A secret chamber in a 17th -century Tibetan island temple contains murals of astonishing beauty and spiritual significance used to teach Dalai lamas through the ages. Chinese rule opened the island to the public, but even so, few have seen them – including the present Dalai lama.
lan Baker explains THE Lukhang – “Temple of the Serpent Spirits” – rises out of a copse of willows on a lake behind the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to this little-known island temple as one of the hidden jewels of Tibetan civilisation. On the top floor, reached by a polished wooden ladder and a trap door, is a small room where the Dalai lamas of Tibet retired for periods of deep meditation. As early as three centuries ago, unknown artists embellished the walls of this secret meditation chamber with extraordinary paintings, unique in the history of Tibetan art. A visual presentation of the spiritual journey, these murals inspired successive incarnations of Dalai lamas on their path to enlightenment.
Originally, only the Dalai lamas and their close attendants viewed the murals on the Lukhang’s walls, much as the religious themes painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome were intended primarily for the eyes of the popes. Like the Vatican, however, the once sequestered sanctuary is now open to the public. Previously reachable only by boat, pilgrims now cross a Chinese style footbridge and, after circling the small Island, wind their way to the Lukhang’s top chapel. With butter lamps in hand, they circumambulate the sacred chamber, the surrounding murals largely obscured behind protective grills of wood and chicken wire.
The Lukhang’s origins are attributed to mystical visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama who ruled Tibet from 1642 to 1682. Unfortunately, the Great Fifth, as he was known, died before he could fulfil his promise and it was left to his next incarnation – Tsangyang Gyatso – to complete his work. The Sixth Dalai Lama was enthroned in Lhasa in 1697.
Although there are no reliable records concerning the Lukhang’s construction, the design of the original island pavilion is credited to the aesthetic vision of the young Dalai Lama and his mentor, the acting regent Desi Sangye Gyamtso. Reflecting cultural and political influences at the turn of the 17th century, the Lukhang combines elements of Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian architecture.
Its greatest treasure is the Dalai Lama’s private meditation chamber on the top floor. Whereas many of the Lukhang’s original statues were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, the jewel-like murals that enrich this secret chamber miraculously escaped serious harm. These lyrical and mysterious wall paintings represent a unique moment in Tibetan art history. Nowhere else are the esoteric practices of Tibet’s Tantric tradition so boldly illustrated, and nowhere else has Tibetan art achieved such an extraordinary synthesis of creativity and philosophical depth.
Although Tibetan art encompasses a vast range of historical and religious themes, the mystical practices of the Buddhist Tantras have always been transmitted orally from master to disciple. Only in these murals have the secret yogic teachings been expressed so openly. They offer an unprecedented glimpse of what is often poetically referred to as the “whispered lineage”.
On the northern wall, the murals focus on yogic techniques for transforming the subtle essences of the physical body and developing its inner mandala of chakras and psychic energy channels. The western wall illustrates practices used in the tradition of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, in which the mind directly perceives its in-dwelling Buddha nature. The portraits of revered Tantric sages that cover the eastern wall celebrate the compassion and spiritual powers that spontaneously arise through practising the methods illustrated on the other two walls. Unsurpassed in Tibetan art, these hidden murals reveal the essence of the Buddhist teachings; their style and composition offer insight into one of Tibet’s greatest periods of artistic innovation.
From “The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple”,
by lan A. Baker with photographs by Thomas Laird
Thames & Hudson.
The Australian, 28-29 October 2000