Asian Art Museum’s Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan – A Fantastic Exhibit

First things first – you should check out the reviews of the Asian Art Museum‘s Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kenneth Baker, SF Weekly All Shook Down’s Sam Pretianni, San Francisco Examiner Art Examiner Marisa Nakasone, San Jose Culture Examiner Todd R. Brown, and KGO-TV View From the Bay’s Nick Smith. Then watch the YouTube entries and listen to KQED Forum’s Michael Krasney

Then you should go to the exhibit itself (win a pair of free tickets here) – it’s like taking a Bhutan Excursion and getting some of the benefits of going to Bhutan without ever leaving the Bay Area. Let’s take a look. 

Honorable Secretary Dasho Penden Wangchuk, Bhutan Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs helped to bring this art to San Francisco. It’s quite a tale, as the New York Times explains. Click to expand:

Here’s a map, if it helps. You can’t position Bhutan in the world without referencing the neighbors’ border dispute. China and India fought the appropriately-named Sino Indian War back in 1962, but there’s still some confusion over just where one country starts and another ends. Anyway, Tibet to the North, Nepal to the west and India all around:

The Buddhist deity Vajrabhairava does his war dance. Quasi NSFW. Click to expand – it gets big:


Can you see what he’s holding onto with his 32 arms and what he’s stomping on with his 16 feet? He’s a one-god war machine, compare the photo with this description: 

The central main hands of the deity hold a chopping-knife (karttrka) and human skull-bowl (kapala), colored gold and ornamented by pearl chains, flammiforms and scepters (vajra). The lower main hands hold a magical knife (purba) and the severed multi-faced head of Brahma the Creator. The upper main hands hold a red right hand holding an arrow and an elaborately decorated golden shield with a Chinese-style makara or dragon face at the center. The other hands hold a ritual scepter (vajra), lance, axe, double-drum (damaru), Wheel of Law (dharmachakra), dagger, swirling flames, ritual bell (ghanta), skeleton-staff (khatvanga), banner, a red human right foot, a transfixed corpse, various magical knives and stakes, a noose, a skin, and other Tantric weapons.”

O.K. then. You can also see illustrations of parables, thusly:

Lord Buddha in the form of King Dayoe: The Buddha, as King Dayoe, was very generous and helpful towards others. A neighboring king became jealous of him and offered a reward of half his kingdom for whoever would bring back King Dayoe’s head. A man volunteered and asked King Dayoe for his head as alms, and the king gave it to him, thereby increasing King Dayoe’s popularity. The neighboring king and the man who beheaded King Dayoe both died of heartsickness.

And thusly:

Lord Buddha in the form of a Turtle: A boat carrying a group of merchants capsized and the merchants were thrown into the water. The Buddha, in the form of a turtle, rescued the merchants and carried them to shore on his back. The turtle was tired and fell asleep, and the merchants, who were hungry, tried to kill the turtle by throwing stones at it. The turtle’s shell protected him, but out of great compassion for the merchants, the turtle turned over and sacrificed himself for them.

Padmasambhava, considered by some to be the second Bhudda:

Terese Bartholomew, Curator Emeritus of Chinese Decorative Arts and Himalayan Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco serves as Guest Curator.

So there you have it, another unique show at the Asian. You should check it out. More deets after the jump.

See you there!

And here’s what’s coming up in a few months:

The Dragon’s Gift is documented with a fully illustrated catalogue including all works of art in the exhibition and new photography of many important works of art in situ in Bhutanese monasteries. The catalogue, published by Serindia Press, is a major scholarly contribution to the field of Himalayan studies and includes essays on many aspects of Buddhist art and history Bhutan by American, European, and Bhutanese scholars. A DVD of a sampling of ancient cham dances is included with the catalogue. The fully illustrated catalog is available at the Asian Art Museum store ($49.95 softcover, $65 hardcover). For more information, please call 415-581-3600 or email


In conjunction with The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan, the Asian Art Museum will present a variety of programs inspired by and complementery to the exhibition. Enhance your visit and experience of The Dragon’s Gift with a lecture, film, performance, and more. Scroll down to see the full schedule, or use one of the quick links above. 
     AsiaAlive: Sacred Arts of Bhutan
Fridays through Sundays, February 21-May 10

12:00 noon–4:00 pm, rituals at 11:00 am & 3:00 pm

FREE with museum admission

Two monks from a Bhutanese monastery, Lopen Neten Dorji and Lopen Gyem Dorji, perform daily purification rituals and prayers (puja) for sacred objects in the exhibition. Watch them create a sand mandala, create an artwork, check out dance masks, and explore the computer database of more than 600 Bhutanese sacred dances. 
   Docent tours and talks

The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan Exhibition Tours

Tuesdays through Sundays

10:30 am, 12:30 pm, and 1:30 pm

Meet at the Information Desk.

Explore the rich symbolism of the art and fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about the Bhutan exhibition with one of our docents.

Buddhist Art Theme Tours

Fridays, Saturdays, & Sundays

2:30 pm

Meet at the Information Desk. 

Extend your knowledge of Buddhist arts across Asia in these tours of the museum’s world class collection. This tour is an excellent compliment to the Bhutan exhibition tour.

Slide Lectures: The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan

Sundays, 2:30 pm

March 22, & April 26

Education Studio

Enjoy a lecture presented by one of the museum’s docents on The Dragon’s Gift.
     FamILY & Youth PROGRAMS   
   Yoga Flow

First Sunday of every month

2:00–3:00 pm

Part of the Target First Free Sunday program


Get centered with Yoga Flow, the Museum’s new yoga program for families. Yogini Lorna Reed teaches basic poses (asanas) for balance, flexibility and strength. A yoga teacher for many years, Lorna brings a depth of knowledge and spirituality to her practice. Join Lorna as she brings the sculptures in the galleries to life through active movement, mudras, and gestures. Wear comfortable clothing and bring a yoga mat.


Every Sunday, 1:00 pm
FREE with museum admission

Children 12 and under get in for free

The Asian Art Museum Storytellers bring the galleries to life with the myths and folktales of Asia.

     Spring Family Festival: Land of the Thunder Dragon

Sunday, May 10

10:30 am– 4:00 pm

Free admission to all courtesy of the Koret Foundation

In conjunction with the special exhibition The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan, families are invited to celebrate Mother’s Day with arts and cultural traditions from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and its neighbors, Nepal and Tibet. Watch local kinetic storytellers Eth-Noh-Tec present two lively performances of Bhutanese folktales; create a thangka (painting on cloth) of the Four Friends, a popular Bhutanese folktale about a bird, a rabbit, a monkey, and an elephant living harmoniously together; sculpt a sacred lotus flower; observe a traditional Bhutanese music performance; and listen to members of the Bring Me a Book Foundation spin stories from the Himalayas.

This will also be the last day of The Dragon’s Gift exhibition. There’s something for everyone at the Asian Art Museum’s Family Festivals.

The Asian Art Museum’s Spring Family Festival is made possible by the Koret Foundation. 
     free film series
     Bhutan Film Series

Sundays, March 1 and April 5 (detailed schedule at

Samsung Hall. Please arrive early as space is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Free admission courtesy of Target.

Film schedule subject to change without notice. For updates, please check back here. All films will be shown on digital video disc (DVD) format.

Series generously supported by the Heart of Compassion Fund.

Sunday, March 1

Traditional Crafts of Bhutan, 10:00 am–1:00 pm

Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness, 2:00 pm (this film also shown in conjunction with the half day symposium on April 18)

Sunday, April 5

Traditional Crafts of Bhutan, 10:00 am–1:00 pm

Travellers and Magicians, 2:00 pm (this film preceded at 1:00 by the lecture Music from the Mountains of Bhutan)
     Symposium: The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan

Saturday, February 21

10:30 am—4:30 pm

$45 Society for Asian Art and Asian Art Museum members, $57 general (includes museum admission.) Lunch provided. Please contact or (415) 581-3701

In conjunction with the opening of The Dragon’s Gift, this symposium explores Bhutan’s history, its particular sect of Buddhism, and the unique partnership with the Bhutanese government and religious officials who made the exhibition possible. Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum will begin the day with a welcome address. Speakers include: John A. Ardussi, Tibetan and Bhutanese scholar; Terese Bartholomew, Curator Emeritus, Asian Art Museum; Mark Fenn, Assistant Head of Conservation, Asian Art Museum; John Johnston, Assistant Curator, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Ephraim Jose, conservator, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Watson ‘Mac’ Laetsch, Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley; Stephen Little, Director, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Ariana Maki, Curatorial Fellow, Rubin Museum of Art. 
   Lecture: Music from the Mountains of Bhutan

Sunday, April 5

1:00 pm–1:30 pm

Samsung Hall

Free admission courtesy of Target.
This multimedia lecture—presented by ethnomusicologist Dr. Janet Herman and photographer Jane Hancock of the Music of Bhutan Research Center—explores Bhutan’s rich soundscape of monastic and secular music. The presenters highlight legendary singer Am Nimchu Pem, an elderly rice farmer whom they recorded in Bhutan as part of a crew led by renowned musician and composer Kheng Sonam Dorji. Travellers and Magicians, a film whose soundtrack features Dorji, follows the lecture at 2:00 pm. (For a film description see Bhutan Film Series.

Photo courtesy AFP.
   Bhutan’s Raven Crown

Thursday, April 30, 6:30 pm

FREE with museum admission

Karma Singye Dorji gives a talk on the significance and mythology behind one of Bhutan’s most enduring symbols of monarchy, the Raven Crown, the sceptre of the king of Bhutan. Mr. Dorji is author of Dreaming of Prayer Flags: Stories and Images from Bhutan.
     Four-Day Workshop: Buddhist Painting on Cloth (Thangka)

April 4 and 11: Iconography Drawing with
Ang Tsherin Sherpa
April 25 and May 2: Landscape for Thangka
Painting with Aiqin Zhou
10:30 am– 3:00 pm, Education Studio
$120 members, $168 non-members (supplies included; bring your own bag lunch)

Drawing inspiration from the special exhibition The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,
Tsherin and Zhou co-teach this four-day workshop on how to draw and paint intricate Buddhist thangkas. Discover some of the iconography and symbolism while learning to draw icons following rules of this traditional genre. Learn the basics of watercolor landscape painting, including how artists incorporate Chinese landscape techniques into thangkas. This workshop is for beginning and intermediate painters. Space limited, pre-registration required: or (415) 581-3665.

   Half-Day Symposium: Bhutan’s Four Pillars of Gross National Happiness
Saturday, April 18

1:30 pm– 3:30 pm

Samsung Hall

Free with museum admission.
Since 1972, Bhutan’s government has measured its national wellbeing not through economic output but by virtue of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) of its people. The afternoon talks include an overview of Bhutan and explore the four pillars of GNH: Good Governance, Conservation of the Environment, Conservation of Culture, and Equitable Development. Speakers include Dasho Kinley Dorji; Tshewang Wangchuk, Bhutan’s leading environmentalist; Dorji Yanki, a Bhutanese architect; and Bhutan Foundation members the Hon. Consul Dr. Bruce Bunting, Tshering Denka, Ugen Choden, and Dawa Sherpa.

A screening of the film Taking the Middle Path to Happiness precedes the symposium at 11:00 am. (For a film description see Bhutan Film Series.)

Co-sponsored with the Bhutan Foundation.
     Society for Asian Art Monthly Lectures
First Thursday of the month

6:30 pm– 7:30 pm
Education Studio (except where noted). $5

Space limited, pre-registration required: or (415) 581-3701. Information:
Thursday, March 5
Revealing Treasures: Buddhist Art in Bhutan
Thursday, April 2
Technical Observations on Bhutanese Sculpture
     educator event   
     Conversation with a Curator and a Conservator—

The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan

Saturday, March 14

9:00 am– 12:30 pm

$5 after museum admission; Open to educators only. Space limited, pre-registration required: or (415) 581-3697

Explore the sacred arts that have been an integral part of daily life in Bhutan for centuries. Terese Tse Bartholomew, the Asian Art Museum’s curator emeritus of Himalayan art and Chinese decorative arts, introduces the benevolent deities and fierce protectors revealed in this collection of thangkas (devotional images on cloth) and other ritual objects. Mark Fenn, the museum’s associate head of conservation, discusses his fieldwork of training monks in Bhutan on state-of-the-art conservation methods. The event includes lectures, a docent-led tour of the special exhibition, and light refreshments. 
Members’ Preview

The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan

Thursday, February 19

10:00 am–9:00 pm

See the exhibition before it opens to the public at this special preview for Asian Art Museum members. Join or renew your museum membership.

Bhutan Opening Ceremony
Friday, February 20

10:15 am
FREE with museum admission

The museum will kick off the special exhibition, The Dragon’s Gift with opening remarks by Director Jay Xu, a ceremonial ribbon cutting, and a 15-minute puja (ritual worship and consecration) by two monks visiting from Bhutan to perform daily prayers for the sacred objects in the galleries. Visitors are encouraged to meet and greet these very special guests from the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” Let’s show them a warm and friendly San Francisco greeting, and even learn a few words on Bhutanese!
     Free audio tour

The museum will be offering a free audio tour of the exhibition. You can enjoy it at your own pace and in any order you’d like. The tour highlights 18 extraordinary objects, with the curator and conservator chiming in with their own insight and experiences, sometimes offering fascinating tidbits of information on specific artworks. Enhance your visit of The Dragon’s Gift with this enlightening, lively supplement.

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One Response to “Asian Art Museum’s Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan – A Fantastic Exhibit”

  1. Nice illustrations from the exhibit. Very generous of that king to surrender his own head. Thanks for the illuminating post.