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The Dragon's Gift

The art of a mysterious kingdom gets its day in the sun.


Photos courtesy of the Honolulu Academy of Arts

In a ceremony in Thimpu, Bhutan last November, dancers celebrated the sendoff of sacred artworks to Honolulu.
In a ceremony in Thimpu, Bhutan last November, dancers celebrated the sendoff of sacred artworks to Honolulu.

It has been called the last shangri-la. The remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is set high in the Himalayas, and its monarch famously prioritizes the Gross National Happiness over the Gross National Product. Over the centuries, its relations with the outside world have been few, and despite the introduction of television seven years ago, ancient traditions and ways of life are alive and well.

In the Western world, Bhutan has been viewed as a mysterious utopia and, more recently, a coveted travel destination. “It’s the only Asian country that has never been conquered,” says art conservator Ephraim “Eddie” Jose. Its temples and monasteries have never been looted and burned, and its artistic heritage survives, integrated into daily religious life. But utopia or no, anything that gets smudged with the soot from yak butter lamps, rolled up and put away, then unrolled and hung up, will get worn out. That’s where Jose, one of the best Asian art conservators in the world, comes in.

The exhibit includes Bhutanese pieces from the 15th to 19th centuries.

“I went to Bhutan in 1997 and saw how badly damaged the artworks were,” he says. “The exhibition started from there, from them asking me to help them.” That exhibition is “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” one of the most important ever mounted by the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The show’s 117 conserved thangkas (scroll paintings colored with precious malachite, cinnabar, lapis lazuli and gold), sculptures, ritual objects and more than 300 hours of rare footage of sacred dance together constitute this nation’s first major sharing of
religious art. Because of their sacred nature, monks have accompanied them from Bhutan to perform the necessary ritual observances.

Many of these works were found in the prized collections of remote mountain monasteries, forbidden to foreign eyes. When “The  Dragon’s Gift” is finished, they’ll return there. This is as close as many of us will ever get to Shangri-La.

The exhibit is on view at the Academy through May 23
(532-8700, www.honoluluacademy.org).

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Honolulu Magazine February 2018
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