Depicting a Spiritual Lineage – The Lives of the Dalai Lamas in thangkas
In 2002, our late Master Painter Tenba Chöphel, had an idea. He proposed a series of thangkas depicting the lives of the Dalai Lamas, an undertaking which he said would take five years. The project was presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who approved and commissioned the series to the Norbulingka thangka painting studio. We were all very enthusiastic, looking at a project that was to have the scale of those done in the past, where time was not an issue. We plunged forward, having no idea of what we were getting into, which was fortunate, since we may never have begun had we known. Tenba Chöphel, known as Tenchoe la undertook the design and execution of the project, which totalled twenty-five thangkas, one for each Dalai Lama from the first to the thirteenth, three for the fourteenth and nine for the spiritual lineage that preceded the Dalai Lamas.
There was no known series of paintings featuring the deeds of the Dalai Lamas as a lineage, although there were paintings of individuals such as the Fifth and Seventh. There are two approaches to this kind of thangka that vary according to their complexity. One depicts the Dalai Lama and his principal meditation deities, while the other includes his principal deeds and is therefore much more complex. Tenchoe la prepared examples of both, members of Norbulingka’s Literary & Cultural Research Center extracted accounts of the major deeds of the Dalai Lamas from the respective biographical texts, which Tenchoe la had gone through very thoroughly and arranged in proper order.
Because of his familiarity with the different incarnations of the Dalai Lama, His Holiness suggested that we also consult the Abbot of Namgyal Monastery, Chado Rinpoche, who suggested that all the Dalai Lamas’ hands be depicted in the gesture of explaining the teachings. The following layout was agreed upon: In the upper right-hand corner of the paintings of the first three Dalai Lamas would be Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka. In the upper left would be the three longevity deities belonging to the class of action tantra and Amitayus. At the bottom, for the painting of the First Dalai Lama only, we arranged the transcendental protectors. For the others we placed the worldly protectors on the left and transcendental protectors on the right. Flanking the Dalai Lama are his principal tutelary deities on one side and on the other the deities associated with the text known as the Sixteen Drops of Kadam. Chado Rinpoche gave Tenchoe la a copy of this text and gave him a thorough briefing, which gave Tenchoe la the confidence to go through it himself.
For four years, Tenchoe la spent most of his time on the thangkas, researching, sketching and overseeing the completion of five. Gradually we realized the immensity of the task; each took about nine months to complete. It became clear that the period in history when time wasn’t money was relegated to a distant past and another reality. We were afraid of computing the cost of each, the time factor and the gold alone coming to astronomical results. We closed our eyes and moved forward, slowly, to allow the other painters to produce the commissions our studio had committed to.
In November 2007, Tencho la passed away, but Tenzin Norbu, his student since their years in Lhasa, took over without interruption. The thangkas were finally completed in July 2015, thirteen years after we began. Closing this project involved many sacrifices and stumbles along the way; three had to be repainted, and deadlines were continually extended, but when we look at them now, we realize that Norbulingka’s thangka painting studio rose up to the challenge of creating a massive work of art, proving to the world that Tibetan thangka painting is alive and well. In March 2017, Norbulingka hosted an event blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we had the wonderful opportunity to present the thangkas to him. The exhibition stayed open for public for a month, after which the set of twenty-five thangkas were offered to the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as was originally intended.