The Eight Manifestations of the Precious Teacher - Padmasambhava in Art and Ritual in the Himalayas

from: 28.11.2013 to: 29.06.2014
Museum für Asiatische Kunst

Presented in cooperation with the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Padmasambhava, also revered as 'Guru Rinpoche', meaning 'precious teacher', is the most important 'Vajrayana' or Tantric Buddhist master of the Himalayan region. He is attributed with establishing Buddhism in this vast region in the 8th century. It is purported that he did so by overcoming and vanquishing demons and local deities, and by enacting a ritual dance. This dance serves as a prototype for the masked dances that are still performed today. Some of the demons Padmasambhava even transformed into protectors of the religion and these now form the main figures in Tibetan 'cham' ritual dances.

The exhibition focuses on the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava (Guru Tsengye). These manifestations, or aspects, are embodied in thangkas (paintings on embroidered silk), masks, ritual objects, pilgrimage sites, and ritual dances. The display highlights both the ancient historical traditions and the thriving contemporary ones that surround the guru. The display subsequently examines the medieval history of the Himalayas and blends historical artworks with film material and masks from today. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Museum für Asiatische Kunst's recently restored set of nine thangka paintings. This is the first time art historians and ethnologists at the Staatliche Museen have joined together to explore the traditions surrounding Guru Rinpoche and his eight manifestations. A team of art historians has analyzed the representation of Guru Rinpoche and his eight aspects in art and their historical origins. The art historians' work not only includes a visual analysis of the Berlin thangkas, but also an examination of their original cultural context as a cultural medium that once served as both ritual object and the material personification of history. Meanwhile ethnologists have shed light on the theme of ritual and examined how the tradition of Padmasambhava devotion continues to affect the everyday life of the people of Bhutan and Ladakh (remote northern India) today.

In addition to the nine-part thangka set and other objects from the collections of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst and Ethnologisches Museum, the display also features a selection of new cham masks produced by a contemporary Tibetan mask-maker. In Ladakh each step in the production process of these masks was photographed and documented. In cham dances, the series of nine masks represents the eight emanations of Guru Rinpoche. These dances are primarily performed during the annual Tsechu Festivals honouring Padmasambhava and held in monasteries of the Nyingma and Drukpa-Kagyu schools in the Tantric Buddhist Himalayan region, in Tibet, and among the Tibetan diaspora in exile.

Guru Rinpoche also left his mark at certain sites and on rocks that have since become pilgrimage sites. The film, commissioned especially for the exhibition, entitled 'Gomphu Kora Tsechu - A Pilgrim Festival in Honour of Guru Rinpoche in Eastern Bhutan' is a portrayal of both the Gomphu Kora pilgrimage site (where Padmasambhava is said to have defeated important demons) and the masked dances of Guru Tsengye, performed here in his honour during the Tsechu. The 30 minute film is screened on loop in the exhibition's media room.

Also on display are ritual objects such as diamond sceptres and ritual daggers, which are among the most important attributes and 'tools' of Padmasambhava, along with photographs of masks and dances, and landscape shots of the sacred sites that embody Guru Rinpoche. The exhibition thus reveals on the one hand the lively and diverse relationship between narrated legend and historical events, and on the other a culture embedded in its landscape and its rituals. The accompanying programme of events includes: scholarly talks, guided tours, meditation guides for adults, as well as dance workshops for children and young people.

A catalogue is available to coincide with the exhibition.

Curator: Lilla Russell-Smith
Co-curator: Hans Werner Klohe

Presented by: Museum für Asiatische Kunst

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