Murals and Sculptures of Thiksey Monastery
One of the largest monasteries in Ladakh, Thiksey Monastery is built on the face of a hill and comprises temples, a large courtyard, residences for monks and nuns, as well as several chorten (votive stupas) and mane (prayer walls). The monastery was established by Pon Sherab Raspa in the early fifteenth century and is maintained by the Gelugpa monastic order. From the perspective of art, the most significant structures at Thiksey are the Dukhang (or the assembly hall), the Gonkhang (temple of the guardian deities), the tsangkhang (a smaller shrine) and the Chamba Lhakhang. The last is a new addition to the monastery, built in 1980.
The Dukhang, also known as the White Assembly Hall, is halfway up the slope of the hill and contains murals of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya and other deities. The majority of these paintings are from the nineteenth century and only a handful of murals dating to the consecration of the structure survive in a partial state. There is a second, older Dukhang at the top of the hill, which functions as a library and houses religious texts.
The murals and sculptures of the Gonkhang, however, are believed to date to the period of their consecration – likely the sixteenth or seventeenth century – based on stylistic similarities with contemporaneous sites. The entrance to the rectangular structure has a mural of the protector deities on its south wall, whose visual style differs from the traditional iconography and shows a strong Chinese influence. Two other walls feature paintings with animal motifs that resemble those found at the tsangkhang. Also within the Gonkhang are detailed stucco sculptures of wrathful deities such as Vajra-bhairava, Mahakala, Dharmaraja and the goddess Palden Lhamo.
The tsangkhang is located off the older Dukhang and has sculptures of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya and Padmasambhava at its altar. The walls are painted with murals depicting tigers, vultures and other animals. Closer to the ceiling are paintings of flayed human and animal figures whose style resembles the medical thangkas of Tibet.
The jewel-encrusted Maitreya at the Chamba Lhakhang is 15 metres in height, making it taller than the the stucco sculptures of Alchi. It was crafted by the celebrated Ladakhi sculptor Nawang Tsering in 1979–1980 and is housed in a two-storey chamber. Depicted in a seated pose, the sculpture has a gilded face and brightly coloured robes. While it is largely made of clay, concrete and metal, it has a traditional shug pa (juniper wood) pillar at its centre.
The monastery also hosts an annual winter festival known as the Thiskey Gutor, which is marked by ritual offerings and performances of the cham dance. The masks of the dancers depict the gods of the Gelugpa pantheon, guardian deities, semi-divine beings as well as various animals.
Dhar, Sanjay. “Thiksey.” Sahapedia, November 15, 2018. https://www.sahapedia.org/thiksey
Harris, Clare. “Reshaping Tradition: The Life and Work of Nawang Tsering.” Marg 57, no. 1 (September 2005): 38–49.
Snellgrove, David L, and Tadeusz Skorupski. The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, Volume 1: Central Ladakh. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1977.