Cantor Art Gallery Presents: “Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art in Nepal”

By Kelly Gallagher ‘22
Chief Features Editor

Tucked away from the heavier foot traffic of Fenwick and Smith Halls, beneath the iconic Holy Cross clock tower, the Cantor Art Gallery has assembled a historic exhibition. “Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal” offers an in-depth, breathtaking encounter with a culture likely unfamiliar to most inhabitants of the West, featuring many items that are being displayed for the first time.

The name of the exhibition stems from the practice of “punya,” in which devotees create good karma, as according to the teachings of Buddha, also called “dharma.” To paraphrase Brittanica.com, “punya” can be generated through giving, observing moral principles, and meditation. The exhibition calls attention to the fact that monks are not the only people who follow Buddha’s teachings. As explained by their website, dharmapunya2019.org, the exhibition is “centered on how the Buddha’s teachings were arrayed as much for worldly householders as otherworldly seekers.” In other words, plenty of unordained householders also strive to attain “punya.” 

Dr. Meredith Fluke, director of the Cantor Art Gallery, was kind enough to share her thoughts on the exhibition’s relationship with the College with The Spire over email.  “As the art gallery for the Holy Cross campus, the Cantor is meant to promote and support the intellectual and cultural life of the College,” she wrote. “The best exhibitions do many things for the campus community: their content ties into the curriculum; the ideas in them promote conversations around the meaning and value of human endeavor; and the physical objects provide opportunities for close looking and contemplation. ‘Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal’ hits on all of these points, and, in addition, has a unique point of view that has never been explored in an exhibition anywhere. In it, the curators — Professor Todd Lewis (Religious Studies, Holy Cross) and Jinah Kim (Art and Architectural History, Harvard University) —  explore how Buddhism has been and continues to be practiced in Nepal over centuries of time, through the works of art that surround and support that practice.”  

Regarding the exhibition’s historical significance, Dr. Fluke continued, “There are not many items like these in American collections, and thus this exhibition represents an enormous accomplishment. The artworks span more than a century of production, and have been borrowed from museums across the United States — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and more, as well as from Nepal. Because borrowing works from major museums and from overseas is an enormously labor-intensive and expensive undertaking, often exhibitions like this one require years of development and coordination. The driving forces behind ‘Dharma and Punya’ were Professors Lewis and Kim, who also secured [a National Endowment for the Humanities] grant to help bring the objects here. In addition, Professor Lewis helped to bring a visiting Fulbright scholar — Professor Naresh Bajracharya — from Nepal, to further enrich the campus’ engagement with the topic.”

Pieces in the gallery include visual guides to the rituals devotees should perform in order to attain “punya” and objects used in such rituals. Rituals involve making donations, raising flags with mantras printed on them, and welcoming individuals or icons into sacred spaces in the Lasa Kusa ritual. The gallery contains a measuring vessel used in the Lasa Kusa ritual to pour flowers, puffed rice, or dried fruit onto the head of the welcomed. The gallery also displays a vajracarya crown from the 13th-early 14th century, inlaid with semiprecious stones, lapis lazuli, and turquoise, which is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Obviously the exhibition is meant to be experienced as a whole, but when asked which piece she wouldn’t want visitors to miss, Dr. Fluke wrote, “I am partial to the large, rare 19th-century scroll of a mythical story called the Svayambhupurana. The story tells the origin of a sacred stupa and other sacred sites in the Kathmandu Valley with dozens of amazing scenes of mythical events. It is a masterwork of storytelling that would have been displayed on the wall of a Buddhist monastery and read/interpreted to a crowd. It is in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, but has always been in storage — its display here at the Cantor is the first time it has been on view to a public audience.”

College is full of learning opportunities, but the exhibition stands out as an especially rich one. Dr. Fluke elaborated on why this is, stating “[c]ollege should be a time when you deepen your awareness for ideas and cultures that are outside of your experience, and this exhibition provides a window onto a culture that will be new to most Holy Cross students. Many, if not all, of the objects in ‘Dharma and Punya’ are not usually on view even in their parent museums. In addition, the curators have done a great job providing videos, study objects, interpretative texts, photos, and other technology help bring to life the ways in which these objects were and are still used in Nepalese Buddhist ritual.”

The exhibition encourages student engagement through both supplementary lectures and live demonstrations. Upcoming lectures include “Local Manifestations of Universal Compassion: Lokesvara of the Four Places in Nepal,” led by Dr. Bruce Owens of Wheaton College (November 07, 7 p.m., O’Kane 495), and “Believe in Belief: Looking at Religious Art,” led by Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic of The New York Times at (November 14, 4 p.m., Rehm Library). For those seeking a more hands-on experience, visiting Fulbright Professor Naresh Bajracharya will demonstrate “Making Clay Stupas” in the Gallery on November 09, at 1 p.m. 

The “Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal” exhibition is free and open to both the student body and the general public until December 14. The gallery is located on the first floor of O’Kane Hall, and hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, noon – 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The gallery is also fully handicap accessible.

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