Breathing New Life Into the Jebum-Gang Temple
The first time I walked through the doors of the Jebum-gang Lha-khang temple in Lhasa, I was struck by the strikingly perfect symmetry of the building, the quality of its century-old murals, and the way time and space seemed to flow differently within its walls.
Tucked away in the old part of the city, at the meeting point of its vertical and horizontal axes, Jebum-gang Lha-khang is the only “perfect” mandala structure still standing in Lhasa. Mandalas are omnipresent in Tibetan culture, featured in thangka paintings, sculptures, murals, and sand art, and their symbolic power also places them at the apex of Tibetan architecture. The Jebum-gang temple was constructed in the late 19th century, when Tibet was under threat of a British invasion from India. Aware of the danger, the Tibetan government selected the old city’s main crossroads for the site of a new architectural talisman that could help it defend itself against a potential attack.
With Russia and Britain locked in the “Great Game” for control over Central Asia, the temple was not enough to protect Tibet. British troops marched past the building when they briefly occupied Lhasa in 1904, and in the 1950s, the newly-empowered socialist authorities converted it into a warehouse to store grain. By the time Jebum-gang’s significance was again recognized in the late 20th century, the toll of the previous hundred years was visible in its damaged beams and faded murals.
Yet its unique cultural value and beauty were not diminished. In the 1990s, the renowned architectural conservation expert André Alexander led a team from the Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) to investigate Lhasa’s historical sites. Of Jebum-gang, he wrote that it was a “perfect mandala in imperfect condition,” adding that the site is “one of the most inspiring examples of (recent) historic Tibetan architecture” and “highly deserving of protection.”
There’s no doubt on that count, but the question was not just how best to preserve the building, but also how to reintegrate it back into an increasingly modern and vital city. In 2018, after the initial restoration was successfully completed, the local government commissioned the company I work for to undertake the second phase of renovations. Unlike so many other projects, where the newly refurbished building is left trapped in the past, we wanted to not only restore the old house of worship to its former prominence, but also breathe new life into it.
We drew inspiration from the famous “Charter of Machu Picchu.” Promulgated in the late 1970s, the charter repudiated deurbanization, demolition, and the hollowing out of city life. Instead, its signatories called for architects and urban planners to refocus their attention on civic participation, history, and the protection of the urban fabric through recycling and adapting buildings to new uses.
The THF’s meticulous site maps, diagrams, and records helped lay the foundation for our work. We also conducted extensive research into the conservation and reuse of buildings in Barcelona, Florence, Beijing, and Shanghai. Finally, after three rounds of expert discussions, we decided to repurpose the site as an art center.
Fortunately, the idea received support from important local figures. Minyag Choekyi Gyaltsan, an authority on classical Tibetan architecture, was particularly helpful, generously sharing details of Jebum-gang’s history and acting as a mentor throughout the design phase. Tibetan thangka master Norbu Sidar also provided us with a great deal of help in confirming the styles and ages of the murals, while the skilled architect Shui Yanfei ensured the structure’s traditional elements would be preserved in the new design.
Part of the appeal of turning Jebum-gang into an art center was that, in contrast to the white box-style typical of modern art spaces, the architectural styles and murals housed within its walls are themselves an attraction worthy of any museum’s collection. Since the details of these murals, like the spectacular “War of Shambhala,” were difficult to make out in the darkness of the building’s interior, we installed a special museum-grade lighting system that would refocus visitors’ attention to the walls around them.
This was no easy feat. Take the wiring for example. In order not to spoil the aesthetics of the space, the wires would ideally be buried under the floor. However, the floors of traditional Tibetan buildings are made of rammed earth, using a technique known as “beating aga.” (Aga is a kind of soil used in Tibetan construction). This, combined with an open network of roof beams, made hiding the wiring impractical. To solve the problem, we re-leveled the ground and added aged elm floorboards. The elm tree, which is associated with both the famous Tibetan Buddhist Je Tsongkhapa and the Jebum-gang site, was particularly well suited to this purpose.
We wanted the art center to be dynamic and reflective of the times, just as Tibetan culture is. Inspired by the work of pioneering architects like Carlo Scarpa, the redesign aimed to restore and preserve Jebum-gang’s main building as much as possible, while making room for a modern space that could attract shows from artists around the country and the world. Already, there are plans to host exhibitions featuring works by high-profile Tibetan artists like Gonkar Gyatso and Gade.
On July 25, guests at the art center’s opening ceremony celebrated by ringing its rooftop wind chimes. The chimes are a nod to the temple’s past: According to our research, in the 18th century, long before Jebum-gang was built, the site was occupied by a stupa decorated with wind chimes — memories of which have persisted into the present day. In our preliminary interviews, older locals reminisced about a folk song once popular in the city. “Atop Jebum-gang is a staircase from which you can see far and wide,” they sang. “Wherever you stand, you can always hear its beautiful chimes.”
It’s gratifying to know that the sounds of chimes are once again ringing out from this historic site — and that anyone who heeds their call will be rewarded with a true treasure of Tibetan culture and art.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Details of the “War of Shambhala” mural at Jebum-gang Lha-khang temple in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, 2021. Courtesy of Zhang Junyan)