After years of neglect, the temples on Tibet’s far eastern reaches are undergoing a makeover. But the techniques used by the monks show little regard for the rich artistic treasures adorning their walls.

The 740-year-old monastery of Deng Gompa, located in the Tibetan town of Ganzi, was reportedly commissioned by Mongol emperor Kublai Khan to help spread the word of Buddhism in the former Tibetan kingdom of Kham. It still stands today, covered with murals depicting scenes of 13th-century religious devotion: life-sized Buddhist deities, pilgrims travelling to distant temples, disciples praying under trees and images from the wheel of life.

Once considered to be of little significance, Deng Gompa and its murals have been largely ignored until recently. Now, they are buzzing with attention. Maroon-clad monks carry buckets of concrete to reinforce the second floor, while illustrators touch up the murals by going over them with fluorescent paints and then topping their masterpieces with a glossy coat of varnish.

‘Now they are more beautiful,’ says a proud Rimpoche Kusho Shangye, who sports a brown cloak, cowboy hat, 1960s-styled sunglasses and two gold front teeth. ‘We are working to preserve cultural heritage.’

The Rimpoche is head lama of another eminent monastery, the nearby Ganzi Gompa; team leader for the Deng Gompa restoration process; and a man said to be a reincarnated Buddha himself. He is also a deputy chairman for the local government, and helped build a health clinic and school for Ganzi’s underprivileged. This is typical at a time when many of Kham’s high lamas are entwined in Chinese politics, an arrangement that helps them assure their monasteries’ survival.

In Tibetan Buddhist belief, all phenomena are considered to be temporary. For the local people, the Khampas, it’s not the age of the murals that’s important; it’s what they represent that is significant. This is perhaps why the monks of Deng Gompa don’t seem to be overly concerned about doing an authentic restoration, which would cost millions of dollars. In fact, the Rimpoche’s initial plan was to knock Deng Gompa down entirely and start again. But after witnessing the work other non-government organisations put into restoring monasteries in the region, he decided to go half way – keeping the old artwork but jazzing it up with vibrant colours and a thick coat of gloss.

‘They are butchering it,’ says Pamela Logan, founder of US-based Kham Aid, as the Rimpoche takes us on a guided tour of the ancient relics. Logan spent several years painstakingly restoring another Kham monastery, the centuries-old Pewar Gompa, which was so remote she had to build a road to gain access to it.

‘[The monks] have no idea that what they have is special, and no idea how rare they are,’ she says. ‘They are educated in a monastic sense, but not in a worldly sense. They don’t want things to look old. They want new things that symbolise modernity.’

‘Although the [Deng Gompa] murals are very old, it’s difficult to ascertain the artistic merit,’ Logan says. ‘I can’t tell whether they were painted by masters, apprentices or just local laymen, simply because there is nothing to compare them to.’

She looks aghast as she witnesses a wall of intricate and elaborate figures vanish under brush strokes from a team of monks distributing paint from old Red Bull cans. Converted into a grain storehouse during the Cultural Revolution, Deng Gompa has seen better days. The walls are crumbling at the edges, the murals’ vegetable pigments are scratched and faded, and the building itself is unstable and potentially hazardous.

This is also not its first renovation. The monastery’s interiors contain an eclectic fusion of epochs and eras.

The most recent facelift took place in the Buddha statue room, a small space where deity murals, faded and blackened from burning yak butter, compete with flashing fairy lights and an array of plastic fruit offerings. The current restoration is, however, the most drastic, as it’s the first time that the actual murals have been tampered with. Deng Gompa is important because it is about twice as old as the other Buddhist monasteries in the area, which makes it and its murals irreplaceable and priceless. Today, less than 10 pre-Cultural Revolution monasteries remain in the area that housed the former kingdom of Kham.

It’s estimated that 95 per cent of the kingdom’s religious buildings were razed after Mao Zedong unleashed his reign of terror on this region in 1956, when he tried to unite Tibet with the motherland. Mao’s forces ransacked the former kingdom, slaughtering tens of thousands, sending countless into exile, destroying buildings and reinforcing Kham’s isolation from the world. As for the sacred artworks, most have either been ruined or looted over the past 50 years.

Since the 1980s, however, the area has experienced a profusion of monastery rebuilding and a revival of monastic learning, fuelled by a more relaxed central government and initiatives to open nearby western Sichuan to industry.

Finally, foreign organisations have also been given a chance to join in. Using highly skilled Tibetan artists and professional restorers, they are bringing some of Kham’s pre-Cultural Revolution monasteries back to their original glory.

Logan’s visit to Deng Gompa was at the invitation of the Rimpoche, who was seeking funding to restore murals that had, at that time, not yet come under the fluorescent brush. But after evaluating previous cosmetic ventures in the monastery, Logan professed to having mixed feelings about taking the project on, believing that ‘neither the aesthetics for art conservation nor for what the monks want will ever be met’. Since then, Kham Aid has not been invited to continue assessments for restoring the murals at Deng Gompa.

It’s said that Deng Gompa was commissioned by Kublai Khan in 1260AD after Chogyel Phakpa – the man who converted Kublai Khan, and was consequently granted sovereignty of Tibet in return – was concerned to see that Buddhism hadn’t flourished in this area. As legend goes, Chogyel gave the villagers of Ganzi a white mule used to transport sacred Buddhist objects, and decreed that a temple should be built wherever the mule stopped and refused to move. It stopped at a watering hole called Den, and Deng Gompa was built.

Some seven hundred and forty years later, and the white mule’s temple still sits gazing over Ganzi. This Tibetan hamlet is now a checkerboard of boulevards, blue-glassed office buildings and cheap plastic imports. It’s a scene of contrast that illustrates a new era for the Khampas.

While embracing China’s tumultuous quest for modern, they are reinventing themselves and their religious identity to suit the current climate, for better or for worse.

This article appeared in the art pages of the South China Morning Post in November 2003.