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The Holy Sculptor

By: Grzegorz Ostrega Posted: July-15-2009 in
I was born in 1932 to a poor farming family in Kongpo Bhuchu (Tibet) which is famous for pilgrims.
Grzegorz Ostrega

On the outskirts of McLeod Ganj, India, in dark and moist, lay quarter of the Zilnon Kagyeling Nyingmapa Monastery stands an attached hut so small it looks like a dollhouse. You have to bow to enter.

A kitchen arranged in the corridor - which still keeps you bowing - and an ascetic small room containing wee bed and tiny bookcase filled with gods figurines, offering cups and tv pushed into a corner make in fact all the living space for an old, always smiling Tibetan man. You can't say if that was Nature on his birth or just old age, which gave him such a small posture.

His inconspicuous appearance and childish behaviour, however, hide quite a surprise. Another door, at the first moment invisible in the dark corridor, leads to same small but bright room. Inside, a decent crowd of sculptures and figurines known from the world of Buddhist art stands along the walls. Some of them are nearly finished, shining with golden paint, while other are waiting patiently for their missing legs, arms or heads. A low, half-round table with neat and tidy set of tools on it and comfy mat beside make the rest of this workshop.

This charming old man is Ulla Kelsang Dorjee, one of the greatest living artists of Buddhist art. His statues, paintings and sculptures decorate almost every important temple and monastery of this denomination, including famous Rumtek in Sikkim and Bodh Gaya, the most sacred place for Lord Gautama's followers. No respected monastery would build a new stupa without consulting this joyful, little grandpa, and from time to time even the Dalai Lama’s messengers knock at the door of his wee hut.

For nearly a month I had that great opportunity to watch him working. Every morning, with camera hanging at my side, I bowed my head at the workshop’s door and sat down in the corner. Sipping compulsory Tibetan tea I could observing his mastered movements for hours, however I kept one principle – only one photo a day. In result I was able to build a photostory – Ulla Kelsang Dorjee’s great work documentation – which I supplemented with some quotations from his sketchy autobiography.


Grzegorz Ostrega is a freelance photographer / writer who is currently traveling Asia.
You can see more of his work on BabelImages

Photos descriptions: Click on the image to see the full gallery

Image 1
I was born in 1932 to a poor farming family in Kongpo Bhuchu (Tibet) which is famoous for pilgrims.

Image 2
Because of my love for religion in the previous life, as a child I used to make different shapes out of mud resembling Gods and ritual objects.

Image 3
My parents learned from the astrologist that if I was made a monk then all my obstacles would be removed. Therefore I was sent to the Druk Choedhay Monastery.

Image 4
At the age of sixteen I learned proportions of the deities and other different statues from my teacher Gyaltsen. During that period of study there was a very strong erthquake in our region and our monastery was destroyed.

Image 5
In purpose of its rebuilding the master statue maker – who later became my teacher - was sent from Lhasa by His Holiness the XIII Dalai Lama. He was called Karma Tsondru and was an expert in all kinds of Tibetan art.

Image 6
In the middle of 1954, with the help of my master, I made a big statue of Kala Chakra in Central Tibet having a height of 40 feet. Eyes of the statue were as big as the arm’s lenght.

Image 7
In 1959 Red Chinese invaded our Motherland. I had no other choice than to leave Tibet and travel on foot to India. There I started to work as a coolie (labourer) building and repairing roads. But after three months I heard that a new monastery was being built nearby. I offered my help.

Image 8
At the age of 30 I got married to Khandro and we subsequently had one daughter called Dolma. Shortly after I started to make statues for numerous monasteries in India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.

Image 9
For example, in 1974 I went to Rumtek Monastery and made moulds in order to produce one thousand statues of Lord Buddha. I spent year 1984 in Bodh Gaya where I made eight Medicine Buddhas and some other sculptures. I also pepared set of ritual objects for the Private Office of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama.

Image 10
Now I live in McLeod Ganj in India, where I still make sculptures and other ritual things for Buddhist monasteries, temples and institutions.


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