Sikkim's capital was moved to its present site at Gangtok (sGang thog) only in 1894, at an altitude of 1437m above sea level. Around 1920, the then Chogyal, Tashi Namgyal (r. 1914-1963) had a central Buddhist temple erected close to the royal palace. The Tsuklakhang, designed by Taring Rinpoche, served as Gangtok's central Buddhist temple.
Sikkim's population historically consisted of the indigenous Lepchas, many of whom follow Tibetan Buddhism, and the Bhutias who descended from 15th century Tibetan settlers, as well as ethnic Nepalese (who today from 75% of the population). The Sikkimese court enjoyed close relations with then-independent Tibet, and so the best artists from Lhasa and Shigatse were sent to paint the Gangtok Tsuklakhang's murals.
After the merger with India, ownership of the temple and the palace grounds were given to a newly-created charitable trust, the Tsuklakhang Trust.
On private initiative, HRH Highness, Princess Hope Leezum Namgyal, daughter of the last reigning Chogyal, Palden Tondup Namgyal (r. 1963-1975), invited THF's André Alexander to inspect the condition of the Tsuklakhang's wall-paintings, which had become very dark. Until then there had never been proper conservation efforts in Sikkim - damaged temples were simply rebuilt, old murals were painted new.
Description of the Tsuklakhang
The Tsuklakhang is built in traditional Tibetan temple architecture, east-facing, four-storeys tall with a typical gabled roof, white-washed stone walls, mud plaster and an internal timber frame.
The ground floor has a large assembly hall and altar, on level 2 is another large hall. There are also two smaller shrine rooms, and private rooms for visiting religious dignitaries on the top, including quarters for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama who stayed here in 1954 and visited in 2011.
In November 2011, the small THF delegation of André Alexander and Gurmit Tsewang found that the temple's building structure was in good condition. The wall-paintings had darkened, with some cracks and losses of plaster due to an earthquake decades ago.
Project Organization and Cooperation
THF and the Tsuklakhang Trust agreed to jointly take on the project to restore the paintings to their original condition, on a cost-sharing basis. Crucially, the Trust supplied lodging, food, purchase of locally available tools and materials, and some of the travel costs and costs for local artisans involved in the project (eg. for building the scaffolding.
THF supplied personnel and covered some administrative costs. The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation paid for some of the international wall-painting conservation experts (Charlotte, Lena and Ulrike).
The bulk of the work was financed by the Cultural Section of the German Embassy in Delhi, paying for the Ladakhi conservation teams and Anca and André.
In March 2011 the THF arrived in Gangtok to start the project. Ladakhi draftsman Gurmit Tsewang surveyed the Tsuklakhang and prepared measured drawings. Paris-based restorer Anca Nicolaescu from Romania documented the paintings and damages, and then carried out a series of tests to determine the best way to restore and conserve the wall-paintings. She was assisted by the team of Ladakhi trainees, Yangchen Dolma, Tsering Chorol, Skarma Lotos, later joined by Kesang Angmo. Project leader André Alexander coordinated the efforts and participated in the building documentation. The team also gave a presentation of their previous work in Tibet and Ladakh to Sikkimese government officials.
Anca Nicoleascu determined that the paintings were covered by soot and dust on the surface, and that the varnish applied probably soon after completion of the paintings in the 1920s had darkened and peeled of in many areas being improper as quality and way of application (unevenly, leaking..). The soot could be cleaned with special restoration soap (potassium hydroxide), and the varnish had to be removed with an alcohol-based solution. There were also many instances of flaking paint layer, which had to be stabilized. At the support level there were few important cracks and detachments of the plaster from the wall, which were in danger of falling. These had to be filled using a mix of finely sieved local clay and soil in a proportion, which was set up after trials.
Once the method was fixed, eight months of delicate cleaning and stabilizing work followed.
In 2012, Tsuklakhang Mural Conservation Project continued.
During 2012, the conservation work was carried out in four rooms in the Tsuklakhang temple. In the Dukhang, the main assembly hall on the ground floor, most of the work carried out was filling and re-touching of the paint layer losses. In Kangyul Lhakhang, the large chapel on the 1st floor, the removal of the old varnish and consolidation of the support layer were finished. The losses of the paint layer were filled in and retouched.
Conservation works were started in Khangso (protector room) and in the stairway hall with support consolidation and filling of cracks and support losses with earthen mortar.
New cleaning methodology was implemented using poultices with solvents for the old varnish removal which was very thick probably reapplied several times over the years.
The paint layer flakes were consolidated, and the losses retouched.
Tsuklakhang temple is an important place for Sikkimese people for their religious practices and cultural identity. Many people go to Tsuklakhang temple for their daily circumambulation and prayers, and to hold religious ceremonies in private as well as in public.
In 2013 research and tests were done to design a varnish for the wall paintings, which would replace the old one and would protect the lower part of the murals from possible friction damages during the religious rituals.
Earthquake in Sikkim
On 18 September 2011, Sikkim was struck by an earthquake of 6.9 Richter scale magnitude. Fortunately, not many people were hurt or killed, but many buildings were damaged, including a large number of historic monasteries.
The Tsuklakhang was unharmed. The already completed conservation of the paintings on the ground floor helped to prevent any damages, while on the upper floor, some pieces of already loosened plaster fell down. These were immediately saved by the team, and later reattached to the walls.
The paintings in the main hall on the ground floor were completely cleaned and stabilized. The paintings in the hall on level 2 were also cleaned and stabilized, and earthquake damages repaired.
The project trained the first Sikkimese restorer, tangka painter Tenzing from Lachen. Several monks also received basic training, as did princess Hope Leezum and family members.
THF received the total amount of INR 392,925.00 from the German Embassy.
We spent INR 168,786.00 on labour and related costs.
We spent INR 193,315.87 on transportation of the experts from their countries to Sikkim.
Finally, INR 53,319.32 were spent on materials.
A detailed list of expenditures is attached.
Reactions in Sikkim
Since this was the first restoration project of its kind in Sikkim, it generated great public interest. All the leading newspapers and magazines reported about it, and the temple received constant visitors.
THF Project Team
Project manager: André Alexander, 2011, Yutaka Hirako, 2012, Pimpim de Azevedo 2013
Building survey 2011: Gurmit Tsewang (Ladakh)
Painting conservation concept: Anca Nicolaescu
Supervision of Conservation Work:
Anca Nicolaescu (Romania/Paris), Charlotte Bellizzi (Malta), Lena Kätzel and Ulrike Haase (Germany).
Conservation team: Yangchen Dolma, Tsering Chorol, Kesang Angmo, Skarma Lotos (Ladakh), Tenzing (Sikkim), Emily Hick (Scotland).
Conservation volunteers: Andrew Thorn (Australia), Henriette Theurich (Germany),Emily Hick (Scotland)
Thanks to: HRH Princess Hope Leezum and husband Yapla, the Tsuklakhang Trust especially Tsetop Rakashar and many Sikkimese friends and supporters.
2011 Funding by:
Cultural Section, German Embassy Delhi
Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation
Private Estate of the Chogyal