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Nepal: Restoring the ancient murals of Mustang

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NEPAL (Xinhua) — A group of farmers is being trained in the skills of conservation and painting to revive their holy heritage in the heart of mystical Mustang in Nepal.

Season by season, a team of carpenters and wall-painting conservators, led now by Luigi Fieni, set to work bringing Mustang’s treasures back to life.  Since 1997, the American Himalayan Foundation undertook the difficult task of restoring the masterpieces present in the Buddhist temples of Jampa and Thupchen, which used to be major centers of religious activities in the region. 

large_film_41263902_photo3“Since its inception, the project involves the restoration of wall paintings and training local people; basically turning farmers into restorers,” Luigi Fieni, an Italian citizen, who has been working as a conservator of Tibetan art for the past sixteen years, told Xinhua. Fieni first came to work in Mustang after graduating from an art conservation program in Rome and has trained – together with other Westerners – more than 30 local residents to work on the art. 

When the team of conservators first stepped into the religious buildings, they realized the enormity of their task. Over a period of six centuries, natural calamities and deterioration had turned “these decaying temples into forgotten places,” Fieni explained.

In a photographic exhibition documenting the restoration of the murals presently being held at the Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu, Fieni shows the difficulty and beauty of bringing back to life fifteenth-century temples and the extraordinary art inside them. Prior to restoration, the original varnish was completely darkened by centuries old ageing. Smoke deposits from butter lamps, which are a conspicuous feature of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the Himalayas, had turned many areas of the paintings completely black.

Luigi Fieni

Luigi Fieni

The American Himalayan Foundation, following the idea that a conservation work should restore the original function of an artwork, especially if it holds a religious meaning, is not only restoring, but also completing all the missing parts of the wall paintings.

To a certain extent, this goes against the predominant western application of pictorial integration, which virtually forbids the reconstruction of missing parts, as it would interfere with the artist’s original interpretation of the artwork.

“When we first started the pictorial integration of the murals, the whole community was puzzled by the fact that we were not reconstructing the missing parts of a Buddha,” Fieni explained.

He emphasized the importance of tailoring conservation efforts according to the expectations of the locals, especially when they are being carried out on religious artworks, and when reconstructions of missing parts are involved.

“A lot of westerners travel to Asia, but many keep their eyes closed. I want to help locals while sending a message to the West to respect different cultures,” he said.

The restoration work has awakened the unique cultural heritage in remote Mustang, while simultaneously providing young people with job opportunities. “We give them a reason to stay,” Luigi explained.

The lack of job prospects in Nepal not only ushered labor migration to foreign countries, it also dramatically increased internal migration from rural to urban areas. With locals making a living by restoring their own treasures, the beauty of Mustang can now be appreciated by the increasing number of tourists travelling to the region adjacent to the Chinese border.

Photo by Luigi Fieni

Photo by Luigi Fieni

The popular travel guidebook Lonely Planet has included Mustang among the top three regions to travel in 2013. This former “forbidden” kingdom was opened to tourism in 1992 and remains one of Nepal’s most mysterious and least known regions.

Fieni, has photographed landscapes, traditions and the artistic cultural heritage of Mustang for more than a decade, sharing the beauty of this “gem of the Himalayas” with the world. His collection of photos allows viewers to plunge into its otherworldly landscapes, its mysticism and the spirituality of its people.

“You feel like you’re on another planet,” Fieni said. He added that with no Internet connection, its moonscapes and mysticism, Mustang is a place for self-discovery and life transformation.

Part of this article was originally published by Xinhua News Agency, Kathmandu Bureau.

Bibbi Abruzzini
Bibbi Abruzzini is a foreign correspondent for the BALTIC REVIEW and international news agencies in South Asia. She is Italian, grew up in Brussels and has reported from several countries, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Croatia, France, India, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Tunisia,Turkey and the US - writing largely about social and development issues.

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