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Tibet's treasures seen on a human scale

An exhibit of jewelry, sculptures and everyday artifacts in Santa Ana is unpretentious yet impressive.

October 31, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

The first thing visitors to "Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World" see is a big iron padlock with a long key protruding from its base. Made in the 17th century, it's the largest lock known to have been crafted in Tibet. Although every square inch of its broad, well-worn surfaces has been inlaid with gold in an elaborate pattern of four-claw dragons and leafy tendrils, it's among the plainest pieces in the surprisingly intimate exhibition, which consists of more than 200 modestly scaled sculptures, wall hangings, lavish garments and an impressive inventory of ritual objects.

The unglamorous lock is prominently displayed because it's a symbol of Tibet's place in the American imagination: a closed-off enclave or inaccessible Shangri-La so spiritual and mysterious that it seems otherworldly. The padlock also stands as an emblem of the show's primary goal: to unlock some of the secrets of the ancient mountain kingdom.

At the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, this process begins while you're still looking at the lock. Beneath its weathered clasp is an area where the incised design appears to have been scraped off, its shiny surface worn through to a grubby undercoat of red primer. But when you look closely, you notice that the red coloration actually sits atop the gold inlay. It's paint the padlock picked up over the years, banging against the wooden doors it held shut. (A wall label identifies them as the front entrance to the Potala's White Palace.)

Two drops of the same red paint further besmirch its surface, revealing that at least one monk didn't bother to remove the lock (or cover it) when he repainted the doors of the 400-year-old building. And no one bothered to clean or polish the lock when it was removed from the door and ensconced in the Potala Palace collection. These little details create an atmosphere of familiarity -- of regular, everyday unpretentiousness and unfussy, get-the-job-done pragmatism. They contrast dramatically with the last work you see before leaving the exhibition.

Standing in a vitrine just inside the exit is an exquisitely detailed copper mandala covered with glistening gold gilt. Designed as an aid to meditation, the gorgeous sculpture, which is about 30 inches tall, is not for the easily distracted. It's hard to stop gawking at the sophisticated design and impeccable craftsmanship with which its dozens of doll-size figures were carved and cast, each more expressive than the last.

Shaped like a lotus, the piece is impressively engineered. When its ornate cap is removed, the cone-shaped blossom's eight petals swing open on hidden hinges, revealing the buffalo-headed Vajrabhairava, the fierce form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, standing in the center of a cosmic diagram. His nine heads, 16 legs, and 34 arms (with each hand clasping a different tool, weapon or symbol) are so skillfully sculpted that he looks as graceful as a ballet dancer whose fluid movements have been captured by time-lapse photography and realized in three dimensions.

And he's just the tip of the iceberg. Each petal's exterior is decorated with an image of the eight holy cemeteries. The interiors of the petals, which form flame-shaped halos, create a house-of-mirrors effect: Each bears a single- or double-decker sculptural relief of a nearly identical two-armed Vajrabhairava.

The entire blossom rests atop a filigreed tree whose branches are an astonishingly symmetrical tangle elegantly jam-packed with goddesses bearing gifts, not to mention the sun and moon. Below them, serpent deities link the tree to a bell-shaped vase covered with abstract patterns.

Like the lock, the dazzling mandala is functional. But it has none of the down-to-earth ordinariness of the mundane piece of hardware. Nevertheless, it reveals the worldly side of Tibetan culture, showing its leaders and holy men to be as cosmopolitan and international as they are spiritual and transcendent.

The elaborate mandala was a gift from Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle, who reigned during 1403-24 and traded frequently with Tibet. For this piece, he commissioned the best craftsmen in the civilized world, a group of Nepalese taught by a master named Anige, who had set up shop in China's imperial workshop during the reign of Kublai Khan. The mandala's iconography is Tibetan. But its design originated in eastern India, between the 8th and 12th centuries. And some of its details, like the square faces and style of jewelry worn by its figurines, are typical of the Ming style of the time. Today, it dispels the idea that Tibet was an isolated kingdom or utopian hide-out untouched by the machinations of international politics.

The exhibition is arranged in four sections, some parts of which overlap more than others. In Tibet, it's impossible to disentangle art and life, religion and politics, myth and history: All are woven together. As you walk through the museum, however, you travel from the sacred to the urbane.

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