Creating & Sustaining Sacred Space

The physical landscape of the Himalayas can be rugged, challenging, insulating, and  endearing. Home to centuries of earnest practitioners as well as Orientalist projections, those who inhabit these mountains have long negotiated their relationship to their environment in spiritual and religious terms.


Distant view, Lamayuru Monastery, Leh, Ladakh. Photo processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_213.

Monasteries were by necessity separated from the community at large, keeping away secular influences as much as safeguarding the wealth that lay within. Many were placed on hillocks or other promontories which allowed residents to more easily survey and monitor the environment.


Distant view, Spituk Monastery. Slide processed August 1983. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_200.

Often there will be some sort of monument that demarcates the boundaries of the complex; in the case below, a chorten (Skt. stupa), acts as a gateway.


From Ron’s notebook: “Ladakh. Chorten on descent from Leh hill”. Slide processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_174.

But not all demarcations are physical structures; many times there are successive layers of protective imagery in the forms of murals and sculptures. In Himalayan Buddhism, a frequently encountered set of such figures is the Four Guardian Kings, two of whom are visible in the mural below. Each of the kings has a specific iconography and is associated with one of the four cardinal directions. Taken together, they protect and sustain sacred space in a conceptual sense, clearing the area of any negative forces that could impact the practitioner. (For more on the Four Guardian Kings, see the associated entry at Himalayan Art Resources.) Images such as these are public, exoteric, and easily seen. However, as a person moves inside the temple, the content of the imagery changes markedly.


20th century mural of Vaishravana, Guardian King of the North, and Virupaksha, Guardian King of the West, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal. Slide processed August 1989. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_191.

Inside, murals tend to shift to show a number of themes that are more accessible to an initiated audience, and often require specialist knowledge, initiation, or understanding. Such themes include lineage figures particular to a specific tradition (such as the Drukpa Kagyu masters in the scene below), biographical scenes from the life of the Buddha or other advanced practitioner, visualization processes (such as Pure Lands), and higher level meditational deities.


Mural of Drigung Kagyu lineage masters, Phyang Monastery, Ladakh. Photo processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_214.

Below is a form of Shri Devi (Palden Lhamo) known as Magzor Gyalmo, associated with the Gelug or Yellow Hat tradition of Himalayan Buddhism. Two of her attendants, Simhamukha (lion-faced; Sengdongma) and Makaramukha (makara-faced) are visible just below her and to the sides. Magzor Gyalmo is distinguished by having two arms, and a lion emerging from the earring in her right ear and a snake in the earring in her left ear (which is reversed from other forms of Shri Devi). The blue two armed figure holding the kila (phurba) and curved knife is unidentified. To the right are Yellow Yama and White Yama, most likely two of five attendants to a main Yama image not visible in this photo.

Shri Devi is a comparatively more complex deity, and is generally not an exoteric figure. Her practices are restricted to those individuals who receive an initiation from a qualified master, and in all her forms, she serves as a high level protector to Himalayan Buddhist practitioners and traditions.


Mural of Magzor Gyalmo and retinue figures of Yama, Thikse Monastery, Ladakh. Slide processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_197.

And the sacred space is not limited to painting alone; as mentioned elsewhere, the shrine as a whole is constituted of complex and multilayered imagery that combine to represent history and practice, as seen in the image below in its traditional armor, masks for ritual dance, animal skins, sculpted protective deities (described in more detail below the image), musical instruments, paintings, and banners.


Interior view of shrine and murals, Phyang, Leh, Ladakh. Slide processed July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_167.

The main image of the Phyang shrine is seated, solitary four-armed Mahakala (Caturbhuja Mahakala; Gonpo Chagzhipa) that is primarily propitiated by Kagyu traditions of Himalayan Buddhism.  His upper right hand holds a sword, upper left a trident, primary right the kartrika (flaying knife), and primary left hand the kapala (skull bowl). To the left of the main figure is a retinue figure/attendant to the main image, who is also dark blue in color, however is standing holding an upraised sword in the right hand and cradling the kapala in his left.  Another standing attendant can be seen further to the left, holding a mirror and a kapala.  The murals depict Shakyamuni Buddha with his two primary attendants, Shariputra and Maugalyayana; the central mural images are of Vajradhara (Dorje Chang) and his two standing  bodhisattva attendants; and to the right is an unidentified Drigung Kagyu master with two attendants. Interspersed between the larger mural compositions are figures of bodhisattvas and mahasiddhas, including Virupa.



Travels in Buddhist Temples

Though primarily a specialist in Himalayan architecture, Ron frequently documented other aspects of the built environment, including murals, sculptures, and ritual items. And truth be told, it would be difficult to convey the meaning and significance of these spaces without these interior components. For the practitioner–and often, scholar–what is found inside generates and communicates the site’s significance. But truth be told, many times visitors–again, practitioners and scholars alike–at a particular shrine go through rote movements and actions, and perhaps spend less time absorbing the full amount of information available to them.

The main image of the main shrine, such as the Shakyamuni Buddha shown below, generally are the recipients of ritual action; as they tend to be the largest figures in the space, prostrations are made before them, offerings are given to them and they are most often the figures to which prayers are directed. Yet when we study the murals behind Shakyamuni, we see that there is a predominance of deities primarily associated with the Gelug tradition of Himalayan Buddhism. This information then lets us know–without necessarily seeing the rest of the site or even, in this case, the shrine room as a whole–that this temple’s imagery indicates a strong Gelug presence and patronage at the time the shrine was created.


Main shrine image of seated Shakyamuni Buddha, Thikse Monastery, Ladakh, slide dated July 1980. Behind the main image are murals showing deities primarily associated with the Gelug (Geluk) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In particular, Shinje (Vajrabhairava), Gonkar Yizhin Norbu (Cintamani Mahakala), Damcan Dorje Legpa (Vajrasadhu), and Gurgi Gonpo (Panjarnatha Mahakala). Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_182.jpg.

Mural compositions also reveal cycles of ritual practice, often including not only lineage masters but also retinue figures whose presence embodies a particular aspect of that practice. Specifically, the retinue figures provide additional support for a practitioner’s realization of the main figure(s) that are the ultimate goal of the ritual. Examples of these supporting figures can be identified in the below mural from Aloobari as those shown without a partner or consort and having animal heads. Visible directly above are higher level meditational deities, shown here with multiple arms, legs, and heads and embracing their consorts. Of course, while some of the imagery focuses on advanced and subtle practices; other portions of the composition address everyday needs and concerns of the practitioner. At Aloobari, we see in the lower left the image of the ‘5 Long Life Goddesses’ (Tshering Che Nga), also referred to as Tsheringma and her sisters. She and her cohort are propitiated almost exclusively for long life and healing.  (For more on the Tshering Che Nga, follow this link to the topic on Himalayan Art Resources.)


Mural paintings of meditational deities, lineage figures, and long life deities, second floor, Aloobari Monastery, July 1980 Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_294.jpg

Some compositions depict ritual practices in mandala form, wherein each component figure of a specific cycle is arranged in a geometric pattern as delineated by a textual or other authority, as seen in the composition below from Alchi Monastery:


Mural of Buddhas and mandalas, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, August 1983. Bernier Archive # vrc_20150618_232.jpg

The temple environment is not just paintings and sculptures, however. Ron’s slides also capture elaborate ritual elements and offerings that are key components of Himalayan Buddhist practices. Below is a large torma dedicated to the deity Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi) displayed on the shrine at Tashilhunpo in Tibet. The uppermost portion shows the figure of Palden Lhamo atop her horse, and below the break are the Seven Precious Substances and the Eight Auspicious Signs. (Follow the respective links for more information.) Torma can be crafted out of barley or other grains in more simple forms, like the cream-colored form on the far lower right of the slide, or more elaborate ones that are decorated with colored butter.


Torma at Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet, slide dated September 1968. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150205_180.jpg

Additional sculptures are of deities who provide protection for a sacred space, for a particular lineage tradition, or for a local community.  While some of these figures are associated only with a specific village, others, such as Dorje Legpa below, have had an affiliation with an entire tradition of Himalayan Buddhism. Dorje Legpa is a controversial figure/topic in modern Tibetan Buddhism for reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog, however, it is worth noticing the fringed material hanging over Dorje Legpa’s eyes. Many practitioners describe such a covering as being necessary to help keep the protector’s power intact; the mediating fringe keeps the deity from seeing anything offensive while also ensuring his intense gaze does not impact or harm people in the temple.


Sculpture of controversial deity Dorje Shugden, perhaps from Phyang Monastery, Ladakh, July 1980. Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_215.jpg

Personally, the image below is among my favorites out of the 1,000 that have been scanned so far. Slightly blurry and affected by hotspots from the camera flash, it isn’t one of the best photos from a technical perspective, but in it we can see the wall murals and their accompanying inscriptions that line the upper level of the shrine. We see thangkas (rolled paintings) of forms of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the sculpture of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) covered in khataks (white silk scarves) standing before offerings of incense, flowers and butter lamps, the ritual drums and texts laid out before the shrine, and the somewhat self-conscious smile of a resident monk. To me, this image encapsulates the richness of a temple environment, the grand scale of some of its imagery, its complexity, and the multilayered symbolisms and meanings present in the shrine, captured as it was in 1979 by a dedicated scholar of Himalayan visual culture.


Interior of Nyingma tradition monastery, Ladakh, August 1979. Bernier archive #vrc_20150618_158



Kumari and the Sacred Gaze, 1966


Palanquin of the Patan Kumari. Photograph taken October 1969. (Bernier Archive #vrc_20150204_047)

Here, a palanquin is being readied for procession, adorned with fresh plants and flowers, and the main seat supporting silk-covered cushions. Its occupant for the day will be the Patan Kumari, also referred to as the Royal Kumari.

Kumaris are often called ‘Living Goddesses’ and there are many kumari residing in Kathmandu and elsewhere throughout Nepal. Each kumari is a pre-pubescent girl selected in her early childhood to be the vessel of the goddess Taleju. While Hindus and Newar Buddhists propitiate Taleju via the Kumari, practitioners of other forms of Himalayan Buddhism generally do not. Taleju is a deity unique to Nepal, one particularly associated with the royal family: Taleju is seen as a source their power, as their patron goddess, and has been associated with kingship since the Malla dynasty. Further specifically, the Patan Kumari is particularly important for the royal family.


Palanquin of Patan Kumari approaching Royal Palace, 1966. (Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_152)

As the Patan Kumari is carried on her processional, she is simultaneously seeing and being seen in particular ways. Her physical presence in the community allows her to define her domain and reinforce the sacred space that she protects. At the same time, those gathered to view her receive the Kumari’s blessings through the goddess’s gaze.


Procession of the Patan Kumari past the Royal Family and invited guests, Durbar Square. Photograph taken 1966. (Bernier Archive #vrc_20150618_153)

Ron managed to capture the moment that the Patan Kumari procession passed by the palace in Durbar Square. Members of the Royal Family and their invited guests are seen looking toward the Kumari as her head is turned to her right, gazing toward the group.

The Royal Family of Nepal was established in the second half of the 17th c., and continued to the early 21st century. When Ron took this photo in 1966, the King was Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, who reigned from 1955-1972. This moment captures the Royal Family and their guests assembled to have darshan (exchange of gazes) with the Patan Kumari, a source of their power, and whose blessing as an embodiment of Taleju blesses not only the family—and its continued reign—but also on the nation as well.

For more on Kumaris, see Janice Glowski’s doctoral thesis, Gerard Toffin’s article on Newari society, Ron Bernier’s article on the architecture of the Kumari Bahal, and a personal view written by Deepak Shimkhada for

Festivals and Ritual Life

Though a specialist in Himalayan architecture, Ron and Dianne often captured seasonal or special events, such as rituals, festivals, or other public displays. These photos provide useful comparative evidence that enables research on the history and development of particular rituals, and occasionally document events that are once-in-a-lifetime, such as the Fourth King of Bhutan’s 1974 coronation, or local festivals as they occurred in the late 1960s.

Many of Ron’s images also capture the ways in which images and objects are approached and engaged in the ritual process, generally in highly sensory ways. For students in the classroom or for others who are more familiar with material culture as displayed in a museum context–without the requisite powders, flowers, and adornments–viewing works as they are approached by practitioners and devotees, such as in this image below, facilitate greater understanding–and appreciation–of the cultures that create them.

Ganesh Shrine, Surya Binayak Temple, photo taken 1978.

Ganesh Shrine, Surya Binayak Temple, photo taken 1978. The offering of flowers, food, drink, incense, and colored pastes are all part of the propitiation process.


Indra Jatra, 1969.

Indra Jatra, 1969. Dedicated to the Vedic god Indra, the Indra Jatra is an annual festival that functions in religious and political terms to consolidate authority. For more information, follow this link to the article  “The Indra Jatra of Kathmandu as a Royal Festival: Past and Present” by Gerard Toffin


Bisket Jatra, Kumbeshwar, December 1969

Bisket Jatra, Kumbeshwar, December 1969

Bisket Jatra is a nine-day long New Year celebration that takes place every springtime. Dr. Bernier included discussion of this festival in a 1984 article he published in the journal Himalaya entitled “Survival of Wooden Art in Nepal: Three Masterworks”, available for free download here.


Monks at coronation of Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Tashichho Dzong, 2 June 1974.

Monks at coronation of the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Tashichho Dzong, 2 June 1974.

The Fourth King of Bhutan is widely credited with revolutionizing Bhutan’s polity and policies, including development of the oft-cited ‘Gross National Happiness’ development principle and the institution of democracy in the kingdom with his willing abdication of the throne in 2008. More information about the Fourth King’s contributions can be read in this Journal of Bhutan Studies article, “Bhutan: Political Reform in a Buddhist Monarchy” by Thierry Mathou.

Reconstructing Lost History


Ron’s travels in Asia began when he set foot in Nepal in 1966. Having previously studied African arts and culture, he brought with him the resilience and intrepidness necessary for long term stays in the Himalayas. Also to his credit, he brought Dianne, who not only was an equally adventurous travel partner, but an invaluable research assistant. Together, Ron and Dianne traveled extensively through South, East, Central, and Southeast Asia for the next four decades. They visited many sites more than once, thereby providing documentation of its changes over time. As well, they visited places and saw things that no longer exist.


Taktsang Gonpa, Tiger’s Den Monastery, Paro, Bhutan, 1979. This form of Taktsang was completely destroyed by fire in 1998 and has since been rebuilt.

 Today’s post is going to focus on a few of those sites, objects, and ephemera that Ron and Dianne captured in the field but that don’t survive into the present. Ron’s images of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, fall into this category, yet those slides await future digitization.

As a specialist in Bhutanese art and iconography, I was surprised and thrilled to find images from around Bhutan dating to as early as his first visit to the kingdom in 1979.  Though according to World Bank figures Bhutan is now hosting over 100,000 tourist guests a year, it is certainly safe to say that very, very few visitors made their way into the ‘Land of the Dragon’ in the late 70s. Among the slides is this gem, a photograph of one of Taktsang’s now-lost murals that was destroyed by fire approximately twenty years after Ron’s visit:

Guru at Taktsang

A wall mural of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) from Taktsang Gonpa. Photo taken 1979.

Its subject is Guru Rinpoche, the ubiquitous 8th century Indian master credited with establishing Buddhism in the Himalayas, here surrounded by masters, his Copper Mountain Pure Land, and two of his eight primary manifestations.  Though Taktsang has since been rebuilt and hosts thousands of pilgrims and visitors annually, this image conveys a Taktsang that few were able to experience. As an art historian, I’m enthralled with how the artist masterfully executed the folds, flutters and designs of Guru’s robes, and the successive layers of gold-encircled curvilinear gems, flowers in various states of bloom, and the scrolled cloud motifs that seem to foam out into space. Hopefully, future research will be able to determine whether this mural dated to the temple’s 17th century expansion under Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (more on Tenzin Rabgye’s role at Taktsang in an article by esteemed scholar of Bhutan Dr. John Ardussi here, and a brief English language biography here), or perhaps a later renovation.

Other images reveal aspects of Himalayan culture that are in decline, such as this image of silversmiths working in Shigatse in 1984:


Or this monk-sculptor working on a Buddha’s ear in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989:

Creating in JK

When we speak of change, it doesn’t necessarily involve a material object or place. Sometimes it refers to a past that no longer exists due to any one of a variety of factors: globalization, technological advancement, occupation, oppression, or perhaps the desire to offer something new in place of something old. Sometimes it’s a historical moment, something that will never repeat. Maybe it’s a ritual or festival. Or maybe a moment in a person’s life, or a fleeting expression. Here are a few examples of what Ron was able to capture during his travels:


Members of the Tibetan refugee community learn to spin wool at Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre, est. 1960. Photo taken 1970.



Woman in traditional dress, Sho Dun Festival, Norbulingkha, 1988



Travelers and an animal-skin coracle (koba) alongside the Kyichu River, 1985.

Presenting the Bernier Archive

This Wednesday at Boulder’s Tsadra Foundation, we’ll be giving our first invited talk about the Ronald M. and Dianne J. Bernier Archive.

Though our blog has been quiet, we’ve all been quite busy preparing the first 1,000 images for release on the public database.  This is–and will be for some time–a work in progress. With only 1/25th of the Bernier materials digitized and no funding available at present to dedicate to the project, the VRC has been drawing on two seed grants (from VRAF and ArtStor) that funded scanning, specialist content, and archival materials, some student and administrative labor, and volunteer efforts.

Dianne and Ron at the Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto, Japan

Dianne and Ron at the Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto, Japan

Though dedicated financing certainly is our biggest challenge at present, we look forward to drawing upon crowdsourcing and social media technology to get the word out about the Bernier Archive. Once the database represents the full integration of our images and spreadsheets, with the blessing of Ron’s estate, we will turn to those who knew Ron, took his courses, traveled with him, or have spent time in the regions themselves to add user-generated content to make the Bernier Archive more accessible, searchable, and useful.

We want to acknowledge openly that none of what we’ve done to date could have come about without Dianne Bernier. Her generosity in sharing these documents from her life (and adventures) with Ron will provide scholars, researchers, and aficionados of Asian cultures an abundance of material dating back to 1966. “Thank you” cannot begin to cover our gratitude, and “thrilled” cannot begin to express our excitement about the Bernier Archive.

For the coming months, we’ll be highlighting some of our favorite findings thus far. We’re looking forward to your feedback, and we thank you for your interest.

Summer Projects Update

Summer is all about image editing, clean up, adding descriptive metadata, geo-tagging and planning what is next for the Bernier Archive. Dr. Maki, back from a recent scholarly trip to Bhutan, finished adding substantial descriptive metadata for the second round of digitization of images, thanks to the support of the Artstor At-Risk Collection grant funding. We have another graduate student from the department of Art History helping with image clean up, Jamie Summers. Jamie has an extensive background in digital photography and image handling.

The Artstor At-Risk Collection focuses primarily on Southeast Asia and will be made available in Artstor’s Shared Shelf platform. We have permission to make the 500 images of the VRA Foundation grant pilot project available through shared shelf. In the near future, just over 1,000 images from the Bernier Archive will be available for discovery and research in Artstor Shared Shelf.

Future endeavors we are mulling over this summer include GIS and mapping projects combining material culture with places of origin, such as the linking of text and associated monasteries as seen on the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC,!places/O4JW338404JW339875JW52). The Bernier Archive is investigating the feasibility of working with TBRC and other literature-based resources to better integrate image and text resources to facilitate greater interchange. Cross-linking such as this and the examples mentioned earlier will greatly enhance ease of research, ideally benefitting Himalayan and Asian Studies as a whole.

© Dianne J. Bernier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license,

© Dianne J. Bernier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license,

It has been a very productive and inspiring summer for the Bernier Archive project. Please see the newly published images in our Southeast Asia gallery for a sampling of the recent digitization of images.