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Phase II: Regional expansion


Traditional print on locally hand-made paper - Ladakh © UNESCO

An estimated seven million people practice Buddhism in India today. Buddhism had virtually died out in most of the India by the turn of the 20th century. However, it enjoyed a revival from the 1950s onward among intellectuals and Dalits, who were disillusioned with the caste system. The number of followers has been further boosted with the influx of Tibetan refuges and the 1975 annexation of the previously independent Sikkim. Ladakhi Buddhists follow traditions similar to those found in Tibet. In Arunachal Pradesh, the Buddhist tribes in the northwest are mainly Tibetan in origin, while those in the forested hills further east migrated from Southeast Asia.

Arunachal Pradesh, located in north-east India, shares borders on the south with Assam State, on the west with Bhutan, on the north and north-east with China, and on the east by Myanmar. The terrain rises through a series of foothills in the south to the Lesser Himalaya Mountains and, on the Chinese Tibetan border, to the ranges of the Great Himalaya. The Tawang Buddhist monastery, dating from the 17th century, is one of the largest in India; the sixth Dalai Lama was born there and is associated with a legendary figure called Mera Lama, who is believed to have built the monastery. The monastery belongs to Gelugpa sect and has 18 monasteries and 5 nunneries under its jurisdiction. The monastery has approximately 400 monks and 125nuns. The monastery has one of the largest collection of thangkas, old manuscripts (Kangyur and Tangyur), and ritual objects in the region. Its historical importance and the fact that it houses a Centre for Buddhist Cultural Studies make it an ideal potential venue for training. The main training needs that exist in Arunachal Pradesh include awareness raising and basic preventive conservation and maintenance of manuscripts, thangkas and other movable objects of art.

Ladakh is the highest inhabited region on Earth. The Ladakhi Buddhists are the adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced in Ladakh by around the 8th century and gradually gained momentum over the following centuries and was firmly entrenched by the 11th century. The monasteries of Ladakh are today among the last surviving bastions of Vajrayana Buddhism in India, and indeed in the world. The development of traditional construction systems for Ladakhi temples were dictated by both the availability of local materials as well as the climatic conditions of a cold desert region. Some of the earliest extant temples that remain today date back to the 11th century and are still in use. Of particular interest in the Ladakhi temples are the wall paintings, wood carvings and colossal Buddha images. The paintings depict deities from the Buddhist pantheon as well as, in some cases, historic figures, influenced both by early Kashmiri art traditions as well as later Tibetan art styles. The range of ritual objects particularly associated with Vajrayana Buddhism are equally spectacular, ranging from colossal images to ornate metal ritual instruments, painted scrolls and manuscripts used for ritual purposes. Other important elements include the masks and ceremonial costumes worn by monks during special festivals, prayers. Manuscripts were traditionally produced using woodblock printing techniques. This traditional craft is now on the brink of distinction and remaining prints and wood blocks are in need of conservation. The project in Ladakh will focus on the revival of the skill of wood block printing, the documentation and conservation of remaining wood blocks and prints as well as documentation of techniques and methods to ensure that this skill will not become endangered again.

Sikkim, located in north-eastern India on the southern slopes of the Himalaya, is bounded on the north and north-east by the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, on the south-east by Bhutan, on the south by the Indian state of West Bengal, and on the west by Nepal. One of the highest areas in India, Sikkim is traversed by the main range of the Himalaya and by several spur ranges. The state dominates the Chumbi Valley, a strategic gap in the mountain wall between Tibet and north-eastern India. Sikkim has over 220 Buddhist monasteries, temples, mani lhakangs and meditation centers, dating back from the 17th and 18th century and the people of Sikkim have very strong Buddhist traditions cherishing their Buddhist cultural heritage. Despite the community’s strong Buddhist beliefs, arts and crafts skills associated with Buddhism are threatened with disappearance as young people are no longer learning these skills and old masters are no longer practicing and teaching because of lack of demand. Project activities in Sikkim will include awareness-raising, especially among the young generation, and training to revive traditional Buddhist crafts, which may include wood block carving and printing, and tangkha painting. 

[Arunachal Pradesh...]