Site Description

Guru Lhakhang is a single-storey chapel located to the southwest of the Leh Palace, overlooking a cluster of old residential buildings. Built to a rectangular plan, with stone foundations and 70cm thick mudbrick walls, it measures 9.25 by 8.80 meters (or, in Tibetan fashion, four pillars). The entrance faces east. The interior timber frame consists of four raised pillars, almost four meters high.

On the west wall behind the image Guru Rinpoche are modern wall paintings in good quality, showing Tsongkapa and several protector deities. On the south and west wall are very badly eroded traces of old murals, showing mandala-s, Buddha figures and unidentified smaller deities. According to the oral tradition preserved by the forty caretaker families, the Guru Lhakhang was founded by private initiative in the very early 17th century, soon after the Leh Palace was built.

An unsuccessful repair attempt was undertaken a little over a decade ago.

Damage Assessment

Roof leakage had caused considerable damage to the wall-paintings. The roof was visibly in poor shape, with bent and broken rafters and gaps and holes in the structure. The roof beams were twisted, and the brackets partially crushed. One pillar was missing and replaced by several prop-ups; the base of a second pillar was eroded. On the west wall, the old murals were lost and replaced by new paintings. The mural fragments on the east and south walls are thought to be original. The north wall was damaged by erosion, and on the south-west corner were deep cracks. The roof parapet was partly eroded, and the sky-light that existed at one time was gone.

Intervention 2004-2005

The work on the Guru Lhakhang started on June 16 2004. Structural work was completed in 2004, while painting conservation work was carried out from April to August 2005.

Because of the poor condition of the roof, it was decided to open it up and to reconstruct it in its entirety. Damaged timber elements were replaced. One of the roof beams consisted of a single nine-meter piece of wood spanning the entire building length. Unfortunately, it was rather bent and unsuitable. It was replaced by three separate beams with dovetail joints. The three old pillars were kept, and the missing one replaced. The four ka-zhu (brackets) were replaced and re-enforced with walnut wood (an old Tibetan practice).

In Ladakh, the Ka-zhu brackets are generally made from poplar, a very soft wood vulnerable to the pressure of the roof weight.

The parapet was rebuilt, and decorated with the traditional penbey frieze (bundled brushwood, Tib. span bad), designating a building as temple or monastery.

The concrete layer on the floor was removed, and replaced by a traditional stamped clay floor made with “Tap-sa”, the material used to build the traditional Ladakhi clay stoves.

The north wall had been repaired only quite recently, which led to the loss of all mural fragments on this side. However, it was structurally not sound. We therefore rebuilt it, 70cm thick, in traditional Ladakhi stone masonry for greater stability. On the other three sides the cracks in the mudbrick walls were tied with slate stone according to the traditional Tibetan practice, with the underlying structural faults removed.

The 17th century mural fragments were painstakingly cleaned and preserved as fragments in situ. A separate report on this work will be made available here shortly as pdf file.

This was THF's first conservation project in Ladakh. We spent several weeks looking for suitable local artisans to put together a team for long-term work on the Leh Old Town Project. The Guru Lhakhang project was a useful training ground for these artisans, and several Tibetan conservation techniques were successfully transmitted. A water-proofing workshop introducing the Tibetan arga technique was planned here for 2006 but could not be realized due to lack of funds.

Guru Lhakhang team: Jamyang Tarchin and Sonam Dorje, masons; Tsering Dorje and Tsering Puntsok, carpenters; Konchok Rafstan and Lharigtso, local project coordinators; Stanzin Angmo, accountant; Suzy Hesse, mural conservation; Yangchem Dolma and Skarma Lotus, mural conservation trainees; André Alexander, planning and supervision.

A report by Suzy Hesse in German about the Guru Lhakhang conservation work is available in the download section.

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