The road enters Saspul, 8 km from the Lekir turn-off. About 2 km beyond the village, a link road with a suspension bridge over the river leads to Alchi, which is hidden from view as you approach. A patchwork of cultivated fields surrounds the complex. A narrow path from the car park winds past village houses, donkeys and apricot trees to lead to the Dharma Chakra monastery. You will be expected to buy a ticket from one of the lamas on duty. The whole complex, about 100 m long and 60 m wide, is enclosed by a whitewashed mud and straw wall. Alchi’s large temple complex is regarded as one of the most important Buddhist centres in Ladakh and a jewel of monastic skill. A path on the right past two large prayer wheels and a row of smaller ones leads to the river which attracts deer down to the opposite bank in the evenings. At the rear, small chortens with inscribed stones strewn around them, line the wall. From here, you get a beautiful view of the Indus River with mountains as a backdrop.<br>
Founded in the 11th century by Rinchen Zangpo, the ‘Great Translator’, it was richly decorated by artists from Kashmir and Tibet. Paintings of the mandalas, which have deep Tantric significance, are particularly fine; some decorations are reminiscent of Byzantine art. The monastery is maintained by monks from Lekir and is no longer a place for active worship.
The temple complex
The three entrance chortens are worth looking in to. Each has vividly coloured paintings within, both along the interior walls as well as in the small chorten-like openings on the ceilings. The first and largest of these has a portrait of the founder Rinchen Zangpo. Some of the paintings here are being restored by researchers.
The oldest temple is the dukhang, which has a courtyard (partially open to the sky) with wooden pillars and painted walls; the left wall shows two rowing boats with fluttering flags, a reminder perhaps of the presence in ancient times of lakes in this desert. The brightly painted door to the dukhang, about 1.5 m high, and the entrance archway has some fine woodcarving; note the dozen or so blue pottery Buddhas stuck to the wall. The subsidiary shrines on either side of the doorway contain Avalokitesvaras and Bodhisattvas including a giant four-armed Maitreya figure to the extreme right. This main assembly hall, which was the principal place of worship, suffers from having very little natural light so visitors need a good torch. The ‘shrine’ holds the principal gilded Vairocana (Resplendent) Buddha (traditionally white, accompanied by the lion) with ornate decorations behind, flanked by four important Buddha postures among others. The walls on either side are devoted to fine Mandala paintings illustrating the four principal manifestations of the Sarvavid (Omniscient) Buddha – Vairocana, Sakyamuni (the Preacher), Manjusri (Lord of Wisdom) andas Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) described in detail by Snellgrove and Skorupski. There are interesting subsidiary panels, friezes and inscriptions. Note the terrifying figure of Mahakala the guardian deity above the door with miniature panels of royal and military scenes. The one portraying a drinking scene shows the royal pair sanctified with haloes with wine-cups in hand, accompanied by the prince and attendants – the detail of the clothing clearly shows Persian influence.
The Lotsawa (Translator’s) and Jampang (Manjusri) Lhakhangs were built later and probably neglected for some time. The former contains a portrait of Rinchen Zangpo along with a seated Buddha while the latter has Manjusri where each directional face is painted in the colour associated with the cardinal directions of north (dark green), south (yellow), east (blue) and west (red). There are two small temples beyond.
Sum-stek, the three-tier temple with a carved wooden gallery on the façade, has triple arches. Inside are three giant four-armed, garlanded stucco figures of Bodhisattvas: the white Avalokitesvara on the left, the principal terracotta-red Maitreya in the centre at the back, and the ochre-yellow Manjusri on the right; their heads project to the upper storey which is reached by a rustic ladder. The remarkable features here are the brightly painted and gilded decorations on the clothing of the figures which include historical incidents, musicians, palaces and places of pilgrimage. Quite incongruous court scenes and Persian features appear on Avalokitesvara while the figures on Maitreya have Tantric connotations illustrating the very different styles of ornamentation on the three figures. The walls have numerous mandalas and inscriptions.
Lhakhang Soma (New Temple) is a square hall with a chorten within; its walls are totally covered with mandalas and paintings portraying incidents from the Buddha’s life and historic figures; the main figure here is the preaching Buddha. There is an interesting panel of warriors on horseback near the door. Kanjyur Lhakhang in front of the Lhakhang Soma houses the scriptures....
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