Splendor of Old Shrine to Be Renewed

Fu Qingyuan and his colleagues sit in the grounds of the Potala Palace on the Red Mountain in Lhasa. They are surrounded by monks dressed in dark red robes chanting scriptures. Fu and his team are from the China National Institute of Cultural Property (CNICP) and are conducting preliminary investigations into a second phase of renovations on the ancient shrine, which is expected to begin in June.

The first phase of the renovation project took place from 1989 to 1994 when the State invested US$6 million and donated tons of gold to give the Potala a facelift.

"Our research shows a second phase is necessary and urgent, though the results of the first phase have proved satisfactory," said Fu, chief engineer of the institute.

According to Fu, the Potala Palace, home to the Dalai Lamas, has been subjected to rain, lightening, fire and war for 1,300 years since it was built by the Tibetan King, Songtsa Gambo.

For more than 300 years before 1989 no major repairs were made.

According to Fu, the existing fire-alarm systems in the palace are wretched and there is usually no water in the pipelines.

"If there were a fire it would be impossible to control it," said the engineer.

Meanwhile, parts of the building are in danger of collapse -- a result of the weakness of the structure of the ancient building. Some parts of the building collapsed during torrential rains in 1998 and 2000, experts say.

What's worse, rats have made holes along the wall from the roof of the 13-floor shrine to the ground. And the toilets in the palace, which are not connected to drainage pipes, are polluting the environment.

The second phase of the renovation project, which is expected to finish in 2006, will be a supplement to the first phase, according to Zhang Zhiping, director of the Ancient Building Maintenance Office of CNICP, who worked on the first phase.

The emphasis of this second renovation will be placed on the "snowy city" at the foot of the Red Mountain, which was not given much attention to in the first phase.

Up until last year the snowy city, which was once home to Tibetan nobles, had been lived in by more than 300 families. Another 15 sites on the Red Mountain will be refurbished in the second phase of repair work.

Most of these sites did have a facelift in the first phase. Among them are the main buildings of the Potala: the Red Palace and the White Palace.

Rats in these sites are to be cleared out, new fire-control systems and drainage systems are to be installed, cracking walls are to be repaired, and the toilets are to be renovated.

In the first phase, engineers paid much attention to traditional Tibetan and Han techniques to protect the structural art of the palace.

For example, they plastered layers of butter on the roof to make it waterproof. This technique has been long applied in Tibetan architecture.

However, roofs treated in this way tend to leak water in torrential rains, since the Aga soil, which the roofs are made of, melts quickly in the water.

In the second phase of the repair project, the engineers will add a special chemical to the Aga soil that will be placed on the roofs.

Technology will also be applied on the wooden structures in the palace. Each piece of the wooden structures will be treated in order to keep rats away.

"The new techniques applied will not harm the art or the structure of the palace," Fu stressed.

The art of the palace and its religious systems are among the first to be protected in the second phase of the renovation project, as Wang Shiren, chief researcher of Beijing Ancient Building Research Institute, pointed out.

"Our job is to remove the dangers without losing the original grandeur of the ancient shrine," said the established scholar.

Such was the case of the first restoration in 1989 to 1994. Meticulous efforts were made to protect the statues, scriptures and other relics from being damaged.

Big statues and sculptures were covered in fine layers of cloth, sponge, wooden frames, canvas and sheets of iron, while smaller items were moved out of the way and looked after by the monks.

"No damage was done to the 100,000 art works in the palace in the first phase. This was a miracle in the history of cultural property maintenance," said Fu Qingyuan.

Fu said the engineers have strictly abided by religious customs in the preliminary investigations, and will continue to do so in the second phase of the renovation project.

"The success of the renovation project will depend on the joint efforts of people from across the country and even overseas," said the engineer.

(China Daily April 10, 2002)

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