Sa­cred minia­tures col­lected in ex­hibit hall

China Daily (Canada) - - TIBET - By PALDEN NY­IMA and DAQIONG in Lhasa, Ti­bet

A yel­low-walled court­yard, con­spic­u­ous among the Ti­betan-style ar­chi­tec­ture near Lhasa’s Sera sky burial site, is home to the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s first ex­hi­bi­tion hall for tsa tsas, the minia­tures Bud­dhists have made as part of their med­i­ta­tion prac­tice for more than a thou­sand years.

Clay fig­ures of hal­lowed deities or sa­cred sym­bols — typ­i­cally de­posited as of­fer­ings within shrines, holy caves and monastery al­tars in the Hi­malayas and other sa­cred places — are made with a metal re­verse-im­age en­grav­ing. The stamped images are dried in the sun and, in some cases, are fired in a kiln, sim­i­lar to pot­tery.

De­vel­oped in In­dia around the time of em­peror Ashoka the Great (304-232 BC), the sculp­ture art spread to China around the Sui (AD 581-618) and Tang (AD 618-907) dy­nas­ties, said He Jing, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist in Ti­bet.

“It was called the ‘Good Deeds Mud’ when it came to China,” He said.

In an ef­fort to preserve the en­dan­gered an­cient art, area res­i­dents have been gath­er­ing both the clay fig­ures and the molds used to make them. The ex­hi­bi­tion’s founder, sculp­tor Ny­ima Gyalpo, col­lected more than 20,000 tsa tsas over the past two decades.

Seventy per­cent of the col­lec­tion is now dis­played in the ex­hi­bi­tion hall, which opened last year. The items were found in more than 35 Ti­betan monas­ter­ies in the re­gion’s cen­tral ar­eas and the western Xigaze pre­fec­ture, and pro­vided by pri­vate donors.

“It is im­por­tant to preserve such cul­ture in Ti­bet,” Ny­ima said.

Born near the fa­mous Shalu Monastery in the Xigaze city, Ti­bet, Ny­ima works with a staff of 11 and eight ap­pren­tices. To­gether they pro­duce four main kinds of tsa tsas in their work­shop: ce­ramic, red clay, black clay and medic­i­nal.

“There are many ways to make an im­age of the Bud­dha or other re­li­gious items. Tsa tsa is con­ve­nient and low cost, but with big virtue,” Ny­ima, 46, said.

In some places, Ti­betans have a tra­di­tion of pro­duc­ing a tsa tsa with the pow­dered skull of a de­ceased per­son and plac­ing it atop a high moun­tain, or sprin­kling the tsa-tsa pow­der in the river, dur­ing a fu­neral, Ny­ima said.

“As Ti­betan tra­di­tional cul­ture gains pop­u­lar­ity at home and abroad, many cul­tural items, such as tsa-tsa molds, are taken away,” Ny­ima said. “As those who pro­duce dif­fer­ent tsatsa molds passed away long ago or go­ing to say good­bye to us soon, the preser­va­tion of tsa tsas is ur­gent.”

Sup­port for Ny­ima’s tsa tsa col­lec­tion in­creased in Lhasa as news of his ef­forts spread, in­clud­ing from lo­cal res­i­dents and govern­ment of­fi­cials. Through the sup­port of the tourism bureau and the re­li­gious de­part­ment of Lhasa’s Cheng­guan district, 400,000 yuan ($61,800) was raised to build the ex­hi­bi­tion hall in 2014. It opened to vis­i­tors last fall.

“Col­lege stu­dents and aca­demic re­searchers have found this ex­hi­bi­tion hall es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing, and we have been re­ceiv­ing such vis­i­tors over the last few months,” he said.

Ny­ima at­tributes his suc­cess as a sculp­tor to his keen child­hood in­ter­est in play­ing with mud.

“As a small boy, when a pond dried, I used to make dif­fer­ent mud toys, such as an­i­mals and cars,” he said.

In 1992, dur­ing the ren­o­va­tion of Lhasa’s Jokhang Tem­ple, Ny­ima saw oth­ers mak­ing tsa tsas. He found the work in­ter­est­ing and started to study it. Two decades later, he is a skilled sculp­tor, and many Ti­betan res­i­dents com­mis­sion tsa tsas and clay Bud­dha images from his work­shop.

In one ca­reer-defin­ing job, Ny­ima was in­vited to build a gi­ant clay Bud­dha im­age in Ti­bet’s Ny­i­math­ang Monastery. The 8-meter-tall fig­ure took six months to com­plete, and the team felt they re­ceived some di­vine guid­ance dur­ing the project.

“Dur­ing the process of cre­at­ing the im­age, we were shocked when we found some un­sat­is­fac­tory work on the im­age, such as the pat­tern of the eyes or the lines of hands, be­came nicer nat­u­rally,” he said. “More­over, a rain­bow dome ap­peared and lasted for one hour in the sky, and we heard some peo­ple say­ing they had seen two suns in the sky upon the fi­nal con­se­cra­tion cer­e­mony.”

Ny­ima’s fu­ture plans in­clude one par­tic­u­lar item on his wish list. “I dream of es­tab­lish­ing a school to pro­mote and pass on the an­cient cul­ture,” he said.

PALDEN NY­IMA / CHINA DAILY

Clay fig­ures of hal­lowed deities or sa­cred sym­bols, dis­played in Ti­bet’s first ex­hi­bi­tion hall for tsa tsas, are col­lected by the mu­seum’s founder Ny­ima Gyalpo from across the au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

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