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<-Back to WTN Archives Helping Tibet help itself - A Paris-based organisation is working with local groups to restore monasteries and other historic sites
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World Tibet Network News

Saturday, January 6, 1996

1. Helping Tibet help itself - A Paris-based organisation is working with local groups to restore monasteries and other historic sites

By Louise Huyette
The Art Newspaper, No 54, December 1995

HONG KONG. The question of what remains of Tibet's cultural heritage is a
tricky one. A certain amount survives with the Dalai Lama's government in
exile in Dharamsala, as also in the former Tibetan kingdoms of eastern
Kashmir and northern Nepal, and in the Indian territory of Sikkim and the
kingdom of Bhutan. However, in Tibet's heartland, now known as the Tibet
Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China (PRC), it has been
estimated that perhaps more than 90% of the region's monuments, palaces,
monasteries, temples and libraries have been destroyed or looted since the
1950s. While a great deal of that destruction can be marked up to the evils
of the Cultural Revolution, the PRC's current policy of "Socialism with
Capitalist characteristics" has engendered a property speculation and
building boom that has virtually spelled the end for much of what managed
to survive the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the capital Lhasa.

There have been efforts by the region's government, primarily within the
capital, to preserve a few major monuments, such as the Potala Palace and
the "Lhasa Cathedral", the Jokhang. While their efforts must be applauded,
the painful truth is that the fanfare and bustle around the preservation
of these few "tourist" sites had tended to deflect attention from other,
equally, if not more, important sites that are either under threat from the
wrecker's ball or will simply collapse due to years of misuse followed by

It was with this in mind that a year ago a group, made up primarily of
specialists on Tibet and Tibetan art, was formed in Paris to identify and
fund the preservation of sites on the Tibetan plateau. Naming them selves
the Shalu Association and led by Dr. Heather Stoddard, Head of the Tibetan
Section of the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales
(INALCO), the group envisaged working together with the government of
Tibet Autonomous Region and the local population to preserve and restore
selected sites. In effect, they hoped to help foster and guide a grassroots
movement for the preservation of the plateau's cultural heritage.This they
would do by contributing funds (donations to the association), hands-on
organisation of the projects, and by serving as a conduit for the people of
Tibet to gain access to Western specialists and Western techniques of
restoration and preservation.

After one year of activity, the group has gone a long way to realising its
goals. Working together with the Cultural Committee of the Norbulingka
(Summer Palace) and with the director of the Potala Palace, Jamyang. the
group's proposed activities to restore a group of six sites-four
monasteries, a temple and a manor house-was also given the approval by the
region's Department of Culture. The plan to involve the local communities
has also been a success. With all but one of the chosen sites active or
re-activated religious buildings, both monks and laity have contributed to
the labour force and even funding of the projects. To quote Sonam Wangdu of
the Norbulingka, "everybody is working as if for their own family".

All of the sites were chosen because they were considered by Shalu
Association to be of top historical and artistic importance. One of the
great water-sheds of Tibetan culture was the period of the diffusion of
Buddhism in Tibet, which began in the late tenth century. Four of the
sites date from this general peri od: the temple of Yemar and the
monasteries of Shalu (after which the association was named), Drathang and
Rithang. Of these, Shalu and Drathang contain price-less wall paintings
dating from the eleventh century, while the temple of Yemar has fragments
of stucco sculpture from this peri od. Founded in the twelfth century,
Rithang contains murals in the style of the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries. The paintings and sculpture in this group of buildings alone
form a treasure house of an artistic period in Ti bet's history of which
there are few other extant examples.

The fourth monastery being restored with the association's help is Gongkar
Chode, founded in the sixteenth century and with magnificent murals dating
from this more "baroque" period of Tibetan painting. The last site, the
house of Namseling dates from the fourteenth century, and is the only one
of these palaces of Tibet's secular nobility with its walls standing.

As far as reconstruction is concerned, workers are hired or volunteer to
rebuild walls and roofs, as this part of the restoration relies primarily
on local construction techniques, many of which would not be much
different from not be much different from those used when these buildings
were originally erected. When it comes to preserving the painting and
sculpture, however, more expertise is needed. The workshops that first
made these works have long since disappeared, and the tendency of local
communities has been to repaint the sculptures garishly and to over-paint
or heavily touch-up the murals. It can be argued that most of these
structures are primarily for the needs of the Buddhist faithful and not to
be enshrined as museums, but the Shalu Association also believes that this
primary purpose can be maintained with out sacrificing artistic heritage.
Next year the association is fund ing a three-month stay in France -for two
Tibetan students to train with Jean-Michel Terrier, an ex pert restorer for
the Musees de France and a specialist in Tibetan art. Another six Tibetan
students will undergo similar training in Tibet with another conservation

Given the extent of their activities, the association's costs are
surprisingly low, the combined budget 1996 for the two largest projects,
Shalu and Namseling, reaching only $96,O0O, to include the two training
programmes. A sum like that might easily be paid by a Tibetan art lover for
a single thangka or bronze sculpture, which gives pause for the thought
that perhaps some of that money could be better spent preserving sites in
Tibet rather than just pur chasing fragments outside of it.

[For further information, contact the Shalu Association, P.O.BOX 150,
75263 Pads cedex 06, France]

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Helping Tibet help itself - A Paris-based organisation is working with local groups to restore monasteries and other historic sites
  2. White House Reportedly Abandons Effort to Block Ex-Im Aid for Three Gorges Dam - American Firms Confident They Will Get Green Light

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