Prestigious Tibetan monastery receives facelift

LANZHOU, Sept. 13 (Xinhua) -- Tibetan Buddhist clergymen are actively participating in a government-funded renovation project for a centuries-old monastery in northwest China.

The renovation of the Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province's Xiahe county, funded by the government at a cost of 305 million yuan (about 48 million U.S. dollars), will be completed in 7 to 8 years, said Sonam Je, deputy chief of the county's culture bureau.

Sonam said the long timetable is due to the prudent approach taken by both local cultural authorities and the Labrang clergy, as hasty renovations could ruin the 303-year-old monastery, a religious and cultural center for Tibetans living in Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces.

"We are both under a lot of pressure to make this renovation successful. The monastery was built perfectly the first time and many people are waiting to see what happens," Sonam said.

Since renovations of this scale have never been organized in Xiahe before, local authorities have made sure to fully involve the clergy and solicit them for suggestions and advice.

"The clergy have offered a great deal of good advice, such as where to begin the preliminary renovations, as well as where to find the best building materials and carpenters," the official said.

The monastery's cultural relic management committee has been entrusted with the task of monitoring the entire project, while a special team has been set up to learn from successful renovations that have taken place elsewhere, such as the Potala Palace in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region.

Sonam said one of the biggest problems with the renovation relates to the use of "aga earth," a type of packed soil widely used as a construction material in Tibetan-inhabited areas since ancient times.

Although the material is responsible for giving the building its crimson coloring, it also poses problems in the form of chronic leaks and seepage.

"We have no surefire ways to prevent seepage. That's why we decided to test a modified version of the material in just one of the monastery's halls at first," he said.

The first phase of the renovation plan have been approved by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and an initial reconstruction fund of about 10 million yuan has been allocated. However, the monastery and local authorities are in no hurry to press ahead with the reconstruction.

So far, just the Xiabudan Buddha Hall has received bids for the renovations. The winning contractor was the Yongjing Classical Architecture Construction Company, based in Yongjing county of Linxia prefecture.

"We will see how the initial renovations go. If everything goes smoothly, we will continue with repairs on other first-phase projects. Our goal is to repair them without changing their original appearance. Seasonal factors will also have to be considered and large-scale religious activities must not be affected," Sonam said.

Tanor, a 49-year-old resident of the nearby village of Dangjiang, said he hopes the renovation of the Xiabudan Buddha Hall proceeds smoothly.

"It has been 300 years. We've seen the walls sink and crack and watched the color of frescos fade. Everybody is looking forward to the renovations," Tanor said.

In addition to maintaining the structures themselves, local authorities and clergy are also working to protect the building's frescoes, Sonam said, adding that protecting them has proven to be very difficult, as they have yet to find anyone who is qualified enough to do the job properly.

Builders have thus far finished paving a large road near the monastery, as well as building a network of pipes under the road to handle power transmission, heating and sewage disposal. Their next task will involve paving more roads and laying more pipe around the monastery, as well as repairing nearby alleys.

The monastery has received some repairs before, although not nearly as large in terms of scale as the current renovations. The monastery's Great Sutra Hall was partially repaired after catching fire in 1985.

Sonam said vandalism dating back to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), tourism, natural erosion and inefficient maintenance have all contributed to the monastery's decay, adding that the rising cost of labor and materials may result in the project going over its budget.


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