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Worry over the exquisite art—including an image of the protector goddess Tara—has fueled photographer Aditya Arya's efforts. (© Aditya Arya)

Glimpses of the Lost World of Alchi

Threatened Buddhist art at a 900-year-old monastery high in the Indian Himalayas sheds light on a fabled civilization

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The wood-framed door is tiny, as if intended for a Hobbit, and after I duck through it into the gloomy interior—dank and perfumed with the saccharine scent of burnt butter oil and incense—my eyes take a while to adjust. It takes my mind even longer to register the scene before me.

Mesmerizing colored patterns scroll across the wood beams overhead; the temple’s walls are covered with hundreds of small seated Buddhas, finely painted in ocher, black, green, azurite and gold. At the far end of the room, towering more than 17 feet high, stands an unblinking figure, naked to the waist, with four arms and a gilded head topped with a spiked crown. It’s a painted statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, a messianic being of Tibetan Buddhism come to bring enlightenment to the world. Two hulking statues, one embodying compassion and the other wisdom, stand in niches on side walls, attended by garishly colored sculptures depicting flying goddesses and minor deities. Each massive figure wears a dhoti, a kind of sarong, embellished with minutely rendered scenes from the life of Buddha.

These extraordinary figures have graced this small monastery in Alchi, a hamlet high in the Indian Himalayas along the border with Tibet, for about 900 years. They are among the best-preserved examples anywhere of Buddhist art from this period, and for three decades—since the Indian government first allowed foreign visitors to the region—scholars have been trying to unlock their secrets. Who created them? Why don’t they conform to orthodox Tibetan Buddhist conventions? Might they hold the key to rediscovering a lost civilization that once thrived, more than a hundred miles to the west, along the Silk Road?

The monastery and its paintings are in grave danger. Rain and snowmelt have seeped into temple buildings, causing mud streaks to obliterate portions of the murals. Cracks in clay-brick and mud-plaster walls have widened. The most pressing threat, according to engineers and conservators who have assessed the buildings, is a changing climate. The low humidity in this high-altitude desert is one reason Alchi’s murals have survived for almost a millennium. With the onset of warmer weather in the past three decades, their deterioration has accelerated. And the possibility that an earthquake could topple the already fragile structures, located in one of the world’s most seismically active regions, remains ever-present.

The Alchi murals, their vibrant colors and beautifully rendered forms rivaling medieval European frescoes, have drawn a growing number of tourists from around the world; conservationists worry the foot traffic may take a toll on ancient floors, and the water vapor and carbon dioxide the visitors exhale may hasten the paintings’ decay.

Two years ago, an Indian photographer, Aditya Arya, arrived in Alchi to begin documenting the monastery’s murals and statues before they disappear. A commercial and advertising photographer best known for shooting “lifestyle” pictures for glossy magazines and corporate reports, he once shot stills for Bollywood film studios. In the early 1990s, he was an official photographer for Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet.

But Arya, 49, who studied history in college, has always harbored a more scholarly passion. He photographed life along the Ganges River for six years, in a project that became a book, The Eternal Ganga, in 1989. For a 2004 book, The Land of the Nagas, he spent three years chronicling the ancient folkways of Naga tribesmen in northeast India. In 2007, he traveled throughout India to photograph sculpture from the subcontinent’s Gupta period (fourth to eighth centuries A.D.) for India’s National Museum. “I think photographers have a social responsibility, which is documentation,” he says. “[It] is something you can’t shirk.”

Alchi lies 10,500 feet up in the Indian Himalayas, nestled in a crook alongside the cold jade waters of the Indus River, sandwiched between the snowy peaks of the Ladakh and Zanskar mountains. From a point on the opposing bank, Alchi’s two-story white stucco buildings and domed stupas resemble a crop of mushrooms sprouting from a small, verdant patch amid an otherwise barren landscape of rock, sand and ice.

Getting here entails flying from New Delhi to the town of Leh, sited at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, followed by a 90-minute drive along the Indus River valley. The journey takes you past the camouflaged barracks of Indian Army bases, past the spot where the blue waters of the Zanskar River mingle with the Indus’ mighty green and past a 16th-century fort built into cliffs above the town of Basgo. Finally, you cross a small trellis bridge suspended above the Indus. A sign hangs over the road: “The model village of Alchi.”

Several hundred inhabitants live in traditional mud and thatch houses. Many women wearing customary Ladakhi pleated robes (gonchas), brocaded silk capes and felt hats work in the barley fields and apricot groves. A dozen or so guesthouses have sprung up to cater to tourists.

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