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2009 Award of Excellence

Sangiin Dalai Monastery

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Project Title: Sangiin Dalai Monastery

Location: Nomgon Sum, South-Gobi aimag, Republic of Mongolia

Size: 5,800 square metres

Cost: US$ 180,731

Responsible Party: Pimpim de Azevedo, Yutaka Hirako, Danilo Thiedemann, Oyunbaatar Tserendash, Nyima Tsering and Byampa Tseren

Heritage Architect / Contractor: Tibet Heritage Fund (THF), Pimpim de Azevedo, Yutaka Hirako and Danilo Thiedemann

Date of Completion: 9 September 2007


Context

Sangiin Dalai Monastery is sited in the capital of Nomgon Soum District, located 110 kilometres from Dalanzadgad, the capital of Ömnögovi Aimag (South Gobi Province), and 120 kilometres from Mongolia’s border with China.

One of the largest monasteries in the Gobi area, Sangiin Dalai served as an important centre for Tibetan Buddhist studies in the region between 1772 and circa 1937, and operated several monastic colleges, teaching Buddhist scriptures, philosophy, astrology, traditional medicine and classical Tibetan and Mongolian language.

Building History

Sangiin Dalai Monastery was founded by Lama Uizen Rimpoche in 1772, with its first building, the Tsogchin Dugan (main temple), constructed that year. In the nineteenth century, the monastery’s residents added more buildings, placing these symmetrically around the central Tsogchin Dugan. A boundary wall was later built to enclose the monastery complex, with gates along the eastern, western and southern walls.

Situated on an important camel caravan trade route linking Mongolia with China, the settlement surrounding Sangiin Dalai once served as a trading centre. In the early twentieth century, as trade between China and Mongolia increasingly shifted to rail transport, caravan trade eventually stopped and Ömnögovi Aimag became one of the most economically deprived areas in Mongolia. The monastery lost financial support from traders and the monastery’s buildings gradually decayed. Despite this decay, Sangjiin Dalai Monastery was inhabited by over 500 monks until the 1930s.

During tumultuous 1930s, most of the monasteries in Mongolia were closed. The military converted Sangiin Dalai into an army camp. Later, the surviving buildings sheltered a clinic, hospital, school and storage facility. In 1974, a fire destroyed much of the Tsogchin Dugan. 

When the restoration project began in the early 2000s, six of the monastery’s 10 buildings remained, but these were in a dilapidated condition. Local residents had long ago removed much of the original building materials, such as bricks and wooden pillars, for the construction of houses. Although Sangiin Dalai had reached a state of advanced decay, when compared to other ruined Mongolian monasteries the monastery remained an important repository of Buddhist art and architecture and one of the best surviving examples in Mongolia. and was prioritized based on the severity of damage of each building, as well as on the availability of skills and materials. Relatively simple repair tasks were carried out first, leaving the more complicated work for later when the trainees would have more experience.

Project History

In 2001 a Mongolian non-governmental organization (NGO), Consensus, proposed that the monastery be restored and reopened. The reinstatement of a spiritual centre for the local community was intended also as a means of creating a pool of local workers with command of traditional building and craft skills, providing income-generating opportunities and revitalizing the area. With the help of a German donor organization, Misereor, the international NGO Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) took the lead in a project to restore the historic monastery.

As the working season in Mongolia is restricted to six months per year, due to harsh winter conditions, the work took four years to complete. Work commenced on site in 2004 and was completed in September 2007.

Project Scope and Framework

It was proposed that by the end of the project period the monastery would be fully functional, providing religious and social services to the local community. The restoration work encompassed the remaining six buildings of the monastery and was priorized based on the severity of damage of each building, as well as on the availability of skills and materials. Relatively simple repair tasks were carried out first, leaving the more complicated work for later when the trainees would have more experience.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

Project architects had visited the site and conducted a preparatory survey of the buildings in the monastery complex and social conditions in the surrounding area prior to the start of the project. The first step of the project, taken in 2004, was to conduct further architectural surveys and historical studies of the building complex. The THF team then prepared a detailed implementation plan and a training manual to use as a reference throughout the process of the monastery’s revitalization.

At this point, the project team also identified materials and skills required for the restoration work. It quickly became apparent that the local skills were insufficient. Furthermore, many materials were not available, notably the baked “blue” bricks and roof tiles that were widely used in the region, but which were no longer produced in Mongolia.

The two key ingredients necessary to make the materials, soil and coal, are found in abundance in the Gobi region so it was decided that the best option would be to revive Mongolian manufacturing of brick and tiles by establishing a kiln on site. This would not only bring down the costs, but would also provide the local community with economic opportunities. In 2005, the team built a kiln. Experts from abroad taught eleven local trainees how to find suitable soils and clays to make different kinds of products. Using the moulds made from the original samples collected on site, the project team successfully baked bricks and roof tiles and decorative figurines such as dragons and phoenixes. Local skills were adapted using modern methods and equipment, such as electric planers and saws, when appropriate.

Work commenced first on the Taptsang building, the roof of which had caved in. The building had serious damage and required the replacement of almost all timber elements. The salvageable timber members were cleaned and put aside for reuse. The timber roof structure was repaired and the roof was retiled, with flat sections sealed with mud mortar mixed with grass.

Similar repairs were undertaken on the remaining buildings. The porches and foundations of all six buildings were strengthened and the floors were paved with blue bricks. Carpenters trained under the project rebuilt the missing upper floor pagoda-style turrets at the Doorovjiin Dugan, Guuregiin Dugan and Khailaniin Dugan. They also corrected faults in the timber frames, recreated missing doors and windows, fixed wooden partition panels and carved decorative panels. Historic paintings found on timber elements were cleaned, documented by an artist and in some cases retouched, in accordance with the preferences of the local community.

The interior walls were replastered with mud mortar while the exterior walls were repaired using adobe mud bricks on the inside and blue bricks on the outside. The exterior walls were subsequently whitewashed, while window frames and other timber elements were stained with a red pigment to match the historical appearance.

Important Issues

The involvement of the local community was a key component of the overall strategy for the project. In order to work closely with the people of the local community throughout all stages of the project, the project team established a base in Nomgon Soum’s administrative centre, Nomgon.

Over the course of the project, local trainees acquired the skills to make bricks, tiles and ornaments, with the aim that they would become recognized artisans whose skills could be applied to other projects in the future. The training also included instruction in restoration techniques, revival and refinement of traditional building techniques, general brick and timber construction methods and project management.

Since Mongolian Buddhist architecture is deeply influenced by Tibetan traditions, the THF invited experts in Tibetan building techniques from China to visit the site and provide guidance and training. Seven Mongolian trainees also had an opportunity to visit the Amdo region of Tibet in China to learn craft skills there.

The combination of outside expertise and financial support and the commitment of the local populace to the project were vital to the success of the effort. The restoration of the monastery could not have been completed without this high level of cooperation.

Project Sustainability and Viability 

To augment the rebuilding of the monastery, the project’s sponsors helped generate interest by holding special ceremonies to commemorate the various stages of the work. The mayor of Nomgon Soum and other local government officials played an important part in these events, as did village residents. On 1 September 2007, the highest-ranking lama in Mongolia, Choijin Lama, performed a consecration ceremony for the monastery. Through participation in events such as these, the public gained a strong sense of ownership and stewardship for the Sangii Dalai Monastery.

Through the various training programmes, the project revived the traditional skills and knowledge of Buddhist arts needed for future maintenance of the Sangii Dalai Monastery and similar heritage structures. Representatives from governmental entities and private concerns have taken note of the success at the Sangii Dalai Monastery, visiting the site and taking away lessons for the restoration of other buildings.

Project Impact

With completion of the project, Sangii Dalai Monastery has been returned to use as a religious centre and once again provides religious instruction to local communities, after a lapse of almost 80 years. Importantly, the project has generated a new team of artisans who have the skills to be able to play a role in future conservation projects and can pass their knowledge on to future generations.The local governor took samples of the newly produced tiles and bricks to the provincial capital to advertise the manufacturing capacity of Nomgon Suom, and the kiln set up under the project has since won the region a reputation as a building materials supplier. This new capacity has contributed the beginnings of a new route to economic vitality in this underdeveloped area.

An assessment completed by THF in 2002 identified numerous other monasteries in Mongolia in a state of ruin, often with little more than a few naked walls remaining. It is likely that Sangii Dalai Monastery will become an example for these places and that Nomgon Soum can perform a complementary function by providing traditional construction materials and trained workers for the important endeavour of preserving this unparalleled legacy.

Quote from the Project Team

“During the project period, over 80 local Mongolian people participated directly in various parts of the training programmes and the participants involved learned skills to perform their trades. The six historic buildings were fully rehabilitated and are ready to be used by the local community.”