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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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?


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