united by the Zhabdrung in the 1630s. Like castles in many parts of the world, dzongs served as the central defensive stronghold for each region; and they certainly look the part. I can’t even imagine how one would siege such a structure, which looks to be made of just solid wall; I don’t believe I have ever seen a gate or entrance to a dzong, contributing to their impenetrable seeming, though obviously there must be gates somewhere.
And I am sure that the large windows, high above the ground, could be used by archers, though I have never seen or read a single thing about how Bhutanese peoples warred, or how dzongs were defended. What other weapons were used?
Many dzongs have separate watchtowers higher up on the mountain, outside the walls of the main fortress. The watchtower of Paro dzong has been transformed into a museum.
As I have seen/read nothing about the architecture or organization of Bhutan’s villages, it is hard for me to conceive of exactly what role the dzong plays in the daily life of the average citizen… I gather that villagers live outside the fortress-monasteries, either in settlements organized around the dzong like a castle town, or scattered across the hills in a more rural settlement pattern; either way, the extent to which the dzong not only dominates the skyline and atmosphere of every region, but indeed dominates our understanding and impression of the nation’s architecture is unparalleled, I would imagine, among the nations of the world.
Perhaps most exciting and intriguing about the dzong is the fact that, unlike many historical structures (e.g. castles) in the West, which have become museums or are otherwise no longer actively used for their original purpose, and unlike examples of traditional architecture elsewhere in the East (e.g. the hutongs of Beijing, the machiya of Kyoto) which are threatened by development, the dzong remain in use as they have been used for hundreds of years. They are living structures, constantly being used, lived in, and repaired, renovated and expanded using methods and styles fully true to tradition, with no taste of anachronism, of artificially maintaining something old and outdated in a static form it once held historically. As an unabashed Orientalist, I wish more traditional styles and methods were maintained in this manner throughout East Asia (and in the West as well). What a beautiful, colorful world we would live in if more people used siheyuan, machiya and minka homes in a modern, 21st century fashion as their homes, stores and workplaces, maintaining them not as a static, artificially protected remnant of the past, but as a natural part of Chinese/Japanese modern life, instead of the acultural, unartistic concrete and steel blocks we see replacing them every day.