Murals and Sculptures of Basgo Monastery
Located among the ruins of a citadel in the union territory of Ladakh in northern India, Basgo Monastery is known for its historical ruins and temples, which are among the oldest surviving structures of their kind.
Constructed on a steep hilltop overlooking a valley, Basgo was a place of commercial and strategic importance, and was maintained as a royal citadel by successive generations of the Namgyal dynasty. The citadel, which dates to the fifteenth century, comprised a fortress, a palace, the three temples, residences of nobility, and chorten (votive stupas). It was abandoned in the nineteenth century following a military attack, but the temples remain functional and are used by the people of the Basgo village even today.
The three temples of Basgo are dedicated to the Maitreya Buddha. The murals found in these temples are considered significant as they show a marked shift towards a Central Tibetan style of painting, which scholars attribute to the rising influence of Central Tibetan monastic orders in Ladakh in the fifteenth century.
The largest temple in the complex is the Chamba Lhakhang, commissioned by the Ladakhi king Tashi Namgyal and built during the reign of his successor Tsewang Namgyal in the sixteenth century. In addition to the stucco statue of the seated Maitreya, the temple also includes several brightly coloured murals. The gilded statue, 14 metres in height, is placed in an offset of the temple and is flanked by painted stucco sculptures of Padmapani and Vajrapani. The murals depict scenes from the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Five Buddhas (also known as the Tathagata Buddhas), Tara and other deities of the Vajrayana Buddhism pantheon. Both gold leaf and gold paint have been used in these paintings. There is also a miniature mural depicting king Tsewang Namgyal and his court, dressed in the Kashmiri-Mughal attire prevalent at the time.
The Serzang Lhakhang, also known as the Chamba Serzang, dates to the early decades of the seventeenth century. Inside is a 6-metre stucco sculpture of Maitreya that is clad in thin copper sheets and studded with semi-precious stones. The murals here depict divinities associated with good health and prosperity, such as the medicine Buddha, the Five Buddhas and their related deities and protector gods, and gurus of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. The temple also houses copies of the Kanjur and Tenjur, which were commissioned by the king Senge Namgyal and were written in gold, silver and copper letters.
At both the Chamba Lhakhang and the Serzang Lhakhang, the murals feature predominantly benign deities. In contrast, the murals of the Cham Chung Temple, dated to the seventeenth century, depict solely wrathful deities such as Yama, Mahakala and Yamantaka. It also contains a stucco statue of Maitreya, seated on a platform, which is smaller than those found in the other two temples.
The temples at Basgo fall under the aegis of the Hemis Monastery and are maintained by monks of the Drukpa Kagyu monastic order. Around the 1970s, the temples came under threat as the hill on which their foundations rested began to erode. The situation spurred a large-scale conservation effort led by the local Basgo Welfare Committee and supported by several national and international agencies. The restoration project received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence in 2007.
Dhar, Sanjay. “Basgo: Chamba Lhakhang (Temple).” Sahapedia, December 6, 2018. https://www.sahapedia.org/basgo-chamba-lhakhang-temple.
Dhar, Sanjay. “Basgo: Cham Chung.” Sahapedia, December 6, 2018. https://www.sahapedia.org/basgo-cham-chung.
Dhar, Sanjay. “Basgo: The Remains of a Royal Precinct.” Sahapedia, December 6, 2018. https://www.sahapedia.org/basgo-the-remains-of-royal-precinct.
Sharma, Tara, and Mark Weber. “Temple Guardians: A community’s initiative in conserving its sacred heritage.” Context: Built, Living and Natural 8, no. 1 (Spring–Summer 2011): 77-84. https://www.wmf.org/sites/default/files/article/pdfs/Basgo%20Context%20article%202011.pdf
Snellgrove, David L, and Tadeusz Skorupski. The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, Volume 1: Central Ladakh. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1977.
World Monuments Fund. “Basgo Gompa (Maitreya Temples).” Accessed December 6, 2021. https://www.wmf.org/project/basgo-gompa-maitreya-temples.