The restoration of this temple, started in 2001 and sponsored by the American Himalayan Foundation, was carried out by John Sanday Associates until 2008: from 2009 onwards the project was handed over a local foundation. Besides the conservation and restoration of mural paintings the main component of the project was to train and form a group of locals from Mustang, mostly farmers, to learn the skills of conservation and restoration.
The temple was consecrated most probably in 1448 and it is divided into three stories, each painted with an extraordinarily detailed secco technique on clay. The first story contains a series of deities, while the other two floors present an extraordinary sequence of mandala. An impressive throne links the first to the second floor through the statue of Maitreya Buddha, re-erected in the 17th century.
The three floors each had serious structural problems, for all the corners had become separated by several centimeters, most probably as a result of an earthquake. Moreover, the preparatory layers were detached by a few centimeters from the wall itself. In addition, water infiltrations from the ceiling had washed away a good portion of the paintings on the north wall of the second and third floors. The first story was the most seriously damaged: the majority of the paint layer was not visible, as it had become completely covered in a thick coating of clay leakage.
The masonry work consisted mainly in the consolidation of the temple's corners, in the reinforcement of the walls in general and in the plastering of lost painted areas. The masons' team was trained as well from scratch as part of the training program set up as part of the conservation project.
Sealing of the corners: all the temple's walls were dangerously separated from bottom to top and all four corners were widely open and unstable. They were thoroughly cleaned by removing all sort of debris accumulated over the centuries (mouse-dung, bones, straw, mud…) using long sticks, vacuum cleaner and air compressor. Since the separation was passing through the walls the cleaning was performed either from inside and outside. Thereafter the corners were sealed with a straw based plaster and plastic pipes were inserted every meter in order to allow the grout of local clays mixed with a vinyl binder based mortar. The grout was carried out starting from the ground upwards, with long intervals in time so as to let the mortar dry.
Reinforcement of the walls: in the first floor the lost/eroded rammed earth wall was reinforced sometime in the past with round stones without any binder or plaster: all the stones had to be carefully removed while propping the original wall to prevent it from falling. Since it was impossible to recreate the rammed earth wall, a new wall made out of flat slates was slowly built in its place. In some cases it was then decided to imitate the appearance of rammed earth wall where the latter was missing by faking its appearance with plaster.
Plastering: the missing parts of the wall paintings, cracks, fissures and holes had to be plastered so as to give an aesthetical continuity to the pictorial cycle. The beauty of a mural would not be entirely appreciated if broken areas and cracks would be visible thus disturbing the vision of the paint layer. Since the thickness of the preparatory layers was too deep for a single coating of plaster it was decided to follow the original stratification: from the wall two to three layers of plaster were applied before reaching the paint layer. The last coating of plaster was carried out with two different aesthetical procedures: plastering under-level of the paint layer where there was no chance of reconstructing what was missing and plastering up-to-level of the paint layer where there was a chance to reconstruct the pictorial cycle.
At the onset of our restoration project, countless square meters of paintings were at serious risk of collapse. Due to this urgent need to re-adhere the detached renders of the paintings to the wall, restoration began with consolidation when possible. In very specific cases like in the first floor where most of the wall paintings were covered by a thick coating of mud, priority was given to the removal of the latter to better understand where to safely drill the holes required for the consolidation process. The next step was the cleaning of the murals. A thin coating of varnish, applied six centuries ago after the completion of the pictorial cycle to protect the paint layer, covered the wall paintings. Due to aging, the varnish from transparent turned into a brownish veil that would prevent from seeing clearly the paint layer. On top of the varnish, especially on the upper section, black deposits from butter lamp smoke had darkened the murals even further. On the lower section, because of the common tradition of touching the murals in order to get blessings, soot and grime from human hands had additionally darkened the murals. The last step was meant to be the aesthetical intervention, when the retouching and the reconstruction process take place with the use of watercolors.
The consolidation: most of the wall paintings present in the temple had to be consolidated because the preparatory layers, the plaster between the paint layer and the wall, were detached from the latter. So, in order to fill the void, a mortar made of compatible construction materials had to be injected. Hand drills were used to drill 1 to 2 mm diameter holes in the area to be consolidated. The gap was freed of dust and debris through a rubber siphon. Then a surfactant solution had to be injected through syringes. In that way the solution/mortar would spread in a better way. Two different solutions had to be injected: the first one, usually an acrylic binder, when there was a slight detachment and the second one, an acrylic binder mixed with local clays, when there were deeper detachments.
In the second floor there was a serious detachment of large sections of wall paintings of several centimeters from the wall. The consolidation of this very large areas was accomplished with the aid of flexible polycarbonate sheets used to prop the pictorial layer. Long screw-drill-bits were inserted to fix the polycarbonate to the wall. Once the large detached areas were secured, they were slowly pushed back as much as possible by screwing the long screw-drill-bits of fraction of millimeters a day. When the gap between the wall and the paint layer was small enough, a mortar made out of local clays mixed with an acrylic binder was injected by syringe: the injections were preceded by the introduction of a surfactant solution. This operation took a very long time since the mortar had to be completely dry after every injection so as to prevent any fall of paint layer due to an overweight caused by excess of mortar.
A further procedure required for safeguarding the murals was to fix a spread situation of micro-flaking of the paint layer. These flakes of paint were re-adhered by covering them with Japanese tissue paper subsequently wet by brush with a surfactant solution to soften the scales and to allow later on a glue to spread homogeneously. Then an acrylic solution was spread over the area to be treated and the paint layer flakes were pressed back in position through the use of slightly wet cotton swabs. The excess of glue was then removed through cotton swabs soaked in distilled water.
The removal of mud leakage: the first floor was a particularly challenging situation, for the majority of the paint layer was not visible because covered by a thick coating of clay leakage. Thus, the first procedure for its cleaning required the use of orthodontic micro-drills, fiberglass pencils and surgical knives to remove all the clay deposits from the paint layer. The same procedure was later employed for the cleaning of the other two floors. This phase was extremely time-consuming, requiring four years to reach a homogenous level of cleaning.
The cleaning: the removal of the altered varnish yielded yet more difficulties. The varnish was of the same composition as the paint layer’s binder; thus, any kind of chemical which would dissolve the varnish would have dissolved the colors as well. Once the proper chemicals were identified, the cleaning solution was applied with cotton swabs through Japanese paper to absorb the varnish as it dissolved. Each floor’s wall paintings required a unique chemical solution mixed in proportion to the strength required.
Biocide treatment: a good portion of the wall paintings on the north, west and south walls were under threat of biological attack. Fungi were literally wiping out the pictorial layer. Its binder, made out of polysaccharides, together with the damp conditions of those portions of walls, constituted the perfect environment for the growth of micro flora. Most of the binder of the painting had been consumed by the fungi, meaning that the colours, deprived of their glue, had simply vanished. The micro flora was treated as follows: a solution of benzalconium chloride in water was spread on the surface by hand sprayer several times with monthly intervals for one full work season. The spraying was diffused on a larger area than the one required to prevent spores to scatter from an affected surface to a non-affected one.
Pictorial integration: the extremely detailed quality of the wall paintings meant that a very difficult and time-consuming procedure of pictorial integration was required. An elaborate aesthetic intervention was required to return homogeneity to the wall paintings. Abrasions, missing parts, lacunae and light spots were disturbing a clear view of the pictorial cycle. A huge amount of time was needed to restore the definition of the damaged details, or to reconstruct them. Following the requests of the monks and the local people it was decided to reconstruct as much as possible the pictorial cycle to allow the people to use again their temple and to prevent the turning of a religious building into a museum for tourists.
In the first floor all the hues were balanced using watercolors or natural pigments mixed with a 3% solution of Arabic gum. So abrasions were touched up as well as faded colors. The losses and the missing parts were drawn with pencils and colored using pigments as base-colors. Then the hues of those lacunae were matched with the original hues of the murals through watercolors. Some reconstructions took place in the south and east corridor in an attempt to bring homogeneity back to the pictorial cycle. No retouching or reconstructions occurred in the north and west corridor because the murals still need to cleaning.
In the second floor the retouching was carried out exclusively with the aid of selected series of watercolors by touching up abrasions, faded colors and micro-losses of paint layer. Where dark spots were present and the use of watercolors was ineffective, it was decided to employ watercolor pencils, more effective in lightening the dark areas. Reconstructions took place mostly in the north wall, which was severely damaged by a prolonged fungi's activity even though the decorative scrolls of some mandalas were reconstructed also on the eastern and southern side.
In the third floor the reconstructions were carried out with watercolors and watercolor pencils. In the areas where the color was missing, the presence of color indicators, still visible as original sketch, was of a great help in guiding us putting the right hue in the right place. The old masters used to leave marks, letters or numbers for their students to use a particular color paired with a particular mark. The severed murals still keep these marks, even though most of the colour has been washed away or partially damaged. Hence, it was possible to find out which color had to be used according to the marks found under the paint layer, most of it still visible through human eye or through an infrared camera. The retouching and the reconstructions were quite challenging because on the southern side the colors were still vivid while on the northern side the hues had heavily faded because of the continuous action of the sun coming through a skylight that was closed during the conservation work to stop the deterioration of the murals. Since the retouching and the reconstructions had to match the colors we found after the cleaning process, one side of the floor is brighter and colorful then the other.
The monastery hosts 13 clay statues, which can be dated back from the 15th century onwards. Ten among them were consolidated and their precarious elements fixed in place. Slightly basic chemical solutions allowed the removal of aged varnish as well as animal excreta. All cracks were then plastered and colored using natural pigments mixed with Arabic gum.
The ceiling, the pillars and the architraves are composed of interlocked wood. There were no traces of a paint layer and the deposits from smoke and grime had completely blackened the wooden surfaces. The wood was consolidated and cracks filled with carefully carved wooden lintels made to precisely fill each fracture. The decorations were cleaned with alkaline solvents.
Three wooden carved chortens were consolidated, and recent over-paintings removed in order to show the original pictorial decoration. The pictorial reintegration allowed us to reconstruct, where feasible, the missing patterns in the cycle.
International consultants were in charge for the setting-up of a program to repair, conserve and consolidate the wall paintings in Jampa Lhakhang as well as the setting-up and maintaining of a training program for to teach conservation of wall paintings on site.
2001/2004 - Rodolfo Lujan Lunsford - Lead conservator
2001/2003 - Luigi Fieni - Assistant conservator
2004/2011 - Luigi Fieni - Lead conservator
2001/2004 - Chiara Tedde - Assistant conservator
2005/2008 - Federica Bagaglini - Assistant conservator
2006/2008 - Davide Sciandra - Assistant conservator
2009/2010 - Nelly Rieuf - Assistant conservator
2009/2011 - Samanta Ezeiza - Assistant conservator
There is no end yet for the restoration of this temple is not completed. In 2011, following the continuous requests from the royal family, the local people and the monks to use their main monastery again for religious purposes, the funds were diverted to the reconstruction of the lost wall paintings in Thupchen Gonpa. In 2017, more funds were allocated to consolidate again the wall paintings of this temple, heavily detached from the earthquakes that struck Nepal in 2015. One day, hopefully, we will be able to go back in Jampa Lhakhang and finish and improve the restoration work.