Joseph Chinock Explains the Alchi Monastery in Ladakh, India contains many Vajrayana Buddhist masterpieces rendered in a baroque style synthesizing aspects of Tibetan Buddhist, Hindu and even Kashmiri Zoroastrian motifs. The site is recognized as a masterpiece of Buddhist art and cosmology. The creation of the Alchi complex is attributed to a monk/scholar, Rinchen Zangpo, in the 10th century. Zangpo was directed by the King of Tibet Yeshe Od to spread Buddhism throughout the Tran Himalayan Region by building an extensive series of temples. In total 21 scholars were sent to Nepal, Bhutan, Darjeeling and Ladakh (at that time independent kingdoms.) but only 2, including Zangpo, survived the perilous journey. According to tradition Zangpo succeeded in creating 108 monasteries of which Alchi is the greatest.
At this time Buddhism was dying out in the land of its birth, India, due to Muslim invaders who would destroy temples and forcibly convert adherents as well as the religion’s own calcification after fifteen hundred years. In this time of crisis a number of inspired practitioners, teachers and missionaries arose from the regions of Northern India including some of the greatest teachers in the history of Buddhism: Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche) who spread Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet, his consort Yeshe Tsogyal, Tilopa, Marpa, Naropa and Milerepa
Zangpo brought 32 sculptors and skilled wood carvers from Kashmir (which was then a great center of Buddhist thought, practice and art) who decorated the temple complex with images familiar to most Buddhist practitioners but with a central Asian twist: monks with white turbans and beards, Taras whose blue capes make them look like Virgin Marys and figures with startlingly blue eyes. Kashmir was a cross roads of the silk trade and saw Alexander the Great’s army pass through as well as, according to tradition, Jesus.
The main temple, Alchi Du-khang (Assembly Hall) is the largest and the oldest preserved structure of the complex. Entrance is through a court with colonnaded verandah painted with murals of thousands Buddha adorning the cloisters while the outer gate is decorated with the Wheel of Life and Mahakal (a wrathful form of the Buddha.) The walls are painted with six different mandalas, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, goddess, fierce divinities and guardian of dharmas (The teachings of Buddhism.) The paint used is mineral based retaining much of its vibrancy even after a thousand years has passed.
The Sum-tsek is a three story mud structure housing three enormous statues of four armed Bodhisattvas. The statues are so tall that the ceilings of the ground floor is cut away to allow the heads to extend to second floor. The center of the ground floor is occupied by a figure of Maitreya Buddha (The Future Buddha) seated on a throne with the his hands in mudras. The Temple of Manjushree (The Buddha of Transcendent Wisdom) is a free standing structure built around four central images of Manjushree. The large central platform has a complex throne construction on which are seated the four clay images of Manjushree sitting back to back.
Author: Joseph ChinockThis author has published 18 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.