Perched high up in the Trans-Himalayan region of Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh, the quaint village of Nako on the Indo-China border buttresses some of the most time-worn treasures of early Buddhism. As it was an arduous task to connect with the town formerly, it had its first visitor in the early decades of the 20th century in the form of A.H Francke and Giuseppe Tucci. This visit coupled with the earnest documentation of winter-storm hurt murals opened a new light niche for the monastery leading to its nomination for the 100 most endangered sites, 2002 by the World Monuments Watch of the World Monuments Fund.
Chairman: Ernst Bacher, the Conservation general of the Austrian department of conservation, started in 2002.
Director: Deborah Klimburg Salter, the historical researcher, aimed to authorize a masterplan for the complex.
Interior Conservation: Romi Khosla, under the institute of conservation of applied arts, Vienna.
Funding: The Austrian Science fund, The Austrian development agency, The Eurasia Pacific Uninet and, The conservation department, New Delhi.
Of the quadra-monastery temple group, the Lotsawa Lhakhang (Lotsaba Lhakhang), the main temple (g Tsug Lag Khang) or the Translators Temple, is the only monument spelling out to below courtyard levels. The squarish hall with the apse doubled than its backward width boasts of a high ceiling to accommodate the full mandala drawings on the walls. The roof, damaged during an earthquake in 1975, was replaced by tin sheets for a hefty time-span that bruised the paintings of the Lotsawa Lhakhang.
The Primary Structure and Interventions:
Established in the 13th and 14th centuries, subduing the baroque Pala styled frescos, the elementary designs of mud mortared stone foundations with mud bricks and barley husks washed in mud plaster possess a domestic scale architectural simplicity of the Alchi complex. The Lotsawa Lhakhang structure portrayed the use of birch barks for waterproofing. In a faux attempt to appear self-sufficient to the Buddhist leader Dalai Lama on his visit, the monastery committee intervened with random wood supports to sagged beams and replenished painted ceiling panels with new but blank cedar wood panels.
Most of the cultural heritage was damaged beyond repair owing to the use of just a plastic sheet, priorly before conservation, to sustain the rains and the snow. To counter this issue, locals sandwiched birch bark sheets on panel tops with clay as waterproofing, but it suffered a mighty fall owing to its density. The pioneered wooden ceilings panels, though revived during restoration, suffered from smudged color schemes and rotten material boards.
The Nako Conservation Project:
The initial phase of the conservation that kickstarted in October 2002 renovated a whopping portion of the monastery assisted by dimensions to measure the relative floor level of temples, the courtyard, and the neighboring structures from the stable base datum level. Amid this survey sustained by plumb-bob measurements to verify the thicknesses of the vertically distorted walls, the relative floor levels, concluded by the trial pits from externally risen silt grounds, were documented. This difference in the base levels of the Lotsawa Lhakhang blamed on moisture seepage from higher levels has bordered itself till the lower temple floors.
The Roof Conservation:
The roof conservation began with a sample waterproofing procedure comprising a wooden frame, mesh, and jute cloth, primarily applied to reproduce the adobe footprints that essayed the process from the external facades, extracting mud and dirt while adding a double roof for security. The extant mud layer amounting to the roofing of the Lotsawa Lhakhang was expelled completely and altered to the ground, later advertised as a new beam structure with conventional mud roofing from the earlier removed earth.
The existing roof, discharged from loads of rammed mud and birch bark, had its second coat applied with precise thickness and prior scraping of previous layers. The cracks after the 3rd layer consolidated with tua clay (river silt), soaked further, had to be sandwiched between wooden floats, and hence, a sample piece created itself.
Conserving the wall paintings:
The earliest form of the paintings boasted soaring excellences, eloquent with a generous splash of blues on surfaces with exposed paint and water leakages. The rest of the areas otherwise, strangled under heaps of 800 years of dust, smoke, and grease from oil lamps. The typical cross-section of a painting layer shows the build-up of earthen relief mass underneath a white gypsum ground, red cinnabar underlayer, and red tin alloy powder on the top. The backscatter SEM imagery portrays distinct alloy particles in two phases wherein the darker portions highlight tin and the brighter ones showcase lead.
The base prepared for conserving the paintings of the Lotsawa Lhakhang conceptualized around vernacular white earth pigment, and binding animal glue freed itself from flaky dust by using a soft brush and vacuum cleaner. These masterpieces thoroughly scrubbed with latex sponges shined more as the intractable dust detached itself from the surface. Though scalpels scraped the tiny to massive dregs of mud, a few areas made it customary to leave a wafer-thin layer of the earth due to damage of the glue-paint. Lascaux stabilized the powder, crudely uniting and flaking paint. Grouting with a refined blend of tua and tava, the local version of river silt, caressed the unconsolidated tenting flakes of paint.
The Earthen Plaster:
The cracks in the plaster were filled with grouting and backfilling that aimed to refurbish the imperiled wall sections and bless them with homogeneity. Some of the plaster cracks reached a depth of 30cm and were treated with hoses pouring flowable fills as deep as possible. Areas were sealed with a coarse mortar and grouted with smooth mortar flow to rejuvenate ties.
Though the conservation of the Lotsawa Lhakhang unfolded many aspects of heritage conservation ranging from wall paintings to consolidation of sculptures with acrylic resins to glue structural elements, it turned a whole leaf when the process extended beyond the monastery. To preserve the substance, the team braced income-generating opportunities and founded workshop and training centers to help aid research parallelly. In 2007, following the visit of Dalai Lama, the establishment of the village museum for planning and conservation happened, assisted by the team.