Some royals crafted humanitarian images for themselves simply by attending a few charitable cocktail parties and looking good in Versace. Her Royal Highness Princess Ashi Kesang Choden T. Wangchuck of Bhutan is different. The scholar and devout Buddhist practitioner works directly with monks and art restoration experts preserving her nation’s heritage as the executive director of the Thangke Conservation Center. It is a real job she is well qualified for, but it does not leave her any time for preening PR campaigns. Fortunately, the efforts of the Princess and her colleague and teacher, Ephraim “Eddie” Jose are documented in Tobias Reeuwijk’s 1000 Hands of the Guru (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.
In past centuries, thangkas were essentially portable altars. They are sacred, but they are intended to be used rather than filed away. Over time, they absorb wisdom and holiness as the focus of meditation and rituals. They can never be disposed of like common detritus, but they become faded and threadbare. With the support of Bhutan’s royal family, Jose developed a systematized restoration regimen. At first, the monks did not get it, but the results were a revelation.
Beyond her royal status, the Princess Ashi Kesang was also western educated and tutored in Buddhist teachings by some of Bhutan’s most revered monks, making her a perfect choice to lead the Center. Frankly, she and the charismatic Jose should be a publicist’s dream, but the Buddhist nation is apparently a bit outside People Magazine’s beat.
In fact, the thoughtful and camera-friendly duo directly elevate the straightforward documentary. Despite capturing some striking images, Reeuwijk’s approach is largely reportorial, with maybe a pinch of advocacy thrown in. However, Princess Ashi Kesang’s narration lucidly (and compellingly) explains the higher spiritual principles informing the Center’s work. She might even help viewers prepare for death.