Nepalese shepherd leads archaeologists to art treasures
Maseeh Rahman in New Delhi
Saturday May 5, 2007The Guardian
Original source of the article is here.
A shepherd in a remote region of Nepal bordering Tibet has been instrumental in the discovery of an extraordinary art treasure that lay hidden for centuries: a collection of 55 exquisite cave paintings depicting the life of the Buddha.
The 12th-century paintings - a large central mural flanked by smaller panels - were found last month in a partly collapsed cave last month in Mustang, a kingdom long forbidden to foreigners in the high Himalayas, 150 miles north-west of Kathmandu. "Finding the cave was almost like a miracle," said Italian art conservator Luigi Fieni, a member of the team of Italian, American and Nepalese art conservators, conservation architects and archaeologists. They used ice axes to cut their way to the cave, at 3,400 metres.
Foreigners were permitted to enter Mustang only in 1992, and Mr Fieni's team began work there nine years ago, restoring spectacular wall paintings in a crumbling 15th-century Tibetan monastery. It was when they asked about other art treasures in the region that a villager remembered having seen, as a boy, a cave full of colourful paintings.
"Unlike the murals in the monastery, the Mustang cave paintings do not reveal a Tibetan but a strong Indian influence, including the animals they depict - leopard, tiger, monkey and deer," said Mr Fieni. "In fact, the style evokes the fabulous cave paintings of Ajanta, which predate the Mustang caves by several centuries."
The simultaneous discovery of ancient Tibetan manuscripts in nearby caves has also led to speculation that the area might have been a teaching retreat, similar to the Buddhist university in Nalanda.
Mustang is of significance to Buddhist scholars as perhaps the only region where Tibetan culture and religion have survived virtually untouched by time or the depredations of modern Chinese colonisation - although a road was recently opened to the capital, Lo Manthang.
Guru Gyaltsen, a Tibetan Lama, said: "The Mustang people are Tibetans. They speak the Tibetan language; their origin is in the Tibetan culture."
For centuries, the region was part of Tibet, before being taken over by Nepal. The location of the cave has been kept a secret to deter smugglers. The explorers call it the Snow Leopard Cave, as the animal's footprints were found inside.
"The cave paintings have been affected by wind and rain, and really need restoration," said Mr Fieni. "It's a long process, and we're hoping now to raise funds for the project."