Today, the remains of dozens of fortified monasteriesm, many still in use, built of mud brick, wood, and stone centuries ago, house extraordinary works of art within them. The artistic works include murals, Thangkas (painted scrolls) and gilded images of Lord Buddha.
Though many of these monasteries continue to serve as centers of learning for vibrant monk communities, time has taken its toll on the buildings. These edifices have endured centuries of exposure to the elements and seismic activity.
In a few cases, well-intentioned efforts to shore up buildings have only compounded the damage.
But thanks to the endeavours of the Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture (NIRLAC), a Leh-based family trust headed by Chogyal Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal, for this monastery, bright days lie ahead.
Chogyal Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyals ancestors ruled Ladakh throughout much of its history-from 975 A.D till the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir annexed the their kingdom in 1846.
The 11th century murals within the Sumda Chun, are in dire need of conservation and this site has posed major logistical problems as well as conservation challenges for NIRLAC and its international partners.
“We were very concerned to notice the poor condition of mud roof, which had developed holes causing water leakage which could damage the 11th century wall paintings. So, we had to act very quickly, gather some resources, put together some proposals, put together a very solid conservation report. Over the past two years, we have been fortunate to get funding. To begin with the documentation has been completed. We have made some provisional repairs to the roof, the pasture and now the full restoration is underway,” said Mark Weber, Technical Director, World Monument Fund.
Conservators have to stay on site for weeks while materials are needed for work, including a tented camp and generators will be ferried by porters and yaks.
The site is about 65 kilometers southwest of Leh and 10 kilometers from the nearest road. To reach the site it takes a four-hour hike-from an elevation of 3,300 metres at Chiling to nearly 4,600 metres at Sumda Chun.
The complex includes a main sanctuary or assembly hall with its polychromed interior, monks” quarters, several Stupas and Chortens, and a Mani wall.
It is clear from the eroded remains of numerous structures at the site that the monastery once covered a substantial portion of the hillside.
Inside the assembly hall, butter wick lamps flicker, illuminating Mandalas and hundreds of images Sumda Chun is a Vajra Dhatu Mandala composed of 37 individually sculpted clay figures, one of the earliest surviving works of its kind.
Sumda Chan suffers primarily from water seeping into the building, which has been aggravated by well-intentioned efforts to protect the site and arrest further decay.
A few years ago, stone buttresses were built to bolster the bulging walls of the assembly hall.
World Monuments Fund and NIRLAC conservators estimate that saving Sumda Chun will cost not less than 200,000 dollars.
The long-term survival of this Himalayan gem will require far more effort in terms of careful planning.