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Buddhism in the Hidden Valley, Part 4: Conservation and Community at Rachen Gompa

Rachen Gompa in Tsum Valley. Photo by Craig Lewis
Imposing peaks loom above Rachen Gompa. Photo by Craig Lewis

Nestled in the western Gorkha District of Nepal’s Gandaki Province lies one of the country’s lesser-known jewels: Tsum Valley. This ancient Buddhist region, bordering Tibet, boasts a long history of Dharma practice. Today, the valley stands as a protected refuge where time-honored Buddhist traditions continue to thrive amid breathtaking Himalayan landscapes. Officially opened to foreign tourists in 2008, this once-secluded region now faces the challenge of balancing the conservation of its rich cultural and spiritual heritage with the growing influx of modern tourism.

Although a world away from the ceaseless clamor and dusty thoroughfares of Kathmandu, the inevitable ingresses of foreign visitors mean that Tsum Valley is no longer the hidden secret it was even as recently as 15 years ago. Yet Tsum is still far enough from more heavily beaten paths that its resplendent landscapes and secluded communities retain the mystique of a rich and ancient way of life.

The Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of the Himalayas are deeply embedded in Tsum Valley, as evidenced by the unique and historic Buddhist temples, monasteries, and other sacred landmarks that punctuate the rugged landscape. Among them: Rachen Gompa, standing on a scenic plateau in the lap of the valley, Mu Gompa, which occupies a more lofty aerie higher up the valley toward Tibet, Gompa Lungdang, at the foot of a conical hill, and the revered cliff-face grotto in which the great Tibetan siddha Milarepa himself is believed to have meditated.

A splash of morning sunlight illuminates the cave of Milarepa. Photo by Craig Lewis
Mani walls and chortens punctuate the valley landscape. Photo by Craig Lewis

It is here, along the twisting, mist-shrouded ravines and gorges—crisscrossed by suspension bridges that hang precariously above roiling blue glacial waters—that the soul of Tsum reveals itself as a sacred sanctuary of Buddhist spirituality that is seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday life; where the trails connecting villages are punctuated by countless chortens and lined with mani walls composed of hundreds of carved stone slabs depicting deities and inscribed mantras; where prayer flags flap and flutter ceaselessly, whispering colorful prayers that are carried aloft by the Himalayan winds in an embrace as enduring as the mountains themselves.

And it is here, too, that a remarkable project to protect and conserve this ancient heritage—the Tsum Preservation Project—is taking place for the benefit of the local communities, for the benefit of Nepal’s precious Buddhist heritage, and for the benefit of sustaining these ancient expressions of the Buddhadharma for posterity. 

The Tsum Preservation Project is led by Treasure Caretaker Training (TCT), a US-headquartered non-profit organization dedicated to working closely with nuns and monks to help ensure the preservation of the world’s remaining authentic Buddhist treasures and relics. TCT is led by professional conservator Ann Shaftel, a fellow of the International Institute for Conservation and the American Institute for Conservation, and a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators. Since 1970, Ann has worked on the conservation of Buddhist art across the world, cooperating with monasteries, Dharma centers, museums, and universities.

The old gompa of Rachen Nunnery. Photo by Craig Lewis
Rachen Nunnery’s new, larger gompa. Photo by Craig Lewis

Part Two of this series of articles on the Buddhist heritage of Tsum Valley documented my first visit in October 2023, when I witnessed TCT’s vital heritage conservation work firsthand in an aging gompa that serves as the spiritual nexus of Lama Guan Village. Here, Ann and her team of conservators worked side-by-side with local residents and under the guidance of Buddhist leaders. Their mission: to preserve sculptures, thangkas, texts, paintings, and other Dharma treasures. Through their efforts, these treasures may continue to illuminate the path for generations of monastic and lay practitioners to come, a bridge between the ancient wisdom of Tsum Valley and its evolving future.

This article recounts my return to Tsum Valley in May 2024. I rejoined Ann and her dedicated team of conservators for the latest phase of the Tsum Preservation Project at Rachen Gompa. This expansive and growing monastery is home to a community of devoted female monastics, led by the abbot, respected scholar Geshe Tenzin Nyima.

Tsa-tsas pre-treatment. Photo by Craig Lewis
Documenting devotional offerings. Photo by Craig Lewis
Documenting devotional offerings. Photo by Craig Lewis

Also known as Rachen Nunnery, Rachen Gompa stands serenely on a picturesque plateau in Tsum Valley at an elevation of 3,240 meters. Embraced protectively by imposing mountain peaks on either side, the nunnery basks in the watchful, benevolent gaze of Milarepa’s cave in the overlooking cliff face.

Rachen Nunnery offers the women of Tsum Valley a unique opportunity to dedicate themselves to spiritual study and practice, as an alternative to their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Today, the gompa is home to some 36 nuns—from children to the very elderly—led by Geshe Tenzin Nyima. Their lives at the nunnery primarily center on studying Tibetan Buddhism and engaging in spiritual practices. Additionally, they provide secular education for the youngest nuns and play a crucial role in preserving Buddhist traditions in the region.

Rachen Gompa, along with Mu Gompa higher up the valley, was established 88 years ago in 1936 by the Bhutanese lama Drupa Rinpoche. In 2005, the present Drupa Rinpoche requested Lama Zopa Rinpoche to oversee the welfare of the two monastic communities, who were living in difficult circumstances at the time. Lama Zopa Rinpoche subsequently asked Kopan Monastery, a flourishing monastery just outside of the Buddhist enclave of Boudha in the Kathmandu Valley, to take over the administration of the two communities. 

Monastic conservators. Photo by Craig Lewis
Monastic conservators. Photo by Craig Lewis

A major expansion program was drawn up at Rachen Gompa to provide improved living conditions, while at the same time preserving the existing cultural heritage. New, warmer residential rooms were constructed at the expanded complex, as well as a kitchen, dining room, and classrooms, along with a new temple building to accommodate the growing monastic population.

The monastery’s original temple, a veritable treasure chest of old paintings, texts, and other sacred offerings, still stands, and is being conserved as part of ongoing efforts to preserve a tangible link between the old and the new. And it was this same venerable spiritual site that would be the principal focus of the TCT team’s conservation efforts; in particular, an extensive collection of molded clay votive offerings, known in Tibetan as tsa-tsas, depicting the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara (Tib: Chenrezig).

Rachen Gompa invited a multinational  team of conservators from Treasure Caretaker Training to work with these sacred items from 6–26 May 2024, composed of: Ann Shaftel (Canada); F. Craig Deller (USA); Aishwaria Mehta (India); and Birat Raj Bajracharya (Nepal), whom I was privileged to join.

Tsa-tsas undergo treatment. Photo by Craig Lewis
Tsa-tsas undergo treatment. Photo by Craig Lewis
Tsa-tsas undergo treatment. Photo by Craig Lewis

Long-time TCT team member Aishwarya Mehta is a historian at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, under the Ministry of Culture, in New Delhi. Her academic background is in ancient Indian history, art, and cultural heritage, and her research interests include Himalayan art and the cultural traditions of hill communities, as well as exploring the shared cultural histories of India and East and Southeast Asia.

“We’re conducting a three-week preservation project at the historic old gompa at Rachen Nunnery, within the sacred precincts of the Tsum Valley. Here, we’re working to preserve the more than 800 tsa-tsas of Avalokiteshvara housed within,” Aishwarya explained during my time working alongside the TCT team. “This project is taking place under the exemplary leadership of Geshe-la, and has turned into a wonderful community-led project, with new volunteers joining us every day. It’s so heartening to see members of the monastic community of all ages participating in the project and learning heritage conservation techniques and practices with such enormous dedication and enthusiasm!”

Tsa-tsas play a significant role in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Typically shaped from clay or plaster, these objects serve as powerful symbols of enlightenment and spiritual blessings. Practitioners create tsa-tsas as a form of meditative devotion and merit-making. The act of making and consecrating these votive offerings is believed to purify karma and create auspicious conditions for spiritual progress. Tsa-tsas are frequently placed within holy sites, such as temples or large stupas, as sacred offerings, or kept as personal devotional items, embodying the Buddhist teachings and symbolize the potential for awakening.

Cleaned, restored, and reorganized. Photo by Craig Lewis
Cleaned, restored, and reorganized. Photo by Craig Lewis

As a community-led project, our conservation effort included training members of the monastic community as working members of the team. Thus, TCT’s mission was not only to provide onsite heritage conservation, but to enable the community to become active and informed participants in the conservation of their own heritage, and to ensure that the sanctity of the heritage items and the shrine room itself—as part of an active, living monastery—was respected and maintained throughout our work there.

The traditional clay votive offerings that we were tasked with assessing and treating ranged in estimated age from decades to more than 100 years old. The tsa-tsas were all of the same size and form—roughly 250mm x 175mm x 15mm, molded with a bas-relief depiction of Chenrezig. As a part of traditional spiritual merit-making activities, a majority of the pieces had been repainted at various junctures in their history.

The tsa-tsas had been stored, unprotected, in rows upon open shelves in the temple’s main shrine hall. There they had been readily exposed to light, variations in temperature and humidity, physical contact from temple visitors, atmospheric contaminants and pollutants (such as soot and oily smoke from incense and butter lamps), as well as water ingresses and insect and rodent activity. As such, the condition of each piece varied widely in terms of structural integrity and cosmetic condition: almost all were heavily coated in an accumulation of dust, dirt, and other residues; and many exhibited surface deterioration, including losses of paint and clay, and wear, and even structural weakness.

Cleaned, restored, and reorganized. Photo by Craig Lewis
A treated and cataloged tsa-tsa. Photo by Craig Lewis
Cleaned, restored, and reorganized. Photo by Craig Lewis

The TCT’s team member from Nepal, Birat Raj Bajracharya, is a member of the Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley.

“My family have been avid art collectors since I was young—especially Newari paubha paintings and notable works from prominent artists of the past and present,” Birat remarked. “So I’ve long felt a strong connection with all kinds of Nepalese art—especially Newari art and Buddhist art.

“I became connected with this conservation project through following Ann’s conservation work for quite a while. I realized that Newari monasteries also hold a lot of artifacts, but they’re not being preserved or taken care of. So I harbored the hope of introducing Ann and TCT to this community because it’s a Buddhist community and I wanted to bring her ideas and her conservation experience to our monasteries. That’s how my connection with Anne and TCT began, and because of my own background as a Buddhist scholar, I wanted to try my hand at conservation work, so Ann gave me the opportunity to join this project in Tsum.”

Treating a textile thangka banner. Photo by Craig Lewis
Treating a textile thangka banner. Photo by Craig Lewis

The team and trainee community members carefully isolated each tsa-tsa for assessment and treatment. Dry cleaning using soft brushes and sponges was the primary approach, with some surface consolidation and structural repairs introduced where deemed necessary and prudent.

With guidance from Geshe Tenzin Nyima, we adopted an approach that would ensure that each heritage item was systematically reviewed and treated, while at the same time respecting its sanctity as an object of spiritual practice and heeding the wishes of the community for their handling and subsequent storage.

While the tsa-tsas were isolated for individual assessment and treatment, the shrine room shelves were deep-cleaned to remove years of accumulated dust, debris, and other contaminants. As per our community cooperation pledge, any living creatures we encountered were removed and released unharmed. Treated tsa-tsas were then returned to the shelves under a new organization system directed by Geshe Tenzin Nyima.

As the project came to a close after weeks of dedicated effort and we treated the last of the heritage items, TCT team members performed a final risk-assessment of the environment and its conditions. Drawing up recommendations for the community to review for implementation, these included suggestions such as remedial improvement of electrical wiring, structural improvements to reduce the risk of future water damage, and the relocation of butter lamps and burning incense to mitigate fire hazards.

The old gompa restored. Photo by Craig Lewis
The old gompa restored. Photo by Craig Lewis

“Our conservation work on these more than 800 clay tsa-tsas is a stellar example of successful community engagement!” TCT’s founder, Ann Shaftel, emphasized with enthusiasm. “We were invited by Rachen Gompa and our goal as TCT team members was to not only preserve of the tsa-tsas, but to share our conservation skills and knowledge with the community, and with volunteers through hands-on participation.

“The head of the Rachen Nunnery, Geshe-la, truly leads by example. Geshe-la was right there every day, vacuuming the shelves after we removed tsa-tsas that had lain untouched for decades. After the shelves are cleaned of debris and offerings, and after each tsa-tsa was inspected for stability, consolidated where needed, carefully cleaned, and sorted by color, they were replaced in an order determined by Geshe-la. 

“We also conducted preservation processes for two textile thangka banners that were suspended from the ceiling of the old gompa. Although not old—the estimated age of the banners was up to 20 years—they are still quite precious and sacred.

“And as I said, Geshe-la was instrumental in the success of this project. In some ways, the old gompa the most important building for the history of their nunnery, had been left almost untended for some years, and so Geshe-la realized that it was now time to tend to it, and in that respect, as we saw, he was extremely hands-on. Every tsa-tsa he replaced was done with a prayer and devotion. It was very moving, very powerful, and I think demonstrated his immense devotion toward Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the history of the gompa

“The monks and nuns of Rachen Nunnery were so warm and welcoming to us, joining in our daily conservation work in the old gompa and asking questions about the process—that is, on the days when the nuns could speak, as many of them were participating in a two-week meditation retreat in which every other day brought no speaking and no eating!

“This really shows how Treasure Caretaking Training as a non-profit is an educational non-profit. And as such, the whole thing—all of our work—is about community.”

Ann Shaftel with Geshe Tenzin Nyima. Image courtesy of TCT
The TCT team with the Rachan Gompa community. Image courtesy of TCT

See more

Treasure Caretaker Training: The Preservation of Buddhist Treasures Resource

Related features from BDG

Buddhism in the Hidden Valley, Part 1: An Ancient Heritage in Tsum
Buddhism in the Hidden Valley, Part 2: Heritage Conservation in Tsum
Buddhism in the Hidden Valley, Part 3: An Interview with Khenpo Karma Samdup on the Legacy of Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
Licchavi House, a Refuge for Art, Culture, and the Buddhadharma in Kathmandu
Clearing the Path to Compassion: A Conversation with Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche
Bodhicitta and the Buddhadharma: An Interview with His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin

Related videos from BDG

Buddhist Heritage: Conservation and Creation (BDG YouTube)

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