The age of restoration

For Yangla and Tseyang, restorers of Tibetan ancient texts, working on a piece of ancient scripture is like nursing their own babies — the work requires extraordinary patience, attentiveness, affection and endurance.

While patching a gap on a page of ancient scripture, they have to frequently use blotting paper to absorb liquid oozing from the patch.

According to Yangla and Tseyang, they have to keep changing the blotting paper until it completely dries. "The frequency of changing blotting paper is much higher than changing diapers," they say, laughing in their workshop.

After getting involved in this work a decade ago, they have dedicated themselves to the restoration of ancient Tibetan documents.

They both work in the Tibetan Ancient Documents Restoration Center, which is affiliated with the Tibet Ancient Documents Preservation Center of the regional library of the Tibet autonomous region.

Since its establishment in 2015, the center has been restoring ancient documents from a number of monasteries in the region, and it has recently completed the restoration of Kagyur scriptures of the Bon religion from the Pula Monastery in Drachen county.

Regarded as a rare version of the ancient texts, the Kagyur scriptures from the Pula Monastery have been listed in the catalogue of National Rare Ancient Books, and it is the first time that Tibet has completed the restoration of such a document.

Yangla (right) and Tseyang, specialists at the Tibetan Ancient Documents Restoration Center of the regional library in the Tibet autonomous region, examine a page of Tibetan scripture. [Photo by Aldey Nyima/China Daily]

According to Yangla and Tseyang, the restoration, which took them more than 18 months, involved two volumes and 453 pages.

The amount of time required to restore a page can be anywhere between half a day and three days. The scriptures in the monastery were damaged by damp, parts of most pages were lost, and they had to prevent them from further deterioration.

"While repairing a damaged page, our goal is to make it look close to the original. Therefore, choosing the right paper and the right color are challenging," says Yangla.

To find the right material, they ordered paper from different Tibetan producers. The paper from the region's Nyemo county works better, they say.

"In order to ensure a match, we tell the producers to make the paper with a certain color, and it is very helpful," says Tseyang.

Damaged Kagyur scriptures of the Bon religion from the Pula Monastery in Tibet's Drachen county, which the Tibetan Ancient Documents Restoration Center was tasked to repair in 2020. [Photo by Aldey Nyima/China Daily]

Separating the pages is another difficult part of the work. As scriptures are often unearthed from the debris of ancient monasteries, the pages are often stuck together. The scriptures resemble bricks.

The pages need to be separated using tools such as tweezers, screwdrivers and pins. In 2017, Yangla and Tseyang were invited to help the Trachilma chapel in Tibet's eastern Chamdo city to separate ancient documents. Five people from their center spent five days working on the separation of 480 woven bags of ancient documents.

The relics had remained untouched for 37 years since they were first unearthed in 1980.

"The majority of these unearthed ancient scriptures were written with gold ink. More than 30 people, including the monks, were involved in the work of separating the scriptures," says Tseyang.

"We were only able to separate about 50 bags worth of readable pages in the end. It was really hard to separate them, as the gold ink had stuck together," says Tseyang.

Yangla says that when her team was chosen to help the monastery to restore their ancient documents, none of them felt reluctant, despite the risk to their health.

"As these ancient scriptures had been sitting for 37 years, there was a large amount of mold on them, and the N95 masks did not work. Part of our faces and mouths became red and swollen due to the mildew on the scriptures," says Yangla.

"The head of the county was impressed by our work spirit, and he also came to help," she says.

The only measures Yangla and Tseyang had to protect themselves were a blue uniform and a mask. However, they never complained.

As a transparent plate is always required while preserving a page of ancient text, their eyesight has suffered, but they say it's worth it.

"The more we deal with this work, the more we love it and find it fulfilling," says Tseyang.

Over the past few years, their center has restored more than 5,000 pages of rare ancient Tibetan scriptures. The restoration of these works is entrusted by just a few monasteries in the region, including Pula, Mangra in Maldrogungkar county, and the Chayul Padkar Monastery of Lhunze county.

Each restored page of the scriptures has been preserved in the library with a specified file, according to the center.

"The file includes the photos of the repaired pages before and after the restoration, dates, the degree of damage, the reasons for the damage, and restoration plans," says Yangla.

"It's very important to make a file for each restored page. In the future, we can see what we have done, and the work will be easy to track and follow," says Tseyang.

Restored Kagyur scriptures of the Bon religion from the Pula Monastery in Drachen county, Tibet. [Photo by Aldey Nyima/China Daily]

Yangla and Tseyang have both mastered the skills of book restoration, and both have plenty of experience. Yangla studied in the National Library of China for more than two months in 2013, while Tseyang also attended training in ancient book restoration in Beijing for more than 70 days in 2010.

Tseyang had the opportunity to take part in a training course related to the restoration of Tibetan ancient documents in Yunnan in 2016.

The paper they work on has one particular advantage — moth damage is rare.

"Tibetan paper is produced using local herbs, which are a natural poison, so they tend not to have moth damage," says Tseyang.

Usually, these ancient Tibetan scriptures are damaged by abrasion, corrosion and damp.

After years of experience, they have created a series of unique restoration methods. In 2015, they hosted a training session in Lhasa, and more than 50 people attended the course.

"The trainees included monks, librarians, people from cultural departments, and Tibetan academics," says Yangla, adding that it laid a foundation for some of the region's monasteries and cultural departments to carry out the work of ancient book restoration in future.

Currently, they are working on the restoration of ancient documents from the Chayul Padkar Monastery in the region's Lhunze county, as well as other restorations.

"These ancient documents from the Chayul Padkar Monastery are very valuable. A large quantity of rare scriptures were discovered between the walls when a reconstruction project was going on years ago," says Yangla.

A total of 13 bags of ancient scriptures were sent to the center for restoration. These documents were severely damaged.

"Apart from religious philosophy, the contents of the documents include information about astrology, calendars, Tibetan medicine and history," says Yangla.

"Restoring ancient books is like communicating with the past," Yangla says. "I not only need to take the job seriously, but also have to study hard to continue to improve my Tibetan reading and understanding abilities.

"It's more than a job. We hope what we have been doing can be a contribution to future generations."

By Palden Nyima in Lhasa