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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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“India has been gifted with so much art and so much history that we have lost our ability to recognize and appreciate it,” Arya says. The Indian government “must take the risk of documentation”—the risk being that his photographs may encourage more tourism.

Arya would like to see his work displayed in a small museum at Alchi, along with written explanations of the monastery and its history. The monks, who sell postcards, give impromptu tours and have built a guesthouse for tourists, have been cool to that idea. “You have to understand that Alchi is not a museum,” says Lama Tsering Chospel, the spokesman for Likir. “It’s a temple.”

Fifteen miles from Alchi is an example of a successful melding of tourism and conservation. In Basgo, a town on the Indus that was once the capital of Ladakh, three ancient Buddhist temples and a fort have been renovated through a village cooperative, the Basgo Welfare Committee. As in Alchi, the Basgo temples are considered living monasteries—in this case under the religious jurisdiction of Hemis, like Likir, a major Tibetan Buddhist “mother church.” But in Basgo, the Hemis monastery, the ASI and international conservation experts have cooperated to save the endangered heritage. The project has received support from the New York-based World Monuments Fund as well as global art foundations. International experts have trained Basgo’s villagers in conservation methods using local materials, such as mud brick and stone-based pigments.

Basgo’s villagers understand the link between preserving the buildings and the local economy. “The survival of the town depends on tourism,” says Tsering Angchok, the engineer who serves as secretary of the Basgo Welfare Committee. “Really, if tourism is lost, everything is lost.”

In 2007 Unesco presented the Basgo Welfare Committee its award of excellence for cultural-heritage conservation in Asia. But Alchi’s monks have shown little interest in adopting the Basgo model. “What purpose will that serve?” Chospel asks.

Jaroslav Poncar says that the Alchi monks’ ambivalence can be traced to the paintings’ strong Kashmiri influence and to their distance from contemporary Tibetan Buddhist iconography. “It is cultural heritage, but it is not their cultural heritage,” says Poncar. “It is totally alien to their culture. For a thousand years, their emphasis has been on the creation of new religious art and not to preserve the old.”

Arya stands on a ladder peering into the viewfinder of his large-format camera. It is here on the Sumtsek’s normally off-limits second floor that acolytes training to be monks would have advanced after having studied the massive bodhisattvas on the ground floor. No longer focused on depictions of the physical world, they would have spent hours sitting in front of these mandalas, reciting Buddhist sutras and learning the philosophical concepts each mandala embodied. They would study the images until they could see them in their minds without any visual aids.

Bathed in the warm glow of his studio lights, Arya, too, focuses intensely on the mandalas. He presses the shutter cable on his camera—there is a pop, a sudden flash and the room goes dark; the generator has blown again and all that remains of Alchi’s technicolored wonders is the impression left on my retina, quickly fading. I am not a trained monk, and I cannot summon the mandala in my mind’s eye. Then, glancing down, I see it again, a perfect image shining from the screen of Arya’s battery-operated laptop—an image that will remain even if Alchi does not.

Writer and foreign correspondent Jeremy Kahn and photographer Aditya Arya are both based in New Delhi.

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