BUDDHIST ART IN INDIA

BUDDHIST ART IN INDIA

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Early Buddhist art did not show the Buddha in human form. In relief sculptures at early stupa sites, his presence is indicated by symbols such as the lotus (signifying purity), the eight-spoked wheel (emblem of the Buddha’s law), the parasol (ancient symbol of royalty), and a footprint (the Buddha’s presence). It may be that this symbolic way of representing the Buddha arose from the view that with enlightenment he had transcended human form. Not until the first century A.D., more than five hundred years after his death, do images of the Buddha in human form begin to appear. Perhaps these figures were a response to emerging beliefs that the Buddha was not only a great spiritual teacher but also a savior god who, with personal devotion, could help others achieve nirvana. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The earliest form of Buddhism is called the Theravada (Way of the Elders). It adheres strictly to the Buddha’s teaching and to his austere life of meditation and detachment. Theravada Buddhists believed that very few would reach nirvana. Initially, in this system, the Buddha was represented in art only by symbols, but in the first century A.D., under the Kushan rulers, the Buddha began to be depicted in human form. At about this time, a new form of Buddhism emerged called the Mahayana (the Great Way), which held that the Buddha was more than a great spiritual teacher but also a savior god. <*>

“Another form of Buddhism, called Esoteric and also known as Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, grew out of Mahayana Buddhism beginning in the late sixth or early seventh century. Esoteric Buddhists accepted the tenets of the Mahayana but also used forms of meditation subtly directed by master teachers (gurus) involving magical words, symbols, and practices to speed the devotee toward enlightenment. They believed that those who practiced compassion and meditation with unwavering effort and acquired the wisdom to become detached from human passions could achieve in one lifetime a state of perfect bliss or “clear light,” their term for ultimate realization and release. Their practices paralleled concurrent developments in Hinduism. <*>

“By the twelfth century, Buddhism was concentrated mainly in northeastern India, where the Buddha lived and preached. Its near extinction seems to have been caused by Muslim invaders who destroyed the Buddhist monastic universities. Teachers and monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and Burma. Today only a small percentage of India’s population is Buddhist. <*>

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Symbols and Attributes in Buddhist Art

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Figures of the Buddha have particular features, called lakshanas, which express his exalted state as the Enlightened One. The bulge at the top of his head—the ushnisha —signifies his transcendent knowledge. The urna, a whorl of hair between the eyebrows that can also be depicted as a dot, is another symbol of his transcendent nature; its placement corresponds to that of the pineal gland. The Buddha’s webbed hands and feet are also lakshanas. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Images of the Buddha have other distinguishing marks. His earlobes are elongated from wearing heavy gold earrings when he was a prince. After gaining enlightenment, he discarded such adornments, which represented attachment to the physical world. Princes traditionally had long hair piled up in an elaborate coiffure. When the Buddha became an ascetic, he cut his hair short as a sign of renunciation and humility; in visual art, it is often shown curled in tight snail-like whorls. <*>

“The Buddha wears the simple garments of a monk: an undergarment, robe, and sometimes a shawl. His serene expression and half-closed eyes signify meditation and inner peace. His eyes are also half-open to show awareness and compassion for the devotee. Often his lips reveal the hint of a smile, another sign of compassion. Wheels, emblems of Buddhist law, or stylized lotus blossoms are often inscribed on his palms and the soles of his feet. The elongated fingers of the Buddha’s hands emphasize his gestures (mudras), which convey meaning to his worshippers. Mudras include: 1) the allaying gesture; 2) meditation; 3) teaching; 4) prayer; 5) discussion; 6) bestowing; 7) calling the earth to witness (signifying the Buddha’s right to enlightenment); 8) teaching the law or turn- ing the wheel of the law <*>

“Events from the Jatakas were popular subjects in relief sculpture. These were folk tales written down after the Buddha’s death describing the animal and human forms he had taken in his 550 past lifetimes on his journey to enlightenment.” <*>

Bodhisattvas and Buddhist Deities

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a being who has accumulated sufficient merit and wisdom to escape the cycle of death and rebirth but chooses to remain on earth to help others achieve this goal. Bodhisattvas are beings who have reached enlightenment but elect to stay on earth to help others attain “release.” Thus, they are intermediaries that aid in humankind’s enlightenment. Bodhisattvas are identified by their princely dress and adornment. As spiritual princes, they have earned regalia of the highest order. Individual bodhisattvas are identified by the gestures they make, the attributes they hold, their color, and in some cases symbolic elements in their headdresses.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

After Mahayana Buddhism began to take hold in the A.D. 1st century “a whole pantheon of Mahayana Buddhist deities began to appear to aide the devotee—Buddhas of the past, bodhisattvas such as Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), and Vajrapani (“thunderbolt bearer”), who had evolved from the chief Vedic god Indra. Most appealing and approachable of all is the gentle Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, who can be called upon to help people in all kinds of trouble. The Mahayana faith became the more popular form of Buddhism and was carried by merchants and monks across Central Asia along the trade routes to China, and from there to Korea and Japan. <*>

“Many new deities appeared in the pantheon of Esoteric Buddhism, which grew out of Mahayana Buddhism beginning in the late sixth or early seventh century. Their poses, gestures, and expressions visualize philosophical ideas. For instance, male and female deities shown in embrace express the union of wisdom and compassion. Wrathful deities symbolize protection, and their violent and horrific appearance helps devotees to overcome the passions that hinder salvation. Also central to Esoteric thinking were the five celestial Buddhas (the four directions and the zenith), who represent both the energy of the universe and the potential for wisdom within the psychological make- up of the individual.” <*>

“Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism expanded the pantheon of deities, both male and female. They are identified by a variety of hand gestures, body positions, and skin color. Many are depicted with multiple arms and hands to show their diverse powers, and may have more than one face. Esoteric deities may have animal mounts or vehicles, as Hindu gods do, to carry them through the universe. These new deities include the cosmic Buddhas, Buddhas of past ages, and personified aspects of the most important bodhisattvas portrayed in pacific or wrathful forms. <*>

Early Buddhist Art in India

There is no Buddhist art that dates back to period when Buddha was alive nor is there any from and the centuries that followed. The oldest Buddhist art is in the form of symbols’such as the wheel of dharma, stupas and the tree of enlightenment---not human. Objects and images that indicated signs or “traces” of Buddha presence---such as footprints, parasols or empty seats---were the most common.

The first images of Buddha appeared in the A.D. 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries in Gandara, a region in what is now northern Pakistan, and Mathura, near Agra and Delhi in northern India. Among the oldest know images of Buddha are sandstone seated Buddhas carved in India in the A.D. 1st or 2nd century with a friendly, inviting face. Gandara art includes Persian influences, Greek influences, introduced by Alexander the Great, and West Asian influences.

A typical Gandara piece consists of a multi-image sculpture with a central image of Buddha surrounded by images from his life. The hair, clothing and posture all show Greco-Roman influences. Youthful Buddhas often had their hair arranged in wavy curls and wore toga-like garments like these found in Roman statues. Around the same time more Indian-like images were created in Mathura which featured bodies expanded by sacred breath and clad in robes that left one shoulder bare. In southern India and Sri Lanka Buddhas with serious faces and heavy build were being created

Buddhas created in the Gupta period in northern India, from the 4th to 6th century, had an “ideal image” and featured a downward glance, spiritual aura, hair arranged in tiny curls, and a sensuous body visible beneath a transparent robe. These became the models for future images created by artists in India, Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia. Many of the early works from India have Hindu influences such as multiple arms and heads as well as hand, arm and leg positions that are reminiscent of those found on sculptures of Hindu gods and Indian dancers.

Emergence of Buddhism and Buddhist Art in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the sixth century B.C., Buddhism was founded by the Buddha (born Siddhartha Gautama, ca. 563–483 B.C.) and Jainism by Mahavira (ca. 540–468 B.C.). These religions emerged at a time of great ferment, when philosophers and mystics advanced ideas about correcting the ills of Indian society, including the Brahmins’ exclusive access to the Vedic gods and the strictures of the caste system. Caste is first mentioned in the Upanishads. Indian society was divided into three strata: a high caste of priests, or Brahmins, who performed all religious rituals; an intermediate caste of warriors ( kshatriyas); and a lower caste of merchants (vaishyas). A fourth caste, defined in the early first millenniumA.D., consisted of servants (shudras). [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Under the rule of the Mauryas (ca. 323–185 B.C.), the political and cultural life of North India was once again unified under a central authority. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka (272–231 B.C.), a great military leader, conquered a large part of India. As a reaction to the horrors of war, he converted to Buddhism. To bring the Buddha’s teachings to his people, Ashoka built stu- pas throughout his kingdom. He also introduced a system of writing, which had been absent in India since the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization. When the Mauryan dynasty came to an end in the second century B.C., India was once again divided into smaller kingdoms. However, Buddhism continued to spread, and with it the building of stone stupas and meeting halls. <*>

“In the first centuryA.D., the Kushans, nomadic warriors from Central Asia, conquered the ancient Gandharan region (which includes parts of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and much of northern India. Different styles of art emerged from the two Kushan capitals, one in the Peshawar area of Gandhara and the other at Mathura further southeast in India. The Gandharan style adapted forms from late Hellenistic and Roman art, perhaps a legacy of Alexander the Great’s successors in the area, but largely because the major trade routes from the Roman Empire to India and China passed through the region, bringing peoples and ideas from the West. In contrast, the Mathuran style drew upon the indigenous traditions of India in portraying the human form in robust, rounded volumes symbolizing the fertility of nature. During this period, Buddhist architecture and sculpture proliferated and the iconography of Buddhist images was formulated. <*>

“In Andhra, on the southeastern coast of India, the Ikshvaku kingdom (A.D. 1st– 3rd century) prospered through the exchange of goods from local ports on the sea routes to Rome. There, as in Gandhara, Buddhist merchants and devotees financed the building of stupas decorated with narrative stone reliefs depicting the Buddha in a distinctive fashion. Andhran Buddhist art influenced the art styles of Sri Lanka and images of the Buddha in Andhran style have been found in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. By the end of this period, Buddhism was spreading along the silk route to China and later to Korea and Japan. Along with written accounts of the Buddha’s teachings (called sutras), monks and merchants carried small portable works of art—mainly sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and shrines—which greatly influenced early Chinese and Central Asian Buddhist sculpture. <*>

Standing Bodhisattva Maitreya (The Buddha of the Future)

Describing a 163.2-centimeter-tall, late 2nd–early 3rd century, Kushan period statue made of gray schist from Gandhara, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “It is believed that Maitreya will be the Buddha of the Future, when the next great world age begins. He is identified by the sacred-water flask (only a fragment remains) held in his left hand, and by the double-loop topknot of his hair. A circle of radiance symbolizing his divinity surrounds his head. The low-relief carving beneath his feet represents six monks adorning a cylin- drical casket of Buddhist relics that rests beneath a canopy. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“At the time this statue was made, major trade routes from Rome to India and China passed through the ancient region of Gandhara (today mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and descendants of Alexander the Great’s armies still lived in the region. Consequently, the peoples of Gandhara were exposed to an international mix of beliefs and styles. This bod- hisattva was carved during the reign of the Kushan kings, some of whom had converted to Buddhism. Many stupas and monastic assembly halls were erected during their reigns. <*>

“The Kushan court had two capitals, one at Peshawar in Gandhara (Pakistan) and the other further east at Mathura in India. In Gandhara, the Kushan carvers portrayed Buddhist subjects in gray schist stone in a style that reflects classical prototypes, while those in India worked in red sandstone in an indigenous style that was more conceptual. In this image, the bodhisattva’s muscular, heavyset body, his togalike robe with realistic three-dimensional folds, and his coiffure show inspiration from Mediterranean cultures. Gandharan images of the Buddha were depicted in a similar style.” <*>

Great Departure and the Temptation of the Buddh

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Describing a 144.1-centimeter-tall, 3rd-century Ikshvaku-period, limestone relief from Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh, India, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Ikshvaku rulers, whose kingdom was located on the east coast of India, built many stupas whose surfaces were covered with Buddhist reliefs. This fragment illustrates two episodes from the life of Siddhartha, the name of the Buddha before he reached enlightenment. He is pictured riding out from his palace accompanied by an attendant who holds his sword. Siddhartha is about to dismount, set aside his royal regalia, and leave his wife and son behind to seek a solution to human suffering.[Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“To avoid waking the occupants of the palace, yakshas (earth deities) hold up the feet of Siddhartha’s horse and his attendants. Celestial musicians and dancers throng around Siddhartha, celebrating his future enlightenment. One holds a parasol over Siddhartha’s head to symbolize his rank as a prince and the much greater rank he will assume as the Enlightened One. The fragment the main scene shows Siddhartha seated in medita- tion, ignoring the temptations of worldly power and pleasures being offered to him by the evil demon Mara. <*>

“This region, like Gandhara, was situated on trade routes between East and West, in this case sea routes, and its artists were influenced by classical traditions of relief carving. Notice the illusion of depth created within the fairly shallow relief by placing the figures in a series of overlapping planes. Those that are slightly higher up are understood to be farther back. The scene is packed with figures in many positions, yet at the center of the swirling action Siddhartha is clearly visible astride his horse. Although the surface is damaged, details of adornment and decoration are still visible, suggesting the splendor of ancient court life.” <*>

Gupta Period Standing Buddha

Describing a 85.5-centimeter tall, 5th-century Gupta-period, mottled red sandstone statue from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh in India, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Buddha is identified by his cranial protuberance (ushnisha), the shell-likecurls of his hair, his elongated earlobes, and his monastic robes. His missing right hand would have formed one of his most frequently portrayed gestures, the raised palm of the fear-allaying mudra. Well modeled and elegantly proportioned (his entire body is about seven face lengths in height), he stands in a subtly flexed posture with his right leg slightly relaxed. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“A clinging diaphanous robe descends from his broad shoulders, revealing the forms of the figure’s arms, torso, and knees, and the knotted sash of his undergarment. At the same time, the elegant rippling folds seem to dematerialize the body of the Buddha. Their curving patterns would be impossible to arrange in real cloth. The serenity and calm of this image expresses the concept that, as the Enlightened One, Buddha has passed out of the cycles of time into eternal nirvana, the attainment of perfect knowledge and integration of the soul with the Universal. The Buddha’s otherworldliness is indicated by his gentle expression, idealized face, half-closed eyes, and the way his anatomy swells as if supported by prana, not muscle and bone. The sense of divine harmony is enhanced by the many circular forms and repeated curves of the design. <*>

“In the Gupta period, artists developed a vocabulary of idealized forms derived from nature with which they constructed images of transcendent beings: for example, eyes like lotus petals, head oval like an egg, eyebrows like an archer’s bow, and chin like a mango stone. These conventions continued to be used in India after the Gupta period. Only a section of the halo that encircled this Buddha’s head remains. It is composed of auspi cious and transcendent symbols such as bands of lotus petals, scrolling plant motifs, jewels, and stylized flames. <*>

Seated Preaching Buddh

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Describing a 61.5 centimeter-high, 10th–11th-century Pala-period, black-stone statue from Bihar, probably Bodh Gaya, in India, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Buddha sits on a double-lotus throne in the classic yoga position of meditation—a pose in art that originated in India. His half-closed eyes and faint smile express ultimate serenity and knowledge. This sense of transcendent calm is reinforced by the balanced composition and the pose of the Buddha’s body, which fits within the stable shape of an equilateral triangle. Even his simple monk’s robe seems to surpass reality. As in the Gupta Buddha, it falls as no real drapery ever would, in graceful patterns, each fold no more than a curving line. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“The Buddha is identified by the ushnisha, urna, the lotus blossom designs on his palms and soles, the elongated earlobes, halo, spiral curls of hair, and the gesture he makes. His hands are positioned in the teaching mudra—he is naming the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the way to final release from the cycles of life. On each side of the Buddha are columns, suggesting a temple niche, the frame of which displays prancing leogryphs, a part-lion part-ram beast who assures protection. A Sanskrit inscription on the lotus-throne base says, “To the cause of the divine reli- gion by the stonecutter Vijaka.”

Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara Mandala

Describing a 68.2-x-50.5-centimeter cloth mandala from Nepal dated to around 1100, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The painting depicts the Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara (Supreme Bliss Wheel) mandala. The main circular area contains a diagram of a palace with four elaborately decorated gateways. This structure should be imagined as three-dimensional. From the square base, the palace rises up as a pyramid and is topped by a circle within a square containing the major deity, in this case Chakrasamvara, a horrific form of the Buddha Akshobhya, one of the five cosmic Buddhas from the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon. He is shown in union with his consort, the goddess Vajravarahi, a metaphor for the union of wisdom and compassion, ways and means. The main figures are surrounded by a group of six attendant deities standing within stylized lotus petals. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Surrounding the main circular area are vivid depictions of the traditional eight charnel grounds of India, auspicious sites for meditation on wrathful deities. Here the worldly existence of transitory pleasure and the inevitability of death contrast with the realm of the Buddha envisioned in the center. The horizontal shape of the lower register resembles ancient Indian wooden book covers used to bind manuscripts written on palm leaves. The Pancaraksha, the five protective goddesses especially favored in Nepal, are flanked by donors on the right and a monk on the left, each seated in front of offerings. This is the earliest paubha (painting on cloth) known from Nepal. The style of apparel worn by the monk in the lower register is typically Nepalese rather than Tibetan.” <*>

Standing Buddha from Sri Lanka

By the 11th century Buddhism had largely died out in India but Indian styles of Buddhist art continued to live on Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Describing a 60-centimeter-tall, 11th–12th-century Polonnaruva-period, gilt bronze statue from Sri Lanka, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote:Several different models for describing the Buddha’s appearance developed in India. His anatomy and the style of his monk’s robe in Gandharan sculpture differ from the sculptural traditions of the Gupta period. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Another variation formulated in southeast India in the Ikshvaku period spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia and became the standard way of depicting the Buddha. This imposing gilt bronze statue shows the Buddha with his right hand raised in a variant of the fear-allaying gesture and with the fingers of his left hand positioned to hold the edge of his robe. His facial type has become broader and the features are somewhat sharper and less curvilinear. A flame surmounts his ushnisha. <*>

“The Buddha’s robe falls in diagonal curving patterns across his upper body and down his right side. It does not cover his right shoulder as in sculptures from Mathura. Part of the length of cloth has been grasped in his left hand, drawing up the fabric so that on the inner side it falls down across the body in a series of near-vertical folds, and on the outer side, straight down from the wrist.” <*>

Seated Jain Tirthankar

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Indian Buddhist art continued to live on India in Jain art. Some statues of the Jain founder Mahavira look almost exactly like statues of Buddha. Describing a 99.1-centimeter, 11th-century Solanki-period, white marble statue from Gujarat or Rajasthan, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Like Buddha, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, practiced meditation in the yogic tradition and sought release from the suffering and pain of earth- ly existence by the denial of desires. There is also little physical difference between representations of seated Buddhas and Jain saints (tirthankaras) in Indian art. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“They both appear in the yogic lotus position and both display markings appropriate for enlightened beings: the serene face; the ushnisha; the elongated earlobes, which symbolize princely jewelry once worn but now abandoned; and the symbolically perfect body held up and filled with prana. The auspicious srivatsa mark on the chest, and the lack of an urna indicate that this figure is a Jain “saint,” or tirthankara (Crosser of the Ford or Conqueror of Desire). <*>

Mahavira’s followers preached that Mahavira was one of twenty-four tirthankaras, who were not deities but mortals whose ascetic lives set an example for worshippers hoping to attain release from the cycles of exis- tence. The focus of worship in a Jain temple was an image of a tirthankara like this one, which probably was placed in the temple’s inner sanctum.Numerous smaller surrounding shrines would have contained other tirthankara images.

Ladakh Buddhist Art

Because so much Tibetan art in Tibet was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, Ladakh— a Tibetan-Himalayan region of northern India—is one of the best places to see old Tibetan art and one of the best places to see Ladakhi Tibetan art is Alchi.Jeremy Kahn wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Alchi lies 10,500 feet up in the Indian Himalayas, nestled in a crook alongside the cold jade waters of the Indus River, sandwiched between the snowy peaks of the Ladakh and Zanskar mountains, From a point on the opposing bank, Alchi’s two-story white stucco buildings and domed stupas resemble a crop of mushrooms sprouting from a small, verdant patch amid an otherwise barren landscape of rock, sand and ice. [Source: Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010 \=\]

“Getting here entails flying from New Delhi to the town of Leh, sited at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, followed by a 90-minute drive along the Indus River valley. Several hundred inhabitants live in traditional mud and thatch houses. Many women wearing customary Ladakhi pleated robes (gonchas), brocaded silk capes and felt hats work in the barley fields and apricot groves. Alchi’s status as a backwater, located on the opposite bank of the Indus from the routes invading armies traveled in the past and commercial truckers use today, has helped preserve the murals. “It is a kind of benign neglect,” says Nawang Tsering, head of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, based in Leh. “Alchi was too small, so [the invaders] didn’t touch it. All the monasteries along the highway were looted hundreds of times, but Alchi nobody touched.” \=\

Although Alchi’s existence is popularly attributed to Rinchen Zangpo, a translator who helped promulgate Buddhism throughout Tibet in the early 11th century, most scholars believe the monastic complex was founded nearly a century later by Kalden Sherab and Tshulthim O, Buddhist priests from the region’s powerful Dro clan. Sherab studied at Nyarma Monastery (which Zangpo had founded), where, according to an inscription in Alchi’s prayer hall, “like a bee, he gathered the essence of wise men’s thoughts, which were filled with virtue as a flower is with nectar.” As a member of a wealthy clan, Sherab likely commissioned the artists who painted Alchi’s oldest murals. \=\

“Researchers aren’t sure why the temples were built facing southeast, when Buddhist temples customarily face east, as the Buddha was said to have done when he found enlightenment. Nor is it known why the image of the Buddhist goddess Tara—a green-skinned, many-armed protector—was accorded such prominence in the Sumtsek paintings. Much about Alchi remains baffling. Alchi is still a living temple under religious control of the nearby Likir Monastery, currently headed by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother, Tenzin Choegyal. Monks from Likir serve as Alchi’s caretakers. At the same time, responsibility for preserving Alchi as a historic site rests with the government’s Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

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Preservation Efforts at Alchi Monastery in Ladakh

Jeremy Kahn wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Relations between the ASI and the Likir monks have long been fraught. The monks are wary of government intrusion into religious matters; the ASI worries the monks will undertake restorations that damage the Alchi murals. The result is a stalemate that has thwarted conservation efforts.” [Source: Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010 \=\]

“Fifteen miles from Alchi is an example of a successful melding of tourism and conservation. In Basgo, a town on the Indus that was once the capital of Ladakh, three ancient Buddhist temples and a fort have been renovated through a village cooperative, the Basgo Welfare Committee. As in Alchi, the Basgo temples are considered living monasteries—in this case under the religious jurisdiction of Hemis, like Likir, a major Tibetan Buddhist “mother church.” But in Basgo, the Hemis monastery, the ASI and international conservation experts have cooperated to save the endangered heritage. The project has received support from the New York-based World Monuments Fund as well as global art foundations. International experts have trained Basgo’s villagers in conservation methods using local materials, such as mud brick and stone-based pigments.” \=\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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