Lost Treasures of Tibet to be Aired in Washington, D.C.

PBS, November 29, 2005

Washington, USA -- The local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station (WETA, Channel 26) in Washington, D.C. metropolitan area will broadcast from November 29 to December 1, 2005 a documentary on the effort by a team of architects and art conservators to save the historical Tibetan Buddhist art in a monastery in the remote kingdom of Mustang in Nepal, bordering Tibet.

<< This 15th-century wall painting in Thubchen Monastery depicts a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas - bodhi means 'enlightenment' and sattva means 'being' - are those who seek enlightenment not just for themselves but for all sentient beings. This image shows the wall painting as it appeared following restoration. Image Courtesy NOVA/PBS

According to the website of Lost Treasures of Tibet, "Mustang is a tiny kingdom barely touched by time, hemmed in by the world's tallest peaks along the northern border of Nepal. This speck of neglected land conceals a spectacular treasure from the past — the monastery of Thubchen, decorated with astonishing intricate and expressive medieval wall paintings.

Severely damaged by a leaking roof and stained by soot from the butter lamps of devout monks, the paintings are crumbling fast. Can a crack team of architects and art conservators save these unique survivals of Tibetan Buddhist art? Many local people want the images to be completely repainted, an act that they believe will restore their spiritual power. This clash between the values of western conservation and the beliefs that inspired the paintings adds to the drama of this program, shot inside a Shangri-La kingdom that has kept its secrets for centuries."

WETA will broadcast the documentary, produced in 2003, on November 29, 2005 at 8:00 pm., November 30, at 4:00am, and December 1 at 1:00 am.

You can get more information about this documentary, including the purchase of the video by going to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tibet/.

Following is the transcript of the documentary as posted on its website.


Lost Treasures of Tibet

Narrator: High in the Himalaya is a kingdom long forbidden to foreigners, a secret world, untouched for centuries, until its border recently opened for the first time. This is the kingdom of Mustang. The last surviving relics of an ancient world are found here, the Buddhist monasteries of old Tibet. They're crumbling from neglect, and sacred art, more than five hundred years old, may be lost forever.

John Sanday (American Himalayan Foundation): They're 15th century. They're priceless. These are masterpieces.

Narrator: Now foreigners have come to help save Mustang's treasures. The oldest religious site in the kingdom is threatened with total collapse. This 13th century cave monastery was carved into the heart of a high cliff. Most of it has eroded away, leaving a single secret shrine, probably beyond rescue.

John Sanday: This is beautiful. In my heart of hearts, if we did something and it went wrong, it would cause more strife and concern amongst everybody than if it just fell apart on its own.

Narrator: This temple will eventually tumble down the cliff. With it will go masterpieces from a lost world. There's nothing the foreign experts can do to save them, so the people of Mustang are asking what about the rest of their treasures?

John Sanday: We had no idea what we were in for. The first Westerners that had traveled up here in the recent past had caused a lot of aggravation and developed a sort of distrust for the local people.

Narrator: Now, trouble is brewing in Shangri La. This isolated kingdom in the Himalaya is facing a dilemma. The gods are peeling off the walls and the only ones who can fix the problem are outsiders. Can they be trusted with the sacred art of Mustang?

His Holiness Sakya Trizin (Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism): The Buddha said everything is impermanent, so, of course, life is impermanent. Everything is impermanent. The Buddha teaches us to prepare to face the impermanent, and the temples, statues, mural paintings and the whole tradition is part of the teachings.

Narrator: For Buddhists, we have only a temporary hold on Earth. Out of death and destruction comes rebirth.

John Sanday: Certainly I and most of the people that I'm working with have that feeling of impermanence up here—everything about the landscape, the environment. You are very aware of how impermanent life is. And I think it's a great symbol, really, of Mustang.

Narrator: The hidden treasures in the monasteries of Mustang are tragic examples of impermanence. These priceless displays of sacred art are now crumbling off the walls. A team of international conservators is trying to restore them, and Lama Guru Gyaltsen, a Tibetan monk, is traveling to the medieval city of Lo Manthang to inspect their work. He has been sent by the highest lama of the land. A journey of eight days will carry him across the high Himalaya to the fabled city of sacred art and temples.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen (Former Member of Parliament, Tibet): I have the impression that I am going on a pilgrimage because these places are quite sanctified for me. I haven't been to Mustang. This is really my first visit to Mustang.

Narrator: Once Mustang was a part of Tibet, but then Nepal claimed it as a district, later closing it off as a restricted area where outsiders were not welcome. The people of Lo Manthang, Mustang's capitol, are citizens of Nepal, but ethnically Tibetan.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: The Mustang people are Tibetans. They speak the Tibetan language; their origin is in the Tibetan culture.

Narrator: Mustang is a land untouched and ageless, the highest kingdom in the world. Life is as it was 500 years ago. Here, the sacred blends with the landscape.Long rock walls with the prayers of Buddha carved in each stone leave their impression on the passing minds of travelers. Religious structures are a form of art, a means to teach the world about Buddhist ideals. Pigments used on monuments mimic the vibrant hues of nearby mountains. Each stripe represents an individual deity. Fortress-like homes protect against the hostile forces of nature. Over time, the oldest structures, the monasteries and ancient palaces, have dissolved and crumbled, threatening the art, and cultural survival of all of Mustang.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: Without cultural identity, nothing remains of the people.

Narrator: Buddhism was born 2,500 years ago in northern India, when a wealthy young prince, named Siddhartha, caught sight of the poverty just outside his palace. Leaving his kingdom behind, he dedicated his life to finding a way to end human suffering. At the age of 35, he attained nirvana and became the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Today, the Buddhist population of the world is over 500 million.

For nearly 1,000 years, Buddhism has thrived in Tibet. Almost every village had a monastery. Each family sent at least one son to school to be a monk. More than a quarter of the Tibetan population was made up of monks and nuns.

In the Kingdom of Mustang, Buddhism still lives on, but the population is in decline. Fewer young people attend monastic school. Many move away to earn a living in India or Katmandu, the capital of Nepal.

In the largest village on the way to Lo Manthang, a young monk has emerged from three months of solitary meditation to drive out the evil forces surrounding the community. It is a yearly purging, and the entire town turns out.

For Lama Guru, it is a sad moment, a reminder that rituals like this are forbidden in his homeland. Tibet, as Lama Guru once knew it, no longer exists. He, like so many others, fled his country as a child.

In 1950, China invaded Tibet. A nation rooted in the Buddhist faith became a killing ground of all things sacred—religion was outlawed. Over a million Tibetans, a sixth of the population, were killed. Monks and nuns were systematically tortured, and more than 6,000 monasteries and the precious art inside were destroyed. The lifeblood of a culture has all but disappeared.

Mustang is now one of the last living vestiges of Tibetan culture, which is why Lama Guru has come so far. For him, it is a journey into his past.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: I was around six, seven years when I have left Tibet with my parents. I have a very faint remembrance about these things, you know. My elder brother was supposed to be taken to China. At that time so many youngsters are being collected by the Chinese for education. First I was on the back of my mother. Then...I still remember the pass, such high snowcapped mountains, with my brother going ahead with a pickax. And there is always danger of falling down.

Narrator: On the way to Lo Manthang is a hidden cave where deities are said to emanate from the walls. Buddhists come here on pilgrimage to see if they can make out the human-like forms. An old lama who escaped Tibet is the caretaker of the cave. He explains that those who can see the deities are closer to reaching enlightenment.

His Holiness Sakya Trizin: The people who have the highest development can see everything as deities. And people who are low in spiritual practice cannot see anything.

Caretaker, Cave Of Self Emanating Deities: At first the features looked very rough, but now it's smoothing out.

Narrator: To the believer, some 50 human-like figures seem to emerge from the cave walls where there's no obvious evidence of tool marks. For Buddhists, these are not mere objects, they are believed to transmit a living presence.

On a high pass at 13,000 feet, a view of Tibet is just beyond the distant hills, its border guarded by the Chinese. This is the first time Lama Guru has seen Tibet in years.

Stringing prayer flags will send words of compassion toward his homeland. An ancient practice that has lasted 1,000 years, pressing prayers onto cloth is the earliest form of printing in the Himalaya. The five elemental colors represent sky, cloud, fire, water and earth. And each prayer is believed to take flight on the heels of Lungta, the windhorse, who dispatches his messages in the four sacred directions.

In the valley below: Lo Manthang, the forbidden royal city, the Kingdom's crown jewel, an oasis in the high desert.

As in medieval times, the two great monasteries of Lo, painted in red, stand out against the surrounding houses. For five centuries, the 30-foot walls enclosing the city have kept out unwanted visitors.

In its heyday, Lo Manthang's wealth was legend, and so was its first ruler, a Tibetan warlord whose imposing white palace still houses his direct descendent, the King of Mustang. Mustang's early kings built the greatest monasteries of the land, Thubchen and Champa. They summoned the most celebrated artists of the day to adorn this sacred space.

His Holiness Sakya Trizin: The kings were very religious. They were very great in preserving the tradition and culture. That was the most glorious time of the Mustang era.

Narrator: Over 500 years ago, the monks from Tibet were attracted to Lo's great monasteries. Thubchen became a center of religious education for monks, who memorized religious books and studied logic and philosophy.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: Monasteries are the basis, or let us say the essence of the Tibetan culture. They initiate a lot of social works for educating the young children and also look after the welfare of their whole community. That is the life force of the culture.

Narrator: But today, the life force is dying out. Gathered around Lama Guru for picture taking is a tiny community of 70 lamas and students. It's a far cry from the religious complex of 1,000 monks that used to exist here. They are headed by the Khempo, the abbot of the monasteries of Lo.

Lama Guru receives a blessing from the Khempo to enter Thubchen monastery for the first time.

For Buddhists, the statues and paintings here are as real as the images they signify. Gleaming amidst the ruins is a statue of Lord Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist faith.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: To come here is a dream. I was really amazed how the Buddhism has flourished in these regions 500 years ago, but we are really sorry to find how things has been damaged. The condition is quite grim.

Narrator: Seventeen images of the Buddha and his attendants peer out from behind the grime. To the people, these are living deities, trapped behind a veil of soot. Entire pieces of the gods are missing where water has poured in from outside. The damage is so extensive, it obscures the greatness of the art, even to the experienced eye of architect John Sanday.

John Sanday: When I walked in for the first time I was very aware of the damage. It was only later on that I began to realize how fantastic the wall paintings actually were. They're 15th century. They're priceless. These are masterpieces.

Narrator: John Sanday is using his experience and skill as an architect to save Thubchen and its art. The temple is a classic example of traditional Tibetan architecture: a single great hall with 35 columns supporting a flat roof, the main cause of Thubchen's problems. Rainwater leaking in where the roof meets the walls has destroyed several wall paintings. Thubchen is slowly crumbling and so is the culture it sustains. No one has used it for worship for over a hundred years.

John Sanday: I remember my first trip up here, and seeing this ray of sunshine coming in from the roof and in that ray there was a little old lady covered in black, sitting. And I said, "Who's she?" And they said, "Oh, she's the woman responsible for lighting the butterlamp." And I said, "Is there nobody else?" And they said, "No, it's pretty dead."

So what are we doing here, restoring a temple where there's only one person? The most important thing to us is to put life back into this place. And so you can imagine, seeing how enormous it was, thinking "Well, where do we start?" I was a bit daunted by the whole thing.

Narrator: John Sanday started by hiring a local workforce to rip up the roof. Major sections of it will have to be replaced. It's an excavation into the past, digging up centuries-old rotting rafters.

John Sanday: Over the sectional joists, we're putting these round timbers. And then directly on top of that, flat stones, which come from the river, and then two layers of clay.

Narrator: Clay, or mud, is Mustang's unique technology. Every job requires its own formula, a precise set of ingredients, mixed to a certain consistency. The locals are masters in mud-laying, alchemists of earth, and their knowledge of the local clay is invaluable to John Sanday. Having restored Cambodia's Angkor Wat, he's no stranger to Asian architecture. But gaining the trust of the people of Mustang has become a new kind of challenge.

John Sanday: Everybody who comes here remarks, "This must be what it was like to live in the medieval period." The politics are certainly Byzantine, and we've had to wade our way through quite a lot in dealing with the community.

Narrator: With a growing outside interest in their monasteries, the people of Lo have come to feel proprietary about their heritage.

John Sanday: And what does he think of our work?

Narrator: Many of the townspeople are reluctant to place their sacred treasures in the hands of Westerners.

John Sanday: I remember my first warning, when we were told that we could go to Mustang. And they said, "Be very careful of the locals. You'll find them particularly difficult and bad-tempered." And I realized that one of the most important things is to gain people's confidence.

Man: [translation] Just because we were getting sponsorship for the restoration of the monastery, we just ran to accept it, thinking, "Oh, now we are getting something for free."

Narrator: The King of Mustang presides over a town meeting, one of many held in recent years to weigh the merits of accepting foreign funds. Every step of the renovation has been debated by the townspeople, who can call things to a halt any time they want.

Raja Jigme Palbar Bista (King of Mustang): If anyone has any complaints about the renovation, feel free to speak up at any time.

Indra: We can see what has been done so far and decide for ourselves whether it has been done well.

Narrator: With the roof now repaired, John is granted permission to go inside to clean Thubchen's deities. This will be in the hands of Rodolfo Lujan, an Asian art conservator out of Rome, trained in the same techniques used for the restoration of the Sistine Chapel.

Rodolfo Lujan (King Mahendra Trust): The Sistine Chapel was covered with soot, dust, smoke, coatings of various nature and what do we have here? Exactly the same thing. Nothing changes. And what do we find underneath all these dirt layer and so on? Color, brilliant colors.

Narrator: To clean the paintings without removing the paint itself will take a carefully balanced blend of solvents. They begin with a mixture of ethyl alcohol and powdered ammonium bicarbonate, both are known to dissolve grease and surface dirt. The wrong combination and the result could be catastrophic: stripping off 500-year-old pigments made from semi-precious stone.

Rodolfo Lujan: Now we can do a little test here, on gold. We did many tests, cleaning tests. We apply our cleaning solutions through tissue paper or through cotton. And we arrived to find a very safe way of cleaning, using a solvent that removes what is on top of the painting, but keeps the painting in its place.

The dirt went on the cotton swab and here. There are some areas and some pigments that need special care. And so, there, we go very carefully. Accidents can always happen. It's not good to exclude that you can take away a little bit of paint.

Narrator: Years of water damage have pulled the paintings away from plaster the consistency of dust. They're now hanging like curtains, barely clinging to the wall.

Rodolfo Lujan: We have a mud plaster that is for filling up the gap that is in between the plaster that is detached and the wall.

Narrator: Injections of a special adhesive will help consolidate flaking paint and separated plaster back to the wall. It is a hospital for high art.

With liquid mortar now injected through the surface of the painting, cavities are filled in with a final push.

Understanding what the paintings are attached to is critical to the conservator. At Thubchen, the easel, so to speak, is a mud wall that must be able to stand up through the centuries.

John Sanday: We're repairing a building which is built of impermanent materials. And we're faced with the problem of repairing and conserving that.

Narrator: John and his team are repairing a mud-based parapet on the roof of Thubchen. There are many words for mud in Lo Manthang: seesa, nun mato, pop and pung, but none is more fundamental than gyang.

John Sanday: Around the world it's known as adobe, and it comes actually from the local fields. The great secret about laying this stuff is that it should just be moist enough to be able to create a ball like this. So this is the perfect consistency, and they'll keep bringing this stuff in, ramming it, until it's absolutely solid and it hardens like concrete.

Narrator: Gyang is the building block for all of Mustang's ancient architecture. But over time, nature and neglect have prevailed. The walls of the kingdom are slowly dissolving away. And Thubchen's priceless art is affixed to these impermanent walls. By making gyang, these workers are reviving one of Mustang's forgotten technologies.

John Sanday: This is the first time gyang has been made in Lo Manthang for many, many years. So it's quite interesting getting the old process going again.

Narrator: Collected from the local hills, another special clay can prevent water from leaking through Thubchen's roof.

John Sanday: This particular type of clay contains salt. And the idea is that you spread it over the roof, and it will then soak in with the next rain. And the salts go into solution and they get into the interstices of the clay, and then they swell, and this actually provides a waterproof membrane to the roof.

Loba Man: Chuhun Dhina.

John Sanday: So he was explaining exactly what I've just told you, in fact, that it doesn't leak, is what he said, and I hope he's right.

It may look as though they are a bunch of children playing with mud, but, in fact, these guys are great specialists in setting up these roofs.

Narrator: Over the centuries, with each new leak, villagers have piled more dirt across Thubchen's roof. Now it weighs an estimated 200 tons. This enormous mass strains the interior columns and ceiling beams. As a result, the entire structure has shifted, weakening the timbers, causing cracks in the walls and paintings.

John Sanday: Now you have to remember that this structure is carrying an enormous load. We've got tons and tons of clay, and therefore you have to create a fairly strong beam.

Narrator: Each beam is an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. To understand the complex design, Sanday commissioned a model and discovered that many small timbers were combined to provide the strength of a single solid structure.

John Sanday: The strength in the makeup of this beam is in the way the timbers are arranged. You can see that there are at least 11 different levels of timber. And the purpose of this is to create a structural entity to spread the bearing point of the timbers. One has to remember that Thubchen represents one of the largest structures of its kind on the whole of the Tibetan Plateau. And this type of beam...you'll never find anything quite of this character and size anywhere else.

Narrator: Thubchen's timber structure was the innovation of master wood craftsmen.

John Sanday: I realized when we were embarking on this project that I needed to bring up a group of carpenters to teach the locals the whole process of how to repair and conserve timber structures.

Narrator: The carpenters come from a culture that probably built Mustang's great monasteries. They are the Newars, from Katmandu valley, known throughout the Himalaya for their artistic skill. Today, the tradition endures in Newar work, like that of Sateman, who is one of John's best carpenters.

John Sanday: We're very lucky that Sateman also trained to be a woodcarver. He's working on one of the great snow lions. There must have been 30 to 40 of them that have needed repair and conservation. It's nice to feel that we've brought the Newars back up into Mustang because their reputation certainly is famous in this area.

Narrator: The Newars are still based in Katmandu, but in the 15th century they were itinerant artisans whose skills were widely in demand.

Ian Alsop (AsianArt.com): They were also marvelous sculptors, both in stone and in metal. In Tibet, in particular, you had this very rich Buddhist culture with a great deal of wealth that served as a magnet to the Newar artists, because they were preferred by many of the lamas in Tibet.

Everybody said, "You want great work? Get a Newar, get a Newar artist."

Narrator: They were woodcarvers, sculptors and metalworkers, and they were also master painters, known across Asia for their use of vibrant colors. Vines and stylized flames painted in deep vermilion became a Newar signature. This motif, found on walls, was painted on a canvas of mud made of many precise layers.

Rodolfo Lujan: Here, we have a very developed mud-based technology.

Narrator: A mixture of straw, clay and cow dung water make up the first layer. The straw acts as an insulating layer, separating the paintings from the original wall. The cow dung helps stick the straw mixture to the wall.

Rodolfo Lujan: On top of that we have a sort of gravel, very fine gravel.

Narrator: The gravel acts as a cushion for the paintings, separating them from the straw. And, of course, cow dung again. The technique for sticking dung gravel is a sort of smear and then fling method.

Rodolfo Lujan: On top of this raw layer, we have finer layers made out of local clays.

Narrator: A smooth surface will be achieved by spreading on three layers of progressively finer clays.

Rodolfo Lujan: And then on top of this very polished layer, we have a final very thin layer which is called "Tsa," a very fine white compact clay that probably was mixed with animal glue and then polished.

Narrator: The technique is known as "secco," or dry wall. This method was vital to Michelangelo, who painted the Sistine Chapel in "fresco," a similar, but wet, plaster method, and Leonardo Da Vinci when he painted "The Last Supper" in secco. At the same time, Thubchen's walls were being painted.

Fifteenth century Tibet, in parallel with fifteenth century Europe, was experiencing a renaissance of high art. Surprisingly, both cultures, with no known connection, were constructing wall paintings using similar technologies.

Italian conservator Luigi Fieni uses an infrared camera to see if there's evidence of the hand of the master artist in the original drawings under the painting. Are there signatures or clues that could tell us who painted these masterpieces?

Luigi Fieni (Art Conservator): I'm using this infrared camera to try to discover what's underneath the surface of the painting. This camera reveals a difference between the preparatory sketches and the actual painting.

Narrator: Test sketches emerge in the margins. Underdrawings acted as guidelines or blueprints for the final images. Grids reveal a strict iconometry where deities were painted according to precisely determined proportions.

Luigi Fieni: On this attendant, we can see a vertical line that was probably part of the grid used to maintain proportions.

Narrator: Tibetan art is dictated by strict guidelines that require the precision of the draftsman's compass. The artist's process is as clinical as it is creative.

Rodolfo Lujan: You can have a huge image and a small image and the proportions are exactly the same. So the size of the head, the length of the neck...if you have it in this size, let's say a quarter of an inch or as big as these walls, the proportion must be absolutely the same. That doesn't change.

Narrator: Buddhist art is not designed for personal expression. Every hand position, or "mudra," of Buddha, for example, has a specific meaning and can convey the difference between his moment of enlightenment and his role as a teacher.

Special markings conveyed instructions, mainly for color. On Thubchen's walls, master artists created a huge schematic for painting by numbers.

Rodolfo Lujan: There were maybe four or five masters. Each one has its own style. And they had their apprentices, their helpers and so on.

Narrator: Apprentices followed directions noted on the walls and applied the pigments one at a time. Most were made from semi-precious stone, like vermilion for red or orpiment for yellow, which takes three months to grind to a powder. Pure gold was the final paint applied, often to the jewelry of Buddha's attendants.

Yet there is one glaring omission: the paintings bear no signature. For Buddhists, it is the subject, not the artist that endures.It has taken years of effort for the team to clean these enormous murals. John and Rodolfo hope the townspeople will approve of their work. As if drawing back a curtain for the first time, Rodolfo is stunned at the quality of the work he has revealed.

Rodolfo Lujan: These paintings of the 15th century, these are very beautiful images. The technique was perfect, the quality of the pigments, the execution itself of the paintings, extremely refined. These are exceptional, I should say optimum, optimum paintings.

The high quality that we find here in Thubchen, we find it also in Italian Renaissance period. And maybe the quality's even better than a great name, as a Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphaelo, and so on. You have excellent artists that were completely unknown. Who will we revere if we don't have a name?

Ian Alsop: It wasn't that the artists were selfless individuals who really didn't care about fame or glory. I think, in fact, like all artists they were very proud of their skills, very proud of their talents and very eager to be recognized for what they had done. But it was just plain not the custom to sign your name. You were known to your neighbors. You were known to the court.

You were known to the kings, to the high lamas. That was enough.

Narrator: But it's not enough for art historians today who debate which artistic tradition the paintings could have come from.

Ian Alsop: I see a lot of Newar elements. I see that love of the red, of the deep red as a dominant color. I see the hand gestures, the way the hands are drawn. I see the use of the red on red, vine shapes in the backgrounds—very figurative, very symbolic. These are all Newar elements.

Narrator: But other influences can also be traced in the paintings.

Rodolfo Lujan: We have this very strong Chinese influence, for example all the brocades. They appear like being Chinese silk.

Ian Alsop: You can see they're Chinese in style and pattern. Those brocades were luxury goods throughout the world. The Chinese were famous for silk. Those silks were used in Tibet, were donated by the Chinese emperors to the Tibetan Lamas and were the things that they actually would decorate the gods with. The Newars were famous for and very good at doing whatever the patron wanted.

Narrator: The art in Thubchen may reflect what we can truly call Tibetan, a crossroads of influences from Nepal, China and even India.

Ian Alsop: The style is a Tibetan style, it's a hybrid style. The single most important input into that style, in my opinion, is the Newar style.

When a high lama decided to build a new monastery, the news probably got around pretty quickly. Oftentimes, the best artists were in the itinerant business because that was where the action was. You can kind of relate it to the Italian Renaissance where you found that the great Italian artists would really move around all over the European continent following the wishes and desires of kings, princes and popes and cardinals. Whoever had the money, they got the best artists.

Narrator: The images in Thubchen document the historical life of the Buddha. His ears, long from years of wearing jewelry, signify his princely status, but his lack of adornments reflects his renunciation of all things material.

But how well do these newly cleaned murals convey the teachings of the Buddha? The King has come to see the results of the cleaning. Rodolfo and John hope that, with his approval, they will be able to move on to Mustang's other crumbling monasteries.

Tenzing: The goddess painting looks very good, right?

Narrator: The consensus: a job well done. But something's not quite right.King Raja Jigme Palbar Bista: Will they be painting in this crack as well?

Tenzing: Yes.

King Raja Jigme Palbar Bista: It would be better if they fix it.

Narrator: For the King, the conservators' work isn't finished. They must complete the deities by filling in the missing pieces.

King Raja Jigme Palbar Bista: They should try to paint the remaining part as it was before. We need the assistance of the experts to help us restore the art as it was in the past. Then it will be good. But if the restoration does not complete the art then it will do more harm than good. We have to worship what is there.

Narrator: The art inside Thubchen is fraught with cracks and missing pieces. To the people of Lo, these imperfections deface the living gods. In some places, they literally cut the gods in half.

Rodolfo Lujan: Here we have to reconstruct enormous areas of painting. In Europe, we would have left it just as we found it, in that very, let's say archaeological, way. But this is not the concept these people have. They need the complete image.

Narrator: The king and Khempo have asked Lama Guru to assess the situation.

Rodolfo Lujan: You can see here that the two points do not match. It's a very thin crack and so in this case, I was thinking to just leave the crack in that way. It's too light, so darkened, darkened in a way that the eye doesn't catch the crack by itself.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: Yeah, otherwise it will look a little bit of a scar, you know.

Rodolfo Lujan: Exactly.

Narrator: Lama Guru sees the cracks as scars deforming the deities.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: These arts has its own meaning. It is not for the sake of art. So in these works, one has to think from the point of view of the local people. Restoration in the sense means anything such damaged has to be restored completely. That is very, very important from the point of view of Tibetan Buddhism.

Rodolfo Lujan: It's another way of seeing art here. Art is not as we see it, but it's part of daily life here. It's not a way of saving it and putting it into a crystal box, but we live in contact with it.

Narrator: However sympathetic to the views of their Buddhist hosts, the conservators believe their role is to preserve what's there, not interpret what's missing. Rodolfo will complete the paintings, in some areas, but he will use delicate cross-hatching to differentiate his work from the original.

Rodolfo Lujan: This restoration with watercolors can be removed at any time.

Narrator: And the final product, to the naked eye, integrates the watercolors into the painting as a whole. But where the gaps are enormous, Thubchen may be scarred beyond repair.

Rodolfo Lujan: You can see here, we have this white plaster and then the drawing of what is missing. So we complete an image without painting, without interpreting, but only by a single red line. That is a compromise between the west and the east. So I think this is a good way of matching and respecting both ideas.

Narrator: But the people want the paintings completed, and if they have to, they'll find someone who can do it.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: When we see the incomplete and damaged murals, we feel something is missing. There are many such instances in the history when the Buddhist monasteries' arts and idols has been damaged. But every time somebody take the initiative to restore it.

Rodolfo Lujan: If they want to pay a good painter, I should say, should be an excellent painter, a great master, because the way of painting, of the original is, I think, impossible. It would be extremely costly, firstly. Then secondly, the quality of painting and feeling this kind of art, I think each period belongs to the time. So I don't know. If they want to paint with commercial paints, acrylic paints, it's up to them.

Narrator: If the conservators and the people of Mustang can't come to agreement, then the kingdom's remaining monasteries could be lost in the philosophical debate. John wants to begin work on Champa, the oldest monastery in Lo Manthang, but first the community needs to grant him permission. The town gathers to make a final decision.

John Sanday: As a result of the last meeting that we held in Champa, we have completed all the requests. One has to remember that we are visitors here. It's not our prerogative to dictate to the local community. We can maybe inspire them. We can advise them. But they're the ones that have the final say. I think in the long run our influence, our passion for these paintings will win through.

Narrator: But for now, John is given limited access to Champa. He can only affix the damaged paintings to the walls. These are the world's greatest surviving collection of 15th century mandalas, maze-like diagrams of the universe.

John Sanday: They are very fragile. They are literally, in many cases, hanging off the wall, and any major vibrations may cause these to fall off.

Narrator: Vibrations may become a real problem for Thubchen and Champa, for the kingdom is on the brink of change. Their horse-based culture, the only form of transportation for centuries, is about to be transformed.

A road is under construction—the first road in Mustang—soon to pass straight through Lo. If it goes as planned, trucks will roll dangerously close to the monasteries, threatening to topple them with the same force as a series of small earthquakes.

John Sanday: The direct effect is that it can start dislodging parts of the historic structures. And over a period of time, there's a buildup, which will eventually literally shake the structure to a point of collapse. Obviously these areas need roads, but it's a question of where you put that road.

King Raja Jigme Palbar Bista: If there are many vehicles then the horse culture may decline. Things are changing year after year. At present, our culture is still like the past, and until I die, I have hopes that it will remain like this.

Narrator: At Thubchen, the restored monastery, there are signs that the culture of the past is undergoing a revival. Three Tibetan businessmen, with permission to cross the border, have come here on pilgrimage to see the holy site.

Tibetan Pilgrim: In my area, there's just one monastery with only five monks. The Chinese destroyed all the others during the revolution.

Narrator: For the first time in over a century, the community gathers to worship here.

Lama Guru Gyaltsen: Since Tibet lost her independence, and because of the restrictions that exist there today, as a monk, I am very grateful to be able to stand here and give a talk in this precious monastery.

Narrator: Life has returned to Thubchen. And to mark the occasion, ten thousand butterlamps are lit. The old ways burn bright in the face of great change.

John Sanday: The whole concept of Buddhism is one of impermanence, and therefore—we have to face it—that our work is also impermanent.

Narrator: The future of this hidden kingdom is uncertain, but to the Buddhist way of thinking, everything is in the process of passing away but also of returning. And on the winds generated by the prayers of the windhorse are words of wisdom, encouraging a new Mustang to not let go of its past.

On NOVA's Website, go back in time and lead yourself on a visual journey through the hidden kingdoms of Mustang, at PBS.org or America Online, Keyword PBS.

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