Sumda Chun Gonpa

Raja Jigmed Namgyal


Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art & Culture

B-25,Qutab Institutional Area,Tara Crescent Road New Delhi

Leh, India
UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation 2011


Conservation of Sumda Chun Gonpa







Introduction
The conservation of Sumda Chun Gonpa was initiated by Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture (NIRLAC) in collaboration with the Hemis Gonpa authorities and the community of Sumda Chun to augment the tradition of repair and renewal of sacred heritage that has continued for centuries in Ladakh. Sponsored by the World Monuments Fund, the collaborative conservation programme brought together a multi-dimensional team of traditional master craftsmen, artists and knowledge holders with conservation architects, art conservators and engineers to carry out one of the largest restoration efforts in the region. The project helped the community understand conservation needs and techniques better while sensitizing conservators and architects to the requirements and expectations of the custodians. Beyond the objectivity of the programme specific to the site, the project has also been instrumental in creating a pool of human resource that could be used for similar works at other endangered places in the region.
 
Aims and objectives

 The principal aim of the community and the Hemis Gonpa authorities was to safeguard and restore the 12th century living temple complex. Being a religious site, it was required that the activities planned towards its conservation-restoration respect its sanctity and intervention strategies be devised accordingly.
 
The objectives of the project therefore were:-
a) Aid the centuries old tradition of community participation in the repair, maintenance and renewal of their collective cultural heritage.
b) Work with master craftsperson's and employ traditional techniques using locally available material to demonstrate the replicability of traditional technology for conservation and building activity.
c) Provide expertise for complex interventions that necessitate technical inputs to supplement available building and craft skills.
d) Generate awareness amongst the community, especially the youth, on the potentials of current conservation practices and their employability.
e) Demonstrate the integration of technical processes with traditional crafts in carrying out the conservation of cultural property to the satisfaction of community expectations within the parameters of conservation principles.
 
The site and the building
 Remotely located in the Zanskar ranges of Ladakh, the monastic complex of Sumda Chun includes one of the very few surviving early period Buddhist temples, decorated in the interiors with exquisite wall paintings and stucco sculptures in the style of Western Tibetan art.  At Sumda Chun, the prominent white temple perched on the hillside, dominating a small settlement of a few houses and fields below is all that remains of the original monastic complex believed to having once extended over the entire hill. 
The temple building is distinctively divided over an entrance veranda, assembly hall (dukhang) and two ancillary chambers. In keeping with traditional construction techniques, the structure has been built with stone and mud mortar and finished with mud plaster. Flanking the temple are  the two  small  ancillary  chambers  that  can  be entered  from  low  doorways  directly  from  the  courtyard.
 
Paintings and sculptures
 All the walls in the interior of the assembly hall are  elaborately  decorated  with  wall  paintings,  the  oldest  of which  are  considered  to  date  to  the  12th  century  AD.  Around  half the  original wall  paintings  have  been  lost  or  painted  over  and now  stand  replaced  with  newer  ones, the latter distinguished by their appearance, stylistic technique and limited signs of surface deterioration.  The most striking decoration is however the shrine, an extraordinary assemblage of thirty seven stucco figures set in the walls of the niched chamber.  The  smaller  ancillary  chambers  to  the  north-east  and  south-west  of  the assembly  hall  are  found  to  house  monumental  four-armed stucco  sculptures of Bodhisattvas.
 
The project
On assessment it was perceived that heavy rains at some point in time had probably brought down part of the south-east faccedil;ade of the assembly hall and the two side chapels as none of them preserved their original entrance wall. Due to climatic change, increased rainfall over the past few decades had let to water seepage along parts of the roof damaging many wall paintings in the interiors.
 
Detailed examination of the decorative surfaces revealed that  they  had suffered  much  and  were under  constant  threat  of  damage  and deterioration due  to a variety of  reasons. Causes for concern were cracks in the walls coupled with bulging, wide long cracks on the walls were accompanied with detachment of the plaster from the support underneath, the  degradation  of  the  mud  plaster  and loss  of figurative  details  on  the  paintings due to running water from roof, Abrasions, scratches and loss of paint etc.
 
Integrity of the building was maintained using materials mostly sourced locally and similar to the original. The essential building form was upheld and no modifications to the available footprint undertaken. New elements were introduced after detailed assessment. Thus the roof was re-laid based on calculations and investigative exploratory works. Replacement of wooden purlins and planks was undertaken only where the original had either decayed beyond conservation or was missing altogether. Heavy-duty jacks were used to temporarily take the load of the ceiling and remove props so as to provide specially sourced wooden columns of Juniper wood in lieu, similar to those already existing. The authenticity of the original 12th century paintings and sculptures was kept alive by not attempting any inpainting/retouching on them and through controlled removal of non-original superficial material. Interventions were kept to the minimal to preserve the original and prevent further loss using material similar to the original constituents as far as possible. Work was monitored using appropriate instrumentation, macro and micro photography and by visual examination and subject to review from time to time. Trials of treatment procedures were tested before large-scale implementation.
 
The conservation of Sumda Chun Gonpa can thus serve as a benchmark to demonstrate the assimilation of vernacular skills with contemporary conservation standards in the preservation of the inalienable ls"physical' and ls"sacred' of a holy site.  It has been instrumental in empowering the community to work for the cause of safeguarding their common heritage through a platform for the sharing of ideas, experience and demonstration of skills.