LEH

LEH

Leh is capital and largest city in Ladakh. Located at 3,520 meters (11,550 feet) in a valley rimmed with granite mountains and drained by the Indus River, it is a center of Tibetan Buddhist culture and resembles cities in Tibet except there are some auto-rickshaws and Indian-looking people around and Ladakhi dress differently and have their own culture distinctions. The Dalai Lama used to spend part of his summer here. Leh is also a large armed camp. It is a military outpost for the battle on the Siachen glacier and stronghold against China in the Aksai Chin. The roads are often chocked with military conveys and Indian soldiers are everywhere.

Leh was the capital of the kingdom of Ladakh and boasts a legacy that is reflective of its rich history. With the 17th-century Leh Palace — a fine example of medieval Tibetan architecture — at its heart,, the city has a number of heritage and religious sites that stand tall to this day. Leh was not reached by Westerners until 1631 and the first automobile road was not completed until the late 1950s (it would have taken longer were it not for the war with China). Leh was a major stop on the caravan route between India and Kashgar and Yarkand in western China that passed over 5,574-meter (18,290 foot) Karakoram Pass.

Leh is surrounded by the sky-piercing, snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan, Zanskar and Karakoram ranges, and watered by the Shyok, Zanskar and Indus rivers, Leh lies in of the coldest deserts in the world. It attracts tourists interested in Tibetan and Ladakhi religion and culture and adventure travelers interesting in trekking, river rafting, camping, mountain climbing and biking. Leh is surrounded by three gorgeous high-altitude lakes, Tso Moriri, Tso Kar and Pangong Tso. One of the best ways to experience the culture of Leh is to check into a homestay where the host will leave no stone unturned in immersing guests in Ladakhi culture. Another great way to “taste” the region is by way of its fresh produce: apricots, apples, and other fruits and vegetables that can be found in its orchards and markets. Leh has a cold desert climate. Winters (October to early March) are long and severe. daily temperatures are seldom above freezing point but there is little snow. Average rainfall about eight centimeters (3.5 inches). Heavy rains are rare but when they occur they may cause flash floods and landslides.

Getting There: Located in the Indus Valley; surrounded by western Himalayan Mountains. It can be reached by two great high-altitude roads: the Srinagar-Leh Highway and Manali-Leh Highway. Both roads close in winter, but local roads in the Indus Valley remain open. By Air: The Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh is connected to Mumbai, New Delhi, Jammu, Srinagar, and Chandigarh by regular flight services. By Road: Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation and Himachal Road Transport Corporation provide regular buses to Leh. It can be accessed from Srinagar (about 421km) and Manali (about 471km) by these bus services. By Train: Leh doesn’t have a railway station. Visitors can take trains to the railway stations at Jammu Tawi (about 700 kilometers), Pathankot (about 765 kilometers), and Chandigarh (about 782 kilometers). Several buses, taxis and private car services ply between these stations and Leh.

Checking Out Leh

Henry Wismayer wrote in the Washington Post: “Shall we circumambulate?” my guide Sonam says, :gesturing me forward. This question, with its five-syllable kicker, is already becoming a catchphrase. We’ve spent the morning exploring the major Buddhist monuments to the west of Leh. Now, looming ahead of us is Likir monastery, the archetypal Ladakhi gompa, a jumbled ziggurat of whitewashed buildings scattered higgledy-piggledy over an outcropping, their carved casement windows peering out over an amphitheater of high mountains. A giant golden Buddha sits imperiously outside. [Source: Henry Wismayer, Washington Post, July 31, 2014]

“Travel in Ladakh is defined by places like this. As part of India, the region was shielded from the ravages of China’s Cultural Revolution, which wreaked so much havoc in neighboring Tibet. Today, its brand of Tantric Buddhism is not a calcified relic but a living faith that is the central pillar of society. Chortens, voluptuous monuments built to expiate sin, stand on seemingly every corner. Ragged, wind-ripped prayer flags flap from every salient object. We’ve already done a lot of circumambulating, negotiating temples and sacred objects in a clockwise direction.

“Through low doors of gnarled timber, each guarded by a trusted monk in a burgundy cowl, Likir’s shrines achieve the curious paradox of being colorful and foreboding all at once. Adorning every inch of wall, an unfathomable pantheon of bodhisattvas stare out in various tantric entanglements: some vengeful, some serene, some laconic, some mean. At the front, scattered at the feet of a Buddha statue, wrinkled rupee notes, sweets and butter sculpture offerings have been placed by devotees next to a yellowing photo of the Dalai Lama.

“It’s only when I come upon the arresting sight of two young monks in a courtyard, each wearing aviator-style sunglasses and tapping away on mobile phones, that I find myself drifting back to the present day. “There are only two BMWs in Ladakh,” Sonam shrugs, by way of explanation, when I point out the incongruity, “and one of them is owned by a reincarnated Rinpoche,” a high-standing abbott.

“It’s impossible to come to a place like Ladakh without ruminating on what the encroachment of modernity might mean for the status quo. Tourism, of course, brings abrupt change to remote regions. In season, six-plus flights a day now swoop in from New Delhi; in Leh, efforts to entice the Oberoi resort-hopping crowd are manifested in the growing crop of deluxe hotels now rubbing shoulders with the old staple of simple guesthouses.

Accommodation in Leh

One of the best ways to experience the culture of Leh is to check into a homestay where the host provides you with home-cooked meals and often serve — or at least find someone to serve — as your guide. There are also lots of cheap guest houses and hotels that cater to range of budgets.

Henry Wismayer wrote in the Washington Post: “ Just off the Srinagar road, not far from Basgo, the earthen fortress where Sonam had earlier told me about Ladakh’s history of resisting incursions by Muslim and Mongol hordes, we arrive in Nimmoo, a green village 17 miles west of Leh at 10,000 feet (about as low as Ladakh gets), just as the late sun is burnishing the eastern mountains. [Source: Henry Wismayer, Washington Post, July 31, 2014]

“Across a stubble-strewn barley field is a homestay run by Shakti Himalaya, a tour company whose “village experience” trips operate from various locations along the Indus Valley. Recommended to me by a friend in Delhi, it’s been lauded as a high-end tourism venture that doesn’t intrude on Ladakh’s traditional way of life. From the outside, it looks like a traditional village house, but inside, the top floor has been converted into refined guest accommodations, replete with such homespun touches as wood-burning stoves and poplar-beam ceilings.

“All the accouterments of high-end service are here — turn-downs, fluffy towels, a refreshing drink of mint and lemon when we arrive — but it all feels understated. In my restrained but beautiful room, I can sit and watch the goings-on in the village through huge windows overlooking the valley, while downstairs, an in-house chef prepares unerringly delicious subcontinental cuisine (a real treat in a region where local staples such as butter tea and tsampa can be hard going for foreign stomachs). That night, I sleep with all the tranquillity of Siddhartha Gautama under his bo-tree.”

Sights in Leh

Leh has a lively market and the main square. The Stok Palace Museum has an interesting exhibit of precious stones, thankas, coins, royal crowns and dresses. In the upper part of town there is a bare-earth stadium where "free polo" matches are played between Indian soldiers and Ladakhi civilians. The players use scrawny ponies as mounts and sometimes send spectators scurrying for their lives then the ponies race outside the field. Whitewater rafting is done nearby on the Indus River.

About 300 meter feet above Leh Palace is a Buddhist gompa, or monastery. Near Leh are a group of white 20-foot-high chortens (stupas) that look like a cross between a pillbox and a crown. Built from stone and clay, these Buddhist structure contain relics and ashes of deceased lamas. Any one who makes a chorten earns merit in the next life.

The Jama Masjid is located at the heart of Leh's bazaar and is said to be the largest mosque in Ladakh region. Standing amidst a bustling market, this tranquil white structure with a gorgeously designed door draws crowds from around the region. It is a stunning double-domed structure with intricate modern carvings and quotes from the Holy Quran painted on the entrance. The mosque houses a memorial- Shahi Hamdan-which is dedicated to Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, a Sufi saint. The mosque currently only allows men to enter the premises. Built sometime during 1666-67, the mosque was a symbol of Mughal friendship with Ladakhi rulers. The original structure of the mosque underwent renovation a few years back. It can be easily reached by walking.

Leh Palace

Leh Palace is a nine-story-high structure that sits on a ridge 100 meters above Leh. Last occupied in the 1920s, this 100-room Tibetan style building looks like a miniature version of the Potala, the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa, Tibet. It fits in so naturally with landscape it looks as if it is part of the ridge.

The Ladakhi rajas occupied the palace for 300 years until the land reform initiatives of the 1950s when the lamas were stripped of their titles and much of their land — and one lama even became a lieutenant in the Indian army. The stone fences around the complex are there to keep soil from eroding away.

Also referred to as the Lhachen Palkhar, Leh Palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal during the 1500s and completed by the 17th century. The palace's roof offerss amazing views of the Ladakh region and the Stok Kangri. With huge walls and wooden balconies, it is a great example of medieval Tibetan architecture. The palace entrance is decorated with wooden carved figurines.

The upper floors were used for royal residential purposes while the lower floors were utilised as storerooms and stables. Some of the interesting features of the palace include the Namgyal Stupa, the mural-filled Chandazik Gompa and the Chamba Lhakhang Temple carrying medieval mural fragments. The museum within the palace carries artefacts that are more than 450 years old. The Archaeological Survey of India is currently restoring Leh Palace.

Monasteries in Leh

Namgyal Tsemo Gompa is Buddhist monastery in Leh that consists of two 15th century temples below the Tsemo ruins. To travel to this monastery, one can take a three kilometers loop from the polo ground and then a 600 meters dead-end spur off the Nubra Road. The temples are dedicated to eight-meter-tall gold-faced Maitreya, and the other comprises of protector deities.

Spituk Monastery (on the periphery of Leh) is perched on a conical hill with three chapels. Established in the 11th century, it was built by Od-de, the elder brother of Lha Lama Changchub Od. The name of the monastery means “exemplary” a word used by Rinchen Zangpo for this place. The main statue is that of the Lord Buddha. On the 27th to 29th days of the eleventh month of the Tibetan calendar, religious masked dances are performed during the festival of Gustor. It is revered and celebrated with much fanfare. Spituk Monastery’s branches are Stok Monastery, Sankar Monastery and Saboo Monastery. About 150 monks call the Spituk Monastery home. The monastery is the headquarters of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order of lamas. The Shushuk Bakual at this monastery was the leading lama in Ladakh after the head lama was taken prisoner during the Chinese invasion of Tibet. There are treasure rooms in the monastery.

Shey Monastery And Palace (near Leh) has picturesque gardens and a gold victory stupa but is best known for it spectacular three-story-high golden statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. Made of copper, the statue is said to be a one-of-a-kind structure in the region. The palace complex is sprinkled with many Buddhist chortens. Even though it is in ruins now, the Shey Palace has an impressive façade and warrants a visit. The palace complex is said to have been built by Delden Namgyal, ruler of Ladakh region, in the beginning of the 17th century. The

Monasteries Near Leh

Most of the monastery in and around Leh are multi-building groupings built on a hill. Behind massive wooden doors of the main temple of each monastery lamas sit on a stone floor, meditating and reciting chants from Tibetan prayer books to the sound of beating drums. Along the road are scores of prayer walls made of mani stones. Stakna monastery (15 kilometers south of Leh) has a statue of the Hindu god Kali and a collection of masks. It is perched on floodplain outcrop. Here monks clean and polish parquet floors shuffling along with shammies tied to their feet. Phiang Gompa, a center for Red Hat Sect of Buddhism.

Likir Monastery (62 kilometers west of Leh) is known for its clay Buddha statues and was built on the land that was blessed by Lama Duwang Chosje. It is said that since the monastery was encircled by the bodies of the two great serpent spirits, the naga- rajas, it came to be known as ‘Likir’ meaning ‘The Naga – Encircled’. The monastery flourished in the 15th century. Even today, the three basic Pratimoksa disciplines, which are the basis of all Buddhist teachings, are observed. The monastery is home to many shrines. Every year, on the 27th to 29th days of the twelfth month of the Tibetan calendar, the votive offerings known as Dosmochey are offered and holy dances are performed. Liki Monastery (Ladakh) has first rate collection of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures.

Diskit Monastery (50 kilometers north of Leh) is considered to be the largest and oldest monastery in Nubra Valley. Built in 14th century and also known as Diskit Gompa, the monastery's has a most prominent attraction is the huge Maitreya Buddha statue atop it, which was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama. From the base of the statue, one can get a gorgeous panoramic view of the Nubra valley. The monastery was founded by Changzen Tserab Zangpo in the 14th century and is situated on a hill above the plains of Shayok river. One should also visit the monastery for its vast collection of murals and display of frescoes. Visit the monastery especially in December to attend the Dosmoche festival held here.

Lamayuru Monastery (on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, 127 kilometers west of Leh) is often described as the most beautiful gompa in Ladakh. Situated on a steep cliff above a village near Fotu Pass and often called Yuru Monastery, it looks like a "fairy-tale fortress" that could be "the centerpiece in a Chinese watercolor." Like many lamaseries travelers are sometimes allowed to spend the night in the monastery. It is also the oldest monastery in Ladakh. In the 11th century, it was the place where Mahasiddha Naropa, an Indian Buddhist, is said to have come to live. The cave in which he stayed still exists today. The Kadampa School flourished here because of the teachings of Rinchen Zangpo. Every year, on the 17th and 18th days of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar, the monastic festival of the Yuru Kabgyad is celebrated with great fervour. Masked dances are performed during those days. During these auspicious days, all the monastery's shrines and thangkas are displayed for the devotees to see and worship. The Lamayuru region is also the starting point of many treks.

Thiksey Monastery

Thiksey Gompa (22 kilometers from Leh) is considered by many to be the most beautiful monastery in Ladakh. Belonging to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism, the gompa built on a hillock by Spon Paldan Sherab in 1430. There are many religious objects and shrines located in this monastery. About 250 monks call it home. The Gustor Festival is celebrated from 17th to 19th of the ninth month of Tibetan Calendar. Sacred dances are performed during this time. Also at this site is an ancient temple built by Rinchen Zangpo. Its ruins are dedicated to Goddess Dorje Chenmo.

Thiksey (also spelled Tikse) has large number of buildings, eight temples, and a an outstanding collection of prayer scrolls and art work. At dawn the mega-trumpets alert young monks that its is time to scoot to the prayer hall and start chanting.Henry Wismayer wrote in the Washington Post At Thikse Monastery, in a shrine draped in colorful silks, the air thick with juniper smoke, morning prayers are starting to adopt the unruly atmosphere of a school assembly. After the elders have filed in, performed their prostrations and taken their seats to join the chanting, after a monk in a mustard-yellow robe has purified the room with incense, the youngsters scamper in with cymbals, drums and a wailing pair of clarinets, “to wake the dead,” my guide, Sonam, whispers in my ear. [Source: Henry Wismayer, Washington Post, July 31, 2014]

“Not far from where we are sitting, cross-legged, in a corner of the hall, one adolescent monk starts molding his tsampa porridge into animal shapes (morning prayers is also breakfast). At the back, the smallest monk of all, a three-year-old who sends Sonam into fits of maternal clucking, begins to nod off. A mouse scurries between the aisles. I sip my butter tea, sink back on the tide of incantation and ponder whether anything at all about this ceremony has changed in 500 years.

Hemis Monastery

Hemis Monastery (35 kilometers south of Leh) is the oldest and largest monastery in Ladakh. Spectacularly situated in a canyon along the Indus river, it belongs to the Dugpa Kargyutpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Each June Hemis monastery holds a big festival to honor the founder of Ladakhi Lamaism. During the festival, lamas don ferocious demon masks, dance and act out ancient mystical dramas. People come from all over Ladakh to watch and numerous cups of barley beer are consumed. Vendors hawk whistles, socks and candied mulberries; puppeteers amuse the children; and policemen with yak-hair switches keep the crowds from collapsing on the dancing area.

Masked dances are performed here during the 9th and 10th days of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar. There is usually a living Buddha in a red robe present, and musicians play Tibetan tunes with human thighbone trumpets, brass horns, cymbals and yak-skin drums. The dancers twirl around in silk robes and lacquered masks that are so hideous women are told not to look at them. Some of the lamas play demons; some represent Mughal warriors; and others are dressed as skeletons hung with jesters bells, snakes and intestines. A human effigy made from barley dough is burned during the climax of the festival, when a giant named Shawa, an incarnation of the first Buddha, hacks the effigy with a long curved sword, and the skeletons stomp on the ashes.

Hemis monastery is the richest monastery of Ladakh. Hidden inside a gorge-like formation, it contains a copper-gilt statue of Lord Buddha, numerous stupas made of gold and silver, sacred thangka paintings, and other objects of religious importance. Hemis Monastery is said to have been built by the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso in the year 1630. Visitors can stay overnight in order to attend morning prayers.

Henry Wismayer wrote in the Washington Post: “At Hemis, hidden in a mountain gorge, we scan the musty shelves of an intriguing museum, where artifacts range from the sublime, like a gilt brass Buddha in seductive repose dating from 7th-century Kashmir, to the bizarre: a shriveled fetal pup, believed, the accompanying sign declares, “to have been born of a she-vulture,” set on a cushion.[Source: Henry Wismayer, Washington Post, July 31, 2014]

Alchi Monastery

Alchi Monastery (35 kilometers west of Leh on the Srinagar-Leh Road) Alchi Monastery is among the most famous sites in Ladakk. The largest gompa built by Rinchen Zangpo, a translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan, it is home to various shrines and temples, like the principal Buddha Vairocana Lhakhang, Lotsava Lhakhang, Jamyang Lhakhang (Manjusri temple) and sumtsag Lhakhang. The main statue is that of the Vairocana Buddha. There are several smaller statues depicting Lord Buddha. A unique aspect of this monastery is that the paintings here are not in thangka style. Rather, they in an Indian-style art. To build this monastery, Rinchen Zangpo is said to have brought painters, carvers and sculptor from the Kashmir valley. Located on the outskirts of the city, the monastery is said to have been built around 1000.

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, Jeremy Kahn wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “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.” The journey there “takes you past the spot where the blue waters of the Zanskar River mingle with the Indus--- mighty green and past a 16th-century fort built into cliffs above the town of Basgo. Finally, you cross a small trellis bridge suspended above the Indus. A sign hangs over the road: “The model village of Alchi." 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." [Source: Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010]

“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."

“The temples were built facing southeast. Researchers aren't sure why this is so. 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. Although tourists now far outnumber worshipers, 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, collecting entrance fees and enforcing a prohibition on photography inside the temples. (Arya has special permission.) At the same time, responsibility for preserving Alchi as a historic site rests with the government's Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

900-Year-Old Tibetan Art at Alchi Monastery

One of the best places to see old Tibetan Buddhist art is at Alchi. Some works are about 900 years old and they are among the best-preserved examples anywhere of Buddhist art from this period. Jeremy Kahn wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The Alchi murals, their vibrant colors and beautifully rendered forms rivaling medieval European frescoes, have drawn a growing number of tourists from around the world." In one room; “The wood-framed door is tiny, as if intended for a Hobbit, and after I duck through it into the gloomy interior---dank and perfumed with the saccharine scent of burnt butter oil and incense---my eyes take a while to adjust. It takes my mind even longer to register the scene before me. [Source:Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010]

“Mesmerizing colored patterns scroll across the wood beams overhead; the temple's walls are covered with hundreds of small seated Buddhas, finely painted in ocher, black, green, azurite and gold. At the far end of the room, towering more than 17 feet high, stands an unblinking figure, naked to the waist, with four arms and a gilded head topped with a spiked crown. It's a painted statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, a messianic being of Tibetan Buddhism come to bring enlightenment to the world. Two hulking statues, one embodying compassion and the other wisdom, stand in niches on side walls, attended by garishly colored sculptures depicting flying goddesses and minor deities. Each massive figure wears a dhoti, a kind of sarong, embellished with minutely rendered scenes from the life of Buddha."

“They cast a golden glow on the Assembly Hall's mandalas, revealing stunning details and colors: the skeletal forms of Indian ascetics, winged chimeras, multi-armed gods and goddesses, and nobles on horseback hunting lions and tigers. Sometimes these details astound even Alchi's caretaker monk, who says he has never noticed these facets of the paintings before.

“Jaroslav Poncar, a scholar on Tibetan art, says the paintings have a strong Kashmiri influence and the images differ from those found in contemporary Tibetan Buddhist iconography. On the ground floor are massive bodhisattvas. On the normally off-limits second floor, where acolytes train to be monks, are mandalas, where monks have traditionally sat reciting Buddhist sutras and learning the philosophical concepts each mandala embodied.

“The monastery and its paintings are in grave danger. Rain and snowmelt have seeped into temple buildings, causing mud streaks to obliterate portions of the murals. Cracks in clay-brick and mud-plaster walls have widened. The most pressing threat, according to engineers and conservators who have assessed the buildings, is a changing climate. The low humidity in this high-altitude desert is one reason Alchi's murals have survived for almost a millennium. With the onset of warmer weather in the past three decades, their deterioration has accelerated. And the possibility that an earthquake could topple the already fragile structures, located in one of the world's most seismically active regions, remains ever-present...Conservationists also worry the foot traffic may take a toll on ancient floors, and the water vapor and carbon dioxide the visitors exhale may hasten the paintings’ decay. [Source: Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010]

Creators of the Art Work at Alchi Monastery in Ladakh

Who were these artists? Jeremy Kahn wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The Dukhang, or Assembly Hall, contains a series of scenes depicting nobles hunting and feasting at a banquet. Their dress---turbans and tunics adorned with lions---and braided hair appear Central Asian, perhaps Persian. The colors and style of painting are not typically Tibetan. Rather, they seem influenced by techniques from as far west as Byzantium. The iconography found in some of the Alchi murals is also highly unusual, as is the depiction of palm trees, not found within hundreds of miles. And there are the geometric patterns painted on the ceiling beams of the Sumtsek (three-tiered) temple, which scholars suspect were modeled on textiles. [Source: Jeremy Kahn, Smithsonian magazine, April 2010]

“Many scholars theorize that the creators of the Alchi murals were from the Kashmir Valley in the west, a 300-mile journey. And though the temple complex was Buddhist, the artists themselves may have been Hindus, Jains or Muslims. This might explain the murals’ arabesques, a design element associated with Islamic art, or why people depicted in profile are painted with a protruding second eye, a motif found in illuminated Jain manuscripts. To reach Alchi, the Kashmiris would have journeyed for weeks on foot through treacherous mountain passes. Because of stylistic similarities, it is thought that the same troupe of artists may have painted murals in other monasteries in the region.

If the artists were Kashmiri, Alchi's importance would be even greater. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Kashmir emerged as a center of Buddhist learning, attracting monks from throughout Asia. Though Kashmir's rulers soon reverted to Hinduism, they continued to tolerate Buddhist religious schools. By the late ninth and tenth centuries, an artistic renaissance was underway in the kingdom, fusing traditions of East and West and borrowing elements from many religious traditions. But few artifacts from this remarkably cosmopolitan period survived Kashmir's Islamic sultanate in the late 14th century and the subsequent 16th-century Mogul conquest of the valley."

“Alchi may provide crucial details about this lost world. For instance, the dhoti on one colossal statue---the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who embodies compassion---is decorated with unknown temples and palaces. British anthropologist David Snellgrove and German art historian Roger Goepper have postulated that the images depict actual places in Kashmir---either ancient pilgrimage sites or contemporary buildings the artists knew. Because no large Kashmiri wooden structures from this period survive, Avalokiteshvara's dhoti may provide our only glimpse of the architecture of 12th-century Kashmir. Similarly, if the patterns painted on the Sumtsek beams are in fact designed to mimic cloth, they may constitute a veritable catalog of medieval Kashmiri textiles, of which almost no actual examples have been preserved."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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