Rare Tibetan Buddhist shrine goes on display in Washington

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The Independent Online

A complete Tibetan Buddhist shrine room, including a silver Buddha, gem-encrusted adornments and silk scroll paintings, goes on display for the first time in Washington on Saturday.

The shrine room has been set up in a religiously accurate manner with ritual implements, including some blessed by the Dalai Lama, and a shrine loaned by a private collector to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

"The experience of entering the room is really quite profound and moving," said Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Freer and Sackler galleries in the US capital.

"You have a sense of a powerful presence. It's an aesthetic experience."

The exhibit features beautifully decorated pieces, including a gilded bronze statue of the goddess Tara with a gem-encrusted crown, sacred musical instruments and multiple Buddha statues adorned with seashell and coral pieces.

The shrine that forms the centerpiece of the exhibit was loaned to the museum by Alice Kandell, a New York collector who has amassed dozens of stunning Buddhist artifacts, many in gold and set with turquoise, rubies and coral.

Before loaning the six-by-4.5-meter shrine measuring six by 4.5 meters (20 by 15 feet) out for the exhibit, Kandell had kept it in her New York apartment living room.

A child psychologist by trade, Kandell is not a Buddhist, but she said the spiritual value of the shrine made it priceless.

"It doesn't have a value," she said. "How much is your spiritual experience worth?"

The exhibit includes a number of sacred items loaned to the museum by the Tibetan diaspora that have been assembled and displayed in the traditional way, such as they would be found in the home of a wealthy Tibetan family.

"There is no other comparable shrine of this size, this artistic quality and this completeness" in the United States, Diamond said.

The exhibition coincides with Tibetans marking the anniversary of the March 12, 1959 uprising against China, and amid continuing tensions between China and Tibetan independence activists.

But Freer and Sackler Galleries director Julian Raby said the timing was "a coincidence."

"There is no political statement," she insisted.

Kandell said she was delighted by the exhibit, which will be on display through July 18.

"It would be wonderful for the Tibetans to know that their culture is being preserved for everybody, not only for Tibet," she said.

As a corollary to the shrine exhibit, the Sackler Gallery will feature the first exhibition devoted to a historical Tibetan artist.

The exhibition "Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen" will run alongside the shrine exhibit and feature paintings, sculptures and illuminated manuscript pages.

Three of the thangkas, or scroll paintings, on display are believed to be the work of the 18th century artist Panchen, who has been associated with a "renaissance" of Buddhist sacred art.

The museum will also feature a sand mandala, a Tibetan Buddhist sacred sand painting created by monks that will be on display "to promote the healing of all beings."

After 11 days, the mandala will be destroyed in a ritual ceremony as is traditional to indicate the faith's belief in the impermanence of all things.