The oldest monastery of Ladakh, Alchi, is a treasure trove of unique paintings

As you drive down Ladakh, you see several monasteries or Gompas perched on a cliff or sloping down a peak. They often look like fortresses, with prayer wheels and mani walls built around them.

But, Alchi is different from the rest. Lying in a village of the Indus valley on a plain, this ancient gompa is neither imposing nor is it full of life.

For a first-timer, it is just another sleepy hamlet with a few random houses thrown in, a lone shop selling artefacts and a couple of Lamas sitting under an apricot grove exchanging conversations. And, hidden amongst these silent houses is the oldest monastery of Ladakh that houses some unique paintings.

The monastery lies in the chos khor or monastic complex of four separate monuments, and is deemed to be different from the rest, in terms of architecture and monastic order.

The Gompa nestled in a courtyard is connected by narrow alleys that lead to several small shrines with wooden pillars and walls that display paintings such as the Thousand Buddhas and the wheel of life.

Kashmiri tradition

Inspired by the Kashmiri tradition, the monastery complex was built by Guru Rinchen Zangpo around the 10th Century. However, the inscriptions attribute it to a Tibetan noble called Kal-dan Shes-rab who is said to have built it in the next century.

A fusion of the artistic and spiritual aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism is seen in the wall paintings of this monastery, while the Kashmiri style is also seen in the Dukhang or assembly hall and the main temple, Sumstek, a three-storeyed structure, dedicated to the three incarnations of Buddha — Avalokiteshwara, Maitreya and Manjushree. You cannot see the heads of these deities as they stand in the first floor, and there is no access.

The monastery, discarded as a religious order, escaped the 17th Century invasion of Ladakh by Ali Mir, a ruler from Baltistan, a war that almost brought Buddhism to an end in Ladakh.

While the king Jamyang was taken prisoner, legend says that he was restored his throne after a secret marriage with one of Ali Mir's daughters, Gyal Katun.

While historians refute the story, legend says that Ladakhis even accepted the new queen as an incarnation of the White Tara.

However, legends notwithstanding, Buddhism flourished in Ladakh and more monasteries were built, but it was much later, in the 1970s, that the unique paintings were discovered in Alchi, a village that had been ignored for centuries.

A lone Lama sits guard in front of the main Gompa holding on to his prayer wheel.

A Gompa means a solitary place, and as I walk past it, I realise the true meaning of solitude.

Keywords: historyculturepaintingsartLadakh