The restoration of the monastery began in 1998 with the structural repair of the architecture and a survey on the wall paintings' state of preservation to set up a conservation program. The work on the pictorial cycle started the following year when an increasing number of villagers of Lomönthang, the capital of Mustang, have been trained over the years to become competent restorers. As a result of their work, all the most important monasteries of Upper Mustang have been restored. The project started with the restoration of Thupchen Gonpa and subsequently expanded to include Jampa Lhakhang and the monasteries in the nearby villages of Tsarang and Logekhar.
The monastery, most probably consecrated in 1472, contains murals from several different periods. The majority of the pictorial cycle, however, is original, dating back to the 15th century. The paintings, realized with the secco technique on several preparatory layers, are present mainly on just three of the four walls. The north wall collapsed more likely because of an earthquake. The wall now contains fragments of paintings executed after the foundation of the monastery, although a few remnants of the original pictorial cycle are still present. Our work in the monastery included the restoration of the wall paintings, statues, sculpted pillars, architraves, and the ceiling’s painted wooden decorations.
Indeed, the Mustang team’s work has traveled beyond the borders of Nepal. Some of the group’s best restorers have been working as assistants to the direction of restoration projects in the Sichuan region of the People’s Republic of China.
The masonry work consisted mainly in the reinforcement of the walls 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.
Reinforcement of the walls: this task consisted in removing the buttresses built at lower areas of the inner walls during the various periods of the history of the building. Cracks and voids were filled with similar/compatible materials and plastering was carried out under the level of the paint layer of the repaired areas. Lower areas of walls were eroded forming large cavities due to water stagnating and/or infiltrating through back-filling material accumulated outdoors when upper areas of the building collapsed. Therefore the outdoor ground level varies in height with respect to the pavement’s level indoors. As an attempt to consolidate these lower areas rubble bound with mud was piled in an irregular pattern. Thence, the intervention that was carried out consisted in removing the piles of stone, scraping loosened and incoherent constitutive material of the wall and inserting cut stone pieces, according to the dimensions of the loss so as to obtain a straight and perpendicular level along the wall. This stonework was bound with a mud-based mortar mainly consisting on local clays and chopped straw with the addition of a PVA binder.
Plastering: once the inserted stonework in walls’ voids was dry, successive layers of levelling mud-based plasters were applied. These layers were made of a mixture of local clays, chopped straw, crushed dried cow dung and PVA binder. These mud renders were applied up to 1 centimeter below the paint layer's level. A final greyish layer was applied as a combination of local clays mixed with an acrylic solution in water, spread and left just 2 millimeters below the surface of the paintings.
Many sections of the wall paintings were at such risk of collapse that the work began with their consolidation. All risky areas were protected with special gauzes, temporarily glued on their surface, to protect the painting during the phase of fixing the preparatory layers beneath. The delicate process of consolidation and fixation of the renders and of the paint layer was completed after two years of mortar injections and plastering.
In some cases specific supports had to be assembled on site so as to prop up the wall paintings during the re-adhesion procedure. In other cases, to consolidate a wall at risk of collapse, some detachments of wall paintings (stacco) were carried out. During this process, additional old paintings were found inside a portion of a recently built wall. Unfortunately, the new wall could not be dismantled and so the ‘staccos’ were mounted on a mobile support and placed in an adjacent museum to be.
The consolidation: cracks that passed through the walls were firstly cleared from former superficial plastering and thence dust and debris of various nature (bones, straw, skulls, dried manure, feathers, flees, etc.) were removed. Once cracks were perfectly cleaned with an air compressor, these were filled up to a certain point with a mud-based plaster and cut stone, inserting plastic pipes at regular intervals in order to pour the grouting material later on. The grouting material consisted in a mixture of local clays, water and a PVA binder added in a low percentage so as to obtain a viscous and dense grout. The filling of cracks consisted in wetting abundantly the interior of the crack by injecting a surfactant solution through the pre-set plastic pipes. The grout was then poured through these pipes for filling the gaps. Once dried, the pipes were removed and another plaster layer was applied under the level of the paint layer.
Then the work concentrated on fixing the preparatory layers. Through aging, earthquakes and some time mistakes in the technique of preparing or applying the plasters, it happens that these preparatory layers detach from one another. This creates random gaps between layers, which can cause the paintings to fall off with time. It is then necessary to fill all these gaps to reconstitute stability to the support of the wall paintings. Tapping with knuckles easily identifies the gaps. When doing so, a gap is found by the different sound the tapping produce. When a gap was found, we had to pierce the murals using hand-drills and reach the gap. Then the gap was cleaned by hand-syphon: in this way a slight vacuum would extract all debris. A surfactant solution was then injected to allow the glue to spread more evenly through the gap. When the gap was very small, it was enough to inject an acrylic binder solution. When the gap was larger, this binder had to be mixed up with clay, thus producing a mortar that would fill up the gap.
In addition, very large flakes of paint layer were present randomly all over the wall paintings. These flakes of paint layer were firstly softened by a surfactant solution. Then an acrylic solution was injected under the paint layer scales either by syringe of by soft pointed paintbrushes. Japanese tissue paper was subsequently applied on the area to be trated and the paint layer flakes were pressed back in position through the use of slightly wet cotton swabs.
The cleaning: this task was a highly complex procedure. After laboratory analysis were carried out, it was possible to identify the composition of both the pigments employed by the artists as well as the dirt to be removed. In that way, we were able to determine an effective cleaning method. The original coating of varnish applied in the 15th century altered so much due to aging that the paint layer was completely darkened by it while centuries of butter lamp smoke and grime had turned the upper sections of the paint layer nearly black. In addition, large areas of the original paint layer bordering with a recent stone buttress were heavily overpainted and some sections of new paint had covered the original murals as well. Given the different reaction of the pigments to the use of the same chemical, every color often required the use of a different process and solvents to remove both the varnish, the grime deposits and the overpaintings. The use of Japanese tissue paper and/or cotton compresses soaked in different chemicals yielded a homogeneous cleaning while still protecting the paint layer. To clean the gilding and the embossed gilt jewelry, a special cotton compress, soaked in organic solvents, was applied for a long time to the exceedingly resistant varnish.
Pictorial integration: the retouching process was organized following two different methodologies: touch up and reconstructions. The former, used mostly in all walls, was meant to tone down abrasions and small losses of paint layer in order to balance all colors. This task was performed using a selected series of watercolors with minimal light sensitivity. The latter, proposed and later approved either by John Sanday Associates and Rodolfo Lujan Lunsford was to reconstruct a large area in the upper register of the east wall's northern side and two very damaged Buddhas in the south wall. The reconstructions were made possible by coping original elements from the pictorial cycle and by making them anew in the required areas (e.g. the half head of a Buddha or his robe). So, when all required elements for a reconstruction of the paint layer were found, life-size sketches were drawn on tracing paper and the drawing transferred to the wall with the spolvero technique. Natural pigments mixed with Arabic gum were then used as base-colors for covering the wide lacunae and the large cracks to be reconstructed. The new paintings were then completed with watercolors and fake gold where needed.
Upon completion of the conservation work, the paint layer was protected by spraying a very diluted solution of Paraloid B72.
One chorten and 14 statues were found in the monastery and they all undertook a restoration intervention. All of them are made of clay but one: the main statue of Shakyamuni Buddha. This dominant statue was realized through the assemblage of different repoussé cupper plates gilded with mercury. Most of these statues are not contemporary with the foundation of the monastery but they have been added in later periods.
Our first task was to remove the cobwebs, dust deposits and different animals' excreta from the surface and from the cracks of the statues. Only then could the work on the consolidation of each statue begin. In addition, crowns and other objects clasped by the statues as well as jewels in precarious conditions were fixed and secured. The cleaning process consisted in removing the altered varnish applied to protect some statues and some recent over-paintings. The employ of organic chemicals applied with cotton compresses allowed a proper and effective cleaning, thus showing again the statues’ original bright colors. Pictorial reintegration was performed after a thorough ‘up to level’ plastering of cracks and lacunae. Pigments mixed with Arabic gum were used to balance the original hues and abrasions.
The monastery’s ceiling, pillars and architraves were all finely carved, interlocked and painted in the 15th century. To assist us in their restoration, several skilled Newar woodcarvers were appointed to consolidate the ancient sections and carve missing pieces, copying the motifs from the nearby segments. A heavy coating of smoke and grime, which was covering almost the whole woodwork, was removed with cotton compresses soaked in alkaline solutions. After the cleaning was completed, abrasions and missing painted patterns were reproduced with the employ of natural pigments mixed with Arabic gum while the replaced rotten beams and wood carving were painted imitating the colors revealed with the cleaning process.
International consultants were in charge for the setting-up of a program to repair, conserve and consolidate the wall paintings in Thupchen Gonpa as well as the setting-up and maintaining of a training program for to teach conservation of wall paintings on site.
1999/2004 - Rodolfo Lujan Lunsford - Lead conservator
1999 - Vincenzo Centanni - Assistant conservator
1999/2003 - Luigi Fieni - Assistant conservator
2004 - Luigi Fieni - Lead conservator
2001/2004 - Chiara Tedde - Assistant conservator
The conservation project ended successfully in 2004 following a western approach (with the exception of the two Buddhas reconstructed on the south wall) and treating the religious building as a museum. On the other hand, the local community was not satisfied at all with the decision of not reconstructing all the lost paintings and leave the monastery as it was. Then from 2011, following the continuous requests from the royal family, the local people and the monks, funds were allocated to reconstruct the lost wall paintings in an attempt to let the locals use their monastery once again for religious purposes. You can read about this reconstruction project if you are interested in the details of a different approach in conservation.