Conservation & Continuity

To return the thangkas as much as possible to their original appearance, conservator Ephraim Jose and Mark Fenn of the Asian Art Museum work with a select group of Bhutanese Buddhist monks to clean and repair them.The monks are not only preparing the thangkas for exhibit, they are also training to continue to care for these and all the other thangkas in their temples and monasteries.

Well on their way to becoming the first Bhutanese monk conservators of thangkas, these monks will be essential mentors in the upcoming conservation workshops in the capital city of Thimphu.

Punakha Dzong Monastery

Photo: Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts

Bhutan is the least accessible and least known of the Himalayan countries. Unlike Nepal and Tibet, Bhutan forbids trekkers in its sacred mountains. Having never been colonized, conquered or invaded, Bhutanese treasures have never been looted.

Its art has remained relatively unknown both in and outside Bhutan. The government takes great measures to preserve the nation's traditional culture, identity and the environment.

Thangkas: Before and After

The Himalayan Buddhist devotional works on cloth (thangkas) were made in both paintings and embroideries.

They were made for, and are used in, religious practice in Buddhist monasteries and temples across Bhutan.

Over time the thangkas have become worn and soiled from handling as well as exposure to dust, soot, insects, light and simple aging. Some of these works have also suffered damage from accidents.

While the traditional care given the thangkas has helped to minimize problems, these works have gradually become more fragile and are in need of restoration.


A "Curatorial Odyssey"

Curators Stephen Little (in patterned shirt) and Ephraim Jose, examine two thangkas at the National Library in Thimphu.

The restoration odyssey began in the fall of 1997, when then San Francisco-based Ephraim Jose, a conservator of Asian and Himalayan art, became interested in organizing an exhibition after a 24-hour layover in Bhutan. A few years later he brought his idea to the incoming director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, who soon secured the cooperation of the Bhutanese government.

Photo: Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts

On The Road to Trashigang

Ephraim (Eddie) Jose is one of the foremost authorities in the conservation of Asian art. When he was hired by the Honolulu Academy of the Arts in 2004 he brought his project to preserve Bhutan’s arts along with him. Not only thangkas, but sculptures and dances were in need of conservation. Working with a team of monks over the course of ten years, a team of nine conservationists and twenty-seven Bhutanese students have recorded and over 90 thangkas, over 100 sculptures, and 300-plus hours of Cham, a form of holy dance.

Sponsorship for Restoring Bhutan's Thangkas

Please see click on the above picture to see how your contribution will help our ongoing project in Bhutan.If you would like to sponsor the conservation of a thangka or help with the Wish List, please contact Ephraim Jose at friendsofthemonks@gmail.com or at (808) 532-3659.We're looking forward to adding to our list of sponsors!

- Sponsorship for restoration of the Sakyamuni Thangka was given by University of Hawaii educator, Ed Wiggers, on 3/24/2009.

- Sponsorship for the Dorji Drolo Thangka was given by communications expert Brigida Bergkamp on 5/1/2009.

- Sponsorship for the Mahakala Thangka was given by educators Evelina, Steve, Philip and Fred Cichy on 5/1/2009.

About Bhutan's Thangkas

Thangkas play a very important role in the practice of Buddhism. They are used daily for rituals and meditations. The thangkas are displayed in the temples and exposed to the elements and to the smoke from the butter lamps. After a while they get damaged from wear and tear. Our objective is to restore all the damaged thangkas in monasteries throughout Bhutan and to teach the monks how to take care of the thangkas.

In 2007, the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Central Monastic Body established two thangka conservation studios. They are located near the Thimphu Dzong in Eastern Bhutan at Trongsa Dzong. The studios are staffed by the monks that Ephraim Jose has trained since 2005. As of January 27, 2009, we have restored over 90 thankgkas. The restoration was funded by Honolulu Academy of Arts from 2005 to 2007. Future workshops will be funded through private donations.

The monks will be self-sufficient in thangka conservation, but we can only begin this program of sustainability and continuity with initial support from the public. If we can restore 10 to 20 thangkas a year for museums and private collectors around the world, we will have enough funds to purchase the materials we need to restore 50 Thangkas throughout Bhutan for a year.