By SUSAN MEINHEIT
A special treasure of the Asian Division has now been returned to the Tibetan rare book cage after a long absence.
The treasure is a Tibetan thangka (than ga), or hand painted religious scroll on cloth. It had been loaned to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History some 35 years ago.
The thangka has special significance because it contains a handwritten note, "Presented to me by the Dalai Lama /Wu-tai-shan/ June 21st, 1908. W. W. Rockhill." William Woodville Rockhill was at that time U.S. Minister to China, and was a Tibetan scholar whose donations of Tibetan books acquired in Tibet and Mongolia between 1888 and 1892 formed the beginning of the Library's Tibetan collection.
Within the collection, a recently discovered ornate volume of the Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses also contains a note, "Presented to W. W. Rockhill by the 13th Dalai Lama (Nag-dban Blo-bzan Thub-bstan-rgya-mtsho) at Wu-ta'i-shan (Shansi) on June 21st 1908."
The historic meeting of Rockhill and the 13th Dalai Lama, when these two gifts were presented, occurred at Wu-ta'i- shan, a sacred Buddhist mountain in northern China, during the 13th Dalai Lama's exile to Mongolia (1904-1909) following the Younghusband mission to Tibet. The meeting has been described by historians such as Tsepon Shakabpa in Tibet: A Political History as "probably the first contact between Tibet and the United States."
Rockhill wrote a long flowery letter describing the meeting in detail to President Roosevelt on June 30, 1908, which can be found in the Library's Manuscript Division. The letter begins, "Dear Mr. President: I have just had such a unique and interesting experience that I cannot forbear writing to you at once about it. ..."
The subject of the thangka is the Tibetan scholar-saint Rje Tsongkhapa (Tson-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, 1357-1419), the founder of a sect of Tibetan Buddhism and a monastery. The painting shows the scholar emanating "on curd white clouds" from the heart of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, residing in the Tushita paradise. ("Tushita" is the name in Sanskrit of Maitreya's paradise.) Surrounding Tsongkhapa are his two main disciples and lineage lamas. The natural pigments containing precious minerals lend a special ethereal beauty to the painting, and the surrounding brocade is still vibrant despite its years of display. Before returning the thangka, the conservation department of the Smithsonian provided a set of slides and a condition report and housed it in a specially prepared archival box.
It is hoped that visiting scholars of the Tibetan thangka painting tradition will be able to determine its origin, based on several distinct regional styles, and its possible date of creation; that is, whether it was newly commissioned by the 13th Dalai Lama or came from the items he was carrying with him during his exile. One prominent Tibetologist, Braham Norwick, has already made a trip to the Library to photograph the thangka. He plans to include the results of his study in an upcoming article on William Rockhill's contributions to Tibetan studies. The thangka is a welcome treasure to complement and illustrate the Library's world famous collection of Tibetan texts.
Ms. Meinheit is a Tibetan specialist in the Asian Division.