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The Gift: A Cultural Biography of the Thangka of Hayagriva


In 1952, while serving as the U.S. Ambassador to India and Nepal, Chester Bowles received a gift: a “very unusual Tibetan painting” as Bowles put it; today, scholars refer to it as a “thangka.”


Bowles brought the thangka with him to the United States when he left Nepal in March of 1953, and in 1954, he reached out to Wesley Needham, a scholar working as an Adviser in Tibetan Literature at the Yale University Library. Needham was asked to research the thangka, and grew more and more fascinated by the thangka; by 1958, he had produced a 70-page analysis of the object.

As Bowles learned about the painting he had in his possession, he began to question his ownership: “It seems wrong for me to use it as a wall decoration in my own home, interesting as it would be to the people who might see it there,” he wrote to Needham in June of 1958. “It seems to me that it should be in some place where it would be available to serious students.” Within six months, he had donated the thangka to the Library.

Over 50 years later, we, “serious students” of the Himalayas, were presented the painting in the basement of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

This exhibit tells the story of this gift: a gift that has passed through the hands of the King of Nepal, a U. S. Ambassador, scholars, librarians, lamas – and even through our very own hands. It is a story of reciprocity and exchange, of commoditization and singularization, but more fundamentally, it is a story about knowledge. Marcel Mauss argued that a gift can never be “free,” that a gift always demands something in return – but what about the gift of knowledge? 

For a brief introduction to thangka painting and the Thangka of Hayagriva in particular, click here.

For a brief introduction to Chester Bowles work in Nepal, click here.


Angelica Calabrese