It is difficult to underestimate the importance to Tibet and the Buddhist faith of early Tibetan manuscript covers such as are included in this exhibition. objects that once acted as the entrance to, and enabled the protection of, sacred Buddhist texts, they are regarded as part of the Dharma [The Teaching], one of the Triratna [The Three Jewels - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha - meaning the Community] and as such to be revered as one would the Buddha. They would have been specifically commissioned by monasteries or wealthy families to protect the sacred texts of the Buddhist canon. Fashioned from hardwood, a material difficult to obtain in Central Tibet, no expense w spared in their construction. Often intricately carved, sumptuously painted and gilded, they are the products of the finest early Tibetan craftsmanship and artistry.
The primary source of Inspiration for early Tibetan manuscript covers Western-lndia, and the formal of early Tibetan and medieval Indian manuscripts is in essence the same. Leaves of the sacred text are stacked on top of each other, and the protective wooden covers are placed on either side. The birch bark or palm leaf pages that formed medieval Indian manuscripts restricted the size of the manuscripts, however as Tibetans used paper imported from China to form the pages, there were no such restrictions in size. A single strap w used to bind the manuscript cover to the pages, though sometimes the manuscripts were wrapped in cloth to further protect them from smoke and the elements. The care and skill with which these manuscript covers were constructed and decorated indicates the high value and importance of the scriptures.
Before the Chinese Invasion of Tibet in 1951, it w said that there were between 3,000 and 5,000 monasteries in the region, all of which would have pired to have the complete Buddhist canon in their libraries. During the Cultural Revolution myriad aspects of traditional Buddhist culture such as Tibetan manuscripts were declared forces of evil and destroyed. Some, however, escaped destruction when they were taken by Tibetans fleeing their country in the wake of the Invasion, but the desirable and rare hardwood material of the covers meant that others were refashioned and re-used as washing boards, chopping boards and pastry molds. Many of the early manuscript covers that can be found today survive without their scriptures and, now devoid of their initial function, these striking carved works serve as reminders of the reverence for sacred texts in Tibetan culture, as well as Symbols of the conflict, known all too well in Tibet, between survival and loss.
A select group of these manuscript covers dating from the 12th-15th centuries and assembled over several decades by a European private collection, forms the focus of this show curated by Tibetan contemporary artist Tenzing Rigdol. All of the living artists have approached the covers and their layered meanings, as a Springboard for ide concerning, amongst others, the history of Tibet, loss and displacement, their own and their families' histories. Sometimes, the focus is on the covers' cultural aspect and their power objects; sometimes the artists see them stripped of meaning and reverence. However, regardless of the approach and personal aesthetics, there is today hovering invisibly over all of them, the smoky, acrid cloud of protest and self-immolation, that most terrifying manifestation of a people stripped of nationhood, identity and meaning, and feeling powerless.
Source: Tenzing Rigdo, 1st Century Tibetan Artists Respond to 12th - 15th Century Tibetan Manuscript Covers, 2013, Rossi & Rossi, London