Located in the northeast corner of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Danba County is the site of a series of ancient stone towers. The towers, many of which were built over a thousand years ago, are architecturally distinct in that they were constructed with sharp angles to form a star-like shape. Their tall stature and tightly constructed stone masonry reflect a time in Tibetan history marked by the imperative for defense, yet the full extent of their use and meaning remain a mystery. The existence of close to 600 towers have been recorded in Danba County and until recently, only one built with thirteen angles was listed. But in 2004, the second remaining thirteen angle tower was discovered in Trala village.
Trala is far removed from the major transportation routes and townships of the county—the journey usually takes two hours by tractor and another three by foot to reach the village. Slowly crumbling and obscured by vegetation, local residents previously gave the tower little thought. But with TBF’s support the people of Trala have been given the ability to protect and promote this unique cultural treasure, while enriching local appreciation for cultural preservation.
Essential to the success of the Thirteen Angle Tower Restoration Project was engaging locals in the restoration process. The tower had been severely damaged by both neglect and abuse, with several sides of the structure in a state of partial collapse. It’s reported that in the 1960s one local family had used dynamite on the tower in the hope of using the stones for the construction of their home. But finding that they were only able to make two small dents at the tower’s base, they decided not to waste any more dynamite and gave up. Beyond this isolated account of vandalism, the towers were generally ignored out of fear. Popular belief held that bad luck would be brought to their families if they disturbed the towers, resulting in generations of neglect. To encourage investment of local interest and participation in the restoration project, traditional views needed to be expanded.
In March of 2010, the TBF team brought renowned Tibetan architect, scholar and Rinpoche, Minyag Choekyi Gyaltsan, to Trala to design restoration plans and educate locals on cultural heritage protection. Professor Gyaltsan has experience leading restoration efforts on a number of towers in the region and has worked on such esteemed preservation projects as Lhasa’s Potala Palace. But his impact on the perceptions of the local community was most effective due his stature as a revered Rinpoche, or reincarnate lama. Professor Gyaltsan was able to underscore the importance of valuing and protecting cultural assets while successfully dispelling taboos that have long surrounded the
tower. “After Professor Gyaltsan’s presence at the site and his presentation on cultural preservation the villagers were no longer afraid of the tower, they actively and bravely participated in the restoration” explains Atsho, a participant of the project.
Restoration of the tower achieved the goal of becoming a community-wide effort. Trala is made up of eighty household, seventy percent of which participated in the project. Community members, including individuals skilled in traditional carpentry and masonry, contributed to the restoration which took just under four months to complete. Many of those who participated were paid a daily wage, but a significant amount of labor was contributed by enthusiastic locals without the expectation of pay.
Restoration involved reinforcing the tower’s badly damaged foundation. This necessitated that the local reconstruction team dig three meters below the ground’s surface and rebuild the structure’s original foundation. But during this process a significant discovery was made: a total of three corpses were discovered under the east and west-facing angles. The local project managers immediately contacted Professor Gyaltsan and protected the site and findings according to his instructions. After further discussions with Professor Gyaltsan, the community came to the decision to keep the bodies in their original resting place, finishing reconstruction of the foundation and replacing the earth over them as they had been found. The tower’s restoration was then finished by excavating and reinforcing its inner chamber and reconstructing the structure’s protective slate roof.
As a result of the Thirteen Angle Restoration Project, Trala village is committed to the preservation of what they now view as a community asset. During the project, two stone walls were built around the tower. These walls cut through the barley fields of two families, occupying a portion of land that they had formerly cultivated. Together, these two families willingly offered a total of 300 square meters of their fields for the wall to be constructed and the tower to receive greater protection. They also participated in felling trees that were growing from the tower. These trees represented a loss for these families: six of the trees that were uprooted were prickly ash, the species from which Sichuan pepper is harvested. The harvest from each tree was worth between 200 – 300 Yuan each year. But the families recognized that the trees’ roots were damaging the tower and helped complete their removal.
The change in local perception towards items of antiquity has also extended into people’s homes: Trala is rich in unique examples of traditional Tibetan carpentry, metal work and masonry. Through the project and visit by Professor Gyaltsan, villagers have gained a better understanding of the importance of holding on to objects of antiquity and protecting them.
The Thirteen Angle Tower has joined the region’s towers in actively seeking nomination as a World Heritage Site. Looking to the future, the community would like to build on the project by creating a research fund to allow scholars to complete further studies on the tower, especially in light of the significant archaeological find at the site. The community has requested to continue restoration and build a small information plaque with background on the tower’s history in different languages. The people of Trala would also like to address their need for education. Further project expansion in the area of education would enable them to support a local teacher to provide a course in Tibetan language in the village school.