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RITHANG MONASTERY
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OVERVIEW

Lhokha, founded ca. 12th c.

On the way
On the way
This monastery, founded by Riwo Khyentse at the beginning of the "Later Diffusion", is rarely mentioned in Western sources because it is located near the former prefecture and fortress of Tsona, on the border with Bhutan, which has been out of bounds to foreigners for a long time. Leaving Tsethang southwards through the Yarlung valley, the road leads over the Yart´┐Ż Drakla pass (4900m), where one catches a brief but awesome view of the sacred Yarlhashampo mountain above the western ridge. Then the road descends into a broad plain ringed with snowy mountains, and rises once more over the Sholpo Takla Pass (5100m), and down to the Rithang valley. (Tsethang to Rithang 152 km.)


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FIELD REPORT UPDATES

June 1994 | January 1995 | May 1995 | October 1995

Rithang monastery, front view
View of the front of the monastery

JUNE 1994
The local authorities wanted to pull the main structure down in 1984, but the Cultural Relics commitee in Lhasa decided to save it because of the unique pillar construction in the main assembly hall, with its fine original bas-relief carvings. The earliest stupa on the site was also excavated prior to restoration, and it was found to contain layers of objects connected with the ritual implantation of Buddhism in Tibet.

In order to save the pillar and beam structure it was necessary to lift the roof over main temple, which is in danger of imminent collapse and re-build the inner structure, giving special attention to the four main pillars. Shalu Association suggested that the pillars be made into bilobate or quadrilobate forms to save the original pillar capitols. No repainting of the wooden structures is envisaged, since these appear to have been unpainted from early times. Neither will any restoration of the remaining wall paintings be attempted. These are fine but badly damaged, and may date to circa 14th c.

Roof construction
Roof construction

JANUARY 1995
The necessary materials have been gathered, ie. a considerable quantity of wood and stones, and they are waiting for better weather to start. The operation entails removing the whole roof over the former main assembly hall, so fine weather is necessary.

MAY 1995 (J.H.)
The assembly hall at Rithang monastery is a simple rectangular building of rammed-earth walls, entered from the east through a later two storey vestibule. The roof is supported by eight tree-trunk pillars with twelfth century carved capitals, the four at the corners of the central lantern being crossed capitals. The repair work to the walls, main roof and internal timber structure is now complete. Work is continuing on a new central lantern and the new vestibule. For the repair of the decayed carved capitals, Heather Stoddard had argued for the retention of all the original woodwork, with additional posts being added beside each round column in order to support the arms of the capital above. Thus the structural clarity of the original would be lost, but all the historic woodwork would be retained. Subsequently Thupten Namkar and the master carpenter decided that this would not be feasible, as too much of the centre of the capitals had been destroyed by insect attack, and they therefore reverted to the "veneer" approach for two of the capitals.
Restoration of pillars and  beams
Restoration of pillars and beams
In both cases one arm has had a new wood centre section constructed with the original carved faces refixed to the sides; the opposite arm of the capital is completely new and shaped to match the original. I was unable to discover what had happened to the two original arms which had been replaced. In the west this problem could have been solved by the use of resins to replace the decayed centre of the wooden members, reinforced with steel or glassfibre rods; but there is continuing acrimonious debate in conservation circles on the ethics and even the long-term effects of this approach.
Damaged painting of a bodhisattva
Damaged painting of a bodhisattva
In Rithang of course this was not an option, and I am prepared to accept Thupten Namkar's decision on this matter. Some of the principle roof beams have been replaced where decay was too extensive. Inside one of the beams, a box-section with a central cavity, a small metal figure and a manuscript were discovered. These are now awaiting expert examination. At some time in the past (more than 66 years ago, the age of the head lama) an internal wall was built along part of the north wall and most of the south, presumably to support the ends of beams decayed by water penetration from above or left unsupported by the outward movement of the walls. Murals remain on the original walls, although completely lost on the west wall, and it is hoped that more murals are hidden behind the support walls. It is proposed to start removing the support wall carefully, to see if it is still structurally necessary. Externally the main earth roof has been laid and rammed-earth parapet walls built up. The central lantern windows have not yet been constructed.
Damaged murals
Damaged murals
The local people want to top this with a pitched metal roof, but Thupten Namkar has insisted on a flat earth roof. The main rammed-earth walls, which were leaning outwards, have been supported externally on the north and west sides by continuous stone buttressing to prevent any further outward movement. To the southwest of the assembly hall is a large old chorten where minor repairs have been undertaken, and to the south a smaller recent temple where religious activities on the site now take place. To the southeast lie the ruined earth walls of a much larger temple. The work at Rithang has been undertaken by a master-carpenter and a mason-"architect" from Dana, both of whom have worked on many monasteries, and eight Tibetan craftsmen. A written report has been prepared, to be submitted with the full accounts in July.

Stupa and ruined structures in the environs of Rithang
Stupa and ruined structures in the environs of Rithang

OCTOBER 1995
Superb journey to Rithang. with fine views of Yarlhashampo. Except its sacred summit, not a patch of snow was to be seen anywhere. In June 1994, however, a thick white blanket lay as far as the eye could see, covering the entire plain and ranges of mountains that precede the descent into the valley of Lhuntse Dzong.

The Assembly Hall in Rithang monastery has been entirely reconstructed, with the entrance porch and reception room above all in new wood. The inner wooden structure, with its superb 12th c. bas-relief carvings, was the main object of the restoration, and has been rebuilt partly with the old wood (as much as they could save), partly with new, and partly with the bas-reliefs cut in a thick veneer. I argued against this solution last year. However they have managed to save the structure, which was due for demolition, and have also revealed a large wall with the remains of 13th-14th century wall paintings, including Tathagata-type figures, and a series of fine mahasiddhas, though these are badly damaged. A new, large and well constructed skylight has been installed in the centre of the roof giving good light into the Assembly Hall. Two yak tails were offered as presents to our group.

Woodwork in Rithang
Woodwork in Rithang

The monastery took out a loan for 30 000 RMB, although they had been told not to by SW. We declined to provide the funds to help them out of the situation, and consider our participation to be complete. However, later we looked further into the budget, and decided to provide 20 000 RMB as a final contribution, since the work had been well completed.



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