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 Statue of goddess Mahasri Tara in Tibet museum.

Beautiful landscapes, cows grazing on lush Alpine meadows, chocolates, cheese and panoramic train rides. These are some of the conventional symbols that are associated with Switzerland. So, it is little wonder that the country is a favourite with tourists.

On a recent visit to the land of Helvetia, I realised that there is much more to explore in the country that is beyond the obvious. The multifaceted land offers several unusual sights spanning history, culture, religion, gastronomy and more. The Tibet Museum in Gruyères, located  in the canton of Fribourg, is one such hidden gem.

This medieval town is known for its eponymous variety of semi-hard yellow cheese that has a characteristic nutty flavour. An eclectic historical quarter, cobbled pathways, fountains and endearing storefronts lend the town an inimitable charm.

The Tibet Museum is a distinctive attraction considering the fact that Switzerland is primarily a Christian country. 

Founded by the Alain Bordier Foundation, the museum was opened in 2009. A passionate collector, Alain Bordier has personally curated the collection at the museum, which is the result of his hard work from the last 25-30 years.


Stained glass panels of thechapel of St Joseph. It houses the Tibet Museum.
Photos by author

Having visited India several times, Bordier visited Ladakh (also called Little Tibet) during the 1980s, which proved to be a turning point in his life. Propelled by an inner force, he developed an interest for Buddhist art and philosophy and immersed himself in researching on the subject starting with Buddhist sculptures and paintings.

With Buddhism’s profound influence on his life, he undertook several expeditions to Tibet and visited temples and monasteries.

Almost all the objects collected by him have a ritualistic significance and have been made in Tibet and the surrounding countries including India and Nepal.

Unique setting

Another feature that sets the museum apart is the fact that it is housed within the chapel of St Joseph, which has been renovated for this purpose. The building was originally used for the purpose of running a home for deaf and mute children. Built with a high ceiling, wooden flooring and intricate panels of stained-glass featuring images of Jesus and Mary, the ambience within the museum is serene. There are also paintings and frescoes of saints like St Pancras, the healer and protector of herds, as well as of St Francis of Assisi.

An ode to religious unity and the spirit of open-mindedness, indeed!

Bright paintings of thangkas and other Buddhist art that adorn the dark-hued walls complement the setting. Glass cases that are illuminated have been built on both sides of the wall to display the exhibits.

Apart from the focused illumination on the objects, the lighting is otherwise subdued, and this creates a magical yet surreal feeling as piped, meditative music plays in the background. There are soothing vibes as one walks through the museum admiring the 300-odd objects on display.

The exhibits in the museum include paintings, sculptures, drawings, religious and ritualistic instruments dating from the 6th to the 18th centuries. While many of them belong to Tibet, some of them are from other Himalayan regions like India, Nepal, Swat and Burma.

The statues on display are made from varying materials like brass, copper and wood. Some of them also have silver inlaid work. The exquisite wooden statue of Mahasri Tara, with a blissful expression and hands depicted in the position of Dharmachakra mudra, is a picture of serenity. The painting on the carved wood is ornate. The other statues of the eighth Karmapa, the Mahakala (or the Great Black One) and Vajrayogini are insightful.

The collection includes daggers, prayer bells, conch shells, lamps and prayer beads. There are Gawu boxes, too, and the Vajra (Dorje), which is arguably the most important symbol in Tibetan Buddhism. It is symbolic of innate strength akin to a diamond, and the power of enlightenment like the impact of the thunderbolt.

Bright art

The museum also has a vast collection of thangkas, the name given to the traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings executed on fabrics like cotton or silk. Many of them are of distemper on cotton and the one depicting the Buddha Vajradhara i.e. Buddha sitting crossed-legged surrounded by monks holding the vajra, as well as the one depicting the life events of Lord Buddha are particularly beautiful. The latter has Lord Buddha surrounded by his two favourite disciples, Satriputra and Maudgalyayana, and the painting has 34 vignettes, each of which depict a major event or milestone in the Lord’s life. There is detailed literature on each of the pieces on display and visitors are handed this booklet during their visit. There is a small souvenir section in the museum that offers books on Buddhist philosophy and art.

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