Stories From The Camp: Matho Monastery Excursion

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Travel brings you closer to the people of the world, and Rupert Winchester’s journey was no different; he met people from all over! On our excursion to the Matho monastery, he encountered a young French woman, Nelly Rieuf, dedicated towards preserving the art at Matho. This is her story in Rupert’s words

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Perched high upon a hilltop, the Matho Monastery commands attention

Remarkable parts of the world seem to attract remarkable people, and Ladakh is no exception. The harsh conditions, the boundless spaces, the colours of the mountains and the sky, they all act as a siren signal to fascinating individuals. And one of the most fascinating, and wildly accomplished of them, is 34-year-old French woman Nelly Rieuf.

For three months of the year, Rieuf teaches chemical microanalysis of works of art in Paris. The rest of the year, she lives at the Matho Monastery, close to the TUTC at Thiksey, where she is managing a project to restore Buddhist religious artifacts and to open a museum to display the incomparable treasures of the monastery.

Rieuf explains her work at Matho, “We are constructing a project that will be called the MaMoMu, or the Matho Monastery Museum, and it’s based on the collection of artifacts of the monastery, and other collections that were put in the monastery for security reasons, so we’ll be exhibiting those as well, and our main aim is to strengthen local identity.”

Rieuf explains her work at Matho, “We are constructing a project that will be called the MaMoMu, or the Matho Monastery Museum, and it’s based on the collection of artifacts of the monastery, and other collections that were put in the monastery for security reasons, so we’ll be exhibiting those as well, and our main aim is to strengthen local identity.”

Why does local identity need to be strengthened? “There is a huge cultural shift in Ladakh,” says Rieuf, “with the replacements of values; for instance globalisation has brought really nice jackets to Ladakh, so the people here are giving up on their traditional weaving, because it’s less practical, which means giving up parts of their traditional culture, so when they lose parts of their traditional culture people get nostalgic and they are deprived, and that shakes their roots a little bit.”

So how did a young Frenchwoman end up somewhere as remote and recondite as Matho? “It’s just a coincidence, really. I’d been working for the Sakya Buddhists before, in Mustang, and the son of the head of the Sakyas was passing by where I worked in Mustang and told me about Matho and I checked it out and liked it.”

She goes on. “The art itself was locked up and untouched and very well preserved, so I talked to the monks, and said ‘OK, I’ll restore your collection,’ and they said ‘Oh, by the way, we need a museum.” Rieuf laughs, and shakes her head in wonderment.

Currently there are some sixty people working on the museum project, including 20 young women from the local village, who have been taught to restore and research the history of the pieces they work on. Rieuf says the team are very proud of their work. “They have discovered their independence through this work and it has drastically improved their lives. They are motivated, punctual, serious and talented. This project really helps to improve their social status.”

And Rieuf says the project has also had an effect on the men at the monastery. “The monks have also changed. This small community of men has become accustomed to the presence of foreign women. It has increased their openness. Now even the nuns who objected to our presence earlier are happy that the monks are more attentive towards women. And the project gave the monks the option to travel. They can obtain additional education beside their religious scholarship. Some have even gone on to tour the world and have returned to Matho with a broader vision. I was not at all expecting such a change in the monks.”

And how do you find it living here in remote and snowy Ladakh? “It’s tough in the winters, food is a big problem – I’ve starved a few times; you get hungry, you don’t know how long the winter will last. We get really skinny some years.”

And are there any other downsides? “Obviously I love it here. But I really, really miss the sea. I grew up near the sea, and I really miss it. So when I leave here I go to the coast and I just dive right in.”

More information on the Matho Monastery Museum, and the opportunity to get involved, can be found at http://mathomuseumproject.com or https://www.facebook.com/The-Matho-Museum-Project-492394170791273/

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1 Comment

  • comment-avatar
    Leslie K David July 27, 2017 (4:46 am)

    whether it is dogs or humans. I remember the quote of Priscilla Presley.

    ” Inner beauty should be the most important part of improving one’s life!”.