ICON, Summer 2005
Each time WMF solicits nominations for its biennial list of Most Endangered Sites, the organization's offices are flooded with applications, each making a case for a given site—its importance, the damage it has sustained, and the measures that must be taken to preserve it for future generations. In many cases, those nominating a site chosen for inclusion on the Watch list will have stated up front their lack of technical expertise in addressing conservation problems, believing their sites could be saved if only they knew how. In such instances, WMF will often dispatch a member of its field program's staff to visit a site, assess the damage, determine its root causes, and formulate a conservation plan, outlining the specialists required, the methods to be used, and a guess-timate of the cost of implementation. Such was the case with Sumda Chung, an architectural gem in the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakah on India's northernmost frontier, which was recently placed on WMF's 2006 Watch list.
Within the Buddhist temple is an extraordinary cycle of murals rendered nearly a millennium ago by Kashmiri artisans. Water seepage, however, had caused delamination of the paintings' plaster ground and substantial pigment loss; surviving renderings had been all but obscurred by centuries of soot from ever-burning butter lamps. WMF sent technical director, aka building doctor, Mark Weber, who handles many of the organization's Indian projects, to check out the site, located at an elevation of more than 5,000 meters, four hours' hike on a boot-wide trail from the nearest road head.
Without hesitation, Weber accepted the assignment on which he would be joined by Delhi-based paintings conservator Sanjay Dhar, photographer Tejbir Singh, and a trio of monks from Hemis Monastery, which has jurisdiction over the site. For two days, Weber, Dhar, and Singh explored the temple inside and out, documenting every crack, crevice, and delamination of paint surface. Close examination of the data will enable the team to chart a course of action to ensure the temple's preservation for centuries to come. It will require painstaking work carried out over a series of field seasons by a dedicated team living on site, far from the comforts of home. Yet, the prospect of saving Sumda Chung is more than worth it. You will be reading more about the quest to preserve this Himalayan treasure and other sites in extreme locales in future issues of ICON.