Museums of India

On the roof of the world, a Frenchwoman is on a quest to recover forgotten Buddhist treasures

Exquisite art objects were gathering dust in the 15th century Matho monastery in Ladakh. Until Nelly Rieuf dedicated herself to restoring them.

It looks like a scene from an adventure movie. In a monastery founded in the year 1410 lie boxes and boxes of priceless treasure gathering dust. Exquisite art objects like precious thangkas, carved ivory, Kashmiri bronzes, ritual implements, musical instruments, costumes, religious texts and elaborate dance masks. All covered in years of soot from oil lamps.

The Matho monastery is a 20 kilometre drive from the Chamba Camp (a luxury camp in Thiksey with plush tents and valets) in Leh, Ladakh. En route to the entrance of the monastery lie green barley fields and whitewashed chortens or Buddhist shrines. Dorjey, a local guide, explained that Matho, in its maroon and cream hues, sitting atop a rocky cliff overlooking the mighty Indus, was the only monastery of the Sakyapa sect in Ladakh – one of the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sakya sect dates back to the 11th century and practices tantra as its central teaching.

The Matho monastery is said to have been founded in the 15th century on a spot where a deer lay on a stone. Over the years, it has become famous for its annual Oracle festival, held in spring. The chosen monks go on a ritual fast and meditate to purify themselves, after which they enter a trance, answering the villagers’ questions.

Matho monastery in winter. Photo credit: Nelly Rieuf/ Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0
Matho monastery in winter. Photo credit: Nelly Rieuf/ Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0

In the courtyard of the monastery, local women sit in the sunshine, making small bundles of alfalfa grass. The corridor is enlivened by beautiful murals of fierce-looking protective deities and mandalas. A small board announces, “Take a look at the restoration upstairs.”

What few visitors to Matho know is that the monastery is a treasure house of Himalayan Buddhist art, and that is about to change soon. On the first floor is a large room where women sit at tables and the shelves are lined with paints, brushes and stationery. This is the restoration centre, where old parchments, paintings and Ladakhi art is restored.

Nelly Rieuf sits cross-legged on a carpet, overseeing the restoration work – she is a qualified engineer and has a degree in restoration of Himalayan art. Rieuf was working on an art restoration project in Mustang, Nepal, when she met a monk from Matho. Impressed by the Frenchwoman’s work, he offered her a job to restore Matho’s treasures. Rieuf moved here in 2011.

Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder

The Matho project is a collaboration between the monastery, the National Museum Institute, non-government organisations and volunteers from museums across the world. “Volunteers usually come for a three-month period,” said Rieuf. “Some of them return for another year, enriched by their previous experience.”

Rieuf is a one-woman powerhouse: she raises funds for the project (which needs around 70,000 Euros annually), oversees restoration and is also actively involved in the community. Above her table is a chart with markings which she explains is an attempt to locate a permanent water source for locals. She is working on tapping underground springs and piping them into homes. The women in the restoration room work reverentially on each piece – one touches up an old mask, another restores the fraying fabric of a thangka while another is bent over a painting. Each uses only natural materials and pigments.

Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder

“A lot of precious art has been damaged by water and dampness,” said Rieuf. “The statues are the most challenging to restore. You have to think in three dimensions. Each piece can take as much as three months, it could be from the 9th century. These women are very efficient – they have picked up restoration techniques and love their independence.”

Museum on top

Rieuf’s main project also involves the building and design of a three-storey monastery museum, in which all the restored treasures will be housed. “The roof terrace will be the highest point of the area, offering a panoramic view of the valley and the snow-capped peaks,” she said. The museum will have three themes for each of its exhibition floors: the ancient, a tour of Matho Monastery’s history and its monks’ rituals. The museum’s construction is environmentally-friendly and respects local traditions, using materials like clay and wood which are suited to Ladakh’s extreme temperatures and the threat of earthquakes.

Rieuf is also working on a pilot project with a Ladakhi-German organisation to increase accessibility to monasteries in Ladakh, which face several challenges because of their geographical isolation and the unpredictable weather. The monastery supports the project materially, with basic construction material and food and shelter for all the volunteers. “We stay together in a guesthouse as a team, and share a good rapport and working relationship,” she said. “That helps in this rough terrain.” Rieuf is also expecting her second child. “Every day is an adventure.”

Nelly Rieuf. Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Nelly Rieuf. Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
Photo credit: Kalpana Sunder
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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.