Labour of love: restoring the sacred, 15th-century art of Mustang’s monasteries

 

At an altitude above 3,800 metres in the Himalayas, just inside Nepal’s border with Tibet, more than 30 locally trained inhabitants are busy restoring Buddhist murals inside monasteries which date back to the 15th century.

The restoration project is being carried out in the walled city of  Lo Manthang, which used to serve as the capital of the once -forbidden kingdom of Mustang.

Workers from Mustang’s Lobas tribe paint the walls of the temples where villagers perform daily prayers in front of statues of the Buddha and other Tibetan deities.

Over the years, the team of local Buddhists trained by Western art conservationists have replaced the old, leaky roofs of the temples with a traditional assembly of round timbers, river stones, and local clay for waterproofing, and have just begun to restore the wall paintings, statues, sculpted pillars and the ceiling’s painted wooden decorations, giving these centuries-old monuments a new life.

“It was a new experience for many of us. Holding fine paintbrushes and using materials that had come from the West we never heard of. But seeing our work today it gives immense happiness to be part of such a team and have restored our own religious art,” said Dolma, a Loba woman.

The sacred art of 15th-century Mustang is believed to be among the most expensive in the Himalayas due to the use of pigments made from grinding stones like lapis lazuli, malachite and azurite. Restorers have made these sites among the best-surviving examples of classical Tibetan monastic architecture of the Sakya-pa (one of four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism).

Lo Manthang, located on the ancient salt-trade route between Tibet and large markets of the Indian subcontinent, was nominated for the UNESCO world heritage site in 2008.

As a result of the region’s remoteness, it remained largely unchanged by modern life. The Mustang region was off limits to foreigners until 1991. Among the first permitted to go there was the chairman of the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF) who witnessed the richness of the cultural artifacts being ravaged by time and climate.

AHF sponsored the restoration project with the support of a local group, the Lo Gyalpo Jigme Foundation, which engages local artists and workers, with the mission to restore three main monasteries and temples in Lo Manthang that will help preserve Tibetan sacred art.

“Mustang was once a great religious centre, but the monasteries had fallen into disrepair and when one went inside it made you sad to see the condition they were in. Without this restoration work everything would have just collapsed within 30 or  40 years,” said Tsewang Bista of the Lo Gyalpo Jigme Foundation.

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