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

Worry over the exquisite art—including an image of the protector goddess Tara—has fueled photographer Aditya Arya's efforts. (© Aditya Arya)
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Alchi’s status as a backwater, located on the opposite bank of the Indus from the routes invading armies traveled in the past and commercial truckers use today, has helped preserve the murals. “It is a kind of benign neglect,” says Nawang Tsering, head of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, based in Leh. “Alchi was too small, so [the invaders] didn’t touch it. All the monasteries along the highway were looted hundreds of times, but Alchi nobody touched.”

Although Alchi’s existence is popularly attributed to Rinchen Zangpo, a translator who helped promulgate Buddhism throughout Tibet in the early 11th century, most scholars believe the monastic complex was founded nearly a century later by Kalden Sherab and Tshulthim O, Buddhist priests from the region’s powerful Dro clan. Sherab studied at Nyarma Monastery (which Zangpo had founded), where, according to an inscription in Alchi’s prayer hall, “like a bee, he gathered the essence of wise men’s thoughts, which were filled with virtue as a flower is with nectar.” As a member of a wealthy clan, Sherab likely commissioned the artists who painted Alchi’s oldest murals.

Who were these artists? The Dukhang, or Assembly Hall, contains a series of scenes depicting nobles hunting and feasting at a banquet. Their dress—turbans and tunics adorned with lions—and braided hair appear Central Asian, perhaps Persian. The colors and style of painting are not typically Tibetan. Rather, they seem influenced by techniques from as far west as Byzantium. The iconography found in some of the Alchi murals is also highly unusual, as is the depiction of palm trees, not found within hundreds of miles. And there are the geometric patterns painted on the ceiling beams of the Sumtsek (three-tiered) temple, which scholars suspect were modeled on textiles.

Many scholars theorize that the creators of the Alchi murals were from the Kashmir Valley in the west, a 300-mile journey. And though the temple complex was Buddhist, the artists themselves may have been Hindus, Jains or Muslims. This might explain the murals’ arabesques, a design element associated with Islamic art, or why people depicted in profile are painted with a protruding second eye, a motif found in illuminated Jain manuscripts. To reach Alchi, the Kashmiris would have journeyed for weeks on foot through treacherous mountain passes. Because of stylistic similarities, it is thought that the same troupe of artists may have painted murals in other monasteries in the region.

If the artists were Kashmiri, Alchi’s importance would be even greater. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Kashmir emerged as a center of Buddhist learning, attracting monks from throughout Asia. Though Kashmir’s rulers soon reverted to Hinduism, they continued to tolerate Buddhist religious schools. By the late ninth and tenth centuries, an artistic renaissance was underway in the kingdom, fusing traditions of East and West and borrowing elements from many religious traditions. But few artifacts from this remarkably cosmopolitan period survived Kashmir’s Islamic sultanate in the late 14th century and the subsequent 16th-century Mogul conquest of the valley.

Alchi may provide crucial details about this lost world. For instance, the dhoti on one colossal statue—the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who embodies compassion—is decorated with unknown temples and palaces. British anthropologist David Snellgrove and German art historian Roger Goepper have postulated that the images depict actual places in Kashmir—either ancient pilgrimage sites or contemporary buildings the artists knew. Because no large Kashmiri wooden structures from this period survive, Avalokiteshvara’s dhoti may provide our only glimpse of the architecture of 12th-century Kashmir. Similarly, if the patterns painted on the Sumtsek beams are in fact designed to mimic cloth, they may constitute a veritable catalog of medieval Kashmiri textiles, of which almost no actual examples have been preserved.

Researchers aren’t sure why the temples were built facing southeast, when Buddhist temples customarily face east, as the Buddha was said to have done when he found enlightenment. Nor is it known why the image of the Buddhist goddess Tara—a green-skinned, many-armed protector—was accorded such prominence in the Sumtsek paintings. Much about Alchi remains baffling.

Although it is late spring, a numbing chill pervades Alchi’s Assembly Hall. Standing in its dark interior, Arya lights a small stick of incense and makes two circuits around the room before placing the smoldering wand on a small altar. Only after performing this purification ritual does he return to his camera. Arya is Hindu, though not “a hard-core believer,” he says. “I must have done something seriously good in my past life, or seriously bad, because I wind up spending so much of my life in these temples.”

He first came to Ladakh in 1977, to explore the mountains, shortly after tourists were first permitted to travel here. He later led treks through the area as a guide and photographer for a California-based adventure travel outfit.

For this assignment, he has brought an ultra-large-format digital camera that can capture an entire mandala, a geometric painting meant to depict the universe, in exquisite detail. His studio lights, equipped with umbrella-shaped diffusers to avoid damaging the paintings, are powered by a generator at a nearby guesthouse; the cord runs from the house down a narrow, dirt lane to the monastery. When the generator fails—as it often does—Arya and his two assistants are plunged into darkness. Their faces illuminated only by the glow of Arya’s battery-powered laptop computer, they look like ghosts from a Tibetan fable.


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