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Bhutan offers rare glimpse inside historic temples

By Susannah Palk for CNN
  • Over three years conservators have documented Bhutan's most precious wall paintings
  • Its the first time such a wide-ranging scientific study has been undertaken
  • Many of the country's painting have been damaged in recent years by inappropriate treatment

(CNN) -- The isolated kingdom of Bhutan has opened its doors to a team of art experts in order to preserve its Buddhist history.

Working for the first time in collaboration with Bhutan's Department of Culture, conservators from The Courtauld Institute of Art in England have spent the last three years documenting some of the reclusive kingdom's most precious wall paintings.

According to Lisa Shekede, leader of the project, the wall paintings date from around the 17th century and are some of the best surviving works in the region.

The team visited over 200 temples -- sometimes trekking for an entire day to reach remote monasteries -- and documented around 50 paintings in detail.

In the dim lights of the temples they really do glow like jewels.
--Lisa Shekede, leader of the Courtauld research project in Bhutan.
  • Bhutan
  • Visual Arts
  • Asia
  • Painting

Shekede said she and colleague Stephen Rickerby were surprised to discover paintings of remarkable "sophistication" -- with walls decorated with gold leaf, precious pigments and organic glazes.

The result she said made for "absolutely stunning" works of art.

"They have a rich glow to them. There is so much gold and so much detail to them -- the paintings are extraordinarily fine with deep reds and yellows and gold. In the dim lights of the temples they really do glow like jewels."

But now, many of the paintings are in urgent need of conservation -- some damaged by fire and flooding, others from modern repainting and cleaning.

According to the Institute, the research is fundamental for the painting's future preservation, with similar artifacts in India and Tibet having been irreversibly damaged by modern cleaning methods.

"Unless you really understand how subtle these paintings are and how they're composed it's very easy to harm them when you clean them," said Shekede.

"In fact one of the major problems has been Westerners coming into the region and doing inappropriate treatment of the works, which causes irreversible damage."