Murals and Sculptures of Alchi Monastery
Both religious and secular in nature, these sculptures and mural paintings lie within the structures of Alchi Monastery in the union territory of Ladakh in northern India. The temples within the Alchi enclave predominantly feature art informed and influenced by Indian visual styles – particularly those of Kashmir, an important Buddhist centre – instead of the distinct Tibetan artistic styles.
Alchi Monastery lies in the valley of the same name in western Ladakh, close to the south bank of the Indus river. The sacred enclave, also known as Alchi Choskhor, is about 100 metres long and 40 metres wide and comprises six temples, several chorten (votive shrines) and houses occupied by both villagers and monks, who continue to use its temples. The six temples are the Dukhang, Sumtsek Temple, Lhakhang Soma, Manjushri Lhakhang, Khanjur Lhakhang and Lotsawa Lhakhang (or the Translator’s Temple).
During the seventh and eighth centuries, present-day Ladakh was a part of the Tibetan Yarlung Empire and Buddhism was an established religion in the region. Due to a loss of political patronage, the prevalence of Buddhism declined briefly before it was revived in the tenth century, with the kingdoms of Ladakh and Guge at the forefront. A contemporary artistic movement – known as the Second Diffusion – ran parallel to this revival, and its most profound examples are found in the monasteries of Alchi, Manggyu and Sumda. A key figure of this period was the translator or lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo (985–1055 CE), who studied Buddhism in Kashmir and translated several Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Tibetan, and to whom the Lotsawa Lhakhang is dedicated. Local beliefs credit the construction of 108 temples, including those at Alchi, to Zangpo. However, historians speculate that Zangpo’s influence on Alchi may have been more indirect.
The buildings within the Alchi enclave date between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, with Dukhang and Sumtsek having been established as the oldest structures in the complex. The precise origins of these two temples remain a matter of debate among scholars, with the proposed timeline varying from the eleventh century to the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Inscriptions found inside the temples state that Dukhang and Sumtsek were founded by Kalden Shesrab and Tshulthim Ö respectively, both members of the local Dro clan.
Based on their contents, the murals of Alchi can be broadly divided into two categories – secular and religious, with the latter category including mandala paintings. The religious murals follow Vajrayana Buddhism, which derives from the Mahayana tradition and is in part characterised by a vast religious pantheon – and well-defined iconography – comprising bodhisattvas, major and minor deities, and semi-divine teachers. At Alchi, the prominent deities are Vairocana, Sakyamuni Buddha, Manjushri and Prajnaparamita. The form of Vairocana is shown surrounded by the four Buddhas of the cardinal directions, each with their related consorts, bodhisattvas and guardian deities. The five Buddhas together are known as the Tathagata Buddhas.
In terms of artistic significance, the most important structures in the complex are Dukhang and Sumtsek. The Dukhang is an assembly and prayer hall for monks, which is still in use today. This space is characterised by a four-headed stucco statue of Vairocana seated on a throne – along with smaller statues of the accompanying Buddhas and related deities – placed at one end of the central axis of the hall. The walls are covered with murals depicting mandalas of Vairocana and accompanying deities such as Manjushri and Prajnaparamita. The wall above the entrance bears a painting depicting Mahakala in the role of a guardian deity. Narrative paintings depicting incidents from the life of Sakyamuni and tales from the Jataka can also be found on the lower panels of the walls.
The wall around the entrance doorway is the site for one of the most notable secular paintings in the complex. Described by scholars as a “royal drinking scene,” this miniature mural painting depicts a woman handing a cup to a man. The halos around their heads imply the high – possibly royal – status of the figures, while the details of the dress, hair and physiognomy present evidence of several influences. The dress, hair ornaments and shoes of the woman in the central panel, as well as her female attendants, find parallels in the sul-ma (the outer garment), perak (turquoise headdress) and thick boots that remain a part of the traditional costume of Ladakhi women today. The physiognomic features of the man in the central panel, as well his weapons and the style of his costume, allude to a Central Asian or even Turkic origin. Other paintings reflect groups of men and women, which scholars speculate may represent the nobility of the region at the time.
The Sumtsek Temple, a three-tiered structure, has three large stucco statues of Avalokitesvara, Maitreya and Manjushri in its main hall. The statue of Maitreya is 4.63 metres tall, while the statues of Avalokitesvara and Manjushri – set into niches to the left and right of Maitreya respectively – are smaller, at 4 metres in height. Each deity has four arms, a torso that is bare except for a few ornaments, and a long, intricately painted lower garment. The sculpture of Avalokitesvara is white in colour and its dhoti depicts hunting scenes, musicians, dancers and common folk in costumes reminiscent of northwest India, as well as buildings that are believed to be Kashmiri shrines and sites of pilgrimage, including a Shaivite temple. These paintings offer a valuable record of the religious and cultural life, as well as the architectural styles, of Kashmir during that period. The statue of Maitreya, at the centre of the main hall, is reddish in colour, and the garment features scenes from the life of the Sakyamuni Buddha. The sculpture of Manjushri is yellow in colour and its dhoti depicts eighty four mahasiddhas of the Indo-Tibetan tradition. The crowns of each of the statues have smaller stucco figures of their respective Tathagata Buddha. The higher storeys are also filled with paintings, which are predominantly mandalas.
Prominent religious murals at Sumtsek include the Green Tara (painted in the niche of the Avalokitesvara), an image of Mahakala painted above the entrance and a depiction of an eleven-armed Avalokitesvara and the guardian deity Yamantaka, which can be found on the first tier. The ceiling at Sumtsek is further covered in painted panels that represent the textiles of the region and replicate a variety of techniques, including batik and brocade. Also prominent within these panels are motifs of animals and mythical beings, as well as the Parthian Shot – a Central Asian motif depicting a horseman shooting an arrow, which can also be found in several places along the Silk Route.
The Lhakhang Soma, or the New Temple, is covered in religious murals, including mandalas, and here the dominant figure is Vairocana. Scholars have identified a marked shift in the artistic influences of this temple as compared to the other structures of Alchi. The art in this temple is closer in style to Central Tibetan religious art, which is evidenced not only by the visual style of the paintings but also by the iconography. For this reason, some scholars date the Lhakhang Soma to the twelfth to thirteenth centuries.
The Manjushri Lhakhang and Lotsawa Lhakhang were built earlier than the Lhakhang Soma, likely in the twelfth century. The Lotsawa Lhakhang contains a gilded stucco statue of Sakyamuni and a mural portrait of Zangpo, in addition to paintings of the Tathagata Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Manjushri Lhakhang, as the name suggests, has Manjushri as its central deity, evidenced by a fourfold image of Manjushri, with each aspect corresponding to a cardinal direction and painted in a specific colour.
Another significant historical structure in the complex is the Great Chorten, also called the Great Stupa, which was constructed around the same time as the Sumtsek Temple by its patron, Tshulthim Ö. The chorten, which encloses another small chorten in its interiors, carries traces of Kashmiri medieval architecture in the form of its lantern-like ceiling. It is covered with murals on its exterior and internal surfaces, which depict, among other subjects, Kashmiri Buddhist priests and Zangpo.
The early phase of the Alchi murals features a predominance of red, white and blue in the colour scheme. The painted murals are also notable for their use of the bindu-varttana technique, in which shading was implied by painting minute dots of different density in close proximity. The influence of Kashmiri art is evident in the physiognomic characteristics of the figures in the murals, recalling the bronze sculptures of the region at the time. Further, the depiction of hunting scenes as well as cup-bearing and drinking scenes – uncommon in Buddhist paintings – suggest the presence of a wider cultural sphere in Ladakh. Scholars have suggested that these scenes may carry influences of Iranian culture from the pre-Islamic era and may have been incorporated by Buddhists in their depiction of the idea of paradise. On the other hand, the murals at the Lhakhang Soma display significant stylistic similarities with the art of Central Tibet and even the historical site of Khara Khoto in present-day Mongolia. Eastern India has also been considered a source of influence on Alchi art, in light of the travels of the monk Atisha to the region in the time of Zangpo. The Pala influence is particularly noticeable in the depiction of the protruding outer eye of human figures and in the inclusion of architectural elements framing Buddhist symbols. An example of this are the structures and buildings on Avalokiteshvara‘s dhoti in the Sumtsek Temple. The architecture of Alchi also contains vestiges of Kashmiri Buddhist art, evident in the style of the wooden columns in the temples and the foliated arches on the doorways. Taken together, the presence of these disparate influences underscores the region’s importance in the wider historical trade network of Asia.
Inscriptions indicate that the Sumtsek temple was repaired in the sixteenth century by support from Tashi Namgyal, the king of Ladakh at the time. However, scholars believe that by this time, Alchi had lost its stature as a monastery. Around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the enclave came under the stewardship of the Gelugpa order and its religious activities were taken over by the nearby Likir Monastery, which remains in control today. The preservation of the structures at Alchi may also have been aided by its distance from prominent trade routes, protecting it from attacks and raids. Furthermore, the dry, desert-like climate of Ladakh is also believed to have helped preserve the murals of Alchi.
The Government of India’s decision to open up Ladakh to visitors in 1974 spurred tourism as well as scholarship around Alchi and other monasteries in the western Himalayan region. However, Alchi still faces significant challenges. Climate events, in the form of snowmelt and rain, have damaged the murals and left the structures significantly weakened – challenges which are at risk of being exacerbated in the future by climate change. The influx of tourists, while a boost for the economy, also poses a problem by exposing the murals to increased water vapour, carbon dioxide, dust and flash lighting. The Himalayas are also a seismically active zone and large-scale infrastructural projects have been an additional source of concern. The site of Alchi is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has undertaken the repairs of some of its structures.
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