It is believed that some of the statues on display have in the past spoken, even

Exhibition: It is dim and shadowy – the main room where the exhibits are carefully lined; there is a presence of special aura in this dark compartment. Representations of revered historical and religious figures – of clay made mostly – look back straight as if they are going to move any minute and speak to you in a language so ethereally distant yet so strangely familiar.

Aum Dema, an old lady from Paro, throws herself down, prostrate on the gallery floor. She does this three times and gets up, mumbling small prayers.

“Thank you very much. May you be blessed, may us all be blessed!” says 67-year-old Dema. “How fortunate indeed that we get to see these blessed images of the great and the divine.” She doesn’t care to wipe her tears.

The National Museum of Bhutan in Paro yesterday opened its 15th Special Exhibition – The Art of Clay Statue Sculpting. The exhibition of the art of making clay statues, which will continue until the Ta Dzong renovation is completed, which will be sometime in early 2017, is being organised to celebrate the birth year of Guru Rinpoche, 400th year of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s arrival in Bhutan and the birth of The Gyalsey.

The exhibition features rare statues of Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and of many other enlightened Buddhist masters. All the statues were made in Bhutan by master sculptors and reflect the finer details, skills and craftsmanship of the renowned makers. It is believed that some of the statues on display have in the past spoken, even.

A miniature statue of  Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, made of white sandalwood, is believed to have been blessed by Zhabdrung himself. It is believed that one of Zhabdrung’s closest disciples, who rose to become a vastly renowned artisan, made the statue. This representation of Zhabdrung the size of an adult’s thumb was never before displayed for public viewing.

A museum staff said that this particular image of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is the most valuable possession of the museum. Most of the statues on display are from the museum’s permanent collection.

The art of making clay statue has been preserved in the country through centuries. But new times come challenge. Traditional arts and crafts face threat of extinction. Already Bhutanese altars are filled with statues made abroad. Efforts are being made to preserve and promote traditional arts and crafts through establishment of schools and institutes, but the threat remains.

“In fact, the threat from outside is increasing,” said 79-year-old Tashi, who as a young boy tried his hands in making clay statues. “These are all treasures made by our own people; they are invaluable national wealth.”

There are renowned clay statue makers living still. Those who come from Neyphu Goemba in Paro are considered especially gifted and skilled.

Many of the statues at the gallery were made by Lopen Damchoe and Palden and their students in the early 1970s.

Jigme Wangchuk