Issues and challenges in conservation of living monastic heritage in the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh, India

Satish C. Pandey, Joyoti Roy, and Noor Jahan

Abstract

Ladakh’s rich cultural identity is highly dependent on its institution of Buddhist monasteries known as gompas. These monasteries are religious and spiritual centers of Buddhism and are repositories of a rich art and cultural heritage. Having been at the crossroad of trans-Asian trade for centuries, Ladakh’s cultural heritage and indigenous traditions reflect upon the influence from the cross-cultural exchanges from ancient Buddhist regions of Central Asia and Tibet. The exquisite wall paintings, thangka paintings (religious scroll paintings), manuscripts, and other ritual objects manifest Ladakh’s unique cultural heritage. The main stakeholders of this heritage, the monastic and village communities, have limited awareness about the inherent historic, cultural, and civilizational value and importance of their own cultural heritage. This ignorance has led to lack of proper maintenance and care. Rampant unplanned modernization and civic development to promulgate tourism pose serious threats to cultural heritage. In several monasteries and other heritage monuments, traditional architecture has been destroyed and rebuilt or added using modern materials  without considering their suitability and consequences in the local climate. Climate change has added to the complexities, leading to heavy rains and snowfall that have caused irreparable damage. In the absence of a consolidated heritage policy and regulations, particularly for living cultural heritage in the region, a large number of self-professed heritage conservation groups are carrying out conservation of monastic heritage. While some conservation attempts have been made responsibly, others have created an environment of mistrust and discomfort with the communities. This article aims to highlight some of the major issues and challenges in preservation of monastic heritage in Ladakh and discusses the need for ensuring sustainability in conservation interventions to save the invaluable cultural heritage in the region.

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