Before Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper," Tibetan craftsmen were creating stunning artistry of their deities in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. In "Lost Treasures of Tibet," NOVA goes behind the scenes with the first conservation team from the West, as it undertakes the painstaking restoration of these ancient masterpieces and the beautiful monasteries that house them.
Located in present-day Nepal, Mustang contains some of the last remaining relics of an almost vanished world of ancient Buddhist culture. Across the border in Tibet, Chinese occupiers have destroyed thousands of monasteries since taking control of the country in 1950. Therefore, the survival of Mustang's monasteries orgompas is more important than ever. But preservation is extremely difficult because of the centuries of neglect, weather, and earthquakes that have brought many buildings to the brink of collapse. Inside, their exquisite murals are in a near-ruined state.
In the course of their restoration work, conservators from the West come face-to-face with a thorny problem of culture clash: local people want missing sections of the murals completed. Westerners are aghast at the idea, but their hosts are equally shocked at the thought of worshiping unfinished deities.
The program follows the struggle of an international team headed by British conservationist John Sanday to restore the greatest gompa of all—Thubchen, the royal monastery in Mustang's capital of Lo Monthang. The first order of business is fixing Thubchen's roof—no small feat since 200 tons of dirt have been piled on its flat surface over the centuries to seal out leaks. To bear that much weight, the hidden ceiling beams must be more than two feet thick, an apparent impossibility considering that Mustang is virtually treeless. Sanday solves this riddle when his team excavates down to the beams and discovers an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of construction that uses interlocking small timbers to create a lightweight, load-bearing structure.
Ancient Tibetan craftsmen were equally inventive in engineering an ideal wall surface for their murals (see Creating a Wall Painting). Six layers of plaster were applied to the walls, starting with a coarse grain and becoming progressively finer. The same method was used for secco (dry plaster) murals in Europe during the Renaissance, although there is no evidence that Tibetans and Europeans exchanged information on the technique.
As for Thubchen's paintings, they are badly obscured by eons of butterlamp soot, animal glues, and abrasions from yak tail dusters. To deal with the disfigurement, Sanday calls in Rodolfo Lujan from Italy, one of Europe's premier experts in art restoration.
After painstaking treatment to stabilize the plaster, which is badly flaking, Lujan and his assistants start removing the grime. What emerges is startling to behold: brilliantly colored scenes depicting the life of the Buddha (see Before and After). The artists have left no signatures, but Lujan places them in a class with the Italian Renaissance masters. "Maybe the quality is even better than ... a Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael," he marvels. Which makes it all the more difficult when he is asked to take his own brush in hand to complete the missing sections of these priceless masterpieces.