Bodhisattva, 15th century, Leh Red Maitreya Temple, mural recovered from white-washed wall by THF in 2006Introduction
THF's wall-painting conservation programs has four main aims:

research and identify historic wall-painting technologies used within the Tibetan cultural realm

train local restorers

help to preserve endangered historic wall-paintings

restore historic wall-paintings so that the needs of local Buddhist practitioners can be met while also adhering to international practices of distinguishability and reversability

The program is carried out in cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt (TFH) (thanks to Prof. Meinhard Landmann and Suzy Hesse), German restorers Christine and Patrick Jürgens and Romanian restorer Anca Nicolaescu. Uli Eltgen, Ute Griesser and Melodie Bonnat have also been involved.

During the years THF had several trainees, in Ladakh Yangchen Dolma, Skarma Lotus and Samsten; and in Qinghai Ms Choekyi and Shardruktso. Two of the Ladakhi students have spent three months at the Erfurt University (TFH) in 2007, learning how to work with tools and technologies in the conservation laboratories.

THF’s completed wall-painting conservation projects include the Leh Guru Lhakhang (2004-2005), the Leh Red Maitreya Temple (2005-2008) and the Alchi Tsatsapuri Temple (2006-2011, Alchi Lotsawa Lhakhang (2015-2016), Phyang Guru Lhakhang (2016-2017)in Ladakh and Gangtok Tsuklakhang (2011-2013) and Lachen Manikhang (2012-2012) in Sikkim. The Achung Namdzong cave temple (2005-2006) and Ragya Monastery's Gyupa Dratsang (2003-2006), Jentsa Serkhang monastery (2008-2009), Kartsok Lhakhang (2011-2012), Jentsa Serkhang monastery (2008-2009), Kartsok Lhakhang (2011-2012) in Qinghai. Patrick Jürgens has prepared a summary report of the 2008 intervention in Alchi Tsatsapuri.

Ladakh Guru Lhakhang restoration team 05: Suzy Hesse, Yangchen, Skarma and DanielPhoto: the Ladakh Wall-painting conservation team 2005. Suzy Hesse from Erfurt University of Applied Sciences with the two trainees Yangchen and Skarma and volunteer Daniel. Until 2005 there were no qualified local restorers of wall-paintings available in Ladakh. In cooperation with Ms Suzy Hesse of the Erfurt University Restoration School, THF has begun a training program with two Ladakhi participants. Ms Yangchen, a native of the Nubra valley was very motivated to learn about mural conservation and Mr. Skarma, of Kaltsi village, has had formal training in traditional painting and knows the current painting techniques first-hand. They join the first training phase the following basic skills were successfully transmitted: - correct approach - basic infill of cracks - “easy” cleaning (removing water and mud stains with cotton pads) - adequate retouching of background colours.

Anca Nicolaescu working on 15th-century wall-paintings in the Leh Red Maitreya TemplePhoto: Anca Nicolaescu investigating the 15th century wall-paintings in the Red Maitreya Temple in Leh. The Red Maitreya temple was built by king Tragspa Bumde (r. ca.1400-1440). It was damaged during the Dogra invasion of the 1840s but restored soon after.In the late 1950s, because of water damage to the north wall, the main hall was rebuilt to smaller scale, leaving only the original north and west walls standing to form an outer corridor around a new hall.The paintings on those sections were white-washed at the time and then forgotten. In 2005 they were rediscovered by THF.

Christine Jürgens cleaning murals in Achung NamdzongPhoto: Christine Jürgens cleaning and stabilizing murals in the Achung Namdzong cave in Qinghai. The condition of wall paintings were in very poor condition and large parts of plaster has fallen down, many of the original painting were lost. All wall and the ceilling were blackened by soot and it was very difficult to make out a most of details of the mural without the help of additional light.

Christine Jürgens has also prepared a toolkit for THF's wall-painting program, and we plan to publish here the results of our research of wall-painting technologies, such as pigment analysis and analysis of composition of painting layers.

Alchi Tsatsapuri (14-15th century)

Alchi Tsatsapuri is a little-know temple complex situated in close vicinity to the very famous Alchi Choskhor in Ladakh. It contains superb early wall-paintings. The Tsatsapuri complex was built sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries, and consists of three buildings arranged around a central courtyard, plus a ruined residential wing.
There is a large amount of preserved historic wall-paintings are reasonably well-preserved, but extremely vulnerable and the roofs are leaking. Some areas have suffered heavy damage through leaks already, and in some areas there has been a dramatic loss of pigments and even complete paint layer.

In 2008, with support from the Embassy of Germany in Dehli and the Cultural Funds of the German Foreign Ministry, restorers Patrick and Christine Jürgens developed an intervention concept, and together with students from Ladakh and from Erfurt and Cologne in Germany have begun working on cleaning, stabilizing and conserving the paintings in two of the three buildings. These are the lama's former residence and reception room (in recent years locally re-named as Latho Lhakhang as the Tongspon family have relocated their family Lhato from a mountain top to here) and the Tsatsapuri Stupa Hall. To satisfy the needs of the local Buddhist practitioners, important images will be iconographically "completed" using distinguishable and reversible retouching in accordance with international standards. Our local team of artisans has begun restoring the structural balance of these buildings and repairing the roofs. A summary report about our work in 2008 in German language is available here.

Jentsa Serkhang (14th century)

The Sangye Lhakhang Temple in the centre of Serkhang Monastery is the oldest building of the complex and can be dated to the 14th century. Its interior circumambulation passage was entirely painted with murals depicting arrangements of deities and lamas. During the 1960s, they were plastered over.

A complete iconographic assessment was one of the aims of the project.

For the conservation of the historic wall-paintings, THF worked with German restorers Christine and Patrick Jürgens who started with documentation, analysis and tests in 2006.

After they work on cleaning and stabilizing. In the Tibetan context, it is important that the original iconography of an image is complete, particularly the face and the hands. Therefore, in order to satisfy the requirements of the local community, some degree of re-touching was applied.

Because of the complete lack of trained Tibetan restorers, THF has placed priority on training a local team. THF conservation of historic Tibetan Buddhist wall-paintings in Amdo Serkhang trainee team consisted of two Tibetan and one Mongolian students who being trained on site by the conservators experts.

The paintings on the wooden panel in Serchi Labrang (Lama’s room) in Serkhang monastery have been treated in 2009.

The painted surface was covered with a thick layer of aged varnish which was damaging them physically producing paint flake and aesthetically by obscuring their original chromatic and iconography.

The painted panels were consolidated, the old varnish removed, the small losses filled with a special filler and retouched with recognizable texture with water colours. The paintings were at the end protected with a layer of stable varnish.

Lachen (18th century) – Northern Sikkim

The mural paintings from Mani Lakhnag (Lachen village) have been severely affected by the September 2011 earthquake. The wall paintings were gravely detached from the walls with significant collapsed areas, and possible future losses.

After several discussions with the local community and the successful conservation example from Tsukhlakhang in Gangtok, where the treated murals survived unscathed, the THF’s team was invited to intervene and save the original wall paintings from Mani Lakhang.

The international conservation team led by Katrin Klause, together with the local trainees Yangchen Dolma from Ladakh and Tenzing Norgay from Sikkim and supervised by the French conservator Melodie Bonnat stabilized successfully the murals between 2012-2013.

Tsuklakhang (1920 )– Gangtok, Sikkim

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.

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.

THF and the Tsuklakhang Trust agreed to jointly take on the project to restore the paintings to their original condition.

In March 2011 André arrived with THF team 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 important wall paintings from the royal temple in Gangtok were obscured by an unsuitable thick and brittle varnish layer which has been applied during time. The varnish it was damaging both, aesthetically and physically the murals provoking exfoliations of the paint layer.

The conservation project included support and paint layer consolidations, removal of the aged, instable, browned varnish and research of a new protective varnish stable and suitable for this type of murals.

The extensive project lasted three years (2011-2013), with the participation of international conservators and the local trainees from Ladakh (Yangchen Dolma, Skarma Lotus) and from Sikkim Tenzing Norgay supervised by the Romanian conservator Anca Nicolaescu.

Lotsawa Lhakhang (15th century)

Lotsawa Lhakhang is owned by the small community from Shangrong village in Alchi and looked after by Likir monastery. The temple’s structure and its wall paintings were severely damaged during times of neglect when animals were sheltered inside, and children played, stoning the walls. The roof was close to collapse due to the excessive weight added onto the roof through usual maintenance works done in the past.

The main interventions required were the stabilization of the architectural structure, and the reattachment of the clay support delaminations, and paint layers exfoliations.

The conservation works were done during the years 2014-2015 involving an international team of conservators and three locals, which have been part of THF training program since 2005: Yangchen Dolma, Skarma Lotus from Ladakh and Tenzing Norgay from Sikkim; under the supervision of the Romanian conservator Anca Nicolaescu.

Chumathang (17th century)

The Thupstan Chosling Gompa is ancient temple of Druk-pa Kagyu lineage founded by Lama Chozey Lakpa in 1631. Druk-pa Kagyu lineage was widely spread in Bhutan and Ladakh in the 17th century.
According to the villagers, this temple was once the center of the settlement, but the village shifted to the hillside. Now only this temple remains on the site and yet it is worshiped by the community daily.

The interior walls are painted with wall painting on whole four sides, covering an area of approx.30m2.
The iconographic contents are mainly the founders of Kagyu school, figures of Drukpa lineage, Buddha, Padmasambhava, Long life Buddha/Tsepame, Vajradhara/Dorje-Chang, white-Tara/Dolkar, Bodhisattvas, Mahakara and Chana-Dorje etc. and filled with small images and figures. Also there are several Tibetan inscriptions written on the walls, those may help to find more about the history of this temple. Those paintings are important and highly valuable to the local community for their daily worship.

The temple has been surveyed in 2014 and the mural paintings were found in a fairly good condition, only several minor cracks mainly in the corners. The area above the door was more damaged; cracks and detachments were affecting almost the whole area and small fragments of the painting were lost.

Our emergency intervention from 2014 consisted in stabilizing the detached area above the door and all the possible damages at the top of the walls or along the cracks to avoid any further damages during the structural interventions. For the same reason the upper part of the walls was protected in the necessary areas with Japanese paper.

In 2015, after the structural intervention at the roof level the murals were checked thoroughly, and everything found unstable was consolidated. All the gaps and cracks of the support layer were filled up to the level of the preparation layer with soil mortar.

The murals have been lightly cleaned with soft brushes and sponges and the paint layer fixated where necessary. The fillings have been retouched with watercolours.

Guru Lhakhang (14th century)

The mural ensemble from Guru Lhakhang constitutes an important cultural and religious value to the community and a significant art-historical record of the place with educational and research value.

The paintings had acute paint layer damages leading to paint losses, due to failure of the roof and improper previous interventions (1998); but otherwise in an overall good conservation condition.

Our project’s aim was the stabilization of the wall paintings and architectural repairs, avoiding thought further losses.
During the research stage, extensive consolidation tests were carried out, due to the water sensitivity of the murals.
The project took place over a period of three years during the summers of 2016-2018 involving an international team of conservators and three locals, which have been part of THF training program since 2005: Yangchen Dolma, Skarma Lotus from Ladakh and Tenzing Norgay from Sikkim; under the supervision of the Romanian conservator Anca Nicolaescu.

Copyright, Tibet Heritage Fund