2016 World Monuments Watch
Ladakh, the “land of high passes,” is a region of plateaus nestled between the Himalayas and the Karakoram Range. After a period of persecution, Tibetan Buddhism was reintroduced to this region in the tenth century, at the behest of rulers who looked to Kashmir to the west, where the tradition had been preserved intact. The scholar and translator Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055) traveled to Kashmir, and, upon his return, helped found large numbers of temples all over western Tibet and Ladakh.
Among them were a group of meditation caves and temples at Saspol, overlooking a large oasis on the right bank of the Indus, across the river from the famous monastic complex of Alchi. On top of the hill, the ruins of a ninth-century fort also survive and house an altar that is being used by the village of Saspol.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, awakening can be attained in a single lifetime, with the help of an array of deities. This tradition gave rise to a rich visual culture as an aid to meditation, and the interiors of the Gon-Nila-Phuk caves are covered with wall paintings that depict different manifestations of Buddhahood, likely executed as early as the eleventh century. The paintings carry an esoteric symbolism and are an invaluable resource for understanding the history of Buddhism and Buddhist thought as it was practiced in this region. But the caves were carved into a hill of conglomerate rock, and the weathering of the soft conglomerate puts the survival of this sacred art at great risk. Erosion damages the painted surface and threatens the structural stability of the caves. Already, due to collapses, only two of them remain accessible. Stabilizing the hill would be a daunting engineering task, and yet the significance of the site calls for action.
In late 2015, the Ladakh chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) secured funding for the initial phases of a conservation management plan for the site. The plan gave priority to emergency stabilization and geotechnical, engineering, and painting conservation studies. The community of Saspol and the nearby Likir Monastery, which owns the site, remain eager to see these ancient sacred spaces studied and protected. The inclusion of the Saspol Cave temple and fort on the 2016 World Monuments Watch has given much impetus to the conservation work.
Watch Day at the Gon-Nila-Phuk Cave Temples and Fort took place on June 4, 2016. The event included a heritage walk to the caves on a trail that was developed following inclusion on the Watch. At the caves, Watch Day participants learned about the importance of the cave paintings from the head monk of Likir Monastery; members of the monastery are the custodians of Saspol. Watch Day included traditional dances and folk music, as well as a group meal prepared with local produce by members of the nearby village.
Conservation of artistic and spiritual significance
Collaborating with the Ladakh chapter of INTACH, World Monuments Fund facilitated the conservation of wall paintings and interiors of two of the most elaborately decorated cave temples in the ensemble. The interventions were carried out by a team of conservators in 2016 and 2018. Work included photo documentation, scientific studies, cleaning and re-adhesion of paint layers, and installation of doors.
As tourism increases in the region, these case temples are becoming popular with visitors. It is hoped that the conservation activities will generate interest in the significance of the site, and contribute to the implementation of long-term safeguarding measures for the entire complex so that they can continue to inspire those fortunate enough to see the wall paintings in person.