Located at 12,700 feet above sea level in a remote part of the Himalayas, the village of Sumda Chun is accessible only by a 3- to 4-hour hike up a steep and winding river valley trail. The monastery (gonpa) there is one of the most important surviving early Tibetan Buddhist temples of the Ladakh region of northern India. Its remoteness has both helped and hindered its preservation. Once a sprawling complex covering an entire hill, today the assembly hall, main shrine, two adjoining Bodhisattva chapels, a prayer wall, and several stupas are among the structures still standing.
How We Helped
The 2006 World Monuments Watch listing highlighted the primary threats to Sumda Chun that are typical of most early period temples in Ladakh: increased rainfall in the region has caused failures to the historic roofing systems originally built for an arid climate and thereby damaged the interior decorative features they shelter. WMF provided funding and project management support to a four-year program with the preparation of a site survey; condition mapping of the temple structure, wall paintings, and sculptures; provisional repairs to the leaking mud roof; and the preparation of a conservation plan to guide all future work. In 2008 the restoration of the roof and repairs of the vertical cracks in the exterior walls rendered the building watertight and structurally sound; test cleaning of the decorative features and preconsolidation of severely deteriorated areas of painted surfaces was also accomplished. In 2009 work continued on the exterior and interior features of the temple and adjacent structures and included the provisional stabilization of the painted stupa. Materials testing of the wall paintings continued and microclimate data was collected from data-loggers installed in 2008.
In the summer of 2011 the project at Sumda won a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for excellence in cultural heritage conservation. The award cited the "combined world-class scientific methods with vernacular building know-how," and observed that the "art conservation is particularly notable for its sophistication. A project undertaken in the summer of 2013 to conserve one of the earliest recorded painted chortens (stupas) at the site, dating to the thirteenth century, marked the culmination of the long and successful program carried out on the monastery complex."
Why It Matters
The Sumda Chun Monastery (gonpa) represents the cultural influences of Tibetan Buddhism in the Himalayan area and is of immense regional and international significance. Sumda Chun was a part of the long and strenuous pilgrimage route that linked with the two other temples of this period, Alchi and Mangyu. Merit was gained by pilgrims who prayed at all three temples between sunrise and sunset on a single day. Today, the series of cosmic images within Sumda’s temple remain the primary attraction. The assembly hall’s wall paintings are important and rare examples from the formative period of Tibetan Buddhism. The altar niche contains a shrine composed of 37 polychrome stucco sculptures. The central deity, Vairocana, is considered the most significant decorative feature of the temple and shows the original appearance of the sculptural decoration of an early western Himalayan temple shortly after its construction. Sumda Chun is quickly being rediscovered by trekkers seeking to achieve the merit gained by those centuries ago even if simply making a day trip to experience the sacred art that give this site its real significance and sense of place.