Restoring Thangkas – paintings on silk appliqué or cotton that usually depict a Buddhist deity – is not for the fainthearted. “If there is even a minor mistake in restoration, like if the shape of an ear gets a little twisted [and different] from what it originally looked like, people might take offence,” says Dorjay Angchok, a resident of Matho village.
“It is a sensitive job,” states the resident of Matho, a village 26 kilometres from Leh. Matho, with a population of 1,165 people (Census 2011) is almost entirely Buddhists.
The fears of Angchok and others from her community have been put to rest by a team of nine skilled Thangkas (also spelt Thankas) restorers who have travelled back in time over hundreds of years , to understand, recognise and discern the centuries-old painting patterns locked in these ancient works of art. Each century had its own elements, style and iconography.
The Thangkas that these women from Matho restore are all from the 15-18th century, says Nelly Rieuf, an art restorer from France who trained the women in restoration work. “Initially, the villagers were against women restoring Thangkas," says Tsering Spaldon, "but we knew that we were doing nothing wrong; we were doing something for our history.”
Buddhist nun Thukchey Dolma says, “Thangkas are efficient teaching tools about the life of the Buddha and various other influential lamas and bodhisattvas.” Dolma is at the Karsha nunnery in the remote Zanskar tehsil of Kargil district in the newly designated Union Territory of Ladakh.
Tsering and other restorers, who are from farming families, are part of an organisation called the Himalayan Art Preservers (HAP) and they specialise in restoring Thangkas. “Thangkas are difficult to restore compared to other historical paintings since the silk cloth is rare and of extremely pure quality. Dissolving only dirt without harming the paints or cloth is tricky,” says Nelly.
"We started learning preservation work at the Matho gompa [monastery] in 2010. It was better than sitting idle after finishing Class 10,” says Tsering.
Besides Tsering, the other women are: Thinles Angmo, Urgain Chodol, Stanzin Ladol, Kunzang Angmo, Rinchen Dolma, Ishey Dolma, Stanzin Angmo and Chunzin Angmo. They were offered Rs. 270 rupees a day, “a significant amount, especially considering our remote location and few job opportunities,” says Tsering. Over time, “we realised the relevance of restoring these paintings. Then we started to appreciate art and history even more.”
In 2010, the Matho Monastery Museum helped catalyse things for the damaged Thangkas. “There was an urgent need to restore the Thangkas and other artefacts of religious significance. We started learning about this restoration work around 2010,” says Tsering. She along with the others decided to take the chance and get trained in restoration.
The time taken to repair a Thangka depends on its size. It varies from a few days to a few months." Thangka restoration rokna padta hai sardiyon mein kyuki fabric thand mein kharab ho jata hai [We only stop the Thangka restoration work during the winters because the fabric gets spoiled in the cold].”
Stanzin Ladol opens a large register with work samples carefully catalogued. Two images placed side by side on each page – one before restoration and the other showing the improvement afterwards.
"We are very happy we learned how to do this work; it has given us a different career to pursue. All of us are married, we have children doing their thing, so we spend a good amount of time occupied with restoration work," says Thinles as she chops vegetables for dinner.
"We wake up at 5 a.m. and try to finish all our housework, and farm work,” says Thinles. Her colleague Tsering chimes in to say, “ Kheti bohot zaroori hai, self-sufficient rehne ke liye [Our farm work is very important for us to stay self-sufficient].”
It’s a long day for the women. “We milk the cows, cook, send our kids to school, then we have to keep an eye on the cattle that have gone out to graze. After all this, we come to HAP and start work,” says Thinles.
The restorers say that almost all funds go towards making new Thangkas. “Hardly any people nowadays understand the heritage value of these many centuries-old Thangkas, and discard them instead of restoring them,” says Dr. Sonam Wangchok, a Buddhist scholar, he is the founder of the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation, based in Leh.
“Now nobody says anything to us because many years have passed and we have been doing it regularly,” says Tsering, speaking briefly to the initial resistance they met from people in the village. "Hardly any men take up this job,” points out Noor Jahan, the founder of an art conservation atelier based in Leh, Shesrig Ladakh. “It is mostly women who are art restorers here in Ladakh.” And their work is not limited to restoration of Thangkas but they have also moved into restoration of monuments and wall paintings.
“We want more people to come here and see our work,” says Tsering. The sun is going down in the mountains and she and the others will soon return home. A growing concern is the lack of expensive restoration material, says Stanzin Ladol who feels, “this work is important to us not because we make a big profit out of it, but because by doing this, we get satisfaction.”
The job has given them much more than the skill to restore these ancient paintings, it’s also equipped them with more confidence. "This has also gradually changed how we used to communicate – earlier, we would only speak in Ladakhi,” says Tsering with a smile, “But now we are also learning to be more fluent in English and Hindi.”