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A Blast of Cool Himalayan Culture Blows Into Venice

On the southern end of Main Street, where Santa Monica turns into Venice, there’s an unusual temporary store amid the boutiques and coffee emporiums. Until the middle of next month, when they pack up and return home, a couple from Bhutan are selling contemporary and vintage textiles, jewelry and clothes from their remote Himalayan kingdom.

Benchen Khenpo and his wife, Tashi Wangmo, travel to Los Angeles every so often to set up shop during the holidays. (Bhutan, for those who don’t know--and most people do not, says Khenpo--is a country about the size of Switzerland, nestled between India and Tibet. Because it is hard to get to and has never been colonized, its culture has been little altered by outside influences.

The couple’s respect for the vintage weavings is apparent in the way the fabric is displayed. Tags on the hangings, some of which cost as much as $1,800, say how long the cloth took to weave (some up to a year). The wares also include modern products, such as duvet covers ($190 to $600), crewel-embroidered pillow covers ($28 and $38), and fashionable items such as pashminas ($200) and embroidered cashmere shawls ($80).

Sitting in the sparsely furnished gallery, 55-year-old Khenpo described his rich life, which even has a Hollywood twist.

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At 6, he says, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Benchen Khenpo, the abbot of the Buddhist Benchen monastery in the east part of Bhutan. He and his family left their village for the monastery. At 10, he moved to a Tibetan monastery, then returned to Bhutan.

At 18, the Bhutan government sent him to a school run by Canadian priests in India. There, he studied English and Catholicism, a religion, he said, that shares many similarities with the Mahayana Buddhist religion of Bhutan.

For 12 years, Khenpo said, he worked with the government and was a liaison with the diplomatic corps in Calcutta. “But I didn’t grow up,” he said, “until I came to Los Angeles.”

In 1977, he came to the United States for a long visit, first landing in New York. “Everything was big. Cars were big . . . people were big.”

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A few months later, he flew to Los Angeles, where he worked as a cab driver. “After a week, I was pretty good at it.”

Six months later, he was hired by producers Michael and Julia Phillips as a caretaker for their home. “I made a lot of friends,” he said.

In 1979, he returned to Bhutan and opened a couple of businesses: a weaving enterprise and a travel agency to capitalize on the country’s increasing accessibility. The monarchy wants to protect Bhutan culture and only allows so much tourism a year. “Last year,” said Khenpo, “we had 7,000 tourists, a record breaker for us.”

Khenpo and his wife have been coming to the United States every few years for the travel agency and every once in a while, when they are able to find gallery space, to sell textiles. This year, they left their two children, 12 and 9, home and have been in Venice since early December.

The Bhutan Collection is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Jan. 16 at 222A Main St., Venice, (310) 581-7993.


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