Thupchen Murals

Restoring a Living Culture

thupchen murals

Restoring a Living Culture
Sq. Meters to Paint
Hours of work
Paintbrushes Used
Cups of Coffee
understanding the murals
Understanding The Murals
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the painters team
The Team
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masonry work
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preparatory drawing
Preparatory Drawing
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coloring procedure
Coloring procedure
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patterns and decorative motifs
Patterns & Decorations
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shading and lining
Shading & Lining
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gilding and relief work
Gilding & Relief Work
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where are we now
Where are we now
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Thupchen monastery's assembly hall measures roughly 22 by 28 meters and its height is about 7.4 meters. Consecrated in 1472 is an example of a seamless mix of XV century styles, from Newari to Tibetan to Chinese. More than half of the pictorial cycle was destroyed either by earthquake, water leakage and rising damp.

Originally it hosted nearly 163 square meters of paint. Nowadays only a bit more than 100 square meters are left. Most of the damages here were caused by rising damp from the outside debris of mud and clay and from water infiltrations on the northern side of the wall. Near the entrance door there are 2 complete sections of wall paintings, which became the major source for organising the reconstruction programme.

Originally it hosted nearly 207 square meters of paint. Nowadays only a bit more than half of the original paint is left and more than 110 square maters to paint anew. Most of the damages on this side were caused by rising damp due to stables attached to the monastery all along the south wall. Furthermore water infiltrations had destroyed a section on the western side.

This is the wall where most of the big statues are placed. Hence it is difficult to surmise how many square meters there were here, even though we could think of the whole wall painted. At present less than 40 square meters are visible while a good amount is covered by recent over paintings and the large throne of the statues. Only 25 square meters should be painted anew here.

The original north wall has less than 15 square meters of murals left. A newer wall was built a bay inwards after an earthquake destroyed the majority of the original wall. It is the will of the locals to rebuild the wall as it was before and complete the whole pictorial cycle. If it will happen, there will be more than 190 square meters to paint anew.

thupchen gonpa west elevation
thupchen gonpa south elevation
thupchen gonpa plan

Plans and elevations are courtesy of John Harrison

Thoughts Over

The Project

Luigi Fieni

When we started the pictorial integration in the monastery of Thupchen, back in 2001, the westerner way was followed regarding the criteria of retouching wall paintings, which tends to avoid reconstructions as much as possible. Nonetheless, an exception was made in 2003 when John Sanday Associates approved the reconstruction of large missing parts of two main Buddhas on the southern side of Thupchen and of part of the upper decoration on the northern side of the East wall. The decision was taken in order to better emphasise the remains of the pictorial cycle, thus uniting the whole paint layer, at least on the upper section.


The whole Lomanthang community was puzzled though, when the conservation work in Thupchen Gonpa was closed in 2004, by the fact that no more reconstructions were made and the whole lower section of the wall paintings were left with a plaster under the level of the paint layer. Bodhisattvas and Buddhas were left without their legs and lotus flowers nor the missing scenes and the protective deities at the very bottom were reconstructed. It was unconceivable for them that we would leave such parts unpainted: it just made no sense.

Regardless of the community’s requests, the focus of the project shifted to Jampa Lhakhang and Thupchen Gonpa was considered a finished project, at least from a westerner’s point of view.


Somehow things changed, and I changed as well. And when the local community asked once more to paint the missing part, the sponsors said yes, and so did I. Since 2011, regardless of all critics from the western world of academics, a reconstruction program was set up by The American Himalayan Foundation in order to complete all the missing wall paintings in Thupchen monastery and more than 150 square meters of lost paintings are being reconstructed following the XV century style (more than 340 square meters if the new north wall will be painted as well). Furthermore, with an accurate documentation, we have been mapping the locations of every reconstruction, so as to leave a record at the end of the project for future generations to understand where was the original artwork and where was the interpretation.

Here I would like to thank Samanta Ezeiza, who was my assistant to the project and who has worked tirelessly for the first two seasons.

To close this introduction, I would like to stress the importance that a a conservation philosophy should be shaped according to the culture’s needs and one single theory of conservation should not exist even though some principles could coexist. Cultures worldwide are very different and so should be the concept of conservation, if the latter is meant to be truly preserving a living cultural heritage site.

the documentary

An intimate perspective