The Dhankar Buddha
Spiti or Piti as it was also called is probably as remote as any Trans Himalayan region and has for years lived in a time capsule but of course now things are changing. But like all the Lands Himalayan it holds its mysteries and secrets close to its chest. Just like neighbouring Lahaul and its ‘cultural / spiritual” big brother it was for most part of traceable history a part of the Guge Kingdom and subsequently the Central Tibetan Kingdom. Later on it became a part of Ladakh as the Kingdom grew powerful. It also became a bone of contention between Raja of Bushahr and the Ladakh Kingdom as the Bushahr Kingdom claimed Spiti as its own. Of course this led to the Raja of Bushahr to support the Central Tibetans and their Mongol allies when they decided to invade Ladakh over a religious dispute between the Dalai Lama and the King of Bhutan but that's a separate story.
Spiti because of its remoteness and isolation has preserved its culture and traditions, unlike many other such places. In the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism the Monastery is the center of life and the Monasteries are the keepers of ancient Manuscripts and Religious Iconry and these treasures have been very strictly guarded by generations of Monks who have lived in these Monasteries going back to thousands of years. The Monasteries of Spiti have survived plunder and ravage mostly through History except for a brief period when General Zorawar Singh took over Ladakh and Spiti was a part of Ladakh so he received Spiti as well.
The Dhankar Village and Gompa. Pic Courtesy : wikipedia Commons
Though Zorawar never came to Ladakh he appointed a certain zealous Officer in charge of Spiti. Now this Officer wasn't very fond of the local culture and tradition and went onto plunder many of the Monasteries and he was much despised for it. It should be pertinent to mention that the same Officer was a part of Zorawar’s Army which lost to the Tibetan / Chinese Army in the engagement in which the General was killed. But the said Officer was captured alive by the Tibetans and identified as the person responsible for the desecration of the Monasteries in Spiti and elsewhere. Suffice to say that he met a slow painful death as he was put in a cauldron of oil which was slowly heated.
Ok coming to the Topic of the Dhankar Monastery. It was one of the most important Monasteries in Spiti standing as it was above the confluence of the Spiti and the Pin Rivers. Dhankar had always been the traditional Capital of Spiti and the seat of the early “Local Rulers” of area called the Nonos. And of course the Dhankar Monastery had its own collection of Ancient Relics and Treasures though its is said that it was also plundered and ravaged during the Dogra Rule. And there was a certain Buddha statue highly revered and venerated but as closely guarded as well. It was called the Dhankar Buddha.
The Main Gate of the Dhankar Gompa. Pic Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Henry Lee Shutterworth was an Officer of the Raj who was posted in Kulu which was a British dominion. He also spent time in the most remote part of his jurisdiction in Lahaul and Spiti. With time he developed an interest in the local culture and tradition and began to record local Buddhist history and records. And this involved visiting various Monasteries in the area and trying to convince the Monks to show him some of the Treasures that the Monasteries so secretly guarded. And he had heard about the Dhankar Buddha and in time he was able to convince the Monks to show him the Dhankar Buddha. And he was totally taken aback when he saw the fine piece of Art and the quality of the Brass work. He wasnt allowed to take a Photo but was allowed to take a rub of the inscription at the bottom. Taking a Rub is akin to something we used to do as kids. Cover a coin with paper and then run a pencil over it so that the inscription on the coin is copied over the paper.
What he had stumbled upon was described by a Scholar of the subject as such “The Buddha from Dangkhar is in many ways one of the finest discoveries made in the field of Buddhist art and epigraphy for the cultural areas of Western Tibet and Greater Kashmir. We now know that the two inscriptions engraved on the lower part of the pedestal attest to the incredible journey of this image; produced in Gilgit in northern Pakistan in the eighth century, the statue was bestowed upon the royal monk from Guge, Lha lama Zhiwa Ö (lha bla ma zhi ba ’od) (1016–1111), about three hundred and fifty years later. Things were quite different then when Shuttleworth worked on the manuscript of his History of Spiti in the early 1930s. If the name of the Tibetan translator of royal descent had been easily identified, the main dedicatory inscription resisted easy decipherment.”
Another view of the Dhankar Gompa
That itself establishes the fact that Buddhism came to Tibet via what is now the Gilgit but via Central Asia. The fact that this sculpture made probably during the Rule of the Patola Shahis in Gilgit is an indicator enough. And from there it traveled all the way to the Kingdom of Guge in Western Tibet. And it was after 300 years of getting there that it was gifted to the Monastery in Spiti. And there it stayed, a mystery which was only solved by Shutterworth’s rubbing but Scholars yearned to have a look at it. The first time the Dhakar Buddha was photographed was in 1993 by a Government agency documenting India’s Arts under a Government legislation. It took a law for the Monks to reveal this Treasure and allow its Photography.
“In 2006, art historian Robert Linrothe took a glimpse at the metal sculpture but was not authorized to reproduce it. It is only in 2010 that the present author was entrusted by the monks from Dangkhar with the study of their sacred image, a request completed two years later.” These are the words of Yannick Laurent, a scholar at Oxford who was finally able to Photograph this much revered treasure. And for now the whole world can see it. It has a striking similarity to other Buddhas made during the Patola Shahi rule in Gilgit. That truly was a Golden Age of Buddhism in Gilgit and even the Gilgit Manuscripts, the most ancient and sacred of all Buddhist manuscripts are a testament to that.
So try your luck at the Dhankar Monastery next time. Maybe the Dhankar Buddha would give you an audience.