The project "Text, Art and Performance in Bon Ritual" funded by the FWF (P 24701-G21; 12/2012-6/2016) aimed to carry out fundamental research on art and rituals of the Bön religion and the underlying textual materials. The project goals had developed over the past twenty years, when research on Tabo monastery also financed by the FWF, revealed the probable presence of Bon culture. This research brought Klimburg-Salter into contact with contemporary Bon masters and their monastic communities. These two distinct historical interests continue in the present project, each serving to illuminate the other. The multidisciplinary interest in Bon culture developed in several stages. Research on the 10th century paintings and inscriptions at Tabo monastery continued throughout (Klimburg-Salter 2008 and 2015). During meetings with Charles Ramble in Oxford University when she was resident there in 2008 and 2009 the agenda for the Simla conference in 2009 (FWF/NFN S98) was partially defined and brought together Bon, Buddhist and European Scholars. Also during 2009 and 2010 Charles Ramble was Visiting Research Scholar at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Documentation of Inner and South Asian Cultural History at the University of Vienna (CIRDIS). CIRDIS also financed Kemi Gurang who worked with Ramble on editing texts and videos of Bon rituals. As part of his residence at CIRDIS Ramble held seminars to read and translate Bon ritual texts. From these sessions emerged the group which became the core of the Bon project – in addition to Klimburg-Salter Linda Lojda, Uwe Niebuhr and Jürgen Schörflinger.

This earlier research defined the three axes of the project research which focused on the Bon Ritual Art, from the production of the artistic components to their total performative ritual context, including reference to the textual sources. This methodology could be appreciated in the one month exhibition "Bon. Spirits of Butter – Art and Ritual of old Tibet", throughout February 2013 in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna (now Weltmuseum Wien). The daily Bon rituals presided over by Lama Yangön Sherab Tenzin, a tantric Bon master were watched around the globe via live feed on the museum's website, he was assisted by seven lamas from Nepal. Together with the month long New Year ritual, other rituals were performed, in particular a special blessing ritual to inaugurate the new name - Weltmuseum Wien (Museum of World Culture).

The rituals were intended to assist the exhibition visitor in contextualizing exhibition objects (BON, Geister aus Butter: Kunst & Ritual des alten Tibet. Klimburg-Salter, Lojda, Ramble, Wien 2013) explained also in the exhibition catalogue. And, above all to demonstrate that none of these components can be adequately studied in isolation, and that an integrated approach must be adopted in order to fully understand the meaning of the component parts, both today and in earlier Bon. Although mostly concerned with contemporary Bon practice, research on historical Bon continued. Among these objects, we were fortunate to exhibit for the first time the earliest illustrated Tibetan manuscript (ca. 13th century), which became an important element in the study of early Bon art.

The exhibit also provided the first opportunity to interview distinguished Bon scholars and masters and was also the first of three opportunities (the other two were in Nepal and the Indian Himalayas) to document Bon art in context; and the production of a large number of dough-and-butter sculptures known as tormas (Tib. gtor ma). The documentation phase was followed by the cataloguing and archiving of the visual culture (approx. 13.500 images). The first scientific analysis of the art of Bon Torma by Uwe Niebuhr (see the extensive digital catalogue –Torma) has already drawn attention to the importance of ephemeral art forms in Tibetan culture.

In 2015 we returned to Tabo Monastery. Thanks to the Centre of Image and Technical Analysis in Cultural Heritage (CIMA), Vienna, it was possible to newly document the 10th c. previously only partially visible paintings and extensive inscriptions. Thus opening a dramatic new chapter in the interpretation of the earliest in situ evidence for Zhang Zhung visual culture.
The comparative art historical analysis of the Torma, manuscripts, wall paintings and tangkas highlights the Bön visual culture in Nepal, Indian -Himalayas, and the Diaspora. The scientific results of the project are contained in the website created and maintained by Jürgen Schörflinger who has worked with Uwe Niebuhr to archive the 13,500 image data in the WHAV. The audiovisual data, edited by Kemi Gurang, will be made available in the course of 2017 in the newly to be established Himalaya Archive Vienna (HAV).

Project Leader

Deborah Klimburg-Salter

Project members

Uwe Niebuhr, Jürgen Schörflinger, Linda Lojda, Petra Latschenberger, Kami Gurung, Pema Pengyu, Charles Ramble (2012-2014)