Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The First Giant Thangka for Tsurphu

Tsurphu monastery is situated in a valley two hours north-west of Lhasa (fig 2, right).. The landscape here, at over 4000m, is mainly sloping mountainsides brightly speckled with wild flowers in the warm season --white peaks ahead and rushing river below. On the south bank of the river, in front of the new monastery, are the old steeply inclined steps upon which the gigantic applique image is displayed for a few hours each year.

The creation of such huge images is traditional throughout Tibet. (fig 3, left, at Drepung) They are referred to as "gos.sKu." (pronounced Ki-gu) in Tibetan, literally means "Satin-image". These hangings are, in fact, constructed using a range of heavy brocades, silks and satins sewn them together in the applique technique. The intricate linework is translated using a technique similar to that found in Tibetan tent design, typical of this culturally nomadic people. The Karmapas, in particular, were renowned for their elaborate tent settlements. In addition, styles in art and iconography differ according to the various religious schools. The Karma Kagyu style, known as Karma Gadri, was established in 1500 and reflects influence from India (in its form), China (in its colouring) and Tibet (in its composition). Interestingly, His Holiness has named this giant thangka The Karma Gadri Thangka.

These aspects were very much considered when constructing the new gos.sKu for Tsurphu monastery. This thangka, completed in the spring of 1994, was made to replace the previous 17th century applique made during the time of the 10th Karmapa.
This thangka, completed in the spring

of 1994, was made to replace the previous
17th century applique made during
the time of the 10th Karmapa.
As there was no photographic record of this image, the artists were requested to re-design the work based on the oral instructions and guidance given by the present abbot of Tsurphu, the Venerable Drupon Dechen Rimpoche. Hence the new design is closely based on the previous banner, though two Lamas now represented, but not found in the original design, reflect its contemporary nature. Such updating is a traditional feature of making devotional lineage images in Tibet.

The work, 23x35 metre in size, features nine figures: Sakyamuni Buddha in the centre (9m high) (fig 4, right); Manjusri and Maitreya Bodhisattvas flanking him (7m high); the Primordial Buddha at the top centre (fig 5, below left) and a fierce wrathful protector at the bottom centre. At each corner of the image sits a great Lama of the lineage - The First and Second Karmapas are in the upper corners; the Sixteenth Karmapa, who passed away in 1981, and the Third Jamgon Kontrul, one of the Karmapa's foremost disciples who passed away in 1992, are featured in the lower corners. It is of significance that both these great Lamas focused much energy in propagating Dharma to the West; in consequence funding for this work was found among Eastern and Western disciples alike.
Other than these main figures, each individual in gesture, ornaments and flowing robes, this image is adorned with additional elements giving it a particularly intricate quality for such a huge design. Symbolic beings and animals support the Buddha's throne; clouds and rainbows illuminate the sky above; peacocks and gazelles graze peacefully before the lamas below, particularly, the endangered species of Tibet's wildlife are featured: yaks, asses, white-lipped deer, antelopes and the bluehorned sheep all have a place in the image for special protection. Tibetan cranes and various other birds (10 cm) are also present, even if sometimes hidden in the foliage.

Over 1500 metres of silks and brocades were used to make the Tsurphu gos.sKu (fig 6, right, the sewing team at work). Seventy shades of colour were chosen and a large part of this palette was specifically dyed in Hong Kong to meet the requirement of a Karma Gadri design which is noted for its use of pastel shades. Additional materials for finishing the thangka include: backing cloth (200m), a protective cover (1100m), a brocade border (90m) and a 24 metre leather bag for storage. For ceremonial purposes, a 24 metre canopy to be positioned above the gos.sKu was made, banners, umbrella and 140 metres of multi-coloured traditional streamers were all required and made for the unveiling event