A Showcase of Tibetan Skills & Culture at Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala

posted in: Asia, Art & People, Culture, Himachal Pradesh, India | 22

Setting up Little Lhasa in Dharamshala involved more than just finding a home and building Buddhist temples and monasteries like the Gyuto Monastery. It meant finding employment, establishing schools and most importantly preserving the heritage roots. Over time, the Tibetan community settled in with all these amenities – some adapted to the existing Indian way of life while the others slowly set up their own system of work and education. One such initiative has been the Norbulingka Institute. The place is much more than just a school. It is a cultural hub – a place that preserves their age-old arts and showcases them to the world outside. If you really want to feel the pulse of the Tibetan culture in Dharamshala, then you have to plan a visit to the Norbulingka Institute.

Dharamshala Attractions - Norbulingka Institute

About Norbulingka Institute

The first foundation of the institute was laid in 1984 when the current land was bought. Patrons poured in the donations and thus, began the construction of this noble institute. The institute was built by Tibetans themselves. The artists with their respective skills contributed to the various corners of Norbulingka. Even the 14 ft gold-plated Buddha in the inhouse temple was made by these craftsmen. The Institute was finally, inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1995.

Everything in the institute including this roof architecture is done by the in-house artisans

Since then, the institute is dedicated to keeping alive the art and culture of Tibet by passing on the various heritage skills to the next generation. The place also, provides employment to the Tibetan refugees and undertakes several social programs for their betterment. From day-cares to medical facilities, the institute is involved in all. Any funds raised by the institute or earned by selling their masterpieces goes back into the development of the community. I was truly fascinated with the selfless work done by the people here and which is why I chose to feature it in my Art and People Section. It truly deserves some encouragement. If you ever plan to visit this region, write down the Norbulingka institute as a must-see attraction of Dharamshala.

The layout of the Norbulingka Institute

Prayer wheels at the Norbulingka Institute

Norbulingka means a “Jewel Park“. The first thing that I noticed about the place was its Oriental garden – complete with water bodies, bridges and prayer wheels – basically all the elements of positive vibes. It was at the entrance that we met our guide who explained that the entire institute was modeled after the Summer Palace of The Dalai Lama in Tibet. The manner in which all the buildings were constructed resembled the various arms of Lord Avalokiteshvara. The location of the main temple on the grounds was the head of the Lord. And with that, we entered the first classroom of Norbulingka Institute.

Learning Tibetan Arts

Entrance of Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala

Before I get into the details of the various art forms you will see at Norbulingka, here are some interesting things about how their admission process.

  • Every year, the school takes in 20 scholarship students and 20 others for the courses on Tibetan arts.
  • Most courses are for 3 years. Only Statue making is longer – at least 7 years.
  • The scholarship students not only get an exemption from their tuition fees but also, boarding, lodging and medical expenses.
  • Once the studies are done, these students continue as workmen and hone their skills. A lot of them enroll as masters and continue to pass on their skills to the next set of students.

Wood Carving at Norbulingka

Wood carving at Norbulingka Institute

Trace, chisel, carve, polish – wood carving might seem simple but is quite a task. The students start with simple designs on pinewood and then slowly graduate to teakwood – basically from softer to harder wood. The designs also, get more intricate as they progress. The carved wood is used for furniture, door frames, windows and even simple tabletop curios like pencil stands. As you walk around the institute, you should try and spot these masterpieces. After all, these craftsmen and their seniors are the ones who have contributed to various buildings on the campus.

A finished piece of wood art without any nails

The most interesting part of the woodwork in Tibet is that they do not use nails. They make structures using joints. The art of doing this involves understanding how the load on the structure would be distributed. The guide explained how a design was first traced onto the wood. Then holes would be made on these designs. Then, starts the chiseling process but not with the commercial tools. The students are taught how to make their own chisel and use the same. In fact, they have to make a variety of chisels with varying point sizes – each one gives a specific cut in the design.

The chiseling is done on both sides of the wood, creating a masterpiece with a lot of depth.

Norbulingka Wood Painting

Wood painting done on the previously carved wooden artifacts

Interestingly, it is not only the carved wood that gets painted in these classes. The Wood Painting course in Norbulingka involves its own wood canvas. There are two basic types of paintings here – the regular surface painting and the heritage Kyumbur wood painting. As a beginner, the students start with the surface paintings. The designs range from the auspicious Buddhist circles and symbols to elaborate floral landscapes with animals. Once the students show their prowess in this, they move to the traditional Kyumbur paintings.

Kyumbu Wood Art

The Kyumbur paintings are basically 3D paintings on wood. The entire process involves tracing the outlines using a paste of limestone and fevicol (glue) on the wood. A paste is made out of it and filled into tubes or syringes. The art involves squeezing the tube onto the wood surface to trace the design outline. The paste comes out through needle-point holes and the whole skill lies in how smoothly the artist can trace the design. The paste that comes out needs to be consistent and the lines smooth. Once the tracing is complete and the paste dry, the artist starts filling up the gaps with colors. Even the outlines are painted.

Artist using a syringe to create a 3D outline
Final touches to the Tibetan Wood Painting at Norbulingka

The resulting masterpieces become part of furniture pieces like tables, windows, doors and smaller artifacts like tissue boxes, trunks and more. You can see a lot of these finished pieces in the workshop. You can even buy a few from the Norbulingka shopping center.

Thangka Painting

All through my journey through Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Thailand….well, basically, all the possible Buddhist regions, I found some amazing Thangka Art scrolls and painting. In fact, one of the highlights of the Naropa Festival in Ladakh was this record-breaking giant Thangka painting. I have seen plenty of artists on work and have always admired the patience that one requires to make these paintings. Walking through the classrooms at Norbulingka was one amazing experience that allowed me to process closer.

I saw the largest Amitabha in the Himalayas being unfurled at the Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas. The piece was partly embroidered and partly painted but was a sight to behold. Check out what this particular event was about with pictures of this rare festival of Ladakh through this post on Naropa Festival.

Thangka artist at work

There are various Thangka styles – ones with mandalas, some with Buddhist symbols and the one popularly created in Norbulingka – with a central figure depicting enlightenment. An original Thangka has Gold paint in their mix and which is what makes them precious. The colors used in the art are made of gemstones, minerals and vegetable dyes and that is why they don’t fade.  In Tibetan terms, these three types of paints are called Manser, Mandir and Karmagyuto – though I am not sure which one is which.

Gemstones and natural dyes being ground for the Thangka Colors

A masterpiece starts with a plain canvas on which a blueprint is traced. The canvas is generally cotton cloth that is treated with distemper and glue. Then using a black color, the outlines are traced. Brushes of varied thicknesses are used to fill in the mineral and gem-stone colors. Once the whole piece is ready, the gold paint is added and voila, you are now ready to frame the Thangka painting. A medium-sized painting typically takes around 6 weeks to complete.

Not only can you buy these Thangka paintings at Norbulingka, but you can also commission one.

Thangka Applique Art

A Thangka Applique being made at Norbulingka Institute

Personally, I was blown away by this form of Tibetan art. The designs are quite similar to what you will see on a Thangka painting, except that these are created out of hundreds of cloth pieces, hand-sewn together. The cloth used is silk and threads made from horsehair is used to bind these pieces. Owing to this, the Thangka Applique lasts for years. In fact, there are some pieces that date back to the 13th century and beyond.

Tiny cloth pieces put cut and embroidered for different parts of the applique
Colored silk thread over the horse hair
Cloth being measured and fitted to the design that has been traced on paper.

In Tibet, this form of art is called as Kyigus. Like the paintings, first, the design is created on the paper. Then colors are decided and cloth fitting those colors are cut into parts for the design. I was amazed at how tiny some of those pieces were – like the ones for petals or dots. These are then sewen together to create patterns. The patterns are then again superimposed on each other and slowly the masterpiece is formed.

You need to see the process to really appreciate it. If you ever find yourself short of time at the Norbulingka, make sure you allocate some to seeing Applique art in progress.

Metal Carving and Statue Making

Statue making classes at Norbulingka

Only once I understood the statue making course, did I realize why it took seven years. The whole process needs a lot of knowledge and skill. It starts with creating the copper or metal sheets. This process involves a lot of heat and beating of the sheets to form thin layers. The layers are then further beaten into shapes to form various body parts. And later, these are fused together.

Copper sheets being beaten to shape

But wait – this is just one type of statue. The hollow ones. The Gilded statues are not hollow. They are made using sand casts. Making these casts itself is a major task. Then comes filling it with molten copper. Once that is set, it is gold plated using a mixture of gold and mercury. The mercury is burnt out later and what remains is the beautiful Gold statue. The best example of this is the central Buddha statue in the Norbulingka temple. Don’t miss it.

Losel Doll Museum

The Losel Doll Museum is the 2nd most unmissable part of the Norbulingka Institute. The museum is a perfect place to get a glimpse of the Tibetan culture. The Losel dolls depict scenes from everyday life in Tibet. They showcase the religious customs, the traditional dances and the legends and lores of Tibet.

The dolls were created by the monks of Drepung Loseling Monastery. The Norbulingka monastery supported the projected by showcasing them here. These dolls are no longer made but the stories they depict keep the art and culture alive. Each exhibit is well explained and that helps one appreciate the same better. Here are a few that I personally loved –

Chaam Dance

Cham Dance depicted by the Losel Dolls

I have always loved seeing pictures of this dance. Somehow, I have missed these in the monasteries of Ladakh. I knew about the elaborate masks used in the dance, but what I found out was that the form started in the 11th century and involved a lot of forceful movements.

Kings of Tibet

The Tibetan Kings

There are three kings depicted here. The first is King Songsten Gampo, the 2nd is King Trisong Detsen and the third (on the right) King Tri Relbachan. Of these, the first king caught my attention as I had just visited the Gyuto monastery in Dharamshala. The connection I made was like this – the King had two wives – each of who had a Buddha statue as a part of their dowry. The King got two important Buddhist temples built – the Jokhang and the Ramoche temple. Now if you have read my post on the Gyuto monastery, you will note how that monastery takes after the Ramoche temple.

The Buddhist monks performing rituals

The one on the right intrigued me the most

Depicted here are monks performing different rituals. The one on the left is dressed like a deity to represent the Tantric Buddhist ritual, the central one is a peaceful one and the one on the right is a yogini – a female tantric. Now she was the one I was curious about. As per the sign below it, she was performing a Cho ritual – meaning cutting off. Apparently, this ritual is all about cutting off the ties to the mortal world when you die.

Lhamo Opera

One part of the longest display in the Losel Doll museum.

Now, this was the longest display and was a little difficult to capture at one go with all the display lights. However, it was possibly the most interesting one to read. This is actually a dance troupe created by an 11th-century monk called Tangton Gyalpo. It was performed for the Dalai Lama in the original Norbulingka gardens. The storyline involved sorcerers, their apprentices, kings and more. The play apparently used to last a complete day.

Slice of Life in Tibet

Locals of East Tibet

There are several exhibits from various parts of Tibet on the people, their costume, their markets and how they live. It is hard not to appreciate the same as Tibet was never an easy terrain. I loved the way they have showcased every corner of their country.  I might have not been able to get to Tibet, this virtual tour definitely gave me a good idea of what I was missing.

Deden Tsuglakhang  – The Seat of Happiness Temple


The Golden Buddha of Norbulingka Temple

Almost the last stop in Norbulingka, the temple is like a showcase of all the skills that Norbulingka hones. The temple floor was being cleaned when it was my turn to get there but standing at the entrance, I managed to get a glimpse of all its treasures. You will be able to see some magnificent Thangka art here – both applique and paintings. There are representations of the 14 Dalai Lamas within the temple and then, of course, the centerpiece – the handcrafted golden Buddha.

She came from Tibet ages ago...

The temple still attracts a lot of locals here and if you have the time, you should talk to them. They are bound to come up with a few gems from their own life. Even with the limited time I had, I spoke to this pretty lady in broken Hindi. It started with me asking her permission for her picture and with her giving me advice on what kind I should take. She mentioned she came her from Lhasa years back and since then, Dharamshala has been home. Her grandchildren kept playing with the prayer wheels and flowing water and she said they had never seen the real Tibet but this was as close to home as possible!

Shopping at Norbulingka Institute

The shop at Norbulingka is a good place to buy some genuine Thangkas. It also, offers you various wooden products like casks as well as local dresses and jackets. Prayer wheels and Buddhist charms make excellent gifts.  If you do not want to spend much, you can even buy smaller products like magnets and postcards. Photography is not allowed in the shopping area and so, you will have to just get there and see for yourself.

Norbulingka inspired me on multiple fronts. The institute is a lovely example of how traditional arts can be passed on to the next generation. It is admirable to see how they are using these to sustain their society and help their own. Most importantly, it is a great place to learn about the way of life in a lost land. So go and pin this to your board as a reminder of how you can see Little Lhasa in India.

How to get to Norbulingka Institute?

  • Dharamsala has its own airport and is connected to Delhi and the rest of India by regular flights. Besides air travel, you can get to the place by road or rail.
  • In Dharamshala, you can either hop onto a bus that takes you to Norbulingka Institute. Or you can hire a cab to get here. It is advisable to opt for the cab as you can combine both this institute and Gyuto monastery into one trip.

Travel Tips

Norling House - one of the places to stay in Norbulingka
  • There is a small entrance fee for the Institute. It is INR 50 for Indians and INR 110 for foreigners. The fee includes a guided tour of the campus. The proceeds go towards the maintenance of the institute.
  • The institute can be visited between 9 am to 5:30 pm. This is for all days except Sundays and the 2nd Saturday of the month.
  • You can visit the Hummingbird cafe here for some refreshments.
  • Norbulingka institute also, offers a place to stay in Dharamshala. You can get onto their official website and book one for yourself.

Booking Resources

  • Here is a tour of Dharamshala on GetyourGuide. This tour allows you to see the various attractions at Dharamshala with a free pick-up from your hotel.
  • For other hotels and stays in in Dharamshala, you can consider Booking.com.  
  • Here is a link to Tripadvisor.com – which is another resource for Dharams hala and McCleodGanj stay options.
  • Click through this Amazon link for any travel gear that you might need to buy. The same link will help you shop for your everyday needs too. 

All of the above are affiliate links from this website. They do not cost you anything additional.  If anything, they help me earn a commission to keep this website going.

Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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