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2007 Award of Excellence

Maitreya Temple

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Project TitleMaitreya Temples Complex

LocationBasgo, Leh, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India

Size1,215 square metres

CostUS$ 208,664

Responsible PartyBasgo Welfare Committee, Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture

Heritage ArchitectAbha Narain Lambah Associates, Tsering Angchuk, Senthilpavai Kasiannan, Mubashir ui Malik and Brinda Gaitonde

ContractorBasgo Welfare Committee, Art Conservation Solutions and Sanjay Dhar

Date of CompletionOctober 2006


Context

The Maitreya Temples Complex is a group of three temples located within the grounds of Basgo Fort in Basgo, an ancient capital of the Tibetan Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh. After the capital was moved to Leh in 1555, Basgo remained an important religious centre and royal residence. Although the Fort was abandoned in the nineteenth century, with residents moving to the village below, the temples have been in continuous use as places of worship since their construction, even as they descended into ruin.

Dating back at least to the fifteenth and possibly to as early as the eleventh century, the temples are named after Maitreya, a bodhisattva or future Buddha who will appear to teach dharma again after the teachings of the Shakyamuni Buddha have vanished from the earth. Individually, they are the Chamchung Lhakhang, the smallest of the three temples, the Serzang Lhakhang, and the Chamba Lhakhang, the oldest and grandest in the complex. 

Building History

The buildings of the Fort are arrayed along a ridge at the summit of the town, a rocky outcrop known as the “Divine Peak of Great Stability”, a strategic location where the Indus valley narrows down. In addition to the three temples, the complex also encompasses the ruins of fortifications, watch towers and the former royal palace.

The temples were built under royal patronage, with the Chamba Lhakhang and its colossal three-storey Maitreya image probably dating to the fifteenth-century rule of King Grags-pa Bum‘lde. Its remarkable wall murals and painted ceiling are believed to have been added in the sixteenth century, and are one of the few surviving examples from this period.

The second-largest of the temples, the Serzang Lhakhang (“gold and copper”), was begun by King Jamyang Namgyal in the 1580s and completed by his successor, the great Sengge Namgyal. Its name refers to the large gilded Maitreya image within.  

Jamyang Namgyal’s queen, Gyal Khatun, a Balti Muslim, commissioned the third and smallest of the temples, the Chamchung Lhakhang. It is built in the Balti style and may have initially been a mosque that was later transformed into a temple either by the Queen upon her conversion to Buddhism or by her successor. Its wall paintings are stylistically related to those of the Chamba Lhakhang.

While rammed earth construction was used for the palace and fortifications, the temples were built with stone masonry at the lower registers and mud brick masonry at the upper levels. Stone coursing appears in the outer walls of the Serzang Lhakhang and the palace. The wooden ceilings are supported by timber beams, with roofs of compacted mud, local grass, birch bark and willow twigs. Walls are plastered and richly decorated on the interior with mineral paints.

Project History

As part of a long-running tradition of regular community-based conservation of communal religious buildings in Ladakh, conservation of the complex had taken place sporadically, as the need arose. In the 1970s, a section of the roof of the Chamba Lhakhang was repaired and the wooden planks of the ceiling replaced. During the 1980s, emergency stabilization and restoration of the access to the temples was undertaken by the villagers. Additional work was carried out in the 1990s following the collapse of structures on the roofs of the Chamba Lhakhang and the Serzang temple. Shortly thereafter, a retaining wall was put in place to address the fundamental problem of erosion of the building foundations.

The project emerged after a comprehensive documentation and condition assessment was carried out for the three temples in the early 2000s, which led to the development of a broad conservation strategy and the identification of priority areas of concern. It was initiated by the local community under the aegis of the Basgo Welfare Committee. The committee originated from an earlier youth group that helped to raise funds for the conservation of religious buildings by staging performances. Today, it is composed of local volunteers and village youth, and is supported through financial donations and gifts such as grain and timber, which are then sold by the committee to raise funds.

In 2001, the Committee initiated a partnership with the Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture (NIRLAC), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization (NGO) supported by the Namgyal family. The collaboration provided a means to source technical expertise and mobilize additional funds for the restoration of the temples. Financial backing was eventually secured from various overseas sources, most notably the World Monuments Fund. The resulting effort brought together traditional master craftsmen, artists, knowledge holders and local volunteers with a team of conservation architects, structural engineers, civil engineers and painting conservators to carry out one of the largest private conservation projects ever undertaken in Ladakh.

Project Scope and Framework

In 2000, the World Monuments Fund placed the Maitreya Temples Complex on their Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, reflecting multiple threats that were endangering the temples and the site as a whole.

Due to severe erosion of the peak supporting the temples, caused by wind and rain, the foundations of the buildings were highly unstable. The instability of the ground affected the stability of the structure, causing columns to lean, wooden brackets to displace, walls to collapse and roofs to cave in. Increased precipitation and untimely clearance of rain and snow had resulted in extensive roof damage from water seepage and this imperilled the wall paintings within. The paintings were worn away and had cracked, requiring stabilization, grouting, cleaning and retouching in places. Owing to their fragility, the paintings also had to be protected during the conservation work, especially during ceiling and roof repairs.

There was an effort to correct previous insensitive conservation and stabilization efforts. For instance, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic rain spouts had been introduced to the roofs during repairs of the 1980s and 1990s. Likewise, improperly installed structures such as ceiling members and inconsistently carved kaju capitals all needed replacement and rectification.

Following the successful conservation of the Chamchung Lhakhang and the Chamba Lhakhang between 2002 and 2004, the Basgo Welfare Committee and the combined restoration team turned its attention to the third of the temples in the complex, the Serzang Lhakhang. 

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The Chamchung Lhakhang, the smallest of the three temples in the complex, had been in ruins when initially restored by the villagers in 1997-1998. The 2004 restoration campaign focused primarily on emergency stabilization of the structure, consolidating the foundations and building retaining walls to fight against the erosion of the site. Bulging walls were repaired and additional support was given to the parikrama (ambulatory) surrounding the building. The underground chambers beneath the temple, the purpose of which is unclear, were stabilized, as were the flanking chambers of the forecourt of the temple. The forecourt had also deteriorated and was relaid. New columns of deodar wood (Himalayan cedar) were added to provide greater support to the roof of the temple.

The wall paintings constituted another major focus of the work. The restoration work required the preliminary structural reinforcement of the external face of the walls bearing the paintings. Large structural cracks were reinforced laterally with willow sticks wrapped in hessian, then in-filled with mud mortar. Delaminated areas of wall plaster were treated with a specially developed grouting mixture, while flaking paint layers were consolidated with adhesives. In places, fragments of painted areas were removed from the wall, repaired and then reapplied to their original position with a special device to apply uniform pressure during the re-adhesion process. The paintings were cleaned and retouched where evidence of the original work was clearly discernable. In areas of complete loss, the painted surface was visually reintegrated without detailed retouching.

The Chamba Lhakhang required similar measures, but on a larger scale. A retaining wall was built around the temple using stone bonded with mud mortar. Vertical separations were provided in the masonry to prevent monolithic behaviour. Stone copping was placed on the tops of the walls to prevent rainwater seepage, ensuring that they became watertight.  

Major building stabilization was undertaken, with the consolidation of interior and exterior walls and the correction of misaligned wooden structural elements. Cracks in the masonry wall were stitched together willow twigs at a vertical spacing of two feet, then grouted with mud and coated with mud plaster. 

Columns, beams and elaborately-carved wooden capitals (kajus) were replaced where they had begun to buckle and crack, using deodar wood.  The designs for the replacement parts were copied exactly from the original ones in the temples, which were laboriously traced onto paper. During the restoration work, a propping system of wooden beams and columns was set up temporarily. This allowed for the original structural members to be removed and replaced, one bay at a time. When the timber structures were fully rectified, the ad hoc supports that had been put in place by earlier stabilization efforts – now superfluous – were removed. In addition, important elements such as the skylights and tower block were rebuilt, while the interior floor was entirely relaid with traditional timber flooring.

Over 600 years, layers of mud had been added to the roof terraces, which accumulated to a thickness of between 300 and 400 millimetres. This increased load had been transferred to the columns and capitals below, causing them to distort out of alignment. Removal of the mud layers revealed a lining of birch bark at the very bottom, acting as a waterproof membrane to prevent water from seeping into the ceiling planks. Once the timber structural members were corrected or replaced in the interior chambers below, the mud layers were restored. Birch bark was laid first, in overlapping rows, followed by dried local grass, then a mud mixture formed from the historic mud and sand in a ratio of 3:1. The layers were compacted by being beaten by hand with flat wooden paddles. Flashing was installed near the edges of the walls and skylights along with a drainage system using traditional poplar wood drainage spouts designed to ensure speedy run-off of rain and melted snow.

The entire interior wall surface of the temple is painted, as are several plaster-encased wooden columns and the Buddha image. As at the Chamchung Lhakhang, these walls required a major rescue intervention as they had been damaged by cracks and water seepage. The painted walls were reinforced from the outside. On the inside, surface deposits of soot and grime that had accumulated over the years were removed, and areas of flaking plaster and paint layers were consolidated. Cracks were grouted, while the same cautious programme of retouching employed at the Chamchung Lhakhang was carried out where water seepage had resulted in a loss of paint layer. Lost figurative details were reconstructed by local artists trained in iconographic detailing, but areas of total loss were not repainted due to lack of evidence of the original motifs.

Historic building material that could be salvaged was reused, even the original mud from the roofs. Traditional materials, such as the birch bark and wood, were sourced from forests in the Kashmir valley, with the timber being harvested and seasoned on site during the entire winter season prior to use. Replacement birch bark was difficult to source as it is a protected species and transportation through areas of high security in Jammu and Kashmir requires special permits. The clays needed for the plasters and mortars, and the local grasses for the roofing were also procured locally. In lieu of expensive scaffolding, mud bricks were used to make temporary buttresses, and readily-available parachute tents were deployed to protect the deities during restoration work instead of expensive fibreglass casing.

Important Issues

While technical expertise was sourced from New Delhi, the bulk of the work was carried out by local Ladakhi stakeholders, from carpenters to painters, masons and local Basgo volunteers, who carried out most of the hard labour of moving stone and materials to the hilltop site by hand. Altogether, the campaign to save a monument central to the spiritual life of Basgo was remarkable in supporting the traditional practice of community-driven conservation by mobilizing international funding and expertise from the capital.

Given the extreme weather conditions during the Ladakhi winter, the field season was limited to the spring and summer months. Materials had to be procured well in advance, before the mountain passes closed in the winter and in case the roads did not open up in time during the next working season. Furthermore, protective coverings had to be put in place to protect against melting heavy or rainfall. After each snowfall, villagers assiduously cleared away snow to prevent the structures from becoming overloaded. Before the commencement of each work season, the consultants would carry out an inspection to assess the condition of the structure after the snowfall.  

Project Sustainability and Viability

The Maitreya Temples Complex is assured of a secure future through the agency of the Basgo Welfare Committee and the deep commitment of the immediate community. Routine maintenance will be carried out by the committee and its volunteers, further supported by the ongoing effort to conserve the third temple of the complex, the Serzang Lhakhang. On-site expertise is therefore readily available. The temples also benefit from being living religious buildings, in regular use by the community, and thus enjoying both exalted status and continuous scrutiny by their users. Finally, with the materials for their repair and maintenance largely available in the state, from mud to stone and birch bark, very little outside assistance is required to maintain the complex in its present outstanding condition.  

Project Impact

The project has resuscitated a major monument central not only to the spiritual well-being of the local residents of Basgo, but to the history of Ladakh as well. The temples are an integral part of the identity of this ethnically and religiously unique area, a bastion of Tibetan Buddhism in Jammu and Kashmir. The site is also a living memorial to Ladakh’s past as an independent kingdom. The conservation of the Maitreya Temples represents a major step in the protection of Ladakhi heritage and an affirmation of the Tibetan Buddhist identity that is at risk even in its own homeland. 

Quote from the Project Team

"The success of the project was entirely due to the effort put in by the villagers of Basgo. We were at a height of 11,000 feet and had to work in the freezing cold, with no telephone lines or electricity. We could only work between May and September because the roads were blocked in the winter. I don't think any other project will ever be so satisfying."