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Statement of Purpose:

Himalayan Art Project of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation has as its goal to preserve the sacred Buddhist art of the Himalayas.This art emanates from the sacred traditions around which the profound and ancient cultures of Tibet and its neighbors have flourished over the last thousand years.

There are more thangkas on view at tibetart.com than there are presently on display in all the museums in the western world. Most of the thangkas remaining in the world are now outside Tibet. The majority reside in private or museum collections where many are kept in storage, unavailable for study or enjoyment. This website seeks to turn this tide of exclusion by opening its virtual halls to all.

tibetart.com will make thangkas available to scholars, lay people and religious practitioners. When fully developed, tibetart.com will provide scholarly forums and guided tours in addition to the opportunity to search an extensive database of thousands of thangkas dispersed around the world. In addition, the web site will contain information and commentary on the historical and religious significance of the thangkas and the iconographic and aesthetic traditions which gave birth to them. New descriptions are being added weekly by scholars internationally.

We extend an invitation to all collectors of Himalayan thangkas both private and institutional to display your images at tibetart.com. Through our combined efforts a culture in Diaspora can be preserved and these beautiful and profound art objects made available to a broader audience than has ever been possible before.

We invite your suggestions in response to the site. Email: info@tibetart.com.


Origins of Tibetan Art
- Moke Mokotoff

Tibetan Art can only be understood in the context of its sacred Buddhist origins. The ancient King Srong Tsen Gampo unified the then non-Buddhist country we now know as Tibet in the 7th century. Establishing one of the largest empires in the history of mankind, his domain stretched from Afghanistan to Xian, the capital of China. King Srong demanded wives from the courts of his closest neighbors, the Buddhist kingdoms of China and Nepal.


The 7th Century king of Tibet, Srong Tsen Gampo and his two Queens
Buddha Shakyamuni

It is the works of art that these two princesses brought with them to Tibet that form the sacred seeds of the origins of Tibetan art. The Chinese princess Wen Ju brought a pair of ancient life-size sandalwood Indian statues of the Buddha said to have been made as portraits during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha.


The most highly venerated and important work of art, the Jo rinpoche now enshrined in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is one of these. This statue was the most common object of pilgrimage whereby 100s of thousands of Tibetans over the centuries walked and sometimes prostrated thousands of miles to venerate this icon. The next most important image in Tibet was the sandalwood image of Avalokiteshvara, the patron bodhisattva of the land of snows. The mantra of Avalokiteshvara is Om Mani Padme Hum.

The 8th century king, Tri Srong Detsen invited Padmasambava to Tibet


This statue was brought as an offering by Srong tsen gampo's Nepalese wife, the Nepalese princess Brikuti. From these origins Buddhism was established firmly over the next hundred years culminating when the King Tri Srong De Tsen in the 8th century attempted to lay the foundation for the first monumental temple and monastery in Tibet at Samye.


Local spirits were disturbed by these religious activities and the greatest tantric Buddhist adept in India, Guru Rinpoche Padmasambava was invited by the king to subjugate these spirits.


Guru Rinpoche took many manifestations in Tibet


Guru Rinpoche in many manifestations was completely successful not only taming the local spirits but converting them to the protectors of Buddhism in Tibet as well. Padmasambava was predicted by Buddha Shakyamuni, and he taught the highest innermost Vajrayana Buddhist teachings to the King and other Tibetan students.


Little remains of this early period when Buddhism and the building of temples and the attendant art and artifacts prospered for nearly a hundred years. Mid-way through the 9th century the despot Langdarma murdered his elder brother the Buddhist king Rapalcen and usurped the throne in an anti-Buddhist campaign. Then Buddhism and its artistic forms were violently purged. In a cultural brain wishing campaign not unlike the violent purges of Buddhist antiquities during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 70's in Tibet when 6000 monasteries were destroyed and sacred bronze and painted images were desecrated, the despot Langdarma destroyed any artistic expressions of monastic or public Buddhism in any form. After a brief and destructive reign he was assassinated by the Buddhist monk Lha Lung Pelki Dorje. At this point the centralized empire of Tibet fell back into disparate feudal states breaking up into small often warring enclaves. A dark age ensued for over 150 years. Then, in a small kingdom in Western Tibet (Tib: Ngari), under the kingship of Yeshe O, Buddhism and its attendant art forms of architecture, sculpture, and painting were totally revived. King Yeshe O had sent 21 promising young monks in 950 to study in the monastic Collages in India with the aim for them to return to their homeland to establish centers of buddhist learning. The tropical climate killed all but two monks, one Rinchen Zangpo completed his studies and returned with a band of Indian master artists decades later. Living well past the age of 100 he established at least 21 temples and translation centers in Western Tibet. What we see remaining of these temples frescoes, some of which are now preserved in temples in the Indian Himalayas, reflects the fluorescing of Indian, particularly Kashmiri Buddhist art before dying out completely under wave after wave of Moslem invasions (not one painting on cloth of this period remains in India!). Along with paintings and statues of Buddhas which take many forms, both human and fantastic and male and female we find surviving frescoes of mandalas.


Mandala paintings are two dimensional representations of the multidimensional universes these Buddhas inhabit. Mandalas are not to be understood as representing someplace different from where we are right now . Rather mandalas display an Enlightened ever present world that is revealed when the dualities of anger, attachment and ignorance are stripped away. Actually these enlightened worlds are constructed of these very same energies that in our dualistic view we perceive as anger, attachment and ignorance but in the unencumbered enlightened state these same defiled emotions manifest as strength, compassion and wisdom. In this sense mandalas are much like architectural blueprints or aerial views of celestial palaces constructed of enlightened concepts. For example, mandalas are usually laid out on a compass like grid; the western quadrant appears red representing the transmutation of desire into discriminating wisdom.


The surviving frescoes of mandalas of these mediation cycles (sanskrit: tantras) that were translated and transmitted by Rinchen Zangpo in Western Tibet convey the vivid confidence the artists at the time had in Buddhist practice. The almost erie use of chiaroscuro conveys a palpable mystical presence to the deities and their enlightened settings. These Buddha's are shown clothed in silks who designs give us a distinct time frame to date the paintings.

Over the centuries Buddhism took hold throughout Tibet. The artistic traditions of India and later the styles of Nepal and eventually China influenced Tibetan art. Exquisite Buddha images were caste using alloys whose production was of alchemical proportions. Even today Tibetan bronzes of the early period display inexplicably beautiful patinas.

Tibetan culture is at a crossroads now. We are left to sort through the few remnants of Tibetan art history left over from the treasure trove that was destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Tibet. As the scholar David Jackson has said "One of the most serious problems facing historians of Tibetan art is the fact that the sacred artworks have been since the 1960s uprooted and scattered far and wide. Although many paintings were originally parts of multi-thangka sets, now they often hang alone somewhere in the West as single paintings... One basic task of the researcher is to try to discover the lost order in this chaos..."

Through the participation of private and public collections world wide in tibetart.com we can reassemble if not physically than at least virtually the remaining artworks and give access to people all over the world to the knowledge and aesthetics of one of the last surviving ancient wisdom traditions.

- Moke Mokotoff 2/98

Readily available books:

Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet
Blanche Olschak and Geshe Thupten Wangyal, Mc Graw - Hill, 1973

Tibet a Lost World
Valerie Reynolds, Newark Museum, 1978

Tibetan Art
P. Pal, LA County Museum 1988

Tibetan Thangka Painting
David and Janice Jackson, ill. by Robert Beer, Serindia London 1984

Wisdom and Compassion
Robert Thurman and Marilyn Rhie, Abrams

Copyright © 1998 Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, Shelley and Donald Rubin