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Prayers at an Exhibition: Bhutan’s Art and the Monks Who Protect It

On a recent afternoon, art handlers in T-shirts and tattoos paced the sixth-floor gallery of the Rubin Museum of Art, wielding levels and hammers as museum employees with clipboards leaned over tables laden with gold and bronze sculptures.

Cowering slightly in a corner in ruby and orange robes were two shy visitors, Lama Karma Tenzin and Lopen Sonam Wangchuk, monks from the remote Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. They had arrived in New York six days earlier on a weighty mission: to appease and console, through daily prayer and meditation, a fleet of protective deities.

For the next four months the monks will live in Greenwich Village and spend their days at the Rubin, on West 17th Street in Chelsea. Twice daily they will perform puja rituals in the museum galleries to safeguard the spiritual well-being of the sacred artworks, which have traveled here for “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” an exhibition that is to open on Sept. 19.

Buddhist belief holds that these objects actually embody the deities and lamas, or holy men, whose images and life stories they portray. Most of these objects have never traveled outside Bhutan, and the Bhutanese government let them go on the condition that they be spiritually chaperoned, as it were, by a changing roster of monks during the exhibition’s two-year journey from museum to museum.

The first comprehensive exhibition of Bhutanese sacred art in the United States, it made its first stop at the Honolulu Academy of Art in February. The 87 objects in the Rubin show — ancient bronze sculptures inlaid with gold and turquoise, long horn trumpets, more than 40 intricate and colorful thangka paintings dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries — offer an unparalleled glimpse into the spiritual and artistic riches of a nation that today possesses the world’s most intact Vajrayana, or Tantric, Buddhist culture, having never been conquered, invaded or colonized.

Unlike the objects in the Rubin Museum’s permanent collection of Himalayan art, the works in the show are still consecrated objects, having been culled by exhibition curators and the Bhutanese government from among Bhutan’s 2,007 active temples, monasteries and dzongs, or fortress-monasteries.

The works in the exhibition are not only national treasures, said Ramon Prats, the museum’s senior curator, “but also living icons, whose sacredness must be maintained.”

To that purpose, five monks from central Bhutan relocated for the show’s duration in Honolulu, where in addition to fulfilling their spiritual duties they developed a taste for Costco pizza and learned to paddle surf.

In New York, Lama Karma and Lopen Sonam, who both hail from eastern Bhutan, will perform the same rituals the other monks did: morning purification, which involves a hand mirror and blessed saffron water, and evening prayers to reassure the protective deities and lamas that the objects are in safe hands and will be returning to Bhutan soon. Visitors will watch them create sand mandalas and demonstrate how to make tormas, small prayer cakes used as offerings.

What they will do in their slivers of free time remains to be seen. Less than a week into their visit, they confessed in an interview in the Rubin’s cafe that they were still terrified to leave their apartment without their translator, Tashi Dorji, an amiable Bhutanese graduate student in international affairs at Columbia University.

Lopen Sonam, who is 24 and teaches English at Trashigang Dzong, an imposing white fortress in far eastern Bhutan, had never traveled outside his country. Much of what he has seen and experienced in New York is a lifetime first: first escalator, first automatic revolving door, first traffic light, first skyscraper. The tallest building in Bhutan is six stories high, he said.

“That is the biggest surprise: the buildings here are so big, taller even than they look on television,” he said. (Television, along with the Internet, arrived in Bhutan in 1999.)

Lama Karma, 37, once visited Hong Kong but had still been concerned about adapting to city life. In Bhutan he heads a monastery that has no electricity and is accessible only by a 12-hour hike from the nearest road.

“Coming from a remote place, I worried how I would deal with such a busy place,” he said, speaking in his native language, Dzongkha, as Mr. Dorji translated. “Now that I am here, I feel like a dumb man in a chapel,” he said — that is, Mr. Dorji explained, like a man so awestruck by a temple’s wonders that he cannot speak.

The monks proceeded — by elevator — to the sixth-floor galleries, where, mounted above an elegant steel-and-marble spiral staircase (a holdover from the building’s past life as the main Barneys New York clothing store), four large screens will play excerpts of Bhutanese cham, ritual dances enacted by monks in brightly colored costumes and masks.

Dozens of museum workers milled about, cataloging the art unpacked that morning from shipping crates. The monks made their way toward a shrine that had been constructed in a corner of the gallery, covered with silk and lighted by battery-operated candles. (Fire codes ruled out the traditional Bhutanese butter lamps.) Reticent and heavy-lidded for much of the interview, Lama Karma and Lopen Sonam brightened as they fingered the objects they would use in their rituals.

At 4 p.m. it was time for evening prayers. The two sat cross-legged in the shrine facing jeweled sculptures of the three most important figures in their culture: Guru Rinpoche, who brought Tantric Buddhism from India to the Himalayas; Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who unified Bhutan in the 17th century; and the Buddha.

With prayer books in their laps, they began chanting in Dzongkha, and a wave of sound — deep and resonant, lilting and droning — engulfed the gallery. Lama Karma grasped a hand drum and bell in either hand; halfway through the prayer he began to rotate his wrists, issuing high-pitched chimes and claps to punctuate their entreaties. When the chant drifted to a stop they looked up, laughing happily.

Their duties done for the day, they walked back with Mr. Dorji to their apartment on Christopher Street, past vendors selling pirated DVDs, sex shops festooned with rainbow flags, a pigtailed girl on a tricycle and a shop window displaying an array of glass bongs. They took it all in stride, even when an older woman with frizzy maroon hair sidled up, then shouted, “How’s the Dalai Lama?” (They wouldn’t know; theirs is a different Buddhist order).

Upon arriving at their front door, they unlocked it hurriedly and rushed inside, waving a hasty goodbye.

Having arrived in New York only a year ago himself, Mr. Dorji could relate to their sensory overload. “In Bhutan, everything is slow. In New York, I learned how to run.”