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Tibet’s treasures seen on a human scale

Special to The Times

The first thing visitors to “Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World” see is a big iron padlock with a long key protruding from its base. Made in the 17th century, it’s the largest lock known to have been crafted in Tibet. Although every square inch of its broad, well-worn surfaces has been inlaid with gold in an elaborate pattern of four-claw dragons and leafy tendrils, it’s among the plainest pieces in the surprisingly intimate exhibition, which consists of more than 200 modestly scaled sculptures, wall hangings, lavish garments and an impressive inventory of ritual objects.

The unglamorous lock is prominently displayed because it’s a symbol of Tibet’s place in the American imagination: a closed-off enclave or inaccessible Shangri-La so spiritual and mysterious that it seems otherworldly. The padlock also stands as an emblem of the show’s primary goal: to unlock some of the secrets of the ancient mountain kingdom.

At the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, this process begins while you’re still looking at the lock. Beneath its weathered clasp is an area where the incised design appears to have been scraped off, its shiny surface worn through to a grubby undercoat of red primer. But when you look closely, you notice that the red coloration actually sits atop the gold inlay. It’s paint the padlock picked up over the years, banging against the wooden doors it held shut. (A wall label identifies them as the front entrance to the Potala’s White Palace.)

Two drops of the same red paint further besmirch its surface, revealing that at least one monk didn’t bother to remove the lock (or cover it) when he repainted the doors of the 400-year-old building. And no one bothered to clean or polish the lock when it was removed from the door and ensconced in the Potala Palace collection. These little details create an atmosphere of familiarity -- of regular, everyday unpretentiousness and unfussy, get-the-job-done pragmatism. They contrast dramatically with the last work you see before leaving the exhibition.

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Standing in a vitrine just inside the exit is an exquisitely detailed copper mandala covered with glistening gold gilt. Designed as an aid to meditation, the gorgeous sculpture, which is about 30 inches tall, is not for the easily distracted. It’s hard to stop gawking at the sophisticated design and impeccable craftsmanship with which its dozens of doll-size figures were carved and cast, each more expressive than the last.

Shaped like a lotus, the piece is impressively engineered. When its ornate cap is removed, the cone-shaped blossom’s eight petals swing open on hidden hinges, revealing the buffalo-headed Vajrabhairava, the fierce form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, standing in the center of a cosmic diagram. His nine heads, 16 legs, and 34 arms (with each hand clasping a different tool, weapon or symbol) are so skillfully sculpted that he looks as graceful as a ballet dancer whose fluid movements have been captured by time-lapse photography and realized in three dimensions.

And he’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each petal’s exterior is decorated with an image of the eight holy cemeteries. The interiors of the petals, which form flame-shaped halos, create a house-of-mirrors effect: Each bears a single- or double-decker sculptural relief of a nearly identical two-armed Vajrabhairava.

The entire blossom rests atop a filigreed tree whose branches are an astonishingly symmetrical tangle elegantly jam-packed with goddesses bearing gifts, not to mention the sun and moon. Below them, serpent deities link the tree to a bell-shaped vase covered with abstract patterns.

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Like the lock, the dazzling mandala is functional. But it has none of the down-to-earth ordinariness of the mundane piece of hardware. Nevertheless, it reveals the worldly side of Tibetan culture, showing its leaders and holy men to be as cosmopolitan and international as they are spiritual and transcendent.

The elaborate mandala was a gift from Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle, who reigned during 1403-24 and traded frequently with Tibet. For this piece, he commissioned the best craftsmen in the civilized world, a group of Nepalese taught by a master named Anige, who had set up shop in China’s imperial workshop during the reign of Kublai Khan. The mandala’s iconography is Tibetan. But its design originated in eastern India, between the 8th and 12th centuries. And some of its details, like the square faces and style of jewelry worn by its figurines, are typical of the Ming style of the time. Today, it dispels the idea that Tibet was an isolated kingdom or utopian hide-out untouched by the machinations of international politics.

The exhibition is arranged in four sections, some parts of which overlap more than others. In Tibet, it’s impossible to disentangle art and life, religion and politics, myth and history: All are woven together. As you walk through the museum, however, you travel from the sacred to the urbane.

The first gallery is a long hall filled with ritual objects of Tibetan Buddhism. Included are enough trumpets, horns, bells and drums -- all of distinctive design -- to start a band. More plentiful are the diverse objects used in personal shrines and communal ceremonies: crystal and copper stupas, coral mandalas, jewel-encrusted amulet boxes, gold ewers, cloisonne pitchers and a set of 21 wooden daggers carved and painted to resemble a grimacing deity and a menagerie of bears, dogs, tigers and all sorts of fanciful creatures.

A 19th century cup, made from the skull of the great scholar Kedrup Chenpo includes loads of beautifully worked Tibetan gold, which has such a rich orange tint it makes ordinary gold look pale and faded, like a cheap imitation. Human bones, carved in the shape of skulls, beads and pendants, also festoon a silk dance garment that’s more colorful than a rainbow and more frightening than a Halloween costume.

At the far end of the hall stands one of the largest sculptures in the show, a nearly 4-foot-tall figure of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Universal Compassion. With 11 heads and 1,000 arms, each with an open eye in its palm, he watches over the hall’s cacophony, bringing a welcome touch of serenity to it.

The next section focuses on history and politics. What it lacks in idiosyncrasy it makes up for in information.

Small statues depict the Three Dharma Kings of Tibet -- Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen and Tri Ralpachen -- who ruled in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries, respectively. Not exactly founding fathers, they’re more like the Tibetan equivalent of William Bradford, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

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Statues of other historical figures are also displayed alongside a portrait of the great teacher Padma Sambhava carved in a slate panel and still other portraits and stories embroidered or painted on fabrics known as thangkas (literally, “things that can be rolled up”). Government edicts, printed on silk and gold, and various leaders’ seals, including the fifth Dalai Lama’s, emphasize the administrative side of Tibetan Buddhism.

The third part of the show is the largest and the most visually satisfying. Titled “Sacred Arts of Tibet,” it’s split evenly between rare tabletop sculptures and priceless thangkas.

Cast-metal buddhas and bodhisattvas, and graceful dancing deities dominate the three-dimensional pieces. Some stand alone with eyes closed, like “The Buddha Shakyamuni,” which, made sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries, is probably the oldest work in the show. Others are accompanied by disciples, helpers and guardians, who gather around them in arrangements that are neither perfectly symmetrical nor entirely naturalistic.

The show concludes with two roomfuls of noblemen’s and women’s clothing, jewelry, tableware and tools. Sumptuous Russian and Chinese brocades contribute to their elegance, as do collars and cuffs made of otter and ermine as well as golf-ball-size gems stitched to the fronts of some cloaks. Other cloaks are made entirely of peacock feathers and two, from the 17th and 19th century, look as if they were designed by a contemporary cartoonist.

As a whole, the show is approachable and user-friendly. That’s out of the ordinary, especially at a time when many museums mount blockbuster exhibitions that strive to bowl you over with mind-blowing displays of technical finesse and unimaginable wealth.

Part of this is due to the size of its objects, which are nearly all scaled to the human body. But it’s also because of the humanity and humility embodied by most of the works. Contrast the ones made in Tibet by Tibetans (like the lock) to those made in China to be given as diplomatic gifts (like the mandala) and you’ll see the difference.

None of the indigenous ones has the chilliness of geometric perfection or the off-putting hauteur of impeccably refined works of art. Despite the exoticism of the culture to which they belong, the length of its history and the complexity of the Buddhist cosmology they describe, there’s a casual, hands-on quality to the ensemble. A deeply humane sensibility, and sometimes funky playfulness, runs through all of the Tibetan objects. If they were people, they’d best be described as friendly: not flashy or imperious but a little rough around the edges and optimistic in their openness. This makes for a satisfying exhibition that’s surprisingly intimate, despite having traveled halfway around the world to get here.

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‘Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World’

Where: Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Ends: May 16

Price: $6-$14

Contact: (714) 567-3600


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