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The condition of Tibetan Monasteries in the 1930s and '40s as recorded by Giuseppe Tucci.

THROUGHOUT HIS WRITINGS GIUSEPPE TUCCI COMPLAINED FREQUENTLY, sometimes bitterly, about the poor state of conservation of important ancient temples and religious images in Tibetan monasteries especially those not belonging to the Dalai Lama's religious order. At the time of his expeditions to Tibet, Tucci generally viewed the clergy as responsible for such state of affairs. This essay presents the remarks of this rationalistic and non-conformist observer and scholar on the conditions and problems of conservation of religious buildings, images and texts, as well as on Buddhist practice, as he could observe them particularly in west Tibet (mNga'-ris) and southwest Tibet (gTsang) prior to the Chinese invasion. Such remarks are found less in scholarly works than in reader-friendly articles published chiefly in Italian periodicals, and span the period from his first expedition to Ladakh in 1928 to the last one to Tibet in 1948. They are translated here from Italian into English for the first time.

In his writings meant for a general public, always based not only on his fieldwork and on his linguistic and historical competence, but also on a rationalistic as well as respectful approach, Tucci tried also to assess the state of Buddhist practice in Tibet, expecting seriousness from a religion and culture of which he had a deep understanding and which he held in high esteem:

"The current idea is that lamaism is a hotchpotch of magic rites with no spiritual substance. Lama and wizard are mixed in the minds of most people. One has to be clear about that. There is some truth in such statements inasmuch as Buddhism is going through a period of decadence in Tibet; the institution of great monasteries has been fatal to the development and purity of religion. Great monasteries have spread like parasitic organisms, where all too often practical interest replaces the sincerity of religious inspiration; the monk vegetates through his quiet life sheltered by the monastery, supported by donations, bequests, estates. The huge growth of the community has acted as a contrary force to the refining of ascesis or to the purity of meditation. Schools have been organized in great monasteries and at most, besides the countless populace of ignorant clergy, doctors and dialecticians have been formed who know all the subtleties of literature and ritual, [who] are very clever at asserting the postulates of their system against those of rival sects in well-contrived logical discussions, who are in short the Tibetan copy of Indian pundits or scholars, miracles of learning and of memory." (1)

Thus "(...) the plethoric development of monastic institutions caused what was gained in quantity to be lost in quality: the greater the number of monks, the lesser their intellectual and spiritual preparation. Rather than reliving religion in its inner depth, they were contented on one hand with formulas and rites or else, on the other, with arid logical and dialectic disciplines replacing the anxiety of a spiritual palingenesis with theological reasoning. And then the decadence started or rather, to say it better, increased in monastic milieus since from early times a certain tendency to formalism and to the cult of the literal sense had come about, to the detriment of spiritual understanding." (2)

Having made it clear that "Tibetan monasteries, which have generally turned into noisy nurseries of monks who are not always learned or pure, originally rose as hermitages" and that "the very name designating them in Tibetan means 'solitude, recess'", (3) Tucci describes the situation in monasteries in the area of Mount Kailasa in the following terms:

"Now, in the general decay that has stifled all elan of spiritual life and destroyed all political glory in this land sacred to the memory of Buddhism, monks are scarce and ascetics even more so. Keepers exploit the places entrusted to their care and live exploiting the religious tradition and memories of those hermits that achieved their spiritual perfection in the past centuries. The fear of the marauders that infest the nearby valleys and may come down at any moment from the passes above leads pilgrims to seek shelter in these monasteries, which turn into noisy hostels and dormitories, in which languages and religions blend and join in friendship under the brigands' threat. Monks are happy to afford this hospitality, which is not just a hu man and charitable action, but yields not inconsiderable prebends to them and to the monastery. Because, here too, lamas are greedy for money and eager for trading. That is why monasteries are almost deserted: monks have gone down to fairs to sell, barter, do business, impart blessings and cast horoscopes." (4)

As far as the state of conservation of religious sites, images and texts in west Tibet is concerned, Tucci's judgments leave hardly any doubt about its cultural decadence 30 years before the Cultural Revolution, as may be gathered from the following passages: "These temples (...) are complex pictorial evocations of the whole of Tibetan religiosity and of its symbols: one is filled with sorrow by seeing them on the way to decay. Rabghieling, perched on inaccessible crags, hosts just three or four monks who do not abide by monastic rules with excessive scruple. Its chapels contain precious statues in gilt bronze, silver, wood, heaped as in a junk dealer's storeroom, [and] dusty, topsy-turvy volumes, in a muddle (...). Shangtze and Shang (...) hardly preserve a few precarious small chapels: doors knocked down, marvellous frescoes on the way to decay, precious paintings rolled up in a corner like old and unusable stuff. The former is in the hands of a half-witted monk sent there for punishment; the latter is entrusted in turns to the custody of three or four families making up the village. (...) At Ri the temple of Rinchenzangpo is about to fall: the roof lets the water through, wearing the paintings away and flaking the stucco statues. And everywhere, thrown haphazardly, a great quantity of manuscripts of all sizes and of all ages." (5)

Concerning the caves of Mang-nang, a site with wall-paintings in Indian style (figure 2), that the Italian scholar explored from August 15 to 17, 1935, he wrote: "We walk on heaps of manuscripts thrown at random one upon the other, by the hundreds, by the thousands, often even for a few metres of thickness." (6) He found an even worse situation in the caves of Dung-dkar (figures 1 and 3), a site which he visited on August 25, 1935, and where he lost his temper: "In the whole kingdom of Guge, Tsaparang was perhaps the most densely inhabited place. The usual dwellings excavated in the rock and the cells of hermits open in its steep faces, the usual ruins of castles and of temples at the top: but even here we face remains of great importance: paintings, stuccoes, manuscripts, statues of all sorts and ages stacked up in the shade of chapels: art treasures thrown higgledy-piggledy as useless junk by the few surviving monks. They have never seen a European: they open the doors of their holy sites unwillingly to me, but lower their heads in shame when the horrible confusion in which they keep these places makes me lose my patience. I cannot stand seeing a beautiful thing, a work of art thrown there like scrap; I cannot bear seeing century-old paintings--minutely painted with such devoted care by a school of artists for whom painting was a synonym for praying--creased, ragged, riddled with holes, those wooden statues brought perhaps from India by the first apostles of Buddhism, piled up one above the other, their heads and hands cut off: those books thrown into the darkest corners in a tangle from which it is almost impossible to disentangle and reassemble the volumes. And when these monks who no longer understand anything, who do not know the value of the things with whose custody they have been entrusted, pretend to be conscientious, they become really hateful to me.

"A people who lived in their faith dwelled here, there were noble souls making themselves sublime in asceticism and contemplation, ecstatic in mystical exaltation; there were artists who knew how to create works worthy of standing comparison with the best ones in the East, pious kings under whose rule the country prospered and became refined. Now not only is all trace of life erased, not only does the desert with its sands and silence destroy the last works of man, but spiritual decadence clouds and grips the soul of the few survivors." (7)

Also Tucci's view about the future of the monastery of Tsaparang (Tib. rTsa-brang; figures 4 and 5) was rather gloomy, though inevitably conditioned by his Western antiquarian outlook: "The White Temple in Tsaparang already starts to lose its superb frescoes, cracked, effaced and fallen on the floor. The Changzod told me that if he had the means he would like to set them up again and have the paintings redone: that is the best doom that will befall the monuments of ancient Tibetan art: if they do not collapse, a thick layer of lime and earth will cover the ancient frescoes which will be chipped to give grip to the new plaster; then one of the many very modest wandering artists will cover all with his clumsy figures with bright colours imported from Europe." (8)

The kind of situations that Tucci came across and in which he operated may be exemplified by his and Ghersi's visit to the monastery of Toling (Tib. mTho-lding; figure 6), dating back to the 11th century, as described in a report written for Indian authorities upon his return from the 1933 expedition, as quoted by Oscar Nalesini:

"Unfortunately neither the Lamas nor the None [Prince] of Spiti seem to realize the importance of the monuments that have been committed to them and of which they ought to take better care. I should like to invite the attention of the British Government on this fact and I do hope that some steps will be taken in order to preserve the frescoes on the walls and the very fine stucco-images (...). I hardly need to insist upon the immense importance of this large [collection of] photographic documents (...) which I could collect since it is well known that the monastery of Toling is one of the oldest, richest and finest of Tibet. These documents are of unrivalled interest for the religious history of Tibet as well as for the history of Indo-Tibetan Art (...). The rain dropping through the ceiling left unrepaired for years is washing away the marvelous frescoes (...). Unless the Tibetan Government does some urgent repairs, it will shortly be a ruin yet in no other part of Tibet is [sic] possible to find finest [sic] paintings and better workmanship. This is why here also I took photos of the interior of all temples and chapels so that if they are to tumble down western scholars might at least have an exact idea of what they were." (9)

The Italian scholar was aware of and insisted on the importance of taking photographic records in Tibetan temples: "Before the ravages of time and men's neglect would efface the memory of a civilization bound entirely to death, I thought it was my duty as a man of science to return to those so inaccessible provinces, to save the most important documents from oblivion by the memory of their photographic records." (10) In Toling Tucci and Ghersi found many sheets of manuscripts and fragments of clay images as well as ruins and water seepages due to lack of care or abandonment, and eventually entered a cave (figure 7) already visited by the British captain G. Young and containing fragments of wood and clay images, pieces of large gilded copper mandorlas as well as a whole library of ancient Buddhist texts belonging to the Tibetan canonical collections and illustrated with superb miniatures probably fashioned by Indian artists who had been compelled to leave India after the Muslim conquest. Young, who explored west Tibet in 1919, took away secretly fragments of statues and books, which were then deposited in the Lahore Museum. (11) With Ghersi's help Tucci felt entitled to try to do the same, arguing that this was an academic duty since Tibetans did not care about their sacred monuments and the treasures they held, but watched unperturbed the ruin of precious material in which their ancestors had expressed their experiences symbolically or recorded the chronicles of their political life. (12)

The result was the acquisition of a number of texts and objects (figures 8 and 9), sometimes brought to the Italian scholar by monks and laymen during the night, (13) sometimes obtained by stratagems, as in the case of an early Indian wooden image in the temple devoted to Rin-chen-bzang-po in the monastery of Lha-lung, in Spiti, which the Italian scholar told monks he had seen in a dream, whereupon a special tantric ceremony was performed involving an oracle, half a dozen monks, one with the role of village counsel arguing that the statue could not abandon the community it had protected for centuries, another defending the foreigner who had come with faith from distant countries and invoking the god's compassion upon him. The ceremony was repeated three times, and in the end the deity took possession of the oracle and started to talk through him uttering broken words in a falsetto voice. During the night the latter was compensated for his generosity. (14) It should be pointed out that even when acquisitions proved successful, their export might not prove so: on one occasion Tucci is reported to have torn to pieces a manuscript in front of an Indian customs officer who may have regarded as insufficient the bakshish offered to him. (15)

The Italian scholar continued his researches, as well as his purchases, in south and southwest Tibet with the photographic assistance of Maraini, who describes also the former's acquisition of religious items at rKyang-phu:

"(...) I hear vaguely Tucci and the monk's voices in the nearby room. I hear the word gormo, rupees, being repeated again and again. Here is another among the infinite aspects of my versatile guru: now he is the skilled dealer of Tibetan antiquities in action! By now the scene is well known. Evening has fallen. In the dusk one may see barefoot monks passing by stealthily with their monstrous outlines. Do they suffer from a multiplication of arms, from immeasurable scrota, from dropsy at their backs? Not at all. They have large, fragile, rare, amazing treasures under their very greasy and filthy habits. They go there secretly, into the guru's bedroom. After long bargaining (the master would not allow easily being taken for a ride) the art objects remain and the monks return to their impoverished monastery with handfuls (for them unheard of) of gormos." (16)

One may get an idea of the amount and importance of the texts and images acquired by Tucci in Tibet just by glancing through the volumes of Elena De Rossi Filibecks Catalogue of the Tucci Tibetan Fund in the IsIAO Library (Roma, 2003) and of Tucci's monumental Tibetan Painted Scrolls (Roma, 1949)) where over 231 paintings (17) are published with their descriptions. Indeed Tucci acquired manuscripts as well as images as late as in the 1940s and on that issue Maraini, in spite of the fact that he could be frankly and openly critical of his master, writes:

"Tucci has been accused several times, by irresponsible rumours, of having taken away (through acquisitions, obviously) many, too many art treasures from Tibet. On that point I raise the loudest of voices in defence of the professor. Had he taken away more, many more, he would have saved them from the destructive and iconoclastic follies of the Chinese! (18) In that respect I stand up for Sir Aurel Stein, for von Le Coq, for Paul Pelliot, for Jacques Bacot, for Edoardo Chiossone, for Ernesto Fenollosa, for Guimet and for all those other Europeans and Americans who have saved for mankind whole art treasures that were not appreciated by their owners and ran the risk of being lost or destroyed because of popular, political, religious movements of various kind. I believe that, also for our own art treasures, for instance, some dispersion in the world is a blessing: one never knows which disaster (earthquakes, fires, ideological follies) may hit them. That the Gioconda be in Paris and the Parthenon marbles be in London, are cases that should be blessed, rather than condemned." (19)

As argued by Tucci in the account of his last expedition to Tibet, "Tibetans do not give much thought to respecting a work of art in itself: they are only interested in the subject of the work, in the divine cycle it represents. To a frescoed wall, blackened by the years, they prefer the loud brightness of a new display of figures, which local painters are often entrusted with. Providing the means to make a sacred work and executing it is a meritorious action fructifying and wiping out sins: in short the religious reason replaces the artistic care altogether. Because of that, especially in these last years and in the richest provinces, such as these of central Tibet, many masterpieces have been lost forever. In 1937 at Phari, before entering the village coming from India, I visited a small temple built by a famous ascetic, Tenton Gyalpo (bsTan ston rgyal po) in the 14th century; in its shrine I discovered most remarkable fragments of paintings of that period. Now you only find very new frescoes." (20)

Although the restoration of religious images and buildings is known in the Indo-Tibetan world, a Buddhist canonical text such as the Kriyasamgraba prescribes to throw images beyond repair into water or to bum them, or else to melt them down.21 Indeed, in a Buddhist perspective, such images are imperfect, while commissioning new ones is essential to accumulate merit, as it has also been the case in Christian tradition.

Restoration and conservation--in the modern, technical and lay sense given to those terms in Western culture--represent a relatively recent phenomenon: ancient murals in religious buildings might be painted over or even destroyed in the course of renovation work in Europe until the 20th century. During the so-called Renaissance, Bramante--the Italian architect who started rebuilding St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican--destroyed the previous basilica to the extent of being nicknamed "Mastro Ruinante" ("Master Ruinous"). Always in Rome, the Barberini family patronized the great Italian sculptor Bernini, who advised that the ancient girders of the Pantheon be removed and melted down for guns in 1625, which inspired the epigram that what barbarians had not done, the Barberinis did. The Colosseum in Rome was used as a quarry to get ready-made material for building purposes until the 18th century. Perhaps judgements on conservation or lack of conservation ought not to be passed unless they are interpreted and understood within their own cultural and historical context. That should apply also to the various and often conflicting views and theories concerning restoration, which are bound to undergo further developments in the course of time, and even to collecting.


I wish to credit the support of the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, in writing the original version of this article for the volume Unveiling Buddhism: The Legacy of Giuseppe Tucci to be published in conjunction with a related exhibition to be shown at the same museum, but eventually published in with the title "Giuseppe Tucci's remarks on the state of preservation and conservation of Tibetan monasteries in the 1930s and 1940s". I also thank Oscar Nalesini for making available for publication figures 2, 3, 4 and 9 from the Tucci Photographic Archive kept at Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale "Giuseppe Tucci", Rome. A picture similar to figure 9 was published by E. Garzilli in L'esploratore del Duce. Le avventure di Giuseppe Tucci e la politica italiana in Oriente da Mussolini a Andreotti: Con il carteggio di Giulio Andreotti, i, Roma-Milano, 2012, p. 490, fig. 17.


(1) G. Tucci, "Teorie ed esperienze dei mistici tibetani", II Progresso Religioso, xi, 1931, pp. 170-82, reprinted with the title "Nirvana" in II paese delle donne dai molti mariti, Venezia, 2005, pp. 113-29 (p. 116). Initially Tucci justified the use of the term "Lamaism" ("L'ultima mia spedizione sull'Imalaya", Nuova Antologia, 365, 1933, pp. 245-58, reprinted with the title "Himalaya" in II paese delle donne dai molti mariti, Venezia, 2005, pp. 19-34), which he later repudiated stating that "first of all one ought to stop making use of the word Lamaism that is used to designate the Tibetan religion" (cf. Il paese delle donne dai molti mariti, pp. 22 and 131).

(2) G. Tucci, "Berretti rossi e berretti gialli", Asiatica, iv, 1938, pp. 255-62, in Il paese delle donne dai molti mariti, pp. 132-34.

(3) G. Tucci, "Teorie ed esperienze dei mistici tibetani", and "Nirvana", p. 122.

(4) G. Tucci, "Il Manasarovar, lago sacro del Tibet", Le Vie d'Italia e del Mondo, iv, 1936, pp. 253-70, reprinted with the title "Acque cosmiche" in II paese delle donne dai molti mariti, pp. 267-74 (p- 279).

(5) G. Tucci, "Splendori di un mondo che scompare: Nel Tibet occidentale", Le Vie d'Italia e del Mondo, III/8, 1935, pp. 911-37, reprinted with the title "Splendori di un mondo che scompare", Il paese delle donne dai molti mariti, pp. 47-56 (p. 52). Tucci uses the terms "bronze", though the copper alloy normally used in Tibet to fashion metal images is brass; "fresco", albeit the fresco technique is not used in Tibetan painting; and "stucco", where the term "clay" should be generally used with reference to Tibetan sculpture.

(6) G. Tucci, Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto: Diario della spedizione nel Tibet occidentale 1935, Milano, 1937, p. 160 (reprinted with the title Tibet ignoto: Una spedizione fra santi e briganti nella millenaria terra del Dalai Lama, Roma, 1985). I had a similar experience in the bKa'-'gyur chapel of the monastery of Zhwa-lu when I first visited it on August 7, 1987, but there the books had been deliberately pulled down from the shelves and many of them burned in 1966 by people from Zhwa-lu and other places according to my informant at the site, the Zhwa-lu mkhan-po bsKal-bzangrnam-rgyal, as recorded in my diary. On the Indian-style paintings at Mang-nang see in particular G. Tucci, "Indian paintings in Western Tibetan temples", Opera Minora, 11, Roma, 1971, pp. 357-62.

(7) G. Tucci, Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto, pp. 171-72, and reprint Tibet ignoto, p. 136. The caves were left in an even worse state after the Cultural Revolution (cf. T. Pritzker, "A Preliminary Report on Early Cave Paintings of Western Tibet", Orientations, 27/6,1996, pp. 34-35, fig. 17).

(8) G. Tucci, Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto, p. 167, and reprint Tibet ignoto, p. 132. On the narrow antiquarian outlook of Western art historians and collectors of non-Western art see E. Lo Bue, "Tibetan Aesthetics versus Western Aesthetics in the Appreciation of Religious Art", in Images of Tibet in the 19th and 20th Centuries, M. Esposito (ed.), Paris, 2008, vol. 11, pp. 687-704.

(9) 0. Nalesini, "Pictures from a Legacy: The Tucci Photographic Archive", Orientations, 45/1, 2014, p. 56.

(10) G. Tucci, Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto, pp. ix-x.

(11) Cf. E. Garzilli, L'esploratore del Duce, pp. 548-51, and G. Young, 'A Journey to Toling and Tsaparang in Western Tibet", Journal of the Panjab Historical Society, vii/2, 1919, p. 194.

(12) Cf. G. Tucci, Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto, p. 167 (reprint Tibet ignoto, p. 132); G. Tucci and E. Ghersi, Cronaca della Missione scientifica Tucci nel Tibet Occidentale, Roma, 1934, p. 310; and E. Garzilli, L'esploratore del Duce, p. 551.

(13) Cf. F. Maraini, Segreto Tibet, Firenze, 1998, pp. 226 and 228; and E. Garzilli, L'esploratore del Duce, p. 524.

(14) Cf. G. Tucci and E. Ghersi, Cronaca della Missione scientifica Tucci nel Tibet Occidentale, pp. 101-07; and E. Garzilli, L'esploratore del Duce, pp. 526-29.

(15) E. Garzilli, L'esploratore del Duce, p. 530.

(16) Cf. F. Maraini, Segreto Tibet, pp. 226 and 228.

(17) Most of them ended up in usa collections and some at the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale in Rome.

(18) F. Maraini, Segreto Tibet, p. 228. Maraini's identification of the Red Guards with the Chinese people is inaccurate and unfair, since the latter also had to suffer from that major disaster, worse than the military occupation of Tibet, which devastated China during those "years of fire and of shit between 1966 and 1967, when the whirl of the so-called 'cultural revolution'" had broken out "in China and its colonies out of the insane will of the paranoid Mao". On the newly-built road between rGyal-rtse and Phag-ri, in south Tibet, "one could see lorries packed with shouting louts, equipped with red flags, with machine-guns, guns, shovels and pickaxes", who, "one is almost ashamed to say, [...] it seems to be ascertained were largely Tibetan youngsters [...] guided [...] by few Chinese adults" (ibid., p. 250).

(19) Ibid., pp. 226 and 228.

(20) G. Tucci, A Lhasa e oltre: Diario della spedizione nel Tibet MCMXLVIII, Roma, 1952, p. 32. Like other writers Tucci uses the expression "central Tibet" also when referring to "south Tibet", which would be the correct one in this case. On the incorrect use of the term "fresco" see above, note 5.

(21) T. Skorupski (ed.), Kriyasa mgraba. Compendium of Buddhist Rituals: An Abridged Version, Tring, 2002, p. 172.

Caption: 1 Dung-dkar cave temples, 12th century. Photograph courtesy Mario Rossello, 1999.

Caption: 2 Mang-nang temple, painting of apsaras, nth century. Photograph: Eugenio Ghersi, 1935 (Tucci Photographic Archive, P-3625 [c] MNAO, Roma).

Caption: 3 Dung-dkar cave 2, Buddha sculptures, 12th century. Photograph: Eugenio Ghersi, 1935 (Tucci Photographic Archive, neg. dep. 6020/14 [c] LIAO--MNAO, Roma).

Caption: 4 Tsaparang, aerial view. Photograph: Eugenio Ghersi, 1933 (Tucci Photographic Archive, neg. dep. N.6031 [c] LIAO--MNAO, Roma).

Caption: 5 Tsaparang, general view. Photograph courtesy Mario Rossello, 1996.

Caption: 6 Toling temple mins, c. nth century. Photograph courtesy Mario Rossello, 1996.

Caption: 7 Toling caves, c. nth century. Photograph courtesy Mario Rossello, 1999.

Caption: 8 Ma-yang, Giuseppe Tucci analysing manuscripts, August 9, 1933. Photograph: Eugenio Ghersi ([c] Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale, Roma).

Caption: 9 Sakya, Tucci's luggage, including painted scrolls, being carried in bundles, 1939 (Tucci Photographic Archive, neg. dep. N.6146/03 [c] LIAO--MNAO, Roma).


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Title Annotation:PROFILE
Author:Lo Bue, Erberto
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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