Saspol Cave Paintings
Located in Saspol village of Ladakh, the Saspol Caves, also known as the Gon-Nila-Phuk Caves, are five rock-cut temples, of which three are adorned with Buddhist paintings dated to the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The paintings are believed to have been made by followers of the Drikung Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Of the five caves, Caves 4 and 5 are damaged and contain no paintings, with only caves 2 and 3 still housing a profusion of brightly-coloured murals. The paintings at Saspol are significant as the images are exemplary of Buddhist art made at a time when the influence of the Kashmiri style was waning, and the influence of the Central Tibetan style of painting was growing.
Studies reveal that in preparation for painting, the cave walls were first plastered with a mixture of clay and mud to smoothen any unevenness, and a thin layer of white gypsum-based ground was subsequently applied over the plaster. The paintings were made on this white ground, and the predominant colours used are blue, red, ochre, white, yellow, green, and white, derived from both organic and inorganic materials. The former includes carbon-black, indigo and madder, and the latter includes azurite, orpiment and vermilion. Paint was applied in multiple layers, and variations in colours were made by applying very thin washes of one colour over another. These techniques are consistent with those seen in paintings from this period in other parts of Ladakh.
Cave 2 at Saspol has paintings on only two of its four walls. The wall opposite the entrance depicts three large figures: Sakyamuni in the centre, with Je Tsongkhapa on his left and Dipankara on his right. All three figures have two bodhisattvas by their sides. In the central figure, Sakyamuni is dressed as a monk, wearing a cloak that appears to be sewn from pieces of fabric and holding an offering bowl in his left hand. The bodhisattvas are shown wearing Kashmiri crowns embellished with jewels hanging over their foreheads. The triad is surrounded by smaller paintings of Buddhist deities arranged vertically in two rows. The two flanking bodhisattvas also have halos around their heads.
Dipankara’s right hand seems to be raised in order to ward off fear, typical of the abhaya mudra, and he holds a bowl in his left hand. The bodhisattvas next to him are dressed in monastic clothing, and the one on the right is shown offering a strip of white fabric to him. Dipankara’s image is surrounded by thirty-nine smaller figures of various Buddhist deities. To Sakyamuni’s left is a figure of Tsongkhapa making the dharmachakra mudra, surrounded by scholars and ascetics, one of whom is believed to be the philosopher Nagarjuna, based on the snakes that surround him.
On the bottom section of the southern wall of Cave 2 is an image of Amitabha in Sukhavati, meaning ‘the land of bliss’. The image draws from the text of the Sukhavativyuha Sutra and shows its inhabitants, including bodhisattvas and flying beings adorned with jewellery, taking gifts to the Buddha. There is an image of Ekadasa Mukha, who is considered spiritually linked to Amitabha, on the western section of the wall. He is flanked by two forms of Tara. Four bodhisattvas are painted above him, depicting the last two of the eleven heads of Avalokiteshvara, including Sadakasara and Manjusri on a lion.
Cave 3 has iconography similar to that in Cave 2, with the main wall on the northwestern side decorated with figures neatly arranged in rows. An image of the Buddha Vajrasana is the central figure on this wall. Vajrabhairava, a protector deity, is depicted to the left of the Vajrasana Buddha along with other deities like Samvara, Guhyasamaja and Hevajra. This is believed to be one of the earliest depictions of Vajrabhairava found in Ladakh.
In line with the traditions of royal portraiture prevalent in Ladakh up till the seventeenth century, a painting on the northwestern wall also depicts a group of figures under a canopy during a consecration ritual. A figure believed to be a nobleman is in the centre wearing white garments, accompanied by his consort. Another figure is seated to his left and a woman wearing a conical headdress is on his right. The latter figure is surrounded by three other female figures who are smaller in size than her. Five clergymen are shown carrying out a ritual on a small decorated table. This scene is situated under a triad of Bodhisattvas flanked by disciples. In turn, this triad is under an image of Atisha. On either side of this figure, two different forms of Samvara are dancing on the petals of a lotus flower, which is on top of another aquatic plant with more flowers with Buddhist motifs like the dharma wheel and elephants.
On the southern wall, two bodhisattvas identified as Manjusri and Maitreya are next to an image of Avalokiteshvara. Recognisable through their attributes, the two are seated on a lotus flower, with a sword and book next to Manjusri and a vase-shaped jug and three small stupas next to Maitreya. These figures have eyes drawn on them; a motif that can be seen from the thirteenth century onwards in other temples, such as the Tsatsapuri at Alchi and the Nyarma Stupa. Under this image is a rare painting of Vajravidarana, or the conqueror of Vaja, a deity in Mahayana Buddhism. Painted in blue, the figure is flanked by birds. On the same wall is another painting of Amitabha, similar to the one found in Cave 2.
The southwestern wall has two paintings of Vajrapani, one peaceful and the other wrathful. In the latter form, five figures of Garuda, each in a different colour, are painted along Vajrapani’s body, corresponding to the five chakras of the body.
Another mural at Saspol serves as definite evidence that weaving was practised in the region as far back as the twelfth century. Among the eighty-five mahasiddhas painted on the walls of one particular cave is the mahasiddha Tantipa (weaver), seated at a type of foot loom. The white fabric he is weaving is most likely undyed wool, a commonly used material in the region.
At the time of writing, the compositional and symbolic complexity of the paintings at Saspol make its caves a popular tourist destination. However, due to the constant weathering of the boulders around the caves, the base of the site is now unstable. This has led to the collapse of the facade in some places, exposing the murals inside to the external environment. In 2015, INTACH Ladakh began a series of conservation and restoration efforts, which were further supported by the World Monument Fund in 2016.
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