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History on Wooden Shelf

BEIJING, July 11 - The repair and restoration of the Sagya Monastery in the Tibet Autonomous Region has been listed as a major protection project by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. Although investigation and other preparatory work for the project has been ongoing for the past two years, sources from the administration say the State will get further expert opinion before mapping out an appropriate blueprint for the monastery's repair and restoration. The project will take at least three years to complete, according to today's China Daily.

Lozhub Jaco grew up in the small county town of Sagya, named after the great Sagya Monastery close to his home.

He still remembers his childhood days when he and his pals played by the tall greyish blue walls that surround the Sagya Monastery, located about 150 kilometres to the southwest of Xigaze in Tibet Autonomous Region.

For him, the monastery, distinguished by its red, white and blue colours - representing Wisdom Buddha, Bodhisattva and Buddha's warrior attendants - have always held a special allure.

At the age of 17, he entered the monastery to become a monk, determined to devote the rest of his life to the Buddha. He has studied hard and won so much respect from other monks that he has been elected deputy director of the committee to manage the monastery affairs.

In 17 years, he has learned a lot about Buddhism and about the Sagya Monastery.

In his mind, two people have been most closely associated with the history of Sagya Monastery£º Phags-pa (1235-80), the Sagya's (first) Great Treasure Prince of Dharma and Khublai Khan (1215-94), founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Lozhub often referred to both names as he led a tour of the monastery.

Phags-pa was granted the titles of State (Religious) Master, Great Treasure Prince of Dharma and imperial tutor by Khublai Khan after he continued the work of his uncle, Sapan Kongah Gyaincain, an eminent monk of the Sagya Sect, to lead the Tibetans to join the multi-ethnic family of China more than 700 years ago.

With Phags-pa's support, the Yuan court established a series of decrees for the governance of Tibet by local lay and religious officials. A census in Tibet conducted by the Yuan court established that the region was populated by 130,000 households. Fifteen postal stations were set up and a series of administrative areas were divided and local Tibetan officials were appointed.

With support from the central government, Phags-pa started to build the southern compound of the Sagya Monastery in 1268, inviting craftsmen from inland areas as well. Its northern compound, built in 1073, was destroyed during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Style of a fortress

According to Gesang, deputy director of the project group that started preparations for the monastery's repair and restoration two years ago, the overall design for the southern compound followed the style of the Yuan Dynasty fortress.

Laid out almost in a square, the southern compound occupied 45,000 square metres of land, with two layers of walls for defensive purposes. A moat, which used to surround the compound, is now filled by sand and dust.

Inside the compound, there are eight watch towers.

The major constructions were an integration of Tibetan, Mongolian and Han architectural styles.

The immense prayer hall, occupying 5,700 square metres and propped up with 40 giant red pillars, rises to four-storey high. The thickest pillar is 1.5 metres in diameter. Named Gyina Seqen Garna, meaning "sent by the emperor," the pillar is said to have been a gift to the monastery from Khublai Khan, Lozhub said.

In the 15 years as the head of the Sagya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and practically the ruler of the Tibet region, Phags-pa has left more of a political, religious and cultural legacy to Sagya Monastery than of any other of his successors.

With a flashlight in hand, Lozhub opened a small door leading to the back chamber of the main prayer hall.

The chamber was pitch-dark and a little chilly though the temperature outside was about 18 C. Under the dim flashlight, people marvelled at what they could still discern£º Some 84,000 volumes of scriptures were piled up on one single shelf that formed a 1.3-metre thick wall, stretching 57.2 metres in length and rising over 10 metres to the ceiling.

"Phags-pa left all these scriptures to us," Lozhub said with reverence. "Besides Buddhist scriptures, there are many books about ancient Tibetan history, literature, medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics and other subjects," all testimonial to Sagya's role as the political, economic and cultural centre of Tibet more than 700 years ago.

When Lozhub reached the other end of the chamber, he carefully opened a glass door and felt a volume of a precious Buddhist scripture, which is 2 metres long, 1.15 metres wide and 0.57 metres thick. It's called Burde Gyaimalung.

"The thick pages made of special Tibetan paper contain writings written in pure gold," Lozhub said. "It's heavy and it is said to take at least eight men to carry this particular volume of the Buddhist scripture."

Another valuable volume of Buddhist scripture indigenous to the Sagya Monastery is carefully-wrapped in a piece of red satin and stored in one of the 15 modern metal safes inside a heavily-guarded storage room.

When Lozhub unwrapped the satin, he revealed a 270-page volume of pattra-leaves. Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit were neatly-written in sapphire blue. There are also colour illustrations of the Buddha in various transformations on the leaves.

Lozhub said with pride that all the 11 statues of Sakyamuni in the main prayer hall were made in the Yuan Dynasty, as Khublai Khan and his successors appropriated huge amounts of gold and silver for the construction of the monastery's current compound.

Opening the 12 gold-glazed wooden cupboards in the storage room, Lozhub showed visitors precious porcelain wares, jade bowls and gold-gilt Buddha statues, most of which were gifts from Khublai Khan and his successors.

There are also imperial seals, imperial orders, official attires, tangka painting scrolls, satins and other rare relics presented to the Prince of Dharma in Sagya by the Yuan and other emperors through the dynasties.

Murals in the monastery are also considered State treasures. Superbly done, the murals, depicting Buddhist stories, the princes of Dharma of Sagya over the dynasties and the construction scene of the Sagya Monastery, represent the epitome of Tibetan murals. The most valuable features Phags-pa's meeting with Khubla Khan.

Monastery's upkeep

Learning almost every item of the treasure trove by heart, Lozhub admitted the biggest concern for him and the 105 monks is the monastery's upkeep.

Over the past few years, Lozhub has met quite a few leading researchers, historians and officials, as the repair and restoration of the Sagya Monastery has been listed as a major project for the protection of national historical sites by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

To him, the monastery requires a major facelift as soon as possible.

The Sagya Monastery has weathered rain, snow and strong winds for more than 700 years.

Lozhub can point out countless crevices in the rammed-earth walls of the main buildings.

"The beams are quickly decaying and need replacement," he said, pointing to the tilted wooden beams on the roofs of various buildings.

Climbing up a slippery wooden ladder to the rooftop, he pointed down to the rammed earth under his feet. The rooftop, also of traditional Tibetan rammed earth, called ahga, is shiny after years' cleaning and rubbing.

"Rain and snow water now seeps into the roof, down the wall and into the prayer halls," Lozhub said.

In the project report for restoration of the Sagya Monastery, Gesang and other researchers also pointed out that the ceilings of the main prayer hall that bore ancient murals were falling off and murals were blurring or peeling off.

Of the eight watchtowers, three are falling apart.

The rain and snow water that seeps into the main halls may endanger the foundation of the buildings, Gesang and his colleagues warn in the report.

The monastery also needs to modernize its facilities, especially its electricity installations and to install various monitoring devices, to prevent theft and fire.

As the major repairs at the Sagya Monastery are imminent, researchers like Gesang are working closely with Lozhub and other monks in preparation.

Lozhub said he and other monks have to make a lot of preparations, as they must shoulder the responsibility of guarding the valuable cultural relics in the monastery.

Apart from thousands of Buddhist statues and other religious wares, Lozhub said there may be a lot more valuables hidden in the rammed earth walls that will need to undergo repair work.

As far as the Wall of the Scriptures is concerned, repair work is needed, Lozhub said. "Nobody knows how long the wooden shelf that holds so many scriptures will stand."

However, removing the tens of thousands of volumes of ancient classics and exposing them to a temperature and environment different from the dark chamber may cause unpredictable damage. More brainstorming sessions will be held to discuss ways to go about it.

-- source: Xinhua News Agency

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