Thursday, April 28, 2016

Shangri-La: Lost Treasures of Tibet (video)

PBS (NOVA via Oṁ Mani Padme Hūṁ); CC Liu, Sheldon S., Seth Auberon, Wisdom Quarterly
In the fabled land of Shangri-La we find the "Lost Treasures of Tibet" (NOVA/

Tibetan prayer flags (linenbeachbunting)
Tibetan craftsmen were creating stunning artistry of their deities in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Mustang before Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper."

In "Lost Treasures of Tibet," NOVA ( goes behind the scenes with the first conservation team from the West, as it undertakes the painstaking restoration of these ancient masterpieces and the beautiful Buddhist monasteries that house them.
Located in present-day Nepal, Mustang contains some of the last remaining relics of an almost vanished world of ancient Buddhist culture. Across the border in Tibet, Chinese occupiers have purposely destroyed thousands of monasteries since taking control of the country in 1950.
So the survival of Mustang's monasteries (gompas) is more important than ever. But preservation is extremely difficult because of the centuries of neglect, weather, and earthquakes that have brought many buildings to the brink of ruin and collapse.

High in the Himalayas of western Nepal, in a little-visited kingdom known as Mustang, exists a treasure trove of medieval Tibetan art now undergoing urgent restoration (NOVA).
The flag of a free and independent Tibet without Chinese or CIA intervention (HDW)
Free Tibet (
In the course of their restoration work, Western conservators come face-to-face with a thorny problem of culture clash: Local people want missing sections of the murals completed. Westerners are aghast at the idea. But their hosts are equally shocked at the thought of honoring unfinished deities.

The program follows the struggle of an international team headed by British conservationist John Sanday to restore the greatest gompa of all -- Thubchen, the royal monastery in Mustang's capital of Lo Monthang.

The first order of business is fixing Thubchen's roof -- no small feat since 200 tons of dirt have been piled on its flat surface over the centuries to seal out leaks. To bear that much weight, the hidden ceiling beams must be more than two feet thick, an apparent impossibility considering that Mustang is virtually treeless.
Sanday solves this riddle when his team excavates down to the beams and discovers an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of construction that uses interlocking small timbers to create a clever lightweight, load-bearing structure.

Ancient Tibetan craftsmen were equally inventive in engineering an ideal wall surface for their murals (see Creating a Wall Painting). Six layers of plaster were applied to the walls, starting with a coarse grain and becoming progressively finer.
Vajra, Tibetan-Buddhist (Vajrayana) lightning bolt spiritual instrument (RachidH/
The same method was used for secco (dry plaster) murals in Europe during the Renaissance, but it is unknown if Tibetans and Europeans exchanged information on the technique.

As for Thubchen's paintings, they are badly obscured by aeons of butterlamp soot, animal glues [like the horse pulp used in the West], and abrasions from yak tail dusters. To deal with the disfigurement, Sanday calls in Rodolfo Lujan from Italy, one of Europe's premier experts in art restoration.

After painstaking treatment to stabilize the plaster, which is badly flaking, Lujan and his assistants start removing the grime. What emerges is startling to behold: brilliantly colored scenes depicting the life of the Buddha (see Before and After).
The artists left no signatures, but Lujan places them in a class with the Italian Renaissance masters. "Maybe the quality is even better than...a Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael," he marvels.

This makes it all the more difficult when he is asked to take his own clumsy brush in hand to complete the missing sections of these priceless masterpieces. More

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