You have to hate or fear something a lot to do what China did to Tibetan Buddhism. In the early 20th century, Tibet had thousands of active monasteries; when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it had fewer than 10.
The politics of blame are always tricky; some scholars argue that Tibetans themselves contributed to the purge. But one reality is plain: By the time the mass demolition wound down, centuries’ worth of religious art was gone.
Among the major losses was the Densatil Monastery. High in the mountains in central Tibet, it was founded in the 12th century and famed throughout Tibet for its art, particularly for a set of eight sculpture-encrusted and gilded stupas, or reliquary monuments, each more than 10 feet tall, that stood in its worship hall. In the campaigns of destruction, Densatil was cruelly hit. It wasn’t just dismantled; it was pulverized. The assumption was that none of its art survived.
But some did survive, hidden away by devotees, or taken by Chinese military personnel. Beginning in the 1980s, astonishing examples of these metal sculptures – three-dimensional figures, relief plaques, architectural ornaments – that had covered the stupas began to appear on the Western market.
It was almost as if the monastery were trying to reconstitute itself, piece by piece. And now Asia Society has done a rough-sketch version of exactly that, assembling 50 sculptures from U.S. and European collections in an enthralling show called “Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.”
Death and a dream
The Densatil stupas originated with the death of one holy man, and the dream of another.
In 1158, a magnetic spiritual teacher named Dorje Gyalpo decided to trade a busy monastic life for contemplative solitude. He scouted out a remote mountain spot, called Phagmo Drupa – the place name would later be added to his own name – and settled into a thatched hut there.
He wasn’t alone long. His disciples tracked him down. They missed him. They wanted to stay. They built their own thatched huts. Densatil, in rudimentary form, was born. When Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo died in 1170, his ashes were interred in a small, plain stupa, and, within a few decades, a large worship hall was built to enclose and preserve his thatched hut.
Around the time of the building, one of his most ardent former students, Jigten Gonpo, who had by then established his own monastery, had a dream. In it, he was transported to a sacred mountain and shown the most elaborate stupa he’d ever seen: tall, multileveled, glowing and pocked with niches that sheltered divinities. This, he realized, was the proper receptacle for his teacher’s remains.
He hired sculptors from Nepal to create the stupa in his dream and he took Phagmo Drupa’s ashes from Densatil to occupy it. Then the Densatil monks had second thoughts. They wanted the ashes back. Things got tense, and the only solution was to recreate the new-style stupa at Densatil itself, inside the worship hall. Over the next three centuries, seven more such monuments, holding the ashes of revered abbots, would join it.
In addition to being grave markers, stupas were meditation aids, three-dimensional mandalas, or maps of the spiritual universe, that devotees must traverse to reach enlightenment. They were also blessing dispensers: To visit them prayerfully put you in a state of grace. And, in the case of Densatil stupas, they were aesthetic objects, calculated to thrill the eye and captivate the soul.
We have some sense of the overwhelming effect they made, thanks to pictures taken of Densatil in 1948 by an Italian photographer, Pietro Francesco Mele. And it is on these photographs that the exhibition organizers – Olaf Czaja, a historian at the University of Leipzig, and Adriana Proser, senior curator at Asia Society – based their installation of Densatil fragments.
The layout is in six sections, corresponding to a stupa’s six tiers, beginning with the bottommost tier, dedicated to the “Protectors of the Teachings,” and continuing, as the show goes on, symbolically upward. The protectors are a tough and charismatic crew. Earth and water spirits who link the human and heavenly realms, they function as a supernatural security team, and approach their job with gusto.
On the second tier, you will meet a welcoming hostess line of alert, smiling goddesses. One, Parnashavari, her six arms sweeping the air, curtsies in your direction. Her name means “dressed in leaves,” and, sure enough, she wears a kind of toreador jacket composed of leaf-shaped gems.
Finally, you reach the top, where, in an actual stupa, the remains of the deceased would have been enshrined, and where, the hope was, enlightenment for someone would have been achieved.