The Tibetan empire rose to prominence in 604-650 CE during the rule of Songten Gampo who established the kingdom by uniting parts of the Yarlung River Valley and introduced Buddhism as the religion to the region. Over centuries the geographical territory of Tibet underwent drastic changes due to a series of political conflicts. At present, the land falls under the title of Tibet Autonomous Region under Chinese governance since the Seventeen Point Agreement made between Dalai Lama and the People’s Republic of China after the 1950 Chinese Civil War. The Dalai Lama with his followers moved to Dharamshala, India and formed the rival government-in-exile after the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion. The reaction resulted in withdrawal of the Agreement by Central People’s Government in Beijing and new reforms regarding social and political spheres introduced in Tibet destroying the majority of artefacts, monasteries, and historic Tibetan architecture due to the policy of establishing an atheist governance.
In the 1980s, Kelsang Yeshi, the Minister of the Department of Religion and Culture under the Tibetan Government in exile and his wife Kim Yeshi formulated a vision for an institute that provided a sanctuary for the Tibetan arts and artists to accelerate a return of these indigenous art forms to their former glory. The ever-growing interest in the Tibetan Culture in India and Abroad gave a stronghold for the institute to open workshops, collaborations with the studios presented in Norbulingka as an introductory immersion into the community. A rise observed in an increase in demand for phenomenal craftsmanship works of the traditional arts where the institute plays a critical role in delivering authentic production outcomes by a strict selection of source materials and process of producing
Design and Architecture of the Institute
Kazuhiro Nakahara, a Japanese architect by profession practices as the official designer for the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama; He designed the Norbulingka Institute in Dharmshala, India. The ground schematic plan resonates the proportions to the deity of compassion, Avalokitesvara. This spatial transformation from the conceptual iconography replicates the traditional Tibetan architecture style. It includes construction methods and technicality, materials and elements of ornamentation and finishes.
Every requirement acknowledges the symbolic reference and spread-out through-out the institute to represent a specific aspect. Consider the workshops and offices situated to form the shape of the deity’s thousand arms allowing open plaza in the centre; the temple finds itself present at the top representing the head of Avalokitesvara. The middle area consists of spring water embodying the heart and kindness for all living things. The entire pictorial built structure unites itself by three distinct elements – the architectural style and design features, the Japanese zen garden and the spring water that flows throughout the project signifying compassion.
The patrons who believed in the vision helped raise funding for the institute over the years. Woodcarvers and carpenters skilled in erecting buildings rendered service and the thangka painters who finished the frescoes worked on the temple walls. Statue makers organised a way to absorb their skills into the project by gracing the temple with a 14 feet gilded Buddha crafted from hand-hammered copper sheets.
Some of the subtle architecture details observed can reveal intricate sensitivity and thought process exercised for the design. The site consists of gradual contours allowing a distinct height difference every few meters but the placement of columns and brackets unify the structure visually. Most of the windows are double-panelled as a climate-responsive design feature implemented to avoid cold breeze from entering the rooms while allowing air-circulation within a given space. The traditional style reflects on all the buildings and compound walls consisting of a heavy stone base and lighter elements preferably wood as the floors go up following the example of the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet.
Preservation of Culture and Heritage
In Tibetan language – Bhoti, “Norbu” means precious and “Lingka” means park. The 14th Dalai Lama officially inaugurated the Norbulingka Institute in the year 1995 with nine main workshops and courses to celebrate a structured method of teaching young people within and outside the community to learn, understand and carry forth the legacies of glorious masters. Most curriculum like wood carving and painting, tailoring and weaving, applique and screen printing spread for a three-year programme. Thangka painting lasts six years and metal sculpting for 7-10 years spread across with three years mandatory learning, studying the crafts and rest being an apprentice until the skills get moulded to trained level of artistry. The institute harbours a research section and college that promotes Tibetan scholastics.
The main objective of this institute focused into play when a considerable amount of craftsmanship and arts declined. For centuries, patrons commissioned artists from a statue that measured two-inch for their gao portable altar to a massive one to grace a monastery, the same applied to thangka painting and applique work that measures from six inches to a few storeys. However, after the massive shift in culture and geography the original artists spread thin and the production of arts found substitute materials from industry that did not match the standards and life of those produced hand-made material and colours/dyes from natural pigments. The institute established a firm ground on traditional techniques and methods. Now, the artists at the institute get commissions from around the globe for various scope of work.
The society offers a doll museum representing folklores, guest house and authentic cuisine at their restaurant to completely immerse into the cultural settings with the Himalayan mountain range that open up the landscape and scenic views. The architecture designed for the institute echoes their culture and tradition while arranging workshops and studios in contemporary settings to meet the ever-changing demands of lifestyle while maintaining the spatial quality and spirituality their homeland once offered a sanctum of ancestry.
Dear readers, Here are a few links to know more about the Norbulingka institute and how a community delivered a resurgence to their roots with reviving their architectural style, culture and heritage that speaks volumes about their traditions once endangered by time.