PEMBA DORJE (1930-2011)
Norbulingka Institute was founded to help revive Tibetan artistic tradition and artisanship. We were fortunate to have with us several great masters eager to pass on their traditions, and we provided the environment for them to thrive. Pemba Dorje, the exiled community’s most celebrated statue maker, had a unique standing, being the last master from a handful of artists proficient in all the techniques and the only one to have trained apprentices in exile. He came to Norbulingka with his team in 1994 and continued to train new artists and work on a great number of large statues that can today be seen all over the world. His passing away in 2011 was a great loss, but his lifelong work left behind fully trained masters able to continue his legacy.
Pempa Dorje was born in the province of Tsang in Southern Tibet in 1930 in an area known for its unique tradition in statue making. As a child, he fashioned images of clay and mud while watching his family’s herds. At fourteen, he enrolled as apprentice to a local master. His area’s tradition was such that each artist was taught all the aspects of the art, from drawing to hammering the copper plates into shape and finally assembling the completed pieces. Pemba Dorje participated in many projects while still in Tibet. When he was about 20 years old, a private chamber was created for HH the Dalai Lama in the Tsuglagkhang in Lhasa. For two years he took part in the creation of a new set of religious images and implements. Later, he worked another two years on the traditional ornaments during the renovation of the Great Temple at Sakya as well as the images inside it.
When His Holiness the Dalai Lama entered his eighth year, an order was made for 1000 Tse-Lha-Nam-Sum statues of the Amitayus, White Tara and Vijaya, long life bestowing deities. These were presented to him during a Long Life offering and later were installed in the new chamber in the Tsuglagkhang. Pemba Dorje also took part in projects at the two principal Bönpo monasteries in Central Tibet, Menri and Yungdrung Ling to make two colossal statues and on other large statues including Yamantaka, Heruka and Guhyasamaja, commissioned by monasteries and private families.
In 1959, Pemba Dorje fled to India following the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa. He settled in Dharamsala and was soon back to work, with the task to build three large statues in the main temple in Dharamsala, the spiritual center of Tibetans in exile. In the late 70’s, he joined a training center in lower Dharamsala, where he taught metal sculpture, training 20 young boys in a curriculum that was to last 12 years. In 1973, His Holiness the Dalai Lama appointed Pemba Dorje as Tibet’s master statuemaker, following a tradition of guilds established by the 7th Dalai Lama and maintained up to 1959.
In 1994, His Holiness requested that Pemba Dorje work at Norbulingka so that he may continue to work and train there. His first work was the 14ft Buddha statue that adorns Norbulingka’s temple the Deden Tsuklhakhang. Assisted by his students, he built many more statues of various sizes that can be seen in temples in India or in private collections and Buddhist centers abroad.
Pemba Dorje was one of three remaining artists of his kind, able to make and assemble statues of all sizes. Of these three, he was the only one able to pass on the tradition in its complete form to his best disciples, youths he had trained since their childhood and who now run the workshop, passing on their art to yet another generation of artists. In this Norbulingka is unique; though the Newaris of Nepal continue to make cast statues, the making of hand-hammered ones was unique to Tibet. Pemba Dorje passed away in 2011, and his work continues in a seamless way. Tseten, his most senior disciple now heads the Norbulingka Statue workshop and continues to make unique pieces and train apprentices.