Dancing Girls and Wrathful Gods


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Asia Society pieces together the remains of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a groundbreaking new show


Some time back in the 12th century, Jigten Gopto, a disciple of Tibetan Buddhist master Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170), had a vision. He saw a Tantric deity in a palace, on a sacred mountain, with a flock of 2,800 lesser deities. The configuration of the crowd inspired him to design a special structure to house the remains of Buddhist holy men.


Called tashi gomang ("Many Doors of Auspiciousness") stupas, these elaborate, tiered memorial reliquaries later became the distinctive feature of Densatil Monastery, a sacred place erected in 1198 by followers of the late Phagmo Drupa in a remote, mountainous area of central Tibet.


The monastery was pillaged centuries later during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Now fragments have been gathered from museums and private collections and are being exhibited for the first time at Asia Society in a glittering show, Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, on view through May 18.


Be prepared for a spiritual journey, as the physical layout of the exhibit mirrors the physical organization of an actual stupa, moving from lowly layers of deities that will help devotees with earthly matters to higher-level deities that have eschewed the material world and are on the path to full enlightenment.


A large, quite helpful diagram of a Densatil tashi gomang stupa kicks off the show, illustrating the six tiers of these sculpture-laden monuments (think of them as wedding cakes), with the sixth tier being the lowliest, physically and spiritually speaking. Other visual aids include pictures of the monastery's artworks taken by Italian photographer Pietro Francesco Mele, who accompanied the scholar Giuseppe Tucci to Tibet in 1948.


The stupa is topped by a reliquary that contains the remains of the enlightened follower to whom the shrine is dedicated (to continue the cake analogy, think of it as the cake topper); a bell-shaped, domed metal reliquary, likely the style of the one that housed the remains of the holy Phagmo Drupa, is on loan from the Rubin Museum and can be seen at the show's conclusion.


Some of the most delightful and artistic artifacts on display hewed to the bottom-most tiers, which were crowded with literally thousands of sculptures of fierce deities and other expressive protectors of the teachings still conscious of earthly desires.


Consider the complex iconography of Dhumavati Shri Devi (early 15th century), a wrathful female deity who inhabited the southern side of the sixth tier and is part of Asia Society's permanent collection. Made of gilt copper alloy, with turquoise and lapis lazuli inlays, she sits on a reclining mule atop a lotus flower and has four arms?the upper two wield swords, while her lower right hand cradles a skull cup. She is flanked by ten smaller figures, seated on lotus blossoms and encircled with swirling tendrils.


One step up leads to the offering goddesses, sixteen in all. The fragments on view are richly detailed and full of whimsy, with musicians and a line of ladies with bent legs in a formation that would make the Rockettes proud.


Fast forward to the higher, more esoteric levels of the tashi gomang stupa?and the show. The meditational figures here evince a supreme calm. The reliquary (Kadam stupa; 14th century) that tops the stupa?that's right, a stupa on top of a stupa?symbolizes the end of the path and the attainment of enlightenment.
If you go: Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue (at 70th St.) Now through May 18

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