Since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, as thousands of Tibetans have fanned out across the globe, there has been increased interest in all things relating to Tibetan Buddhism, including the sacred arts of the Himalayan region—Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, and northern India—and surrounding areas. Much of this artwork is in museums and private collections in the West, where it serves as a bittersweet reminder of the once-flourishing monastic centers and teeming dharma life in the lands the exiles left behind.

Among the most compelling works are the thangkas—scroll paintings of deities, lamas, and other dignitaries that are central to Tibetan culture and Buddhist practice. Today, collectors who prize them for their beauty and execution often understand little of their history or spiritual significance. And even scholars, art historians, and Buddhist practitioners at times find the iconography mystifying.

Director Jeff Watt, Courtesy of Jeff Watt
Director Jeff Watt, Courtesy of Jeff Watt

That’s where the Himalayan Art Project comes in. Its website, www.himalayanart.org, is a vast virtual museum with 16,000 images and 13,000 written records of painting, sculpture, murals, prints, textiles, and ritual objects from the Himalayan region. With the most extensive searchable database in its field, the site is a one-stop resource for art lovers, spiritual practitioners, scholars, and collectors.

At one end of the spectrum is the interactive section introducing “kids and friends of all ages” to the strong narrative thrust of Himalayan art. At the other is a set of sophisticated, high-tech research tools. Artwork is catalogued, cross-referenced, and indexed by theme, style, and geographical region, facilitating comparative analysis that until now was difficult, if not impossible. There are bibliographies, articles by experts on art and Buddhism, and links to scholarly venues. One is the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (www.tbrc.org), E. Gene Smith’s massive digital archive of original Tibetan texts with biographical information on deities and other portrait subjects. There are even audio links for checking the pronunciation of Tibetan and Sanskrit names.

Visitors to the website can enter a subject in the search engine—say, Gyurme Dorje, a seventeenth-century Nyingma treasure-revealer who founded Mindroling Monastery in Tibet—and an index of related artwork will pop up. Select item number 65032, and an image of a thangka will appear, with a caption detailing its iconography. Click again to see the back of the painting—and zoom in to read a blessing written in Tibetan script.

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