Accepting the colours of lifeSince 2014, Bodhisattva in Action Institute, a Kathmandu-based NGO, has relied on its thangka painting classes to help people with disabilities become thangka artists.
It’s a slow and sultry afternoon, but the students at Bodhisattva in Action Institute’s (BIA) Thangka Painting Institute in Jorpati are unperturbed by the heat and immersed in painting meticulous colourful lines on their cotton canvases strapped to a wooden frame. What makes this class different from other thangka classes in the city is that all of the students here are wheelchair users. The majority of the students in the class have spent the last few months getting trained to become thangka—a Tibetan Buddhists artform—artists.
One of the students, Sanu Shrestha, holds a paintbrush firmly between her index and middle finger while working on the outlines of the thangka of Zambala, a protective deity associated with wealth and prosperity in Tibetan Buddhism. Her eyes focus intensely on the lines she inscribes. But she is careful not to strain herself too much, as doing so can put her health at risk.
“I find the process of making thangka very liberating and peaceful because it requires me to have intense focus. But I often have to be mindful not to get too immersed in the work because I live with partial loss of sensory function below my neck, and I have to move my neck and legs every now and then to prevent my muscles from giving away,” says a smiling Shrestha, who has been learning thangka for seven years.
Shrestha was only 14 when she suffered from a cervical spinal cord injury after falling from a tree. The accident left her completely paralysed from below the waist and partially paralysed from the neck down.
“I have been a wheelchair user since I was 14. At the time, people thought my life was over, and for a long time, I had a tough time accepting my changed reality. The thought of taking my own life crossed my mind several times,” says Shrestha. “But coming here at BIA and learning to become a thangka artist among people living with a similar physical disability has helped me to accept myself and my life in this chair. Learning thangka has taught me to be patient with my own body, made me more resilient, and helped me enable myself and my independence.”
Shrestha is one of the 32 students with physical disabilities induced by spinal cord injury currently studying at the two thangka painting institutes run by BIA Institute, a non-governmental organisation founded by Chogyal Rinpoche in 2014. The idea behind starting BIA's first thangka painting institute—the organisation's first initiative to enable people with physical disabilities—came to Chogyal Rinpoche when he met Ngawang Chhiri Sherpa, a thangka artist with paraplegia. Ngawang, at the time, had been making thangkas for over six years believing it to be a way to get his life together.
“Chogyal Rinpoche thought my story was not just different but also inspirational. He asked me if I would want to be part of his foundation and teach thangka painting to people with physical disabilities. I readily agreed because painting thangkas helped me deal with my disability, and I knew it would do the same to others as well,” says Ngawang, who has been teaching thangka at BIA since 2014.
Before becoming a thangka artist/instructor, Ngawang, a native of Solukhumbu, worked as a trekking guide. An accident in 2003 left him paralysed below the waist and brought an end to his trekking guide profession.
“During my trekking guide days, I had seen people from across the world appreciate thangkas, and when I started to use a wheelchair, all I wanted to do was to become a trained thangka artist,” says Ngawang. “That decision was the wisest decision I could make for myself. For me, thangka became a meditative process. When I sit down to draw thangkas, I become so focused on the process that I forget my pain and misery. Learning thangka has empowered me from within.”
Today, when Ngawang talks about his disability there is not an iota of self-pity.
And it was Ngawang’s hopeful outlook on life that Chogyal Rinpoche and his team at BIA Institute had hoped to enable at BIA’s sanctuary. “Our aim was not just to give people with disabilities a skill. We wanted to bring an initiative that allows people with disabilities to come to terms with their disability and be part of something that empowers them and makes them proud,” says Gokarna Dhungana, BIA’s executive director. “Our students get free of cost training, accommodation and food, physiotherapy, training resources, medical insurance of Rs 6,000 each every year of their six-year residency period, and a monthly stipend of Rs 4,000. We also give an additional stipend of Rs 1,000 every month which is deposited directly to the students’ bank accounts. Once the students finish the six-year thangka training course, they can withdraw the money and use it however they deem fit.”
In 2014, BIA Foundation started with a thangka painting training institute in Jorpati, Kathmandu. In 2017, the organisation opened another branch in Kirtipur, which currently has eleven women with paraplegia learning thangka painting under the guidance of Dawa Sangmo Sherpa, a Buddhist nun. Dawa lost her left leg to cancer when she was only 18 and now uses a prosthetic leg to walk. She often reminds her students that learning painting requires patience.
When it comes to thangka painting, an artist has to be well acquainted with iconography and motifs pertaining to the various deities in Tibetan Buddhism, says Dawa.
“For example, the Medicine Buddha, one of the deities, is always painted in deep blue colour, which symbolises his essence and purity. His representation has him holding a pot of Tibetan medicinal herbs,” she explains passionately.
For Dawa, learning thangka had been one of the most liberating experiences of her life, and something that she believes has allowed her to make a positive impact in people’s lives. She says that painting thangka saved her from wallowing in the sorrow of what happened in her life. And as a thangka painting teacher, Dawa hopes that her students find learning thangka painting as transformative as it was for her.
Dawa also believes that BIA’s thangka painting students have the advantage of learning the art form among those who share the same disability.
“Not that this should be the required way of learning for us, but in learning spaces like the one at BIA, we are able to look beyond our disability and work on ourselves. That wasn’t the case for me,” says Dawa. “I say there’s a benefit because one doesn’t have to feel like we are being inconvenient to people around us when navigating. Here, we can ask for help without feeling sorry for ourselves, and I think that is something that learning places in the country are still unable to do for people with physical disabilities.”
One of Dawa’s students is 28-year-old Laxmi Senchury, a native of Terathum who has permanent paralysis below the waist. Before getting enrolled in BIA’s thangka painting course in 2019, Senchury didn’t even know what thangka was. The thangka classes, says Senchury, have given her a purpose in life and the confidence she needed to build a life she can be proud of.
“When I start painting, I get the courage to live and move forward in my life. I am still a beginner and don’t know much about thangka and the deities in Tibetan Buddhism, but I can say with certainty that I am feeling a lot better about myself. I feel like I can do something here,” says Senchury, looking at her unfinished outlines of a thangka of Medicine Buddha.
Seven years ago, when Senchury was playing on a swing, she lost her balance and fell and injured her spinal cord, which left her paralysed from the waist below. When she came home from the hospital, a lot of people made her feel that she was better off dead, she says.
“In Tehrathum, people with disabilities are considered a burden. We are made to feel worthless. And many people made me feel that I had become a burden to my family. They even used to make remarks like I should have died in the accident,” says Senchury. “But after coming here, I feel like I have been making a difference in my life. I feel fortunate to have this opportunity to learn thangka painting here at BIA because there are not many places like this in the country.”
In Nepal, most institutes of learning (both vocational and academic) are set up without keeping the requirements of people with disabilities in mind. This was a fact that the team at BIA was well aware of when they decided to start thangka classes for people with disabilities.
“Over the years, we have seen the impact learning thangka painting can have on people with physical disabilities. Unfortunately, there aren’t many institutions of learning that heed the needs of people with disabilities. Even though we would like to expand our programme and take in more students, we are still an organisation with limited resources and we cannot take in more people than we can provide for,” says Dhungana. “This is why we have to be very selective of who we enrol at our institution.”
With the world still dismissive of people with disabilities, students like Shrestha and Senchury are all the more grateful for the art platform that BIA provides.
Today, Shrestha, who was one of the first students of BIA, has made several thangka paintings, which has made her a more confident person.
“Had I stayed back in my village in Dhading, this achievement would have been impossible. After seeing me do relatively well in life by making thangkas, my family has finally been able to move on with their lives as well,” says Shrestha. “Life has been hard but I am now more focused on improving myself as a thangka artist and the peace that I find while making thangkas.”
Bodhisattva in Action Institute is hosting a handicraft exhibition from May 5 to May 7 at Taragaon Museum, Bauddha.