Alchi’s subtle allure

With unknown origins, Alchi Monastery in Leh is a magnificent piece of architecture, write Sandy N Vyjay who are mesmerised with the intricacies...

The ‘sumtseg’ in Alchi Monastery

A narrow lane bisecting colourful shops meanders from the parking area to Alchi Monastery. Ladakhi women in their traditional gonchas, jackets and headgear beseech you to shop for colourful souvenirs. We promise ourselves we will indulge in some impromptu shopping on our way back and keep walking on the path, which is almost empty as it is afternoon. 

We pass by a tree whose trunk is partially wrapped in white cloth. A small blackboard has the rather enigmatic words, ‘The original walking stick of Lama Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo’. People pass by the tree without giving it a second glance.

A small doorway appears in what seems like a cul-de-sac. This is the entrance to the Alchi Choksor complex. An ancient wooden frame is embedded in a stone framework. The door is festooned with a yellow silk bunting with a designed border on the top. We step into the doorway and enter the enigmatic world of Alchi Monastery.

Alchi Monastery surprises you in many ways. Having visited many other monasteries of Ladakh, we were expecting a spectacular structure atop a cliff, which is the general character of monasteries in the region. But Alchi Monastery was on level ground.

In terms of size also, the monastery was, to say the least, modest. Why then was this simple-looking Buddhist monastery that nestled on the southern banks of the Indus river so important? What was it that had prompted us to drive 65 km, from Leh to the quaint village of Alchi?

Digging into the past

How and why Alchi Monastery came into existence and who built it? There is some ambiguity among historians on this. Numerous myths and legends abound, including one which says the monastery came up overnight through the miraculous powers of Lama Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo.

However, it is fairly well established that the monastery came up in the 10th century. It is also believed that the monastery is one among 108 temples that were founded by a man named Rinchen Zangpo.

It is believed that this man was one among 21 scholars who had come from Tibet to spread Buddhism. He is said to have travelled widely in the regions of Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, and learnt under the great masters of Buddhism of that time. He is credited with translating huge volumes of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Tibetan. This earned him the title of Lotsawa, which in the Tibetan language means, ‘Great Translator’.

A board at the monastery says that the monastery was founded by the great translator Rinchen Zangpo in the early 11th century. Some sources, however, credit the founding of the monastery to a Tibetan aristocrat called Kal-dan Shes-rab. However, the general and popular belief is that Alchi Monastery was indeed the handiwork of Rinchen Zangpo.

 

Manjushree Temple, Alchi Monastery
Manjushree Temple, Alchi Monastery

The monastery today

Intriguing narrow paths hemmed by lines of prayer wheels weave through the fairly small Alchi Monastery complex. A local woman walks along one of the paths rotating the prayer wheels attentively. 

We approach the main constituent of the monastery, which is a temple known as sumtseg. It is a small three-storeyed stone structure. Exquisite woodwork makes up the exteriors. A small door leads into the temple. We duck into the small doorway into darkness. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we are amazed to see figures of three huge Bodhisattvas measuring about 13 feet.

These are the primary deities of the temple. They are the Bodhisattvas named Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. The inner sanctum is filled with wooden columns and delightful frescoes that are an excellent example of Kashmiri art of the period. It was a pity that photography is not allowed inside the temples. Wooden stairs lead to the upper floors which are galleries, but the condition of the structure ensures that you cannot access these floors. 

Outside the sumtseg also, one can see some glowing examples of Kashmiri woodwork and art. A lion-shaped wooden bracket looks down upon you while a fading fresco depicted different Bodhisattva ornaments on one of the walls. A poplar tree bang in front of the sumtseg blows cool breeze that comes in from across the Indus. The tree is believed to have been planted by Rinchen Zangpo himself.

The other important part of Alchi Monastery is the Assembly Hall known as dukhang. This is a large hall adorned with a painting of different Bodhisattvas and used by the monks for prayers and other religious ceremonies.

The main deity worshipped in the dukhang is Gautama Buddha in the vairochana form. The main deity is surrounded by paintings of mandalas or geometrical representations of the universe.

Two other temples within the monastery complex that one must visit are Manjushri Temple and Lhotsava Temple. Manjushri Temple is dedicated to the Bodhisattva known as Manjushri who represents consciousness. The centre of attraction in this temple are four images of Manjushri seated back to back.

Each of these images has four hands, each holding a sword, book with a lotus, bow and arrow, respectively. The walls of the temple are covered with vibrant painted images of Manjushri and other Bodhisattvas.

Lhotsava Temple is dedicated to the great translator and the founder of Alchi Monastery, Lama Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo. The temple has an image of Shakyamuni, also known as Gautama Buddha. Besides this, there is a smaller image of Lama Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo. One of the important sights inside this temple is an inscription on one of its walls. The inscription is in praise of Rinchen Zangpo and other lamas. It says, “Lamas who come into the world in succession like Buddhas of the Good Age (‘Lord of the Dharma’), protector of living beings, father and son with their great unequalled love, Rinchen, the Jewel, King of Initiations, giving contentment to living beings, I bow in salutation to these peerless Lamas, the leaders of living beings.”

Thinking about the great translator Lama Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo, we walk amidst the chortens that dot the Alchi Monastery complex. We take the same narrow path that runs through the small but vibrant market which sells colourful souvenirs including small Buddha images, prayer wheels, and much more.

We pass by the tree partially covered with white cloth and this time we pause to look at it curiously. It is believed that when Rinchen Zangpo, the founder of Alchi Monastery, left Alchi forever, he left behind his walking stick. From that walking stick sprung shoots from which grew a tree. 

We stood for some time staring incredulously at that tree. A tree that stands inconspicuously and silently as a mute witness to the mystical powers of a man called Rinchen Zangpo.

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