LADAKH IS accurately described as a remote border land of Northern India, hidden amongst formidable mountain ranges. Yet despite its isolation, it is strategically located between some of the most important mercantile towns of South and Central Asia. For hundreds of years, caravans journeyed across the Ladakhi area carrying salt, spices and silk, but it was also along this route that Buddhism and diverse artistic traditions travelled. Ladakh was connected to the Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Khotan, to Guge in Western Tibet, Kashmir in India and to the great Buddhist centres of Gandhara, Gilgit and Uddiyana. Consequently, stylistic elements from all these areas are apparent in the art of Ladakh. Here, overlooking the Indus valley, the Matho Monastery has been a haven for followers of the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism since the 15th century and is home to an important oracle in the region.
Missionaries of the great Emperor Ashoka are believed to have introduced Buddhism into Ladakh during the 3rd century BC and Ladakh was crucial to the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet, in both its 1st and 2nd diffusions. Monasteries flourished and Ladakh became an enclave of the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist tradition which focuses on the Buddhist tantras as opposed to the sutras through which it is said to be possible to attain enlightenment in a single lifetime. Because of its location within India, Matho and many important monasteries with diverse stylistic collections of art have escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.
Over the centuries, various schools of Tibetan Buddhism have evolved. During the 13th and 14th centuries, an important period for Buddhist art throughout the Himalayas, it was the hierarchs of the Sakya tradition who were the political rulers of Tibet and the most influential in the sphere of Buddhism. Their power and prestige made them great patrons of the arts and they commissioned work by the leading artists from Tibet and Nepal. Their main monasteries, in particular the first Sakya monastery, founded in 1073, were in southern Tibet. The small monastery of Matho in Ladakh was built in the late 15th century and was the only Sakya centre in this area, a distinction it still holds. Whereas the main centres of Sakya activity in India and Nepal today have sprung up since the Tibetan exodus of the 1950s and 1960s, the lineage of the Matho monastery has a great deal of historical significance.
For the past two years, a team of Himalayan art specialists led by Ms. Nelly Rieuf have been conserving a collection of Buddhist art, which will lead to the creation of a museum in Matho monastery. This museum will exhibit objects while ensuring they retain their religious value and will also introduce this cultural heritage to a new audience. Objects which until now had a purely devotional and monastic function will now be used to educate visitors about Buddhism’s rich cultural heritage and as a platform for social bonding and building a common identity for people of the region. Critically, the display will not disturb the fundamental use of these ritual artefacts and these will be taken out when required for ceremonies. This project will not only preserve Matho’s Buddhist art for generations to come, but will also benefit the monks and the surrounding community. Nelly Rieuf and her team will train monks and local people in the art of restoration, thereby providing much needed employment.
The project originated with Dungsey Gyana Vajra, His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s son, who met Ms. Rieuf while on a trip to Nepal. Originally from Paris, she is a thangka restorer and studied Materials Science at Bordeaux Engineering University before moving to the Sorbonne for graduate work in Art Restoration and Art History. Ms. Rieuf trained with Jean-Michel Terrier, a pioneer in the field of thangka restoration, and in the workshop of Marion Boyer. Formerly of the Museé Guimet in Paris, Ms. Boyer is an internationally known thangka restorer for public and private collections in the West and is currently the curator of the Museé Elise Rieuf. Ms. Rieuf’s field experience came while working for the American Himalayan Foundation in Lo Mantang in Upper Mustang, Nepal. Here, Nelly focussed on the restoration of a 15th-century wall painting and was responsible for training 10 local restorers.
Three different teams bring their skills to the restoration project: one from Ladakh including monks from the monastery and women of Matho village, one from Nepal that has a long experience in painting restoration and one from Europe, expert in Western art or thangka restoration. The project at Matho is being closely followed by Lama Jamyang Lekshey, director of the Sakya Center, as well as Jamyang Gyaltsen, the president of the Matho Monastery’s Cultural and Welfare Society. World-renowned Himalayan art curators, Tibetan art historians, Tibetologists and architects are being consulted. Gathering the points of view of several experts in each field will allow the museum to benefit from their various fields of expertise. The collection, once well documented, will be registered with the International Committee of Museums.
Like any monastery, Matho monastery is somewhat detached from society to provide its monks an undisturbed place where they can meditate and study the teachings of the Buddha. Their role is to study and spread these teachings amongst the population who, in return, take care of them materially in recognition of the monks’ importance as teachers and the sacrifices they make in order to secure other people’s happiness and spiritual well being. Artefacts are the tools of this teaching and represent deities whose attributes individuals seek to emulate. For instance, the monastery’s White Manjushri thangka, dating from around the 14th century (illustrated) represents wisdom. In the two flowers he is holding are a sword that symbolises the killing of ignorance and a book that symbolises the knowledge of Dharma, the way to happiness and enlightenment. The very complex iconography of Himalayan Buddhist art comes from thousands of such symbols.
The monastery’s collection holds several ancient artefacts, some believed to date from the 9th century. These objects, of course, have a strong artistic value and this collection is varied enough to make a lively exhibition. Two hundred objects have been selected to illustrate the characteristics and influences of the main style streams of Himalayan Buddhist art history over time. Given the number of artefacts and their variety, the artefacts will be displayed in chronological order rather than by subject. This will allow visitors to appreciate the evolution of artisans’ virtuosity through time and across regions. Along with the style, the iconography and ethnological meaning will be explained.
For instance, the 9th-century Kashmiri style will be illustrated by the bronze figure of two deities (illustrated) whereas the slightly later 11th-century tradition is seen in the sculpture of Avalaokitesvara. The earliest thangka of the collection is the beautiful White Manjushri, mentioned above, which shows a strong Newari influence (illustrated). The 15th-century mandala of Mahavajrabhairava, the wrathful form of the Boddhisatva Manjushri, shows great dexterity on the part of the artist. It seems to have been quickly painted, but the balance of the colours and details likely come from a master’s hand. Moreover the mandala covers the lineage leaving visible only the heads of some of the masters.
The varied collection includes two particularly interesting pieces: thangkas representing the monasteries of Sakya and Ngor – considered to be the mother monasteries of the Sakya lineage and which were heavily damaged in the Cultural Revolution. The main artefacts found in Matho Monastery are similar to those found throughout the Himalayas – Buddhist murals; thangkas – 18 of which are believed to have been painted before the end of the 15th century; sculptures of clay, wood and metal; ritual implements; altar vessels; musical instruments; costume; religious texts and masks. The key items of importance are several clay statues and bronze sculptures dating from the 11th and 12th centuries; architectural thangkas depicting Sakya monasteries; Sakya lineage thangkas depicting important Sakya lamas and a selection of mandalas, sacred meditative diagrams representing the cosmos.
What differentiates the Matho Museum Project from other restoration endeavours is the methodology and mission behind it. Preservation will not only apply to the individual artefacts, but to the perpetuation of traditional methods of craftsmanship. The design of the building will follow the ancient Sakyapa style of architecture and local craftsmen will employ traditional construction methods. The architectural work and construction of the museum is being supervised by Suresh Sreshta, architect of several highly regarded museums in the Himalayan region and Yutaka Hirako, co-director and architect for the Tibet Heritage Fund, on the plans of the late Andre Alexander, founder of the Tibet Heritage Fund and a pioneer in the efforts to preserve Old Lhasa.
The museum is to be constructed within the monastery complex over three levels atop an existing 16th- century stone foundation that will be restored. The total interior area will be 225 m2. The roof terrace will be the highest point of the area, offering a bird’s eye view of the Indus valley framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Stok range in the South. Particular attention will be paid to preserving the nature of the monastery and it is imperative to point out that no restaurant, souvenir shop or vending machines will be installed. Assuming sufficient funds are raised, the museum is scheduled to open once the interior of the museum is finished, with a target date of 2014. Research on the pieces started last year and detailed dating studies are ongoing.
Funding for the project is being provided by private donations. The Good Karma Foundation spearheads the Matho Museum Project in the UK and Himalayan Art Preservation is the corresponding organisation in France. This project will allow the transmission of highly specialised skills for Himalayan art restoration and create sustainable jobs in a region rich in Buddhist heritage, but lacking outside investment. The project strives to preserve the ritualistic value of the collection even while items are exposed to visitors’ – local and foreign – as the beautiful fruits of an interesting and lively culture.
CONTRIBUTIONS FROM ZARA FLEMING, VEDA KHULPATEEA AND NELLY RIEUF
Events: a lecture - The Sacred Art of Ladakh, Preservation of the Matho Monastery Collection, is at Asia House, 18.30, on 7 November.