Buddhism in the Hidden Valley, Part 2: Heritage Conservation in Tsum

- through Francois Leclercq

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The Tsum Valley in the Gorkha district of western Nepal is one of the country's lesser-known gems. It was officially opened to foreign tourists in 2008 as part of a government effort to promote sustainable tourism, strengthen economic development and showcase the unique cultural and natural treasures of the Manaslu Conservation Area, established in 1998.

It's a world away from the incessant noise and dusty streets of Kathmandu, but the inevitable incursions of modern tourism mean the Tsum Valley is no longer the hidden secret it was just 15 years ago. Yet the valley is still far enough off the beaten track that its resplendent landscapes and isolated communities retain the mystery of a rich and ancient way of life in the geopolitically sensitive region bordering Nepal with Tibet.

Starting at an altitude of around 2 meters, the Tsum Valley winds its way up towards the Tibetan border to around 000 meters, with the surrounding guardian hills and peaks reaching even higher altitudes. It is home to 3 villages which are home to some 700 households, or a population of just over 33 people.

It is here, along the winding, mist-laden ravines and gorges, crisscrossed by suspension bridges suspended precariously above the tumultuous blue glacial waters that have carved the valley, that the soul of Tsum reveals itself : a sacred sanctuary of Buddhist traditions seamlessly woven into the fabric of daily life; where the hiking trails are punctuated with countless chortens and lined with mani walls composed of thousands of carved stone slabs depicting inscribed deities and mantras; where prayer flags beat and flutter incessantly, whispering colorful prayers carried by the Himalayan winds in an embrace as enduring as the mountains themselves.

And it is also here that a remarkable project to protect and conserve this ancient heritage – the Tsum Preservation Project – is taking place for the benefit of local communities, for the benefit of Nepal's precious Buddhist heritage and in the interest of maintaining these ancient expressions of Buddhadharma for posterity.

The project was undertaken by Treasure Caretaker Training (TCT), a US-based non-profit organization dedicated to working closely with nuns and monks for the preservation of the remaining authentic Buddhist treasures and relics in the world. TCT is led by conservator and consultant Ann Shaftel, a member of the International Institute for Conservation and the American Institute for Conservation, and a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators. Since 1970, Ann has worked to conserve Buddhist art around the world, in cooperation with monasteries, Dharma centers, museums and universities.

When I first visited the Tsum Valley in October 2023, the conservation project was already well underway, centered on the aging Lama Guan village temple. Ann and her team of dedicated expert restorers worked closely with members of the local community, and under the careful guidance of local llamas, to save a true treasure: sculptures, pleasetexts, paintings and other artifacts, in the hope that these irreplaceable artifacts and symbols of the Buddhadharma can survive for many more years and continue to illuminate the lives and minds of many more generations of Buddhist practitioners in Tsum.

“The Tsum Preservation Project is a sustainable community effort to preserve a centuries-old culture in the face of increasingly rapid change,” Ann explained. “Located in a remote region of Nepal, on the Tibetan border, with no roads, no vehicles and no shops, the traditional agrarian way of life is being challenged due to its strategic location, the introduction of the Internet, young people who leave to study and job opportunities in the city, growing ecotourism and backpacking tourism and modern paved roads coming ever closer.

The local community has been guided for centuries by a married lineage holder. Lama Pasang, the current lineage holder, still resides in Tsum with his family. One of his children, Lama Jamyang Dorje, 37, is about to take on this dharmic legacy that encompasses four gompas in the valley. Meanwhile, Lama Pasang's brother, Dungse Lama Pema, is a senior teacher at the nearby Tsum Monastery, founded by the revered Tibetan. tulku Thrangu Rinpoche.

With a community of lay villagers and monks, these illustrious figures are the guardians of the history of the valley and a heritage of inestimable value. They also represent the living heart of the Tsum Preservation Project, an initiative they helped design.

Ann recalled the origins of the project, which began with a first tentative contact in 2020: “Traditional monasteries are closed societies, imposed from above, and the Tsum community was looking for a Buddhist curator who would respect their privacy and choices. After two years of in-person and virtual meetings, I traveled to the isolated community of Tsum in 2022 and lived in the monastery, meeting locals, artists, and Buddhist leaders from nearby villages. I visited several sites that will be included in the five-year Tsum preservation project. I then returned to Tsum in 2023 with three conservators with the aim of evaluating the sites for technical considerations. I reviewed the sites and conservation reports in discussions with community leaders, who firmly chose their priorities for the project.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the project, where I was privileged to spend the majority of my visit, is the Lama Guan Temple: a small but important historic structure, which remains in use today. Its shrine, shelves, and every other available surface are filled with traditional Buddhist artwork, artifacts, and ceremonial instruments; pleasewall paintings, traditional texts, carvings and carvings, wooden printing blocks, etc., all requiring careful conservation, repair and restoration, as is the case with so many similar temples in the valley.

Alongside conservation efforts, community leaders and local residents also aspire to create a purpose-built museum to collect, document and protect the wealth of community treasures, as well as a separate house museum, designed as a means of preserving culture traditional and domestic practices on the spot for the benefit of visitors and for future generations to see and understand the lives of their ancestors.

“The treasure guarding training teaches Buddhist monks, nuns and community cultural guardians to protect and preserve their own sacred treasures,” Ann emphasized. “And we teach in a culturally conservative monastic structure, in which hierarchy and confidentiality are vital.”

At Lama Guan, Lama Pasang and Lama Jamyang Dorje make regular appearances to monitor the conservation team's progress, answer questions about the many artifacts, and even lend a hand with cleaning and restoration.

The process is steady and methodical, starting with documentation before moving on to the practical work of cleaning and stabilization.

Lama Jamyang Dorje estimates that the Lama Guan temple is between 600 and 700 years old. “Five or six years ago we started reinforcing the stone roof with corrugated zinc sheets,” he told me. “Unlike traditional stone construction, zinc sheets are much better at preventing rainwater from penetrating the ground. gompa and damage our please and the statues, and these sacred texts. He gestured to the rows of stacked and bound volumes that filled the shelves adjacent to the main sanctuary.

“I completed my three-year retirement about two and a half years ago and since then I have been working with my father to take care of the temple. If we hadn't installed the zinc sheets, things would be much more difficult here during the rainy season.

“I am also very satisfied with the work accomplished by Ann and her team. Until last year, we had long discussions about what to do here. And now here they are, cleaning and restoring many of our oldest please and paintings.

“However, to ensure the future of this gompa we absolutely need to find long-term support. At the moment we don't have any sponsors, so whatever little we can do to preserve this heritage, we have to do it ourselves or with the help of people like Ann. But there is still a lot of work to be done and it is very expensive, so the real problem is financing.”

The Tsum preservation project also included Leru Temple in a nearby village. The temple was recently completely rebuilt in the traditional style, around a large existing prayer wheel. The intricate wooden panel murals, which originally covered the walls, were removed before the reconstruction and will be returned once the reconstructed temple is complete. The community requested that the invited restorers undertake delicate and careful treatment to stabilize the precious paintings.

Additionally, TCT has undertaken a unique program to visually document the preservation of robes, masks and boots used in rituals. cham dance and their proper storage after use. This video, filmed on location at Tsum Monastery, documents the re-storage of traditional and contemporary objects. cham outfit.

“The conservation work at Lama Guan was a great experience, as I was invited to bring in a conservation team by the community and often the community joined in with the actual work. The main statues had to be removed from the main shrine so that these extremely ancient murals which had not been seen for four generations could be cleaned and stabilized,” Ann recounted after she and her team left Tsum Valley .

“Moreover, a very old please which had been hidden at the bottom of the shrine was examined and, after a long discussion with (Lama Pasang), we agreed on a digital restoration, involving the taking of high resolution images that a please artist/Buddhist scholar/digital genius would use to generate a virtual recreation reflecting how the please it probably looked like it did when it was first painted. Unfortunately, the original please is now far too fragile to clean and any repainting (to improve and brighten the original paint) would be completely inappropriate.

“Now our training as a treasure keeper at this gem of a temple in Tsum called Lama Guan is complete,” Ann continued. “The local community, under the leadership of Lama Dorje Jamyang, pieced together the shrine, carefully transporting and replacing each statue, please, mask, etc., putting them back in their place. We are very grateful for the opportunity to serve the community and look forward to returning soon. . . .

“We are also grateful to our funders, the Firebird Foundation, and of course to our excellent curatorial team of Craig Deller, Trish Smithen, Corrine Long and art historian Aishwarya Mehta. »

Ann and the Treasure Caretaker training team will continue their vital work on heritage conservation in Nepal in 2024. Watch this space for more details and coverage.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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