Restoration of Murals at Dzong-gyab Lukhang

Site description derived from Tibet Handbook (Footprint, 4th edition)

When, in 17th century Lhasa, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82) and his regent Sangye Gyatso (1655-1705) constructed the Potala Palace as a monumental symbol of national unity, the excavation of mortar on the north side of the building left behind a large crater (270 metres by 112 metres in area), which soon assumed the appearance of a lake. The Dalai Lama himself is said to have sojourned on a small island in this lake. Later, his successor, Dalai Lama VI Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), constructed a three-storied “temple dedicated to the naga spirits” (Lukhang) in the Zangdok Pelri style on this very site.

The Significance of the Lukhang Murals

The murals of Lukhang Temple are unique-- particularly those of the second and third floors, which respectively depict themes from well-known Tibetan operas and the highly esoteric practices of the Nyingma tantras: Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga. Nowhere else among Tibet’s many Buddhist monasteries and temples have these secret meditation techniques been visually portrayed in such intricate detail. In subject matter, too, the murals reveal a particularly close connection with Tsangyang Gyatso’s familial line. This is discernible in the secular operatic theme of Drowa Zangmo and in the more esoteric imagery, which represents the tradition of his illustrious ancestor, Pema Lingpa of Bhutan.

Past and Recent Developments

By the mid 18th century a tradition had evolved, whereby the cabinet ministers of the Kashag would present annual offerings at the temple around Tibetan New Year, in order to appease the naga spirits. Renovations were subsequently carried out by Dalai Lama VIII in 1791 and by Dalai Lama XIII in the early decades of the 20th century. Then, in 1984, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, further reconstruction was undertaken. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the temple housed a small Tibetan language primary school, but this closed following the death of its resident teacher. Monks from Kundeling Regency Temple in Lhasa are currently responsible for supervising the site.

The Site

Ground Floor

The main chapel of the ground floor, known as Meldro Sechen Lhakhang, has a raised platform supporting images of Nagaraja, riding an elephant and with five snakes above the head, and White Tara. The murals of the vestibule depict the buddha-fields of Zangdok Pelri and Abhirati. Behind the chapel there is a closed passageway leading to two rear chapels, one of which contains murals depicting the kings of Shambhala, and the other a series of murals, still covered with yellow ochre, which depict the well-known operatic theme Chogyel Norzang.

Second Floor

Here the principal image depicts Shakyamuni Buddha in the form Nagendraraja, with nine snakes above the head, symbolizing the nine naga kings. Eleven-faced Mahakarunika is to the left and the Twenty-one Taras are to the right. A ‘self-arising’ stone image of Padmasambhava sits in front. The murals depict in succession the well-known tales of Pema Obar and Drowa Zangmo- the former being based on the life of the great Indian master Padmasambhava and the latter on that of a culture heroine of Mon, the birthplace of Dalai Lama VI.

Third Floor

The murals of this floor are outstanding, those of the east wall depicting the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas of ancient India, Padmasambhava’s Twenty-five Tibetan disciples (Jewang Nyer-nga), important Nyingma lineage holders, such as Longchen Rabjampa (1308-63) and Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), and a number of sacred monasteries, including Samye, Sakya and Mindroling, as well as Mount Kailash and the hermitage at Gangri Tokar. On the south side is the private apartment of the Dalai Lamas, who would traditionally visit the temple during the fourth month of the lunar calendar. It contains an image of Shakyamuni, and formerly housed a realistic portrait of Dalai Lama V, which is now kept in Kundeling.

The west wall uniquely depicts the yogic postures of the Atiyoga meditations – each vignette captioned with the appropriate instructions, according to the Dzogchen Kunzang Gongdu of Pema Lingpa. Lastly, the north wall depicts the practices of Mahayoga, based on the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, which transform the various phases of mundane life, death and rebirth, as well as the yogic techniques of Anuyoga through which the subtle energy system of the body is controlled.

Current Deterioration

These magnificent murals have been partially documented by Ian Baker and Thomas Laird in The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple (Thames & Hudson, 2000). Unfortunately, the site is currently in a state of disrepair. Some paintings, which were covered with a wash resembling yellow ochre during the Cultural Revolution, have not yet been restored. Others, including those of the upper storeys, which had been varnished in the 1960s, are pealing from the walls at an increasingly alarming rate. Leakages through the roof have also been instrumental in damaging the uppermost murals. In the 1980s the murals were protected by a wire grill, and within the last two years they have been encased in glass, but no efforts have been made to restore them or to effectively address the structural problems that caused the original leakage.

The Project

Under the auspices of the Centre for Himalayan Studies in Crieff, Scotland, in liaison of the Ruskin Mill Trust in Gloucestershire, a restoration project was initiated in Lhasa in 2003, with the support of Kundeling Temple and the municipal Buddhist Association. The original objective was to faithfully reproduce, conserve and restore the Lukhang murals in four successive phases, the first of which had already been approved:

Phase One: From 2003-2005, a team of six artists working under the guidance of their master who is affiliated with Kundeling, made full size reproductions of the second and third floor murals on canvas, traced directly from the walls of the temple, and carefully transcribing all the inscriptions and captions. To support this phase of the project, the amount US$ 20,000 was generously donated by a Californian philanthropist. This phase was completed on schedule in 2005; and at the artist’s request the new reproductions were removed from Lhasa for safekeeping in 2007.

Phase Two: In November 2007, the team began working on the full-size reproduction of the ground floor murals of the Lukhang Temple, with a view to completing this second phase of the project in November, 2009. To that end, further sponsorship was pledged within the UK, amounting to US$17,500 over two years. However, the project encountered delays on account of the temporary closure of the artists’ studio during 2008 when the Lhasa Barkor was closed down, following the demonstrations and subsequent curfew imposed in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics, and the world economic down-turn. At present, the artists still have an estimated nine months of work to complete this phase of the project; and there is a shortfall in the funding, amounting to US$ 8,750, required. Work on this phase of the project has also been hindered by the difficulty of inspecting the content of those murals that are still covered by yellow ochre from the era of the Cultural Revolution. A recent fund-raising event held in Austin, Texas, during November 2009 subsequently generated a further amount of US$ 2,100 on behalf of the project.

Phase Three: Having preserved the content of the Lukhang murals by creating an authentic replica, in the same dimensions as the original paintings, we are also seeking permission to restore and conserve the original murals, and undertake structural repairs of the building itself, including the replacement of the roof and the upgrading of water and electrical supplies. The ideal scenario was to have internationally trained conservators work in Lhasa, alongside Tibetan and Chinese trained conservators, but permission for this has not been forthcoming. The second scenario was to display the replica murals in Lhasa—either in situ, within the Lukhang Temple, battening them on the walls, or in another environment, such as the Tibet National Museum, but this plan was also discounted in the current socio-political climate. We believe that eventually permission will be granted for effective restoration of the Lukhang Temple, including the original murals, and the budget for this phase of the project will be assessed at that time.

Phase Four: Utilizing the new reproductions of the Lukhang murals, we propose to construct a new replica Lukhang Temple, as the focal point of a new Tibetan cultural and resource centre, at a suitable location outside Tibet. The budget for this will be determined once reproduction of the ground floor murals have been completed and the location of the new centre has been selected.



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