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Tibetan Ritual Arts

June 2–December 9, 2007

Most Tibetan art is intended for ritual use. This exhibition, built around the Museum's recently conserved Tibetan-Buddhist altar, explores some of these rituals and their results, such as increasing one's lifespan, promoting a better rebirth in the next life, or trapping and destroying evil spirits that bring misfortune and illness.

Participants in these rituals have their senses bombarded by paintings and sculptures, recitations and music, food and incense, as well as luxurious silks. Thus they see, hear, taste, smell, and touch the power of the rituals. This pageantry is exquisitely detailed in paintings, where monks invoke deities through the use of fabulous ritual implements. The implements are so specialized and obscure that they often baffle non-initiates. This exhibition reveals the coded meanings not only of Tibetan ritual implements, but also paintings, sculptures, textiles, prints, and the altar itself.

Click here to view some of the objects included in this exhibition.

Monastic Rituals

Although monks and nuns are a demographic minority in Tibet, the vast majority of Tibetan art depicts monks involved in some form of ritual. One reason for this predominance is that monasteries and high-ranking clerics have historically been the greatest patrons of the arts, much as they were in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Another reason is that scholastic lineages are crucial components to Tibetan-Buddhist worship. As shown here, portraits of specific academics appear in the top of most Tibetan paintings to emphasize the unbroken passage of oral teachings from religious masters to devout students. Indian scholar-saints (called mahasiddhas) are portrayed above the central Buddha image. The six Tibetan monks at the bottom perform a basic invocation ritual to the visions above them. Long, red, still-smoking spo incense sticks; a katak scarf; and a golden mandala—symbols of smell, touch, and the universe respectively—are offered. The monks' blue begging bowls represent requests for Buddhist blessings and teachings, while the heap of multicolored gems denotes the rewards of Buddhism.

More elaborate monastic rituals are illustrated at right in the biographical painting of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), founder of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order of Tibetan-Buddhism, depicted in the center. This is only one of what was originally a set of at least sixteen paintings that annotate episodes of his life. Each event is numbered with this painting displaying episodes 107–116—beginning in the lower left corner and moving clockwise around the central portrait. Numerous monastic rituals are depicted—reading books, pouring libations, envisioning deities, and offering triangular ritual cakes called torma. Gift-giving rituals are also shown. For example, in the lower left, wealthy traders offering white katak scarves, bolts of multicolored silks, and heaps of jewels to the enthroned Dharmaraja, a religious king.

Folk Rituals and Dough Molds

Householders employ a wide range of folk rituals rarely used by monks. Many folk rituals are geared towards concerns of this world, rather than the ultimate Buddhist goal of enlightenment. For example, effigies of auspicious symbols (the Tibetan zodiac and the i-ching), humans (monks and householders), animals (wild and domestic), and demons (beneficent and malevolent) are made from wooden dough molds like the ones seen here.

People offer dough and paper models of these subjects in ransom rituals to substitute for people or livestock. Alternately, effigies of poisonous creatures like snakes, frogs, and insects are used to neutralize their venom. Devotees believe that spirits accept the dough and paper effigies instead of taking the lives of the actual beings.

Main Building


Katherine Anne Paul • Associate Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art

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