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Alchi all over

Fabulous photos of the paintings in this 11th century Ladakhi monastery will travel to Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore from the National Museum, New Delhi, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2009 23:21 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Some years ago, I was lucky enough to see the murals at the Alchi Gompa (monastery) on the banks of the Sindhu in Ladakh, a drive of about 67 km to the west of Leh (the great river is known locally as ‘Sengge-Chu’, the Lion River; ‘sengge’ being the Ladakhi variant of the Sanskrit ‘simha’ for 'lion'). Outwardly, Alchi is a silent, peaceful cluster of typically gompa-like buildings, white, rimmed with dark red about the roofs. As is often the case in an Indian sacred site, the past segues into the present without effort because of the living faith that vivifies our holy places. So a visitor feels automatically loved and included in the sacred space of this 11th century monastery. The calm and quiet is especially refreshing - and the complete absence of offering-sellers, souvenir-sellers and dirt!

Alchi’s temples hide softly shimmering murals of Buddhist themes, painted in both bold jewel colours and subtle tints. It was the Ladakhi leader Rinchen Zangpo who is said to have brought in thirty-two artists of various crafts from Kashmir in the 11th century CE to decorate, in the ‘Gandhara’ school of art, the 108 monasteries he built in the Kailash-Manasarovar belt.

This form of art originated and prevailed in north-west India between the seventh and 11th centuries when that region was a ‘Bauddha Bhumi’ (a Buddhist region). The art subsequently spread to Tibet, Nepal, Central Asia and in the Western HImalayas. Ladakh also has colossal rock-cut images of the Buddha that were the forerunners of the Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban at Bamiyan.

Experts say that the miniature-scale paintings at Alchi “exceed in beauty and variety” those in Tabo in Himachal Pradesh and Tholing in Western Tibet, the two complexes created by Rinchen Zangpo at the same time as Alchi.

This show, of 150 photographs, offers a vivid glimpse of Alchi to those cannot go just yet to Ladakh. They offer a gracious, energetic and beautiful worldview and the viewer may find great pleasure in contemplating them quietly with the cellphone switched off and the everyday mind left at the museum door. Like life, art has different bandwidths, and India, fortunately, has appreciative room in law and civil society and importantly, in Indian heads, for all these experiences (think of what befell the Buddhas at Bamiyan and look again at Alchi's treasures with gratitude). Indeed, it is hard not to think of Bamiyan when Peshawar is virtually in Taliban hands now.

We owe this glimpse of our national treasures to the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (CIBS), Leh, which celebrates its golden jubilee this year. This exhibition, of the crest-jewel of Ladakhi Buddhist art, is the first event, in collaboration with the National Museum, New Delhi and the Likir Gompa, Leh. The key person behind the exhibition is Dr Nawang Tsering, Principal, CIBS.

The celebrations will culminate on October 23, 2009, on the institute's campus, on its founding day. This show is on view at the National Museum until February 5 after which it will move to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai and then to Kolkata and Bangalore. Cherish.