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Project Overview | Baiya Mural Conservation | Palpung Architecture Project
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China Exploration & Research Society (CERS) and Kham Aid Foundation

Conserving Tibetan Art and Architecture
(Project Overview)

Latest Updates

Palpung Gonpa6/13/99 A new Palpung main page includes information on the history and background of this important Kham gompa.

5/3/99 Several new pages have been added to the CERS site on Asian Arts, including: a report on the celebration of the completion of restoration work at Baiya, Baiya Monastery Revived; an article on the The Murals of Baiya Monastery by Jonathan Bell (also featured as an independent article on Asian Arts); and  Wooden Architecture in Ganzi, by Pamela Logan, who investigates the future of traditional Tibetan building designs and techniques in Northeastern Tibet.

7/17/98 - Project director Pamela Logan has just returned from the Tibetan plateau with photos and news about the work in progress. There are three new reports on the work at Baiya entitled Accounting Practices of Tibetans, A Day in the Life of a Project Manager, and Conservation Complete; as well as one more report called Palpung Mural Rescue about the work going on at that Gonpa.

The World Monuments Fund of New York has just named Palpung Monastery to its 1998-99 list of the World's 100 most important endangered monuments. Click here for more information.

Now you can help support this project by joining a special expedition to Palpung and Baiya Monasteries. Your cost is partly tax-deductible (in the US); proceeds will support restoration of the two monasteries and conservation training for Tibetans.

click on small images to view full screen with caption

Palpung Monastery
Palpung Monastery

During China's Cultural Revolution, Buddhist monasteries in Tibet suffered disastrous damage--either through outright destruction or benign neglect. Since the early 1980s, Tibetans have been allowed to reactivate and repair surviving monasteries--but far too often the repairs are shoddy and damage the traditional character of these venerable buildings. Our goal is to save some of the last intact monasteries on the eastern plateau. Internationally known experts are teaching Tibetans how to repair traditional buildings while retaining as much original material as possible. We are also educating Tibetans in the techniques of mural conservation, so that they can preserve their own priceless artistic heritage.


Map showing location of project sites.
Map showing location of project sites. 

Tibetans are often cited as the most religious people in the world. Their Buddhist beliefs have inspired them, over the centuries, to construct immense and spectacular monasteries which rank among the most important architectural achievements in Asia. The buildings are focal points for a faith that teaches peace, compassion, and respect for all living things, and are inhabited by monks who make the study of these tenets a lifelong occupation.

 The monasteries of Tibet, like most other religious sites of China, sustained heavy losses during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Luckily some obscure and difficult-to-reach monasteries survived; however the buildings have been poorly maintained, and moreover have suffered the effects of weather and natural disasters such as earthquakes. Nowadays in China religious practice is not only permitted, but is undergoing a great revival. All over the Tibetan plateau, (which extends far beyond the boundaries of Tibet Autonomous Region into the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan) monasteries are again opening their doors to prospective students. Coincident with this boom is a frenzy of rebuilding as monasteries reopen their doors to huge numbers of aspiring students.

Conservation team travels by horse caravan from Baiya to Palpung.
Conservation team travels by horse caravan from Baiya to Palpung.

Ironically, it's this very rebuilding effort that places Tibet's finest architectural achievements in great danger. Because Tibetans are so eager to get monasteries up and running again, old structures are gutted and rebuilt using non-traditional materials and shoddy technique. Many outstanding examples of Tibetan craftsmanship have been lost, and can never be replaced.

 The reason for this is simple: Tibetans lack knowledge of modern conservation techniques. They do not know how to, for example, splice good wood into a partially rotten timber, or how to detach murals before rebuilding a wall. Teaching these skills is one major purpose of our program. The other is to restore some of Tibet's most notable architectural achievements before they are lost for all time.


Conservation Training Sites: Palpung and Baiya Monasteries

Mural painting
Mural painting in informal style.

With support from the Getty Grant Program, in 1991 the China Exploration and Research Society conducted a survey of 18 monasteries in western Sichuan province, documenting their history, architectural design, and current condition. The expedition focused on western Sichuan Province, Ganzi Prefecture, which has many architecturally significant monasteries. As a result, two outstanding candidates were selected for restoration.

Ornate ceiling of Situ Rinpoche's quarters in Palpung.
Ornate ceiling of Situ Rinpoche's quarters in Palpung.

The first monastery selected is Palpung Gonpa. Palpung's main building is remarkable for its huge size, complex design, and magnificent craftsmanship--so splendid that it has been called the "Little Potala Palace" after the Dalai Lama's famous (former) home in the Tibetan capital. Palpung ("Babang" in Chinese) is traditionally a major teaching center for the Karma Kagyu sect, each year receiving many young scholars. Located in a forested valley six horseback-hours from the nearest motorable road, Palpung has suffered both from neglect during the Cultural Revolution and an earthquake that struck in 1993, bringing portions of the building to the verge of collapse. Repair of Palpung Monastery is a complex and expensive engineering project that is well beyond the capacity of local resources, yet if the work is not done soon the building will have to be abandoned--this would mean the loss of an architectural masterpiece.

Northeast courtyard of Palpung shows movement of major structures.
Northeast courtyard of Palpung shows movement of major structures.

Four hours' travel from Palpung lies our second target: tiny Baiya Gonpa. This Sakya sect monastery is famous for its numerous finely-done and historically significant murals, which are in serious danger as the building threatens to collapse around them. Baiya's murals are one of the few remaining examples of a style developed in the Dege Kingdom (now county) over the last few centuries. Besides showing images of Buddhist deities, they also depict the court of King Dengba Tsering, who once ruled twenty-five tribes on the eastern plateau. The masterful technique displayed in these murals is far superior to modern works; conservation of Baiya's murals and building will allow them to be studied and enjoyed by future generations.

Program Impact Beyond the Initial Sites

 The impact of our conservation work will spread far beyond Palpung and Baiya, for well-trained engineers and conservators will find their skills in demand all over the Tibetan plateau. Moreover, some of their skills will be applicable to ordinary Tibetan homes. Tibetan architecture in general has several design deficiencies that we plan to address, most notably resistance against earthquakes. Also, leaking roofs and poor interior ventilation are health hazards that can be remedied using inexpensive materials and only minor changes of design. Thus, not only will this project help preserve Tibetan culture, it will improve the health and quality of life for ordinary Tibetans.

 Another effect of the program will be to instill in Tibetans an appreciation for their past. Already more educated Tibetans realize the value of preservation, but rural people (whose sons represent the majority of the monk population) tend to consider mural paintings as offerings, not as treasures to be cherished and preserved. A large scale--and expensive--conservation project will spread the word to ordinary farmers and herdsmen that their cultural legacy is indeed valuable--not only to them, but to the world at large.

Work Completed So Far

 In 1991, with funding from the Getty Grant Program, the China Exploration and Research Society surveyed eighteen monasteries, producing a report that contained never-before-documented building plans, histories, economic data. As a result, Palpung and Baiya were identified as outstanding candidates for conservation. Based on this work the project was selected by Rolex for an Honorary Award for Enterprise.

In 1994 two expeditions were fielded to further document the condition of the most important targets. Conservation architect John Sanday established a preliminary plan of action for Palpung and Baiya, and decided what other conservation expertise is needed. Funds were provided to both monasteries for timber acquisition in preparation for future work.

In 1996 extensive restoration work is slated to begin at both Baiya and Palpung Monasteries. Although the groundwork has been laid for participation of conservation expert John Sanday to lead the construction effort, as yet not enough funds have been raised to pay for his return journey to Dege County. The leaders of both monasteries have decided that they cannot wait any longer; therefore traditional methods of repair will be used for the initial work.

A field team visiting Palpung in May, 1996 found that rotten timbers were being torn out and a part of the roof replaced, but no innovative technologies had been incorporated due to lack of expert guidance. At Baiya, work is scheduled to begin in autumn. It is hoped that Sanday can return to Palpung and Baiya to oversee the repairs before the work reaches an advanced stage.

For further updates, check the updates section at the top of this page. (Click here.)

Future Plans

Depending on funds availability, earthquake safety measures will be implemented at Palpung and Baiya, and new water proofing materials will be incorporated in the roofs of the two monasteries. Tibetan workers will participate in this work so that they can learn the techniques of conservation.


Project Overview | Baiya Mural Conservation | Palpung Architecture Project
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