Stories From The Camp: Excursion To Alchi Monastery

Magnetic hills, mystical secrets, paintings created using camel’s eyelashes as brushes, and unparalleled Kashmiri Buddhist culture. Here are all the details from Rupert Winchester‘s intriguing excursion to Alchi Monastery.

The Alchi Monastery Monastery dates back to the 12th century

The Alchi Monastery Monastery dates back to the 12th century

Another excursion today, this time to Alchi Monastery, some 90 kilometres from the camp at Thiksey. The drive is, like most trips in Ladakh, fascinating. We pass through Leh, dusty and bustling, and then past huge army compounds, each for a different regiment, with exotic nicknames like ‘The Mountain Tamers’ and ‘The Clue Finders.’

At one, as a public relations exercise, soldiers are handing out glasses of pink lemonade to passing motorists. We take some, gladly, then empty them out further down the road, as they’re disgusting.

Further down the road, we pass a point marked on the map as Magnetic Hill. It has long been supposed that there is some magnetic anomaly in the earth’s crust here, and cars stopped on the road will run spookily uphill. There were lots of tourists checking it out for themselves, oohing and aahing.

No magic, just illusion

No magic, just illusion

A few years ago, Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam was touring Kashmir, and the state government proposed bringing him to Magnetic Hill to show it off. It took the combined weight of a number of eminent scientists to dissuade the government, for fear of looking stupid. Because it is, of course, total nonsense. It is merely an optical illusion, and the road, which appears to be running uphill, is actually going downwards. We stayed for around 30 seconds, before passing onwards, and properly downwards.

A few minutes later, after crossing miles of the lunar landscape, we pass the point, far below us, where the Zanskar River adds its considerable heft to the Indus, becoming much bigger and more solid. We gradually begin to drift gently downwards, losing a little altitude.

Close to our destination of Alchi, on the other side of the Indus, we drove through a beautiful village, called Saspol. Here we saw our first apricot and apple trees, and fields of mustard, yellow flowers nodding in the gentle breeze. With the poplar trees rising up, it could have been a Tuscan village, if it wasn’t for the 18,000-foot peaks behind the village. One of our party announced that she wanted to get married in Saspol. We could all see why.

During all of this, our guide, Namgyal, was entertaining us with tales of the history of the region, of battles and wars, of sieges and heroism, revolts and conquests, pointing out old forts and pathways. It was thoroughly fascinating.

Alchi itself is cradled in a bend of the river, and has been there since at least the twelfth century. Local tradition says the monastery was founded by Rinchen Zangpo, the Great Translator.

It is difficult for a layman to adequately explain the riches of Alchi. But, basically, the monastery’s five main places of worship are painted with images of the Kashmiri Buddhist tradition that are practically unsurpassed anywhere else in the world.

Chief amongst these is the three-storey sum-tsek, which has no equivalent anywhere on the planet. Three Bodhisattva statues stand inset into the walls, and every inch of the three floors is covered with miniature paintings and designs of astonishing richness and detail. Secular scenes, deities and mythical figures, palaces and shrines, heavenly nymphs, musicians, kings and queens and battles and animals and mandalas and flowers and scrollwork.

Just look at the details!

Just look at the details!

The precision is astonishing, some of the lines were apparently done using camels’ eyelashes as brushes. And, for paintings on mud plaster, done perhaps a thousand years ago, they shine with a spectral brilliance and luminosity that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Many people believe that they are so well preserved because in the sixteenth century the monastery was abandoned as a living centre of worship, for reasons unknown, and the responsibility for only its maintenance, without the rigours of daily use, fell to the Likir Monastery, many kilometres away.

As Janet Rizvi, in her magisterial Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia, says: “Alchi is special … hidden among the desert’s dunes, like a jewel in its setting … We shall never know, nor shall we fully understand, what miraculous chain of circumstances preserved it almost undamaged, in this remote spot, unknown and uncared for except by a community of monks 30 kilometres away on the other side of a rushing river, over centuries and through a history of raids and invasions. What we do know is that, its mud-plastered walls having survived against all odds, the paintings they bear are amongst the world’s masterpieces of art and religion, part of the heritage of us all.”

I couldn’t have put it much better myself.

This was our Alchi Monastery excursion in Rupert Winchester’s words! To make this experience yours visit www.tutc.com!

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