The Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Densatil Comes Alive In New York City

Patricia Abaroa

New York's Asia Society and Museum presents an exhibition that highlights the mystical beauty of the Tibetan monastery at Densatil. The show will be on view until May 18.


Asia Society presents Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, the first exhibition to explore the history, artistic production and iconography associated with Densatil, a central Tibetan Buddhist monastery. On display from February 19th through May 18th, the exhibit unites a selection of works from public and private collections in the US and Europe, to explore the spiritual journey that was displayed in the imagery of the commemorative stupas housed within the monastery. The exhibition will also include photographs of the Densatil monastery taken by Pietro Francesco Mele during the 1948 expedition led by the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci.

Densatil Monastery
Nagaraja. Central Tibet. 15th century.

Largely destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, the monastery was founded in 1198. Densatil was famous throughout the country for its spiritual heritage and became one of the wealthiest monasteries in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Inside, eight extraordinary thirteenth-fifteenth century inlaid gilt copper memorial stupas adorned the main hall. These tall, intricate spiritual monuments were elaborately decorated with Buddhist imagery to illustrate the journey to enlightenment, and housed within them holy relics. The multi-tiered structures were, and still are, admired for their exceptional beauty and craftsmanship. Following its destruction, the remaining pieces were dispersed throughout the world.

Considered a spiritual powerhouse in Asia, Tibet had over 6000 monasteries, with monks making up a quarter of the population. Starting in 1966, the Revolution, led by Mao Zedong, Chairman of China’s Communist Party, looked to impose communism in the country by removing capitalist, bourgeois elements from society. This resulted in displacement of the population, hunger and death. Religious relics and artifacts were destroyed, and cultural landmarks ravaged, and by 1975, all but five monasteries in Tibet had been leveled. The Cultural Revolution would go on until 1976. In 1997, a new assembly hall and small temples were built on the site where the Densatil monastery once stood. In 2010, a new main hall was erected.

Densatil Monastery
Saptadashashirshi Shri Devi. Central Tibet. 15th century.

Guest curator Dr. Olaf Czaja, professor at the Institute for India and Central Asian studies of the University of Leipzig joins Dr. Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art at Asia Society for this special exhibit. Dr. Czaja is a Tibetan studies scholar and a specialist on the Densatil monastery. As part of the activities surrounding the show, a group of Tibetan monk artists will assemble a sand mandala, onsite, from February 19 to 23. The mandala construction is open to the public. The piece will be dismantled as custom indicates, on May 18. Asia Society’s exhibit hopes to convey the beauty and mysticism of the monastery as it was during its apogee.

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