Buddhist Architectural Heritage and Traditional Conservation Practices. Case Study of Tawang Monastery, India

Marcelo Marques Miranda (marcelo.m.miranda@hotmail.com)
Architecture, Facility Management and Geoinformation, Anhalt University of Applied Sciences
June, 2015


The Western concept of heritage and the universalizing tendencies of the World Heritage Convention have been criticized by many disenfranchised groups and non-Western cultures. At the heart of this critique is its understanding of heritage as mostly comprised by material elements, their intrinsic relation with aesthetic and historical aspects, and the scientific methods that must be used in its conservation, so it can be properly transmitted to future generations. While the creation of legal instruments to protect heritage is obviously important, the fact they have been produced in Western contexts originates incompatibilities in other parts of the world where different belief systems, knowledge and traditions, also imply different attitudes towards heritage. In this thesis I look critically at the origins, consequences and contestation this originates.
Focus is given to Buddhist philosophy and its different understanding of life and culture and, consequently, of heritage management. Although other elements of what constitutes heritage may be addressed, attention is given to architectural heritage, particularly monasteries. I also address traditional and local conservation practices which have been neglected by heritage professionals for a long time, despite their continuous use and their significance in sustaining the spiritual and religious ideals and beliefs connected to the buildings, rather than their “authentic” physical appearance – seen in Buddhist philosophy as impermanent.
Hence, I analyse such practices by revising documents such as the Nara Document on Authenticity and the Indian Charter for the Conservation of Unprotected Architectural Heritage and Sites, and more specifically, through the history of conservation of Tawang monastery, built in the 17th century and located in the State of Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern India. This monastery is considered the heart and soul of the Monpa indigenous people so, its conservation it is not only relevant as a Buddhist monument, but also as the symbol of the struggle of a community marginalized by the Indian State.
It is not my objective to show how ‘Buddhist conservation’ should function but to demonstrate there are other practices beyond the expert-led and state-sponsored conservation and that these should be regarded as legitimate. These reveal an interrelation between the monument, people and culture and, consequently, they cannot be divided into “intangible” and “tangible” elements. They are not only inseparable, but also a heritage practice in themselves which maintains and perceives the past as living in the present.