Magazine article Geographical

Artistic Teachings

Magazine article Geographical

Artistic Teachings

Article excerpt

For art restorer Sabine Cotte, a holiday in Bhutan quickly turned into a challenging project to help conserve the kingdom's centuries-old monasteries.

The isolated and rarely visited Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, tucked between India, Nepal and Tibet (its modern name stems from the Sanskrit phrase Bhot ant, meaning `end of Tibet'), prides itself on its cultural heritage. Among the country's greatest treasures are 17 dzongs, or Tibetan-style fortified monasteries, which feature exquisite mural paintings called lhakhangs.

Although they look imposing, with slightly sloping white-washed walls that can be two metres thick at the base, these structures are surprisingly vulnerable to neglect and ill-considered uses of modern conveniences such as electricity and running water.

Sitting in her spacious atelier in the Marais district of Paris, Sabine Cotte opens a booklet filled with cartoons and unusual script and points to a drawing of a red-robed monk watching water pour from a standpipe. "Here's a common problem," she says. "The monks in Bhutan tend to leave the water taps running all night. The result is that the ground around the temple becomes waterlogged and the damp seeps up the walls, damaging the mural paintings and ultimately, the structure."

Common sense advice like `turn off the taps' forms the core message of the Handboook of Preventive Conservation for Dzongs and Lhakhangs, published in late 1998 and co-authored by Cotte. The idea of the handbook earned Cotte an Associate Laureate Rolex Award in 1996.

Fragile frescoes

The project was conceived following a three-week trek through Bhutan in 1992, when Cotte, a 37-year old French art restorer, and her partner David Nock, a British-Australian architect, visited three dzongs and found cracks in the walls, crumbling foundations and scratched frescoes. "Most of the damage came from moisture in the structure, smoke and fire damage; from butter lamps, graffiti, and other simple problems that could be solved easily," Cotte recalls.

Touched by the beauty of the monasteries, and concerned about their demise, Cotte and Nock wrote a report and presented it to the Bhutanese authorities at the Special Commission for Cultural Affairs. They were invited back to Bhutan -- a rare honour -- to develop an easy-to-use handbook so that caretaker monks could prevent further damage to the country's artistic treasures.

The book was written in English and Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan, and it is now ready to be put to use. Dorji Wangchuk, head of Bhutan's division of cultural properties, is looking for funds to hold a workshop to launch the handbook. Caretakers of dzongs and lhakhangs from throughout the country will be invited and introduced to the handbook and its basic approach to conservation.

Wear and tear

Many of the dzongs were first constructed in the 17th century, during a large building programme under the rule of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Acknowledging that today the dzongs are showing considerable signs of wear, Dorji Wangchuk says, "We want to save our culture and preserve our identity before it's too late. The handbook is very important."

Not everyone in Bhutan, however, grasps the importance of preserving their ancient cultural identity. Some are of the opinion that it would be better to devote scarce resources towards creating new art, rather than trying to preserve what already exists. …

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