|New York Times: With Explosions of Color, Tibetan Art Flourishes|
SENGESHONG, China - Sitting on the floor of his monastic chamber, Lobsang Lungtok pointed to the canvas with the thousand-faced goddess.
Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
Lobsang Lungtok works 10 to 12 hours a day in his monastery in Sengeshong, in China's Qinhai Province, an area famed for its thangkas, or painted scrolls, depicting Tibetan deities.
The New York Times
The valley outside Rebkong is a center of Tibetan art.
It had taken him three months to finish the painting. Her many faces, all gold, were stacked atop one another in a pyramid. A thousand arms fanned out in a radiant circle.
There are rules, he said, that have been handed down from one Tibetan painter to another through the centuries: The head and body must be perfectly proportioned; the gold paint goes on after the pencil outline; this particular deity has a thousand faces and a thousand arms - no more, no less.
Out of that had emerged Chenresig, the bodhisattva of compassion.
"Why do we draw this god?" said Lobsang, 33, who, like many Tibetans, goes by his given name. "If we don't, in the future how will people know what the gods look like?"
The monasteries in this mountain valley are some of the most important centers of art in the Tibetan world, famed for the creation of painted and cloth scrolls called thangkas that depict Tibetan gods and other religious iconography. In 1999, artists in the area finished the 675-yard-long Great Thangka, which Guinness World Records certified as the biggest thangka in the world.
The artists here practice the Rebkong style of thangka painting that has flourished since the 17th century. Thangkas from this part of northwestern Qinghai Province are commissioned by monasteries as far away as Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In recent years, thangkas have gained a following among some ethnic Han Chinese, and individual collectors from Chinese cities and foreign countries have driven up the prices. (For his painting of Chenresig, Lobsang was asking 3,600 yuan, or about $530, a fortune for most Tibetans.)
The commercialization will "drive thangkas far from their origins, from their use as religious objects," said Zhang Yasha, a teacher of fine arts at the Minzu University of China who specializes in Tibet. "We see more young people learning the art because it's lucrative."
The paintings hanging in the back room of Lobsang's chamber show the range of traditional thangka subjects: Gods like Padmasambhava and White Tara and Green Tara, and the circle of life with people reclining in heaven and roasting in hell.
The thangkas are explosions of color. The paint powder comes from grinding materials like coral, agate, sapphire, pearl and gold.
Of the monks in the two monasteries in Sengeshong, about 60 can paint with some skill, said Lobsang, a compact, cheerful, Red Bull-drinking man who entered the monastery at age 7 and began studying thangka painting seven years later.
"There are only a few good ones, and a lot of ordinary ones," he said of the painters.
This valley outside the town of Rebkong, known in Chinese as Tongren, offers the kind of isolation that artists often crave. The upper monastery is set against snow-covered hills. The sweet smell of juniper incense drifts through the air. On a recent afternoon, a steady drumbeat emanated from the dark recesses of the main temple, while dozens of monks sat on the temple steps wiping brass yak butter lamps.
Lobsang's chamber is plush compared to rooms at other Tibetan monasteries. The carpeted living area has a central stove and a framed portrait of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans. There is a photograph of Lobsang standing in his red robes in front of the Shanghai skyline; he lived for five years in Shanghai and Beijing painting thangkas for a businessman.
A safe in the rear room contains some of Lobsang's more expensive thangkas. The front wall of the foyer has wide glass windows, and it is in this sun-drenched space that Lobsang paints during the winter.
Skilled thangka and mural painters are valued across Tibet, with artists sometimes traveling thousands of miles to do commissions for prominent monasteries. Many monasteries and temples were destroyed or sacked during the Cultural Revolution, and those that have begun rebuilding are in need of painters.
"That's meant the painters of Rebkong are wealthy compared to other groups in Tibetan society," said Mark Stevenson, a senior lecturer in Asian studies at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, who has studied the painting community here.
Painting thangkas is simply one component of an array of artistic skills among monks, Dr. Stevenson said.
"Every monk has a need for artistic talent," he said. "They make and assemble tormas, which are offering cakes. Many may have to work on mandalas as well. This is part of being a monk. Every monk needs some manual skill dexterity in designing ritual objects."
The first monastery in the Rebkong area was founded at the start of the 14th century, when the Mongols ruled China and turned to Tibetan religious leaders to guide their practice of Buddhism. But the distinctive Rebkong school of painting, with its brighter colors and finer lines, did not emerge until the 17th century, when the Gelugpa sect became dominant. The Dalai Lama, believed to be the reincarnation of the thousand-faced Chenresig, belongs to this sect.
Rebkong achieved fame in modern times because it was home to several notable artists, in particular a monk named Shawu Tsering.
"Watching him paint was remarkable, as if the lines were already there, and he was just moving his hand to bring them forward," Dr. Stevenson said. "It was just so effortless, and the skill and memory were there to allow him to do that."
The art tradition here suffered a break from 1958 to 1978, when Chinese authorities shut down the monasteries, first during the suppression of a rebellion, then during the Cultural Revolution. Monks were persecuted. Shawu Tsering, for example, was forced to wear a dunce's cap.
In the 1980s, the government opened up an art research institute in the town of Rebkong, eventually converting it into a gallery. The gallery supported local artists. After the revival of thangka painting, monks took up the art in large numbers again.
In warm weather, Lobsang sits in his front yard with a brush in hand, working 10 to 12 hours a day.
It is an art that he now teaches to others, some of them laypeople from nearby villages.
"We want them to transmit Buddhism," he said. "We want them to teach people that the gods are kind."