Restoring Living Culture

Features Issue 169 Jan, 2016
Text by Luigi Fieni

Restoration of monasteries in Lo Manthang, the capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Mustang, called for resourcefulness, innovation, and creativity, particularly the restoration of endangered 15th century wall paintings.

When the former kingdom of Mustang was finally opened to foreigners, the American Himalayan Foundation visited this formerly Tibetan region and was granted a meeting with the royal family. The wish of the foundation was to help this remote kingdom by sponsoring development projects, and they asked the king how they could preserve this endangered culture. His answer was very clear: If the foundation really wanted to help the Mustang people, they should revive the Lo Manthang monasteries, since the local culture was strongly connected to religion.

Since 1997, following the king’s request, the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF) accepted the difficult task of conserving and restoring the temples of Jampa and Thupchen in the Mustang capital Lo Manthang. AHF contracted John Sanday Associates, a Nepali company specializing in architectural conservation, to begin working in Thupchen Gonpa. A couple of years later, when the structural repair was showing good progress, attention shifted to the 15th century wall paintings, thus becoming the focus of the project. Italian conservator consultants—led by Rodolfo Lujan Lunsford until 2003—and then by myself, were then summoned by John Sanday Associates to set up a restoration plan to safeguard the endangered murals.

An additional request from the local community was that locals be involved in the project, so as to play an active role in the conservation of their own cultural heritage. Hence, a member of each family living in Lo Manthang joined the wall painting conservation team as trainee. The greatest challenge, and the most rewarding in the following years to come, became the turning of farmers into restorers.

The first issue the project had to face was to convince the local community, the royal family, and the clergy that they needed help from foreign consultants. All of them acknowledged the temples’ state of disrepair, the urgency to safeguard their structures, and their sacred objects and wall paintings. Nonetheless, the notion of conservation was unknown, and there was a general suspiciousness about Westerners working on their religious buildings. 

Working in the Himalaya

In the late 1990s, Lo Manthang village, set at an average altitude of 3,850 meters, was disconnected from modern civilization. The village lacked basic forms of communication, i.e. telephone and Internet, and there was no electricity. A ride of three days by horseback was necessary to reach the capital from the nearest airport, Jomsom, while walking could take nearly a week. 

To work in such a remote site required very meticulous planning ahead for each season’s work. The amount and the selection of needed materials had to be chosen judiciously, since it was not possible to purchase additional supplies on site. Besides, because of the lack of telephones, Internet, and a feasible way to ship whatever was needed, it was impossible to get anything from Europe, or even Nepal. 

Since there was no electricity it was crucial to carry more than an electric generator, enough fuel, and spare parts to provide adequate lighting in the dark worksites throughout the summer. 

One more challenging task was the transportation of bulky or fragile equipment to the site, since the only way to deliver these items was on horseback, or by porters. Chemicals, consolidators, generators, and light bulbs had to be packed extremely well to prevent damaging or breaking key materials that could not be replaced on site. Practical solutions were devised on-site even for the simplest of operations: what would be very easy to buy readymade in the Western world became a challenge to be made ex-novo in the Himalayan environment.

Because of its caste system, Mustang culture became an unexpected issue. In fact, while working on a scaffolding, a high-caste trainee would never sit below a trainee of a lower caste, and more than once, this situation ended up in a fight. The work then had to be organized to carefully accommodate these needs as well. An important accomplishment was the introduction of women onto the team. After years of talks and meetings with the local community and clergy, we managed to get local women to join the wall painting conservation team.

Farmers into restorers

The core of the project was indeed the training of a group of local villagers: to turn farmers into proper restorers who could skillfully carry out all conservation procedures in the temples. Another objective was to distribute wealth fairly among the village, so the local community decided that one member per family had to join the project, either in the architectural repair team, or the wall painting conservation team. In this way, a selection of suitable candidates was not always possible, and once there were enough members in the team, the training started.

Language was the most troublesome barrier to overcome. The trainees would speak their own Tibetan dialect, very few would speak Nepali, and just a couple could understand basic English. The presence of a translator became a must for the training to take place. At the end of the 90s, the education level in Mustang was remarkably low, since the families would prefer to send their kids to work in the fields rather than to school. Thus, the majority of our trainees were illiterate, and who were lucky enough to have studied, had merely finished the second or the third grade of primary school.

Apart from having good skills with brushes and sensibility with colors, conservators and restorers need a respectable background in chemistry and biology. Teaching the basic theories of these subjects to illiterate people was clearly useless, yet we had to find a way through practical examples to make the trainees understand why a chemical could remove a kind of varnish, while a different one would not work at all. The hardest part of the training at this stage was definitely to transform all the theory into practice. Simple experiments were held on a daily basis to show practically how, for instance, a mixture of water and alcohol would become a surfactant solution and help an adobe wall to adsorb a mortar to fix a detached wall painting, or how an organic chemical could dissolve a resin, while it could not dissolve a water-based binder.

Thenceforth, the whole training was based on imitation and practice. Each trainee would sit side-by-side with one of the Italian consultants, and first watch the operation to be carried out. The consultants would show repeatedly every step until the trainee would acquire the necessary automatism to reproduce the same steps. The consultants would then monitor the trainees very carefully while performing the same procedure.

Special attention was given to the cleaning process, for a mistake could have easily caused dissolving or damaging the paint layer. Before the team actually worked on the original wall paintings, they practiced by cleaning very recent wall paintings in the monastery of Thupchen—clay and wooden based painted structures—in order to gain the necessary skills.

The most challenging process to teach was, unquestionably, the retouching. To give paintbrushes to people who had barely held pens and pencils, and to help them develop the correct sensibility of the hand in order to make very fine brush strokes, lines, or dots, took a good amount of time and patience. When the trainees reached a good level of sensibility they started practicing on very recent paintings in Thupchen, where they could further improve their skills before retouching the 15th century wall paintings. 

Through the years, the trainees acquired the main restoration techniques. They learnt how to consolidate walls and preparatory layers, and how to fix scales and flaking of the paint layer. They learnt how to clean clay-based and metal statues, woodwork, and wall paintings. They learnt how to prepare chemical solutions, how to calculate percentages, and how to use the different chemicals employed in the project. They learnt how to master the retouching process as well, achieving results beyond expectations.

The project, started only with the conservation of Thupchen Gonpa, was then extended to preserve the structure, the wall paintings, and the artworks in the nearby temple of Jampa, and in the monasteries of Thupthen in Tsarang, and Ghar Gonpa in Logekhar.

The need for different philosophies

When we started the pictorial integration in the monastery of Thupchen, back in 2001, the Western way was followed regarding the criteria of retouching wall paintings, which tends to avoid reconstructions as much as possible. Nonetheless, an exception was made in 2003, when John Sanday Associates approved the reconstruction of large missing parts of two main Buddhas on the southern side of Thupchen, and of part of the upper decoration on the northern side of the east wall. The decision was taken in order to better emphasize the remains of the pictorial cycle, thus uniting the whole paint layer, at least on the upper section.

The whole Lo Manthang community was puzzled, though (when the conservation work in Thupchen Gonpa was closed in 2004), by the fact that no more reconstructions were made, and the whole lower section of the wall paintings were left with plaster under the level of the paint layer. Bodhisattvas and Buddhas were left without their legs and lotus flowers, and neither were the missing scenes and the protective deities at the very bottom reconstructed. It was unconceivable for them that we would leave such parts unpainted: it just made no sense.

Regardless of the community’s requests, the focus of the project shifted to Jampa Lhakhang, and Thupchen Gonpa was considered a finished project, at least from a Westerner’s point of view. The local community started pushing once again on the reconstructions issue to the point that one more compromise was made: we would reconstruct what was possible, and leave whatever we could not understand. Then, in 2008, John Sanday Associates contracted a world famous thangka painter, Mukti Singh Thapa, to work on the project and help reconstruct deities, mandalas, and decorations, where possible.

The project was evolving. The Western conservation philosophy was being replaced by ethics and choices more suitable to the local culture and its religious needs. Since 2011, regardless of all critics from the Western world of academics, a reconstruction program was set up by the American Himalayan Foundation in order to complete all the missing wall paintings in Thupchen Gonpa, and more than 150 square meters of lost paintings are being reconstructed following the 15th century style. Furthermore, with accurate documentation, we have been mapping the location of every reconstruction, so as to leave a record at the end of the project for future generations to understand where the original artwork was, and where the interpretation.

On the contrary, the Western culture has developed its concepts of conservation through the past two centuries emphasizing the importance of the artwork and the artist himself, slowly forgetting the function of his creation. Following this approach, the pictorial integration was based on respecting the artwork for its historical authenticity, meaning that reconstructions of missing parts were basically forbidden. From a Westerner’s point of view, it was, and it is not, possible to interfere with the artwork, because any reconstruction would be just an interpretation of what the original artist could have created. 

This philosophy unfortunately cannot be applied to the Eastern way of thinking, for the artwork still has a function, especially from a religious point of view. A religious artwork, be it a statue, a wall painting, or a thangka, is not at all the expression of a talented artist’s idea, but it is considered a living creation, as ICOMOS stated back in 2003. The main difference with the Western culture is that religious artwork is not simply considered as an image, but it embodies the represented divinity. A painting, for instance, is not at all just a colored drawing of a deity, but it is considered as the deity itself. This changes completely the expectations of local people when a conservation work is carried out on religious artworks, especially when reconstructions of missing parts are involved. 

The same year, ICCROM stated in an international forum on ‘Living Religious Heritage’ that in this context, it is clear that this heritage belongs to the present, and the present generation has the right to use it, and the fulfillment of their satisfaction cannot be undermined or undervalued. Attempts to underline the need for different approaches of conservation for different cultures had been already made in the 1980s to UNESCO by non-European states whose cultural heritage was entering in the World Heritage List. This controversy led to a key event in Colombo in 1993, where the final document of the general assembly of ICOMOS conclusively stated that “the Western philosophy does not have a universal value”. The former director of ICCROM, Andrzej Tomaszewski, emphasized the fact that the European delegates meekly voted, so as not to be accused of racism. One more step forward was the ‘Nara Conference on Authenticity’ in 1994, where it was stressed that the perceptions of authenticity are relative.

Despite these achievements in underlining the need of pluralistic views regarding the conservation philosophy, Western ethics is still leading the official conservation world, and this leadership is being maintained at all costs. As a Westerner who has lived for many years deeply  immersed in the Mustang culture, I slowly realized the importance of changing the interpretation of the pictorial integration concept, definitely a key factor in the above-mentioned controversy. The reconstruction process should aim at bringing back the spiritual life of a religious building, rather than turning it into a museum for tourists and scholars, even though that is often the destiny where the Eurocentric theories are applied in Asia.

Andrzej Tomaszewski pointed out that “if in the discussion between East and West we stand in a position of mutual respect for each other’s philosophy, acknowledging their great, though differing, contribution to the preservation of cultural property, and if we demonstrate that the development of science and technology allows and encourages the preservation of the original substance of a monument wherever this is at all possible, we will have taken an important step towards an universal conception. Such a conception will have a pluralistic character.”

A conservation philosophy, then, should be shaped according to the culture’s needs, and one single theory of conservation should not exist, even though some principles could coexist. Cultures worldwide are very different, and so should be the concept of conservation, if the latter is meant to be truly preserving a living cultural heritage site.