Sacred art has always been and still remains one of the most popular and beloved aspects of the life of the Tibetan people. In recent times it has received inspiration from all over the world. For centuries, this particular art has facinated the neighboring countries in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Some of the best collections can be seen in the finest museums in Mongolia and Russia. Among the most popular varieites of Tibetan sacred art is the silk and brocade applique Thangka (scroll of a sacred image either painted, woven or embroidered and sewn) and the skill involved in making them is highly regarded. It is almost extinct due to the destruction of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Thanks to some of the older monks who were skilled in this kind of work and who were able to flee the harsh Chinese occupation in 1959, this historic tradition still remains unbroken. It is carried on in the same way as it was practised in the very beginning.
The Nechung Monastery has been famous in Tibet for it's art of sacred images. The frescoes of the monastery and it's branch temple within Lhasa, have attracted artists from Kham and Amdo for many centuries. Currently under Chinese rule, the frescoes of Nechung that have survived serve as one of the main tourist attractions. The Nechung monks were famous for upholding the tradtions in the cultural arts and in particular, the art of embroidery and applique. Two monks, Ven. Thupten Phuntsok and Ven. Thupten Sherap, who were endowed with this traditional skill, were able to flee Tibet and come to India. Under the guidance of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama the monastery was re-established in Dharamsala in the early sixties. Ven. Gyaltsen Chopel was among the young students who were taught at the monastery. They have passed the rich tradition to the present generation. This project was carefully planned. Now, the work of Ven. Gyaltsen Chopel is very much appreciated, not only in the Tibetan society but abroad too.
Ven. Gyaltsen Chopel, a senior monk of the Nechung monastery, has successfully completed his study of this dying art, and teaches at the moment five young monks who then will carry on the tradition. He is one of the finest artists in Tibetan society and his works are still the best in that field. He has been invited by the School of Sacred Arts in New York in 1991 and later in 1992 to teach at their school and hold workshops. His outstanding work can be seen at the Nechung Monastery and in Tibet House in New York City.
The historical background is difficult to trace, but it is known that this tradition of silk and brocade applique work was initiated by the great king Sontsen Gampo in the seventh century A.D. Since that time, the energy in establishing the Buddha Darma has been very strong. The art quickly developed into a sacred art and has since been further improved. The main reason for initiating such a technique is because it is more durable than the painted thangkas, especially when moved around. It is also more elaborate. At one time it was mainly used as a personal object of meditation. No instruments other than needles are used and the best quality materials, such as brocade, silk and gold threads are utilized. Interestingly, the age old tradition of using horse tail hair is also still in use.