12 November, 2012

Alchi monastery

The text in the following paragraphs have been borrowed from "Buddhist Architecture" - Le Huu Phuoc

Alchi is a famed and historic monastery in Ladakh constructed during the mature Phase II of the second Buddhist renaissance in the Western Himalaya; due to its miraculously preserved conditions dating back to its founding, it is extremely valuable to the study of the evolution of regional Tibetan architecture. Vajrayana iconography, and the extinct Kashmiri or Indo-Kashmiri style of Buddhist Paintings. The founder of this monastery was a Buddhist monk named sKal-Idan-shes-rab from his inscription discovered inside the Dukhang or Assembly Hall, which is undoubtedly the oldest building at the site; the discovered fourteen inscriptions in Alchi have also shed much light into the history and founders:

In the best of continents, souther Jambudvipa [India], at this spot, the hermitage of Alchi in sPu-rg-yal's Tibet, land of pure ground and high mountains, I have built a precious temple with devoted veneration! To look on the wood carvings and paintings...
composed by the Buddhist monk sKal-Idan-shes-rab[inscription 1]

His [sKal-Idam-shes-rab] birthplace is Sumda... His residence is Alchi...His lineage [clan] is 'Bro.. He built a temple as a place of meditation and study [Inscription 2]

He [skal-Idam-shes-rab] studied at Nyar-ma in Maryul [Ladakh]... he is wealthy... he built a fort and bridge [at Alchi]... in pursuance of the request to his father, he built this great vihara here at Alchi [Inscription 3]

The construction of the Sumtsek temple has been ascribed to another Buddhist monk Tshul-khrims'od, possibly the brother of sKal-Idan-shes-rab as mentioned among the inscriptions inside this temple.

That patron and monk, Tshul-khrims'od... [Inscription 6]

In the north part of Jambudvipa [India] is the Land of Snows, the country of sPu-rgyal's Tibet with its high mountains and pure ground, filled with religious practioners who possesses the Thought of Enlightenment. The patron who founded this precious tired vihara [Sumtsek] here at Alchi of Ladakh, in Lower Mar-yul of Upper Nga-ri [Western Tibet] was the teacher Tshul-khrims'od. He was of the great and aristocratic 'Bro lineage'... As the sun and the moon together ornament the sky, so did the two great 'Bro brothers' [sKal-Idan-shes-rab and Tshul-khrims'od could be brothers] [Inscription 7]

The date between 1175-1200 CE for the construction of the Dukhang and Sumstsek seems credible which is also corroborated by the styles of the murals. The Sumstek was probably erected around Jigten Gonpo's time whereas the Dukhang was a little earlier based on the style of its murals and inscriptions.

Anyhow, Drigungpa was presumbably the sect with which Alchi was associated when it was first founded; nowadays the monastery is in the custodian of the Gelugpa monks residing in the nearby Likir monastery.

The rectangular site of Alchi is bounded by a mud wall enclosing encloses the original buildings inside alongwith their sculptures and murals. The original buildings include the Dukhang and Sumstsek, the attached twin temples of Lotsawa Lhakhang and Munjusri Lhakhang, Soma Lhakhang and Chortens. The other buildings were of later additions including houses, chortens, shrines, sutra halls etc. From the inscriptions and styles of the murals, the various dates for the most important buildings at the site can be established.

Dukhang is certainly the oldest building at the site and like the other buildings, with the exception of the 3 floored Sumtsek, it has a single story with a flat roof and a parapet painted in continuous red band as in all other buildings; its wooden entry portal is elaborately carved liek the Sumtek. The interior contains a single Vairacona image inside the niche at the back while the surrounding walls and those in the courtyard are completely covered with murals of mostly Buddhist themes and a few secular ones depicting royal banquets. The most important murals are the 7 mandalas of Vairacona, Manjushri and Prajnaparamita; these are some of teh earliest painted mandalas in the western Himalaya and Tibet. The oldest extant mandala paintins in the world, which are in the scroll format, came from Chinese Mogao caves in Dunhuang and Japan dated in the 9th C. Above the door of the Dukhang is a mural of the protecting deity Mahakala as in the other buildings, all deities depicted in the Dukhang murals belong to the yoga-tantra class with Vairacona as the principal deity in the centre of the mandala.

Sumtsek is probably the most important in terms of tantric iconographies and symbolisms; it is a 3-storied temple. Its highly ornate portico, which also contains murals but much faded due to exposure, is supported by fluted timber columns and half columns or pilasters in the Indo-Kashmiri Style that faintly resemble the Greek Ionic order and also the Ajanta Columns, the triangular trussed-like pediments on the entablature; besides serving as decorative elements, also function as braces to strengthen the structure against earthquakes. The interior, which contains a large chorten of a later date in the centre, also employs the same fluted timber columns as the exterior to support the mud floors. The 3 miches on the first floor house 3 huge standing polychrome clay and 4-armed bodhisatvas wearing 5-pointed tiaras with the tallest image of Maitreya in the back, Avalokitesvara on the left, and Manjushri on the right; their heads reach all the way to the second story where openings are cut through the walls in front of their faces so they can look out to the second floor. On the first floor there are murals on Maitreya's dhoti depicting Sakyamuni's Life scenes while those on Avalokitesvara's dhoti are quasi-religious and secular scenes probably of Buddhist pilgrimage centres in Kashmir and Manjushri's dhoti contains scenes of the 84- Siddhas. The surrounding walls are murals of Akshobya, Amitabha and Manjushri as well as secular and religious personages including the royalty, celestial beings, musicians, et. The second floor is also completely filled with murals including ten mandalas of Vairacona, Aksobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, Ratnasambhava, Vajrasattva and their various manifestations including female ones; the others depict paradises of Aksobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Ratnasambhava. Above Maitreya's head are murals of Sakyamuni, above Avalokiteshwara's is his multi-limbed manifestation adn above Manjushri's is the multi-limbed Prajnaparamita. The third floor has 3 mandalas of Manjushri, Sakyamuni and Prajnaparamita; the remaining murals are pictorial eulogies to the lineage of Buddhist monks, both Indian and Tibetan, who were responsible for the introduction and founding of the various Vajrayana sects in Tibet. Above the doors of each floor are murals of ferocious guardian deities with the one on the first floor depicting Mahakala, the second Yamantaka, and the third Acala; these are the dharmapala deities like the one above the entry doorway of the Dukahng. The ceiling of the top floor is constructed in teh lantern roof common in Central Asia whereas the ceilings of the lower floors are completely covered in murals of decorative patterns and non-religious themes. Thus the architectural and inconographical program at Sumtsek appear to represent a symbolic spiritual progression from the lower to the higher levels of enlightenment and the Mahayana to the Vajrayana from the lowest floor to the upper floors. The highest third floor symbolically consecrates pilgrims and Tantric initiates who have completed their spiritual journeys by ascending up the floors or literally entering different mandalas. These symbolic levels of spiritual enlightenment, as embodied in the arts and architecture and the ritualized consecration of the initiates have also been suggested for Borobodur and Kumbum; these are common vajrayana themes throughout the Buddhist world dated as early as the 8th C and certainly not unique in Alchi. Among the earliest cases of the implementation of a combined sculptural and architectural proram to portray the concept of an architectural mandala occurred in the Ellora caves in India wherein each of the 3 floors of the Ellora cave 12 had been conceived as a mandala with Bodhisattva sculptures flanking both sides of a central Buddha. This mandala arrangement would later be repeated in many western Himalaya monasteries like the Tabo Dukhang and heare in the Sumtsek of Alchi; this concept was subsequently transmitted to central Tibet where it became the imprint of Vajrayana rituals in the multi-tiered architectural mandala of Kumbum. The inscriptions at Alchi also suggest such esoteric or Tantric schemes for its buildings.

The patron and onk, Tsul-khrims'od set up these reliquaries of Body, Speech and Mind. In order to remove bodily impurities and obtain a 'human Buddha-Body', he set up Manjushri as a body-image. In order to remove vocal impurites and obtain a 'glorius' Buddha-Body, he set up Avalokitesvara as a speech-image. In order to remove mental impurities and obtain an 'absolute' Buddha-Body, he set up Maitreya as a mind image.

From the sky of the non-originated Dharmakaya [Absolute Body] the unobstructed Sambhogakaya [Celestial Body] appears like a cloud and the active Nirmanakaya [Physical Body] like incessant rain.

Manjusri was associated with Body and 'human' Buddha-Body, Avalokitesvar with Speech and 'glorious' Buddha-Body, and Maitreya with Mind and 'absolute' Buddha-Body; thus the 'hunam', 'glorious', and 'absolute' Buddha-Body can be equated respectively with Nirmanakaya (Physical Body), Sambhogakaya (Celestial Body), and Dharmakaya (Absolute Body).

Lotsawa Lhakang

This building shares a common wall with Manjushri Lhakhang as both ahve obviously been constructed about the same time and have simple porticoes. The mural-filled interior is also supported by fluted timber columns like in the Sumtsek with its central bay opens to a loft story above; in the back end is the main polychrome Sakyamuni statue. The walls contain murals of Avalokitesvara and Amitabha mandalas, Ringchen-sangpo, Lokesvara, Amitabha and Mahakala above the door while the remaining spaces are painted with repeated rows of the Thousand Buddhas theme; the iconography of the deities in these murals belong the yoga-tantra class as in the Dukhang and Sumstsek.

Manjusri Lhakhang

This chapel also has a simple entry portico like its immediate neighbor Lotsawa Lhakang; it also has a loft story projecting beyond the roof above the central bay. This bay is elevated on a high plinth and has four polychrome clay images of Manjusri on the four sides, each of which is painted in gold, white, blue and red according to their proper directions. Unfortuantely the murals have been completely ruined from rain seepage and they most likely, as one might guess have similar stylistic and iconographic contents as those in Lotsawa Lhakhang.

Soma Lhakhang
This so-called 'new' temple of a single-storied flat roof has a chorten in the centre probably added at a later time. The murals on the interior walls are filled with deities of the yoga-tantra and anutataryoga-tantra class arranged in rows, a scheme which appears more formal and rigid than the murals in other buildings; the 3 mandalas of Amitayus, Sakyamuni, and Vairacona are painted on the left wall along with Sakyamuni's life scenes, which have clearly diminished in popularity. Historic personalities liek Santaraksita and Padmasambhava are also among the figures in the murals; Mahakala is once again found above the door as a protecting deity.

The murals of the Dukhang and Sumtsek aer the acme of the Buddhist Kashmiri or Indo-Kashmiri style while the style of their sculptures has also been derived from Kashmiri bronzes; the Soma Lhakhang murals have been painted in teh international Indian Pala Style. The Lotsawa Lhakhang murals, which fuse the Kashmiri and Pala style, are believed to have been painted later than those in Soma Lhakahang. The Alchi murals are painted in several modes with slight shading and high lighting to render volumen, whithout shading using lines to define forms, or the combination of both. The first mode was characteristic of the Indian artists at Ajanta whereas the second mode was favoured by the Chinese at Mogao, above all the Alchi murals show an eclectic mixture of differnt styles rather than the predomiance or preference over any particular style. Some of the most conspicuous elements in teh Alchi murals, such as the lantern roof, mandalas, painted chortens, pearl medallions, along with the postures and dresses of many figues, are of Central Asian origins, the exaggeratedly pinched waists and mannerisms of the paired female dancers also recall the females of the Begram ivories from Afghanistan and Andhra sculptures of Amaravati and Nagarjuankonda. Possible Chinese infiltration from Mogao may also be surmised sucha s the murals of the pairs of female dancers, the acrobatic divers of the apsaras with feet swinging awkwardly backward and the thousand Buddhas theme. The use of pastiglia in the Alchi murals would subsequently be employed in the Kumbum murals in Tibet; the Alchi style might have also influenced later Indian paintinsgs after the disappearance of Buddhism in India. The plans of the Dukhang and Sumtsek with their principal image niches in the back can be traced back to the classic plan of the Indian Mahayana caves like Ajanta. A few architectural elements such as the trefoil triangular pedimetns, the Indo-Kashmiri pseudo-ionic columns, etc. also had earlier Kashmiri precursor. However, the overall forms of all Alchi buildings conform to the traditional Tibetan architecture and one must also be careful not to attribute all the woodworks to Kashmir since wood carcing is also the traditional craft of the people in the Himalayas and Tibet. Above all, the concepts of utilizing architecture as a religious instrument and medium in the process of Tantric initiation and consecration and an aid to spiritual enlightenment are the cornerstone of the Vajrayana as exemplified in the Indian Ellora caves, the Dukhang of Tabo in Spiti, the Sumtsek at Alchi and later Kumbum in Tibet.


Anonymous said...

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Bharat Kushwaha said...

Thank you for publishing this awesome article
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