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Reincarnation of a Gonpa's mystique


TIME TRAVELLERS: A stucco sculpture (above) and a painting (below right) inside the 10th century Sumda Chun monastery, 65 kms from Leh. (Right) The restored facade of the monastery

Sumda Chun, an important surviving example of early Tibetan Buddhist temple architecture in Ladakh, is winning accolades for meticulous restoration

Besides stunning moonscapes, Ladakh also offers a lot to those who cherish cultural treasures. But even in a land famous for its many ancient monasteries, the effort to restore one beautiful example is garnering global acclaim.

In addition to being a destination that only the more intrepid can hope to reach, Sumda Chun Gonpa, a 10th-century Buddhist monastery perched on a hill 65 km south west of Leh, could now probably lay claim to being one of the most exclusive items on the region's tourism menu. This is largely because it has just been brought back from the brink of total collapse.

In fact, the monastery - situated at an altitude of 12, 700 feet - had figured in the World Monuments Fund's watchlist of 100 most endangered sites in 2006. It was restored with great care and dexterity in a four-year project led by NIRLAC, the Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture.

Accolades have followed. The restoration work, which was also supported by the New Yorkbased World Monuments Fund, received the highest heritage award, the UNESCO Asia Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2011 and the Travel + Leisure magazine's Global Vision Award in 2012. NIRLAC is no stranger to such recognition, though. It has won many awards for its conservation work in the region, including more UNESCO awards for the conservation of Shey Dorjey Chenmo and Maitriya Temples in Basgo, Ladakh, and The Best in Heritage Award 2011 from the European Heritage Association.

"Given the situation we had found it in, the monastery would have been in great trouble, " recalls Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal, a member of the erstwhile royal family and secretary of NIRLAC. "Our conservation work at Sumda Chun was different and important because we involved the communities whose lives revolve around the monastery. We worked with local masons and carpenters, with the idea that knowledge had to be disseminated to the people directly concerned with the monastery. Of course, my team was present to resolve any problem, " he adds.

Sumda Chun, accessible only by a 3-4 hour hike up a steep river valley trail, is one of the most important surviving early Tibetan Buddhist temples of the region. Once a sprawling complex, only a few of its structures stand today. These include the assembly hall, the main shrine and the stupas. The murals in the assembly hall are rare examples of the formative influences on Tibetan Buddhism art while the altar niche contains a shrine adorned with 37 stucco sculptures.

"As in the past, locals continue to practise traditional values as a part of the sacred landscape. They try to complete the circumvention of all the historic monasteries in the region - Sumda Chun, Sumda Chenmo, Mangyu and Alchi - in one day, " points out Namgyal.

The region's changing climate posed the greatest threat to the monastery. Its roofing system was built to endure mostly dry weather but increased rainfall in the region over successive centuries had led to fissures, damaging the exquisite interiors. "Our consultants were from Delhi but there are very few art historians who have an understanding of Buddhist Iconography. However, we had our job well cut out for us. We did not move anything and used traditional methodology for restoration. We tried to maintain it the way it was originally, purely from a scientific perspective, " Namgyal states.

Though footloose travellers have already begun to trek to Sumda Chun, Namgyal rues that Ladakh is not yet a discernible part of the Incredible India experience. That's not difficult to believe considering that the region is too small a constituency - both political and otherwise - to leave any enduring impact on the national mindscape;it sends one MP to the Lok Sabha.

"Ladakh needs a bit more serious attention than it does now. Our big problem is to maintain the fragile ecological balance in the Himalayas, " says Namgyal, whose NGO has taken up several complex projects in Ladakh. These include, among others, documenting Thangka paintings in major monasteries of the region like Hemis, Matho, Likir and Stakna;restoration of the 15th century-Matriya temples at Basgo;and creating an inventory of Ladakh's cultural resources in a four-volume book called 'The Legacy of Mountain People'.

A part of that much-needed prominence can come from hitherto untouched sites like Sumda Chun whose exquisite location and beautiful interiors are a good enough reason to make one undertake an exclusive art pilgrimage.


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