Oracles and conservators in Matho monastery, Ladkah

A woman in the shadow of the monastery. Click image for more photographs of Ladakh.

Under the shadow of the monastery an old women, a basket of hay on her back, spins a prayer wheel twice her size. As I climb up the hill I watch her feeding her dzo – a crossbreed between a cow and a yak that provides clothes and food but bears no offspring. Then the woman disappears into her mud house, the colour of the walls matching her gathered, homespun dress. This traditional woollen garment, the goncha, is eminently suitable for the harsh climate of the Himalayas.

IMG_2232Matho Monastery. Click image for more photographs of Ladakh.

When I reach the monastery I look back at the village – a narrow oasis of green fields between stark grey, snow-capped mountains. On the hill opposite is a cluster of white chortens housing religious relics. Across the Indus valley I can see Thikse. This is my next stop on my tour of monasteries within easy reach of Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

Fingering a dozen prayer wheels encased in a wooden frame I enter Matho’s central courtyard. The place is a hive of activity as the rinpoche, a high-ranking lama, is about to visit. Monks in terracotta robes sweep the floor with willow brooms and touch up red and yellow stripes underneath the arches. Other monks totter on high ladders. Paintbrush in hand they aim for the walls but miss, splattering whitewash over the gilded roofs and coloured, carved window frames and doors.

Matho is the only monastery in Ladakh belonging to the Sakyapa sect founded in Tibet during the tenth century. The monastery was established by Dorje Palzang, a Sakya scholar who arrived from Tibet in the fifteenth century. One day the scholar saw a deer on the hill above the cave where he lived. Considering this a good omen he decided to build a monastery on the site. Parts of the building are from this period but others are from the sixteenth century and later.

Nelly Rieuf, a French woman who is working in Ladkah for the Himalayan Art Preservation Association, comes to greet me. She is one of the world experts in the conservation of thangkas. These canvas scroll paintings, usually depicting a Buddhist deity or scene, are used in religious ritual or to decorate temples.

Assisted by restorers from Nepal and Ladakh, Nelly is documenting and conserving the monastery’s collections. These will be housed in the new museum showcasing Tibetan art from the 9th century. Nepalese and Japanese architects have designed the three-storey museum using traditional materials and incorporating a fifteenth century building. It is on target to open in 2014.

We climb the creaking stairs to a room on the top floor with a view of the Mathos Kangri peak rising to 19,000 feet. Light streams onto the back wall illuminating thangkas in various stages of decay. These are just a sample of the 50 out of 250 that have been selected for conservation. It is impossible not to be infected by Nelly’s enthusiasm. The thangkas are her children – each one beautiful, distinctive but in need of care.

Nelly points to one of the thangkas being brought back to life.

“This is one of the most unusual in our collection.”

It is a centuries old plan of a monastery in today’s Chinese-occupied Tibet.

But my eye is drawn towards a thangka of Virupa, an Indian saint and yogi famous for disregarding convention. Virupa is drinking himself into a stupor.

Nelly recounts the story.

“The waitress urged Virupa to stop and pay the bill but he resisted, saying he would only stop drinking when the sun went down.

I peer at Virupa pointing his ritual dagger at the sun to stop it in its track, determined to continue with his drinking binge. Nelly rolls back the thangka ready for use in a puja, a meditation, a birth or a festival.

Each thangka can take between one and three months to conserve and great care is taken to use the original materials. This seems a tall order given that some thangkas were made in the fourteenth century.

“You need to be ambitious for the thangka,” she asserts, dismissing those who ask for a step-by-step guide on how to conserve the scrolls.

“You wouldn’t ask that of a heart surgeon.”

Local villagers have helped with the project, impressing Nelly with their skill despite being barely literate.

“When I saw them separate out the good and bad grass at harvest I knew where they had learnt such patience.”

Nelly invites me to join her and her co-workers for lunch. A man in his forties, unremarkable in appearance, serves me rice and vegetables.

“ The cook was once chosen by lot to be the oracle at the Nagrang festival.”

Matho is famous for this annual festival to which people from across Ladakh come to hear the oracles predict the future – the harvest for the coming year, births or deaths in the family.

“ He spent nine months in isolation in a nearby cave, meditating in preparation for the festival. On the day of the festival he used eyes painted onto his torso to run blindfold from roof to roof. One slip and he would have fallen into the valley below.”

I steal a glance at the cook. It all seems so unlikely.

“And although he slashed his body and tongues with knives there were no scars the following day.”

Sensitive to my hosts’ beliefs I swallow my scepticism along with the delicious pumpkin that Nelly grows in the monastery garden.

After lunch we visit a room filled with glass cabinets from floor to ceiling. They are packed with bronze Buddhas, green Taras, amulets, jewellery, cymbals of every size, twenty-foot horns and skull-headed masks worn by the monks when they dance.

Nelly and her team have consulted with monks, local villagers, children and scholars about which objects should go into the museum.

“I was determined that this jewelled elephant should be included despite the scholars’ reservations. I knew children would love it.”

Some of the objects date from the ninth century and the oldest painting is from the 14th century.

Amidst these riches I see faded black and white photos of the cook as the oracle. He is wearing a tiger skin and, sure enough, there is a face painted onto his torso and not a scar on his body. But the action shots of the cook jumping over roofs are missing.

“Photographs are not allowed of that part of the ceremony,” asserts Nelly.

Women are forbidden to enter the Mahakala Temple so I miss the stuffed ibex and the masks of Rong-tsan and Kar-Mar. These are the deities believed to have accompanied Dorje Palzang, the founder of the monastery, from Tibet and who, even today, transmit messages through the oracles.

We make a tour of the temples and dukhangs (assembly halls) off the central courtyard. The old 16th century assembly hall has rows of benches for the monks, faded murals, butter lamps and statues behind streaked glass. The gaudy colours of the twenty-four taras in the newer Tara Lhakang dazzle in comparison. Nelly anticipates my reaction.

“I didn’t like the bright colours at first but my tastes have changed.”

I understand this. I too am beginning to feel my European taste for muted colours fade. At least these new buildings, statues and paintings show the vibrancy of this living tradition. Nothing so well illustrates this than the work of contemporary Buddhist artist, Nawang Tsering, whose 40 foot gold Maitreya, (the future Buddha) at Thikse is considered the most beautiful in Ladakh. No work more clearly shows the contribution the monasteries to keeping this tradition alive, much of which has been destroyed in nearby Chinese-occupied Tibet.

As I leave I ask Nelly what she does to relax.

“I go to Nepal and build windmills. Do you know that one windmill can provide electricity for 47 homes?

I am not sure who is the most impressive – the monk turned cook who predicts the future, jumps over roofs and slashes his tongue or a thangka restorer who grows pumpkins and builds windmills in her spare time.

For more information on the work of the Himalayan Art Preservation and the Matho Project – see

This article was first published in The Middle Way, Journal of the Buddhist Society, February 2103.

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