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Gilding the Lotus: Enriching the Himalayan Collection

June 10–November 26, 2006

As symbols of wealth—both material and spiritual—gold, ivory, and gemstones are revered worldwide. In the Buddhist and Hindu art of Tibet and Nepal, such riches are used to create magnificent images that are inherently pious offerings, believed to benefit the donor, creator, and all who view them.

Exhibition Minutes

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Gilding the Lotus: Enriching the Himalayan Collection not only reflects the Himalayan love of visual opulence, but also emphasizes the Museum's historic and continuing dedication to enriching understanding of the sophisticated religious arts of the Himalayan region. Many of these sumptuous treasures are on view for the first time.

Symbols of Riches

Methods and Materials

Symbols of Riches

In both Hindu and Buddhist Himalayan art, precious substances are more than a feast for the eyes, they are metaphors for spiritual transformation. These are just a few of the many symbols that represent a wide range of physical and spiritual assets and are repeated in many of the paintings, sculptures, and textiles in this exhibition, both overtly and covertly.

Gold, a symbol of purity and truth as well as the artistic realization of light and, by extension, enlightenment, holds different meanings when fashioned into particular earring shapes.

The Queen's earrings, seen at left, designate peace, prosperity, and beauty. The Minister's earrings, seen at right, signify intelligent counsel. Ivory symbolizes power—both military might and spiritual strength—and longevity. The elephant embodies these powers, as represented by the crossed ivory tusks seen on the left. The unicorn horn, or, as seen on the left, rhinoceros horn, represents the removal of poisons (mental and physical) and enhanced potency.

The white pearl, as seen on the left, denotes the moon and feminine energy.

Conversely, the red coral branch, seen to the right, signifies the sun and masculine energy.

Images of gold and silver ingots, such as the one seen on the left, and punch-marked coins, seen on the right, suggest rewards promised to the faithful. The Victory Banner on the left is an ensign of perpetual successes—representing victory in both spiritual and material matters. The General's crossed gems at right, however, are a symbol of military prowess and denote the ability to overcome negativities, real and imagined. Flaming or wish-granting jewels, called cintimani, appear both singly, and—as seen on the left—piled in a heap. They provide boundless riches, illuminate the darkness, control weather, heal illness, and promote longevity.

Main Building


Katherine Anne Paul • Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art

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