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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But when the studio lights are working, they cast a golden glow on the Assembly Hall’s mandalas, revealing stunning details and colors: the skeletal forms of Indian ascetics, winged chimeras, multi-armed gods and goddesses, and nobles on horseback hunting lions and tigers. Sometimes these details astound even Alchi’s caretaker monk, who says he has never noticed these facets of the paintings before.

The concern about conserving Alchi’s murals and buildings is nothing new. “A project for renovation and maintenance appears to be urgently called for,” Goepper wrote in 1984. Little has changed.

In 1990, Goepper, photographer Jaroslav Poncar and art conservators from Cologne, Germany, launched the Save Alchi Project. They catalogued damage to its paintings and temple buildings—some portions of which were even then in danger of collapsing—and began restoration work in 1992. But the project ended two years later, the victim, Goepper wrote, of what he termed “growing confusion over administrative responsibility.” Or, say others, between religious and national interests.

Although tourists now far outnumber worshipers, Alchi is still a living temple under religious control of the nearby Likir Monastery, currently headed by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother, Tenzin Choegyal. Monks from Likir serve as Alchi’s caretakers, collecting entrance fees and enforcing a prohibition on photography inside the temples. (Arya has special permission.) At the same time, responsibility for preserving Alchi as a historic site rests with the government’s Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Relations between the ASI and the Likir monks have long been fraught. The monks are wary of government intrusion into religious matters; the ASI worries the monks will undertake restorations that damage the Alchi murals. The result is a stalemate that has thwarted conservation efforts, going back to Goepper’s.

The complex history of India’s Tibetan Buddhist refugees also factors into the impasse. In the 1950s, a newly independent India sheltered Tibetans fleeing China’s invasion of their homeland, including, eventually, the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s religious leader as well as the head of Tibet’s government. He established a government-in-exile in the Indian city of Dharamsala, a 420-mile drive from Alchi. At the same time, exiled Tibetan lamas were placed in charge of many of India’s most important Buddhist monasteries. The lamas have been vocal in support of a free Tibet and critical of China. Meanwhile, the Indian government, which is seeking better relations with China, views India’s Tibetan-Buddhist leaders and political activists, to some extent, as an annoyance.

Not long after arriving in Alchi to make photographs, Arya got a taste of the political conflict. One afternoon a local ASI official arrived at the monastery and demanded to see his authorization to photograph the murals. Apparently not satisfied with the documents (from Likir and the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies) that Arya produced, the official returned the next day and began to photograph the photographer. He told him that he planned to make a “report” to his superiors.

The encounter unnerved Arya. He considered suspending work on the project before deciding it was too important to abandon. “If tomorrow something would happen here, some earthquake or natural disaster, there will be nothing left,” he told me.

In fact, powerful tremors had rattled the ancient temple complex about the time Arya arrived—the result of blasting a little more than a mile from Alchi, where a dam is being constructed across the Indus as part of a major hydroelectric project. The dam project is popular. It has provided jobs to villagers and also promises to turn Ladakh, which has had to import electricity from other parts of India, into an energy exporter.

Despite ASI assurances that the blasting will not harm the ancient site, many worry it may undermine temple foundations. Manshri Phakar, an authority on hydroelectric projects with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an environmental group based in New Delhi, says he has documented houses that have suffered damage, and even collapsed, because of blasting associated with dam construction elsewhere in India. He also notes that building a dam just upstream from the monastery in a seismically active region poses extra risks; should the dam fail, Alchi could be catastrophically flooded.


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