Tibetan Wood- and Metalcraft | India | Living in Mexico

Tibetan Wood- and Metalcraft

One half of Norbulingka is devoted to pictorial arts. Students in the other half create three-dimensional work in metal and wood.

Much of the metalwork consists of commissioned statuary; usually images of the Buddha, sometimes of other bodhisattvas. These works are large; check out the hammer lying on the floor for scale.

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The metal of choice here is copper, beaten into shape by hand. More ornate by far than the copper ash tray I hammered out for my father in seventh-grade shop class.

Repeated hammering causes copper to become work hardened. It'll crack unless it is de-tempered by heating the workpiece to red heat and then plunging it into water—one part of the skill set being learned by the students.

Once assembled into a completed sculpture, the copper is covered with gold leaf, like the fourteen-foot Buddha shown in the first post on Norbulingka.

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Delicate filagreed pieces are gilded by electoplating, using an exceptionally crude lash-up. Workers, masked against toxic fumes, hold an enameled tray containing an alkaline solution over a gas fire. A power supply establishes a current from the workpiece and a small gold ingot, both immersed in the solution. Gold ions detach from the ingot. They flow through the solution and attach to the workpiece. The plating is only a few micrometers thick. The tiny ingot, barely visible at the right of the pan, will plate many square yards of copper.

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In the wood shops, a few student test pieces hang on a wall. The woodworking students won the Norbulingka basketball tournament this year, celebrating by carving their own trophy.

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Woodworkers use no machine tools. They don't need them. Saws, planes and chisels are sharper than surgical scalpels. They glide through wood, permitting exceptionally fine work.

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Works created in the wood shops are finished by elaborate painting. These museum-quality pieces are on display in the institute's gift shop.

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Norbulingka is a small candle burning in a darkening world. This week, the Dalai Lama announced he is abandoning talks with the Chinese on cultural autonomy for Tibet. A younger generation agitates for more direct action. Will these student craftsmen abandon their chisels and brushes for bombs and guns? What then will become of Tibetan culture?

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This was posted from a moving bus with a wifi hot spot. The world is becoming more connected every minute!

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