Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 4

On the last day of the Hemis festival, a large thangka was unfurled on the wall overlooking the courtyard. It had the portrait of a holy man in the red hat of the Drukpa Kagyupa sect. I suppose this is a portrait of one of the Rinpoches. The photos I have seen of thangkas unfurled in this place are different, and show the founder of the monastery, Gyalsras Rinpoche. I haven’t been to Hemis gompa on other days of the festival, so I don’t know whether there are different thangkas exhibited on different days. According to Kagyupa belief, all the succeeding Rinpoches are the reincarnations of Gyalsras, so this would perhaps also show him, but in a different body.

In this detail you can see that the portrait is an applique work over a brocade background. Traditionally brocade came from China, but sometime in the 18th or 19th century brocade from Banaras became more common, and priced the Chinese brocade out of the market. I believe this piece is fairly recent, and made with Banarasi brocade.

Monks in red hats

… in the world sometimes there is no plausibility at all”

― Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, The Nose

Padmasambhava, a Buddhist monk, was invited to Tibet by the king to drive away demons that infested his kingdom, the story goes. He killed many, in very gory ways that the old stories describe in great detail. Then finally he made a ball of dough, enclosed it in great circles of chalk, and danced. That dance attracted the remaining demons, who came and sat in the ball. He danced closer and closer, and finally set fire to the dough, to rid the kingdom of the last demons. Whether you know about this legendary origin of the Cham dance of the Himalayas or not, you probably know that Buddhist monks are traditionally regarded as guardians of the people. Like the monk whom you see in the featured photo, I thought. But then I realized that he was playing a role, waiting for his cue to join the Cham dance in front of him. Dali said “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” Isn’t it a culturally truer vision to take that photo out of context and see the monk there in his role as a metaphysically heroic protector of people? In which case the photo is surreal.

I certainly didn’t think that I would see one monk on a balcony overlooking the festival, eagerly scanning the scene below for a good photo. That’s what tourists do! And he has a rather good phone with him. Not like my less-than-Nothing Phone. Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, which spread across the Himalayas and crossed over to China and Mongolia during the expansionist phase of Tibet, contains four main schools of thought. The Dalai Lama belongs to the Yellow Hat, or Gelug, school, the one that was carried to large parts of North Asia during the Mongol ascendancy. The other three schools are collectively known as the Red Hats. As you can see, the monks in this monastery wear Red Hats.

This was the first day in the mountains when I was up and about. Sitting and watching a monastery festival had seemed like a good idea when we started from the hotel. In my eagerness to be up and about, I’d completely forgotten that Buddhist monasteries are at the top of a hill. Since it was crowded, we had to get off the car halfway up and climb on foot. I was a bit tired after that and dozed off in my ringside seat. When I woke up I thought I’d been hauled to an ecclesiastic court and this panel of judges was listening to the prosecution. The Family saw that I was awake and handed me a bottle of water. What a relief!

The Taoist monk Zuangzi is said to have woken from sleep to say “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” When I looked around and saw these young novices at the edge of the ring, one wearing the Guy Fawkes mask made famous in the Occupy Movement of a decade ago, I had the same disconcerting thought. It did not help that the face on the mask is only a little different from that of Salvador Dali, and with that change the colour scheme looks a little like the famous Spanish TV serial La Casa de Papel, more well-known in the Anglophone world by the name Money Heist.

On my laboured climb up the path I’d seen a couple of young novices playing with toy guns. I’d paused to take photos, thinking of how incongruous it seems. But I realize that I had been misled by the Dalai Lama and his constant messaging of peace and understanding. He is trying hard to keep the hotheads in exile with him working at a long-term solution to the political problem that their exile in India poses. But the story of Padmasambhava, and the history of Bhutan, tells us what he is working against. Buddhism believes in people trying to improve themselves through cycles of rebirth. In that system of belief, these youngsters might have to go through another cycle to purge these violent games from their souls.