Inside the Lukhang, Tibet’s Secret Tantric Temple

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-11-16 |
Mural from the Lukhang depicting yogis in 23 positions. Photo by Thomas Laird. From theguardian.comMural from the Lukhang depicting yogis in 23 positions. Photo by Thomas Laird. From

The Wellcome Collection in London opened its major winter exhibition this month, entitled Tibet’s Secret Temple. Running from 19 November–28 February, the exhibition will showcase more than 120 objects from collections around the world that illuminate the secrets of the Lukhang temple in Lhasa, originally used exclusively by Tibet’s Dalai Lamas. The centerpiece of the show is the exhibition of life-sized digital reproductions of murals found in the temple, created by American photographer Thomas Laird.

Once accessible only by boat, the Lukhang (Residence of Nagas), formally Zongdag Lukhang, was used as a private sanctuary for meditation and spiritual practice. It was built on a small island in a lake behind the Potala Palace in the late 17th century, during the reigns of the Fifth Dalai Lama Lobsang Gyatso (r. 1642­–82) and the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (r. 1697–1706). 

A detail from the Lukhang murals showing Guru Rinpoche accepting obeisance from the Naga king. Photo by Laird. From theguardian.comA detail from the Lukhang murals showing Guru Rinpoche accepting obeisance from the Naga king. Photo by Laird. From

When Tibet first opened to tourists in the mid-1980s, Laird visited the Potala Palace, once the Dalai Lamas’ winter residence, and came across the Lukhang. He was among the first Westerners to view this once secret place, and the first to photographically document it.

It is the murals in the uppermost chamber of the temple that Laird has recreated for the show. According to the Welcome Collection, this is the first time entire Tibetan wall murals have ever been displayed in a museum as transparencies.

“You go through a sort of trapdoor to the third floor and step into this room with murals covering three of the walls,” recalled Laird. “I went in the late afternoon and the light was reflecting off the pond and coming through the small windows as little glittering shafts.” (The Guardian)

“I was stunned by the colours: pink and gold and white and lapis,” said Laird of the murals. They featured yogis demonstrating various postures, the 84 mahasiddhas or tantric masters, Buddhas, waterfalls, forests, animals, and numerous symbols he didn’t understand. “That afternoon had a huge impact on me,” he revealed. (The Guardian)

Some 20 years later, after Laird had collated around 100 images of the murals into life-sized reproductions recording every detail, the photographer showed his images to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in California. Exiled from Tibet in 1959 at the age of 24, His Holiness was seeing the murals for the first time. Standing before the images, he turned to Laird and said, “OK, now I’ll give you the commentary,” and described the meanings of each element in turn. “At that moment,” Laird recalled, “It was like he was right there in the Lukhang with me.” (The Guardian)

Speaking about the exhibition, Ruth Garde, one of the co-curators, said, “While Tantric Buddhism has invited many myths and interpretations, ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ takes visitors through its long and rich history. The extraordinarily beautiful objects in this exhibition come together to reveal stories that were hidden from all but the most advanced practitioners of Tantric Buddhism, and provide a rare opportunity to engage with aspects of Tibet and its spiritual practices that I hope will surprise and intrigue visitors.” (Wellcome Collection)

Garde added that she hoped the murals would challenge Western preconceptions about Buddhism: “You come to it thinking it’s quite serene, tranquil: deep breathing and that kind of thing. Tantric Buddhism is very different.” (The Guardian)

The Lukhang, c. 1936. Photo by Frederick Spencer Chapman. From theguardian.comThe Lukhang, c. 1936. Photo by Frederick Spencer Chapman. From

Founded in 2007, the Wellcome Collection is a museum that displays a broad mix of medical artifacts and original works of art exploring “ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art,” including a library with more than 750,000 books and journals, and an extensive range of manuscripts, archives, and films. The museum is part of the Wellcome Trust, a London-based biomedical research charity founded by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853–1936).

See more

Take me to the cosmic vagina: inside Tibet's secret tantric temple (The Guardian)
NODEM 2012 - Thomas Laird: “Tibetan Murals at Lukhang Temple” (YouTube)
Tibet’s Secret Temple: Body, Mind and Meditation in Tantric Buddhism (Wellcome Collection)
Tibet’s Secret Temple (Wellcome Collection)

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