“The most solemn of the monasteries is the great Ducàn raising its towered mass to the left of the river: it looks like a fortress rather than like a temple, so massive and stern, with few windows and many loopholes. It seems to be built there to block the valley; it was raised when the Sakyas saw their power threatened by rival sects sending their armies of monks and mercenaries to appear on the overhanging passes.”
Upon his arrival in Sa-skya Tucci paid his first visit to the abbot, who was married, and who received him wearing his Mongol costume and sitting on a high throne in his “pompous” private chapel, the gilded images of gods on the tall gilt shelves along two walls being “clumsy and badly finished, not comparable to the ancient ones heaped up on the altars of the temples” in the main monastic building. By then the abbots had abandoned the majestic and solemn “four-tower palace” rising in the middle of the small town, preferring to live in their solitary “villas” in the countryside:
“They live as if estranged from the world in that palace of theirs, which looks like a prison; and through its half-closed windows they peek beyond it at what happens outside, along the roads, without having the courage to come down among the crowd and mix with it, and to know its joys and sorrows. They do not deal with earthly matters; the monastery is run by ministers and monks who are responsible for its discipline and administration; the people are in the hands of the ‘shapè’, namely lay officers, who act as they like and torment people at their leisure. But even the abbots are not serene (…). Now the princes of Sakya are two: the elder is on the throne and the other waits for the moment to succeed him, and meanwhile makes his [elder’s] life bitter through continuous plots and traps. Even in Tibet the ambition for power torments souls and diverts them from those serene beatitudes to which religion is meant to lead them. But hatred and spite do not burst into violent disputes; they smolder under genuflections and bows, they leak through the servants’ whispered chatter, they wind in gossip and slander. They are almost two parties clashing in a silent but implacable way under a ceremonious bigotry.
Pilgrims flocking to this holy place from every part of Tibet are unaware of those struggles and enmities blurring the peace of the divine abbots and breathe with moved simplicity that serene and quiet aura blowing gently over the holy land. They perform the ritual circumambulation around the temples prostrating themselves reverently at every step, chanting, listening with stunned devotion to the miracles and legends told and often invented for their edification by the guides. But even in this place you see that progressive decay corroding Tibet slowly, but fatally; it is a whole civilization that changes, or to say it better, crumbles, for there are no seeds and vital impulses that may survive in it as soon as more human and earthly aspirations succeed the religious ideal which has inspired it to this day. Losing their faith, leaving their beliefs, Tibetans find themselves on a sterile soil, on which it will be difficult that new germs may take root and prosper.”
Tucci’s view extends to the contemporary production of traditional art at the same site:
“Life in Sakya is dominated by religion: the calendar records the holy feasts that give an unusual animation to the village and monastery. The bazar, usually insignificant, is enriched by improvised stalls on which pedlars spread out their junk purchased in India and resold at ten times more than their cost. You get the impression that Tibet is no longer able to produce anything; all comes from outside. Copper and silver artifacts have become barbarous: rough in their manufacture, and shoddy in that ornamentation which often beautifies ancient objects with baroque excess. Tibet has grown poor, but at the same time starts to feel the fascination of exotic items, which merchants and pilgrims introduce from distant places in India.”
In that connection the Italian scholar mentions the Nepalese trading their own items, mostly womanly ornaments fashioned by Newar goldsmiths, but also aluminium and majolica items made in Japan. Indeed the current sale of Nepalese religious paintings and items by Tibetan traders as far as rGyal-rong represents the continuation and development of a trend that started long ago. Hugh Richardson raised the issue of the future of Tibetan material culture in relation to the isolation of Tibet during the period of Manchu overlordship in the following terms:
“A certain sterility is now apparent in Tibetan crafts, art-forms, literature, imagery and all the rest. But as the various things produced continue to be true to traditional form and always beautiful in themselves, one hesitates to make adverse comments on this score. But the question arises: what now becomes of Tibetan civilization? It is almost a general rule that when any culture becomes cut off from outside influences and ceases to develop new forms, it is already moribund. Is it possible that Tibetan Buddhist civilization was an exception? Although by the seventeenth century we already know almost its whole content, there seems no inherent reason why, left to itself, it should not have continued to live on as it lived until the mid-twentieth century. Good religious paintings in the accepted styles continued to be produced; books were still printed by the laborious but extremely skilful craft of carving wooden printing blocks; learned commentaries, mainly on philosopy and logic, were still written by masters for their pupils; texts and schools of teaching were analyzed; catalogues of deities, teachers, images and temples were drawn up; sacred places were described as pilgrims’ itineraries; new monasteries and temples were founded.”
Giuseppe Tucci’s criticism concerning the preservation of ancient monuments in Southwest Tibet extends to other very important monastic centers, such as rGyal-rtse and Zhwa-lu, containing masterpieces of Tibetan art. As to the former he writes: “To be frank, the way these ancient monuments are kept is most lamentable. Neither the authorities nor the lamas have an idea of their great importance.” As for the monastery of Zhwa-lu, which had close connections with the kingdom of rGyal-rtse, he comments: “Not all the pictures, but a large part of them are intact; I do not know for how long, as these monuments are entrusted to the care of an ignorant and increasingly impoverished community, so that there is no hope of their survival, unless they are properly and speedily repaired.”
A special place is allotted to the small but important site of rKyang-phu (also rKyang-bu and sKyang), rising at about 4,100 m., one kilometre and a half west of the village of Sa-ma-mda’, on the trade route linking Sikkim to South Tibet. A temple had already been founded at that place in the latter half of the 8th century, during the rule of the Tibetan emperor Khri Srong-lde-brtsan, who had adopted Buddhism as state religion. The temples visited by Tucci had been raised by Chos-kyi-blo-gros, a Tibetan master who spent some time in Western Tibet, where he met the famous scholar and translator Rin-chen-bzan-po twice during the first half of the 11th century. The inscriptions engraved on stone blocks fixed on the inner side of the boundary wall included invocations to the dharmarāja Kun-dga’-rgyal-mtshan-dpal-bzang-po (1310-1358), a grand lama of the Sa-skya religious order, to which the monastery had ended up belonging, who renovated and had it redecorated. In 1937 Tucci noticed that the entrance porch was used by villagers as a warehouse, whereas some of the paintings were already ruined because of seepage of water through the roof.
Maraini states that the monastery was in a “pitiful state of neglect, actually a complete ruin in most parts” except for the main temple. There were “no longer lamas, ascetics, doctors, abbots”: “a family of good but rough farmers” held “in ruinous custody that place” and had “transformed it into a kind of convenient farm”. One could see around “hoes, ploughs, saddles, sieves, old guns, butter churns, ropes, bags, sacks, hides”, while “an elderly monk, dirty and indolent”, appeared somewhere. From his garment one could understand that he belonged to the dGe-lugs-pa order, “dominating on much of Tibet” and regarding such sanctuaries, “inherited so to speak” from the other religious orders, then in a subordinate position, as “stepchildren” and kept them “alive out of mere charity or perhaps, better, out of mere inertia.” About thirty years after Tucci and Maraini’s visit to rKyang-phu, the Cultural Revolution, seen with sympathy by some Westerners, even in Italy, reduced the monastery to a huge heap of rubble.
Another important temple site in South Tibet where Tucci noticed that important wall paintings were erased by water coming down from the roofs is Dratang (Grwa-thang; see Fig. 8), where during renovation works in the 1940s further damage occurred when windows were opened through fine 11th-century murals.
One of the conclusions drawn by Tucci in Indo-Tibetica on the state of Tibetan religious monuments in Southwest Tibet is that the dGe-lugs-pa order inherited the temples built by the schools that preceded it, but “has been been unable to build anything new and great”: “The monasteries in the areas that I visited and studied in this volume were once flourishing at the highest degree, but today they are found in a deplorable state of neglect and decadence; neglect because no one seems to care about them, and decadence because they no longer shed that light of thought and spiritual nobility for which they were renowned one day.”
Although Tucci consistently criticizes people and institutions — including the Tibetan government — responsible for the upkeep of some of the most important monuments in West, Southwest and South Tibet in the 1930s and 1940s, it should be pointed out that a Buddhist canonical text such as the Kriyâsamgraha prescribes to throw images beyond repair into water or to burn them, or else to melt them down, in spite of the fact that the restoration of religious images is known in the Indo-Tibetan world. Indeed, from a Buddhist point of view, such images are imperfect, while commissioning new ones is essential to accumulate merits, as it has been in Christian tradition, too. In fact restoration and conservation — in the modern, technical sense given to those terms — is a relatively recent phenomenon in Western cultural history: until about a century ago also in Europe ancient murals might be painted over or even destroyed in the course of the renovation of religious buildings.
It is obvious that a compromise has to be found, reconciling traditional Buddhist attitudes with the necessity of preserving surviving monuments and religious images belonging to the world cultural heritage. A systematic way has to be devised in order to promote a new awareness of the importance of conservation in monasteries all over geo-cultural Tibet, while respecting — and furthermore studying — the contemporary production of traditional religious images. The local religious ought be made aware of their responsibility in maintaining the treasures under their custody with a new outlook, working out new educational strategies — by including the study of art history in the context of local history — and implementing them in monastic curricula.
I thank my wife, Stella Rigo Righi — who read some of the books quoted in this article even before I managed to do so — for her suggestions during the stimulating discussions we had on the subject.
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