In Splendid Isolation
Driving past on the nearby Srinagar -Leh highway, you'd never guess that the cluster of low pagoda roofed cubes 3-km across the Indus from Saspol, dwarfed by a spectacular sweep of pale brown and wine coloured scree, is one of the most significant historical sites in Asia. Yet the Chos-khor, or "religious enclave", at Alchi, 70-km west of Leh, harbours an extraordinary wealth of ancient wall paintings and wood sculpture, miraculously preserved for over nine centuries inside five tiny mud walled temples.
A Priceless Himalayan Heritage
Art historians rave about the site because its earliest murals are the finest surviving examples of a style that flourished in Kashmir during the "Second Spreading". Barely a handful of the monasteries founded during this era escaped the Muslim depredations of the fourteenth century. Of them all, Alchi is the most impressive, the least remote and the only place where one doesn't need a special permit to visit. Nestled beside a bend in the milky blue river Indus, amid some dramatic scenery, it's also a serene spot and the perfect place to break a long journey to or from the Ladakhi capital.
The Chos-khor consists of five separate temples, various residential buildings and a scattering of large Chortens, surrounded by a mud and stonewall and a curtain of tall poplar trees. If one is pushed for time, concentrate on the two oldest buildings, the Du-khang and the Sumtsek, both in the middle of the enclosure. Entrance tickets are issued by a caretaker lama from nearby Likkir Gompa, who will unlock the doors for the visitors. To make the most of the paintings vibrant colours, one will need a strong flashlight; but don't use a camera flash as it will damage the murals, last restored in the 16th century.
An inscription records that Alchi's oldest structure, the Du-Khang, was erected late in the 11th century by Kaldan Shesrab, a graduate of the now ruined Nyarma Gompa near Tikse, itself founded by the "Great Translator" Rinchen Zangpo. Approached via a walled courtyard and a path that runs under a hollow Chorten, the square temple's wooden doorway is richly carved with meditating Bodhisattvas.
Once one's eyes adjust to the gloom inside, check out the niche in the rear wall where Vairocana, the "Buddha Resplendent", is flanked by the four main Buddha manifestations that appear all over Alchi's temple walls, always presented in their associated colours: Akshobya ("Unshakable"; Blue), Ratnasambhava (""Jewel Born"; Yellow), Amitabha ("Boundless Radiance"; Red) and Amoghasiddhi ("Unfailing Success"; Green). The other walls are decorated with six elaborate Mandalas, interspersed with intricate friezes.
Standing to the left of the Du-khang, the Sumtsek is Alchi's most celebrated temple, and the highest achievement of early medieval Indian Buddhist art. Its woodcarvings and paintings, dominated by rich reds and blues, are almost as fresh and vibrant today as they were 900 years ago, when the squat triple storeyed structure was built. The resident lama leads visitors under a delicate wooden façade to the interior of the shrine, shrouded in a womb like darkness broken only by flickering butter lamps. Scan the walls with a flashlight and you'll see why scholars have filled volumes on this chamber alone. Surrounded by a swirling mass of 'Mandalas', Buddhas, Demi Gods and sundry other celestials, a colossal statue of Maitreya, the Buddha-to-come, fills a niche on the ground floor, his head shielded from sight high in the second storey.
Accompanying him are two equally grand Bodhisattvas, their heads peering heads peering serenely down through gaps in the ceiling. Each of these stucco statues wears a figure clinging Dhoti, adorned with different, meticulously detailed motifs. Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, has pilgrimage sites, court vignettes, palaces and pre-Muslim style Stupas on his robe, while that of Maitreya is decorated with episodes from the life of Gautama Buddha. The robe of Manjushri, destroyer of falsehood, to the right, shows the 84 masters of Tantra, the Mahasiddhas, adopting complex yogic poses in a maze of bold square patterns.
Beautiful Frescoes Of Deities
Among exquisite murals, some repaired in the 16th century, is the famous six-armed green Goddess Prajnaparamita, the "Perfection of Wisdom" central to Mahayana thought, and closely associated with Tara. Heavily bejewelled, she sits on a lotus by Avalokitesvara's gigantic left leg. Amazingly, this, and the multitude of other images that plaster the interior of the Sumtsek, resolve, when viewed from the centre of the shrine, into a harmonious whole.
The Chos-khor's three other temples all date from the 12th and 13th centuries, but are nowhere near as impressive as their predecessors. Tucked away at the far river end of the enclosure, the Manjushri La-khang is noteworthy only for its relatively recent "Thousand Buddha" paintings and gilded four-faced icon of Manjushri that fills almost the whole temple.
Next door the Lotsawa La-khang, with its central image and mural of Shakyamuni, is one of a handful of temples dedicated to Rinchen Zangpo, the "Great Translator". Whose missionary work inspired the foundation of Alchi; his small droopy-eared image sits on the right of Shakyamuni. The Lama may need to be cajoled into unlocking the La-khang Soma, the small square shrine south of the Sumtsek, which is decorated with three large Mandalas and various figures including an accomplished Yab Yum: the Tantric image of the copulating deities symbolizes the union of opposites on a material and spiritual level.
Road: One bus per day leaves Leh for Alchi in summer, taking three hours to cover the 70-km and returning early the next day. Other buses heading in that direction leave Leh at 6.30 am (for Kargil) and 9.00 am (for Dah-Hanoo) - one can catch one of these get off at Saspol, and walk the remaining 2.5-km via the motorable suspension bridge west of the village.
There is a small selection of basic guesthouses in Alchi, or try the four roomed J&KTDC Tourist Bungalow at Saspol, at the top of the lane that leads from the main road past the army depot. Alternatively, accommodation can be booked in Leh