Ishey and Angmo bend their heads over a 2×1-foot piece of silk cloth adorned with a painting. With skilled hands, they use brushes to bring to life its vibrant blues, greens, and reds.
The cloth’s border is aged yellow and the painting they are restoring is nothing short of a historical treasure—a 17th-century thangka with a centrepiece of a lama imparting his teachings, while the Buddha smiles down on him benevolently.
I’m at the 15th-century Matho Monastery near Leh, lodged high up in the Stok range of the Himalayas, overlooking the Indus River. The monastery was founded in 1410 and belongs to the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a sunny summer afternoon in early July but the monastery is quiet; unlike the popular Thiksey Monastery located almost directly opposite across the Indus valley, Matho Monastery is off the tourist trail in Ladakh. But the three-storey Matho Monastery Museum (MaMoMu) in its compound, slated to open in the summer of 2018, could change that.
After touring the monastery, I climb a steep flight of stairs to a large workshop where I meet Nelly Rieuf, the manager of MaMoMu project. Rieuf studied engineering in France but then shifted to art restoration, training under her aunt who was a thangka restorer. She worked in Nepal and surrounding regions for a few years and graduated from the Sorbonne in 2010 with a degree in art restoration and art history. She has been leading the MaMoMu project since 2011, working in coordination with the monastery, the National Museum Institute, foreign NGOs and donors, and volunteers from Matho village. The monastery has a large assortment of ancient artefacts, from bronze statues, Tibetan dance masks, and ritual objects to text scrolls and silks. But the jewel in the crown is its collection of thangka paintings, the largest such collection in the world. Many of the thangkas go back to the 14th century and the monastery also owns four precious 12th-century works, which were discovered only three years ago near Matho village.
The late afternoon sun streaming in through large windows bathes the workshop in a soft light. Four local women are hard at work on different thangkas. “Before we start the restoration, we document the thangka, because if ever you mess up you have something to reconstruct from. We begin by cleaning the painting either with special erasers or chemicals. The fabric is often torn so we glue the threads together, or if a portion is missing, we make a piece of the exact same shape and paste it. Finally, we apply a primer of clay mixed with glue and then add in the paint,” explains Rieuf. She imports paints from countries such as China, Japan, and Germany, much like the times when these thangkas were originally created using Chinese paints and glue from Afghanistan.
We walk over to the table where Ishey and Angmo, both volunteers from Matho village, have mixed paint on palettes and are brightening up the colours on the thangka. Rieuf thinks the paint is too thin: “I want to see thick paint, like lipstick”, she says to the women, who titter. The museum project has been a slow, painstaking process over the past seven years, and Rieuf has trained more than 20 local women in thangka restoration. “It takes me two weeks to a month to restore a thangka; for the girls it’s anywhere between three-six months. But you cannot hurry when you take care of culture otherwise you miss out on things,” muses Rieuf.
Many of the restored thangkas and other artefacts will be on display at MaMoMu. The museum is under construction, but I get a chance to peep inside. It’s designed like a Ladakhi house with three storeys built using traditional methods and materials like mud bricks and poplar wood, with intricately carved beams and window panes. Each floor will have a separate theme—from the origin of different styles of art in Ladakh, to an iconographic guide to the various Buddhist deities, and finally, an insight into monastic life. The museum’s rooftop will have a library and a small café, and one of the best views in the world.
I pick my way carefully through the bricks and beams and come out on to the terrace. The valley is spread below me like a patchwork quilt of green and brown. The Indus flows in a roaring stream through it, and all around me are the snow-capped peaks of the Ladakh and Stok Ranges. I’m already making plans to return when the museum opens—a museum on the roof of the world built to protect the history and culture of the people of Ladakh.
Matho Monastery is 26 km /45 min southeast of Leh by road. There are direct flights connecting Leh to Mumbai and Delhi. Allow at least 2 hours to visit the monastery and the restoration workshop (mathomuseumproject.com; monastery open daily; workshop open Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2.30-5 p.m. and on the 2nd and 3rd Saturday of every month; entry free).