Fabric at Norbulingka | India | Living in Mexico

Fabric at Norbulingka

The primary objective of Norbulingka is preservation of Tibet's traditional arts and crafts. The institute meets this,not by collecting older works, but by training the present generation of young Tibetans in the old skills. At Norbulingka. a couple hundred refugee students train under recognized masters, spending years learning their parents' art. Two workshops offer training in painting and fabric art.

Many Tibetan paintings present images of bodhisattvas (beings that compassionately refrain from entering nirvana in order to save others). Conventionally their portraits are framed inside circles. Here, two apprentices find the center of a canvas by snapping a pair of diagonal chalk lines. Next, they'll use a compass to mark a circle centered on the intersection of the chalk lines.

Euclid found his way even to Tibet. Or perhaps, Tibet reached him.


Images are first rendered in exquisite line drawings. The unfinished sketches are worthy of framing and hanging.
The artists' skills are remarkable. Moreover, they are permitted to make creative variations within limits of the art form, so no two drawings are alike.


The cartoons are then colored with brilliant paints. The very finest paintings use natural pigments derived from minerals: coral, lapis lazuli, ground gold. Most of the work here uses less expensive paints, no less beautiful for their common origins.


The same images that the painters create are realized by others using a different, unlikely process: appliqué. It begins with a pattern inked onto a piece of silk.


The many regions demarked by inking are made in different colors—sort of paint-by-numbers—using fabric. Each shape is traced, then individual pieces of colored cloth are cut to match.


The edges of each shape are bound with horsehair wrapped in colored silk. Horsehair is used to prevent shrinkage of the edging that otherwise might distort the appliqué.

The horsehair on the right has been wound with red silk thread.


Edging is hand-sewn to each piece. Although the workers shown here happen all to be women, men do this work as well.


Finished pieces are collected into sets for final assembly into finished artwork.


The completed work shown below is a thangka (THAN-kah), a painting or appliquéd artwork that can be hung for display, or rolled up and carried, appropriate for a nomadic people. Thangkas serve as prayer media or as meditation tools. Sometimes people bring theirs to the Dalai Lama or another high Lama for blessing.

This appliquéd thangka bears the image of seven-eyed White Tara, bodhisattva of compassion, longevity, healing and serenity.


Without the efforts being made at Norbulingka, Tibetan art and culture will become lost to the world. The Chinese government pursues a policy of eradicating Tibetan culture. Thousands of temples have been razed, ancient texts have been burned, people have been tortured and killed for demonstrating or promoting their Tibetan-ness. For now at least, we are still able to learn and enjoy their culture.