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China Works to Restore Quake-damaged Sacred Tibetan Mound

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At daybreak, hundreds of Tibetans walked clockwise around a sprawling mound of carved stones, muttering their six-syllable prayer and occasionally adding stones to the pile.

It has been a daily ritual for devout local Buddhists. Until two weeks ago, a stone wall surrounded the four-gate compound, comprising a row of white pagodas, a sanctuary, and at the center seven heaps of 2 billion stones carved with sutra texts and Budda images.

It was the world's largest Mani stone mound before a powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake on April 14 reduced the 300-year-old Gyana Mani stone mound to a chaotic tangle of rubble and colored sutra streamers.

The mound, in Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai Province, is now top of the government's list of priority for cultural relic restoration, but the project promises to be complicated by religious and ethnic considerations.

Since Thursday, a team of 14 experts led by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage officials have been working on a reconstruction plan for the Gyana Mani stone mound, which covers about 20,942 square meters.

Hou Weidong, chief engineer of the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage and head of the 14-man team, said they would use new technologies and materials, but this would not always be possible.

"For example, we can't use a backhoe to reorganize the Mani stone heaps. We consulted the locals and will have to do it by hand," said Hou.

"It is cultural heritage, not an ordinary civil construction."

Hou described damage to the mound as "very severe" and the restoration project was costly and complicated.

"We will work to prevent further collapse, and then we will try to restore everything to almost what it looked like before the quake," he said.

Feng Xinglu, deputy head of the provincial cultural heritage administration, said the draft should be published by June and the mound should be basically restored by the end of the year.

The sacred mound is part of daily life in Xinzhai village. They visit the site everyday, they manage it, and they earn a living by engraving and selling the stones.

Tibetans consider rocks from the mountains of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau sacred and stones with sutra scripts even more so.

"The locals can't live without the mound, so we'll work closely with them to make sure they like every detail of the restoration plan," Feng said.

Songbarenqing, 63, who lost his job as the mound's accountant after the quake volunteered to accompany the expert team to survey the site.

"We are emotionally bound to the mound. We feel sad that it is destroyed," he said. "I hope it can be restored soon."

Songbarenqing said locals believed they could communicate with the gods by walking around the mound and adding inscribed stones to it. After the earthquake, more locals came to do the ritual to allow the souls of their loved ones be guided by the gods.

He said repairs were urgently needed as additional stones extended the already sprawling pile and threatened to block the only small ally where believers can walk in rotation.

"It is dangerous to walk too. What if another earthquake strikes?" he said.

Yushu, a predominantly Tibetan area on the 4,000-meter high plateau, is home to four national-level cultural relic sites and a number of less prominent heritage sites. Many were severely damaged in the quake, which killed at least 2,200 people and left more than 100,000 homeless.

(Xinhua News Agency April 30, 2010)

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