January  2008



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 Heritage Conservation - South Asian Winners

Compiled by The South Asian Life & Times (SALT)


South Asia’s rich albeit neglected architectural heritage has in the recent years received support in the form of conservation awards – to support and recognise the work of individuals and organisations in the conservation or restoration of heritage structures.

 The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards, now in their eighth year, have encouraged and recognised such efforts. The top awards for the year 2007 went to South Asian projects. The Award of Excellence – the highest award – was bestowed upon Maitreya Temple Complex in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir.

 The three Awards of Distinction went to – the Cowasji Jehangir Convocation Hall, Mumbai; the Altit Settlement in Gilgit; and the Galle Fort Hotel in Galle.


 Maitreya Temple, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir
Award of Excellence

 The spirit of the award truly belongs to the people of Basgo village who have, since the early 1990s, volunteered their time and donated money and materials to restore the temples – in a tough environment where one has to work hard just to support a family. That’s how important the temples are to them. The villagers brought the stones, to support the retaining wall, on their backs.  The professionals who work on the project – the architects and restorers do get written about – but the real effort very often belongs to the people, as in the case of Basgo – who don’t get the coverage or any monetary gain – nor do they expect either.

The Maitreya temple complex has been used for worship by the community in Basgo for the last five hundred years until the present day. The main building, Chamba Lhakhang, is believed to have been built in the 15th century. The other two temples, the Chamchung and the Serzang, were constructed in the 16th century, with subsequent additions made by later rulers. They are constructed from local materials, such as stone, clay and wood. The principle aim of the villagers was to restore and safeguard the heritage temples. As a living religious site, the project had to ensure that all restoration activities conformed to and respected the sanctity of the site.

(The following information was derived from the WMF article ‘Conservation on the Roof of the World’ by Angela M.H. Schuster)

 Ladakh is one of the highest inhabited places on Earth. The 15th Century temple of Maitreya Buddha (Future Buddha) at Basgo, Ladakh was among the 100 most endangered monuments of the world listed by World Monument Fund (WMF) in 2000. Built of mudbrick, wood, and stone, the monasteries prospered under the patronage of Ladakh’s rulers and rinpoches (Buddhist teachers), who commissioned the extraordinary works of art within them—murals, thangkas (painted scrolls), and gilded images of the Buddha.

Since 2002, the Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture (NIRLAC), a Leh-based family trust headed by His Excellency Chogyal Jigme Wangchuk Namgyal, whose ancestors ruled Ladakh throughout much of its history, has played a critical role in the restoration of the three temples at Basgo, 42 kilometres northwest of Leh, providing much-needed technical assistance to the Basgo Welfare Committee (BWC), a village-based social organization that brought the sanctuaries to the attention of WMF.  

The temples, built between 1445 and 1650 and dedicated to the Great Maitreya, are cradled by the eroded ramparts of the Basgo Fortress, overlooking the village of Basgo with its 1,000 inhabitants. The fortress, built of mudbrick and earth, was the seat of Ladakh’s royal family and the administrative capital of the country from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.

“The oldest and most magnificent of the Basgo temples is Chamba Lhakhang, which has a colossal gilt and polychromed clay figure of the Maitreya flanked by statues of Avalokiteshvera, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The murals inside the temple, commissioned in the late sixteenth century by the King, depict manifestations of the Buddha, important deities and rinpoches, as well as scenes from the life of the king and his court.”

 “The temple of Serzang—which literally means “gold and copper”—houses a 14-metre-high, gilt-copper statue of a seated Maitreya. Adjacent to the temple is the Chamchung shrine – its walls also graced with resplendent murals.”

“At the time of their inclusion on the 2000 list of 100 Most Endangered Sites, the sanctuaries were in an advanced state of decay with failing roofs, structural cracks, crumbling mudplaster, and delaminating murals—damage caused in large part by the erosion of the hill upon which the temples were built. Chamba Lhakhang in particular was on the brink of collapse. A deep gully had developed in the hill beneath the southern end of the temple’s foundation, resulting in a vertical crack down the length of the south elevation that weakened the entire structure.The temples were literally being torn apart by the differential settling of their foundations as the rock beneath them continued to waste away.”

A team of trained conservators was sent by the WMF to evaluate the site and determine the best methods for its restoration.“Since the early 1990s, the villagers had volunteered their time and donated money and materials for the project even though some were working hard just to support their own families. That’s how important the temples are to them. In addition to constructing the retaining wall—stones for which had been brought in on the backs of villagers—Basgo residents had undertaken a number of emergency repairs over the years, including patching temple roofs with layers of clay, which resulted in an ever-increasing load on walls and wooden support columns that further compromised the ancient structures.” 

With support from private donors in India, the Tibetan Classics Translators Guild, and WMF, NIRLAC assembled an expert team of architects and conservators to carry out the restoration work. There were many challenging aspects to the work of restoration. “Originally the roof was composed of layers of birch bark, clay, mud, and barley straw placed atop the painted timber ceiling,” said Abha Lambah, the principal architect for the Chamba Lhakhang project.  “Over time, additional layers of clay and straw were added to patch leaks, roughly doubling the original weight of the roof and resulting in the deformation and cracking of the interior support elements. The building may have been under-structured to begin with,” she added. The most difficult task for the team was the procurement of building materials such as birch bark which had been used as a waterproofing layer in the ceiling. “Birch bark is a protected species and we could, therefore, not fell trees. Labour was hired to collect the bark that fell to the ground. And this had to be done a whole year in advance as the roads are closed in winter." The replacement birch bark for the restoration work was harvested from forests of Sonamarg in the Kashmir Valley.

The only modern elements added during the restoration process were “a few pieces of metal flashing atop the walls and several hollowed out poplar timbers to channel rainwater away from the building.”

Sanjay Dhar, a paintings conservator trained in India and Italy, was responsible for the restoration of the murals. Apart from water damage and mudflows on the murals, there was also a substantial pigment loss in areas where structural cracks had opened in the masonry. “It is not just a matter of removing the mud from the paint surface, but centuries of soot from ever burning butter lamps in the temple.”

Serzang   temple also suffered from erosion beneath its foundation, which had caused several cracks in its rear wall and damaged paintings. And, like the other temples, attempts to repair its roof with the addition of clay and straw had stressed the structure. The project team worked without through the summer months of three consecutive years.

NIRLAC has helped local residents formulate a plan for the long-term care of the site as well as examine its potential for generating revenue for the village through tourism.


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