Treasures in monasteries

Print edition : August 29, 2003

The few surviving monasteries of the 11th century bring to light important aspects of the development of Buddhist art in the Himalayan region and its deep connections with the philosophy and art of eastern India and Kashmir.

IN the seventh century A.D., the great Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsang visited the university of Nalanda and described its "richly adorned towers... (and) observatories lost in the vapours (of the morning)". He mentions that it had 1,500 learned teachers and over 10,000 students. In the latter half of the first millennium and the beginning of the second millennium, the universities of Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantpura in eastern India constituted what was known to be the centre of the Buddhist world. Pilgrims from every corner of Asia came here to gain knowledge. Learned monks and scholars at these universities studied the many questions that assail the human mind. The deep and simple philosophy of the Buddha was analysed in great detail and his many attributes were carefully understood and personified in a pantheon of deities.

The 11th century Lhalung monastery in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. It is one of the monasteries believed to have been built by Kashmiri architects.-

A new form of Buddhism was born at these universities - Vajrayana Buddhism: The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt, whose logic was supposed to be as clear, striking and indestructible as a thunderbolt. From here the philosophy spread to Kashmir, which was then the other major centre of Buddhist learning at that time. By the eighth century, Vajrayana became the dominant form of Buddhist expression in India.

From early times, the kings of Tibet and other areas of the Trans-Himalayas turned to the universities of the eastern plains and to Kashmir with a keen desire to learn the philosophy of Buddhism in its true and authentic detail. Along with the religion, Tibetans also yearned for the knowledge of the languages of India. Pali came to them from the eastern plains and Sanskrit came with the scriptures from Kashmir. The first Tibetan script was created in the seventh century by Thon-mi Sam-bho-ta, based on the Sanskrit script.

The serkhang or the main shrine of the Lhalung monastery. With 56 sculptures adorning the walls, the interior of the monastery has a magical atmosphere.-

By the end of the eighth century, Santarakshita from Kashmir established a monastic order in Tibet. He then turned to Guru Padmasambhava, who had studied at the Nalanda university and was teaching in Kashmir, to help spread the Buddhist faith in the trans-Himalayas. Guru Padmasambhava, who is known as the `Second Buddha', went from Kashmir through Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur (now in Himachal Pradesh), Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir), Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh and established Buddhism in these lands. This is known as the `First Great Coming of Buddhism' in the Himalayan region.

In the 10th century, Buddhism declined for a brief period. King Yeshe Od of Guge, which included western Tibet and the Indian trans-Himalayas, sent 21 scholars to Kashmir to revive the knowledge of Buddhism. Nineteen of these young scholars perished on the arduous journey to and from Kashmir. Of the two that survived, Rinchen Zangpo came to be known as Lohtsawa or the Great Translator.

A mural at the Nako monastery in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, an important repository of the graceful traditions of ancient Indian painting.-

Under the patronage of King Yeshe Od and the supervision of Rinchen Zangpo, towards the end of the 10th century began a grand project which was to re-establish Buddhism across the length and breadth of the Trans-Himalayan region. Architects and artists were invited from Kashmir and the construction of 108 monasteries and temples began. These monasteries became the backbone of Vajrayana Buddhism, which flourishes till this day in these regions.

The few temples and monasteries of the original 108 that have survived are oases of colour and treasured art. They open a marvellous window for a glimpse of the glorious 11th century art.

The monasteries of this period are small structures with beautiful statues made from local mud and murals that continue the classic tradition of ancient Indian paintings. These were built along the artery of the trade route across the Trans-Himalayas in verdant valleys amidst stretches of desert. Unfortunately for these havens of art, the new roads that have been laid in recent years bypass most of them. Only dirt tracks, often not motorable, lead up to many of these crumbling monasteries.

Green Tara, one of the masterpieces of Kashmiri painters in the Alchi monastery of Ladakh, which are contiguous to those of Kinnaur and Spiti.-

Many of the original monasteries had a Sumtsek, a three-storey structure in Kashmiri style. Some of these still survive in their original shape while others have been altered. Alchi and Wanla in Ladakh are the most remarkable Sumtseks. The Sumtseks of Ribba and Kanam villages in Kinnaur can still be discerned clearly, although there is evidence of later construction.

Lhalung village, at an altitude of well over 13,000 feet (3,900 metres), in Spiti, is reached by a motorable dirt track. It has a monastery that has retained more than 50 original mud statues. Stepping inside the serkhang, its main shrine, one is transported back a thousand years. The statues have a gentleness and grace that is rarely found in later art. The walls are covered with figures depicting the many aspects of the Buddha. It is a world overflowing with divinity and grace. As in the other shrines of that period the Bodhisattvas are surrounded by many lively beings, both mythical and of this world. The Bodhisattvas are presented in the midst of all the activities of life and yet appear undisturbed and sublime. Truly the serkhang of Lhalung is a place where time has stood still; the moments spent inside are cherished for long.

In Kinnaur, close to its border with Spiti, there is a small, fertile village called Nako surrounded by a vast barren and dusty landscape. The monastery of Nako is, along with the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra and the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu), one of the most important repositories of the ancient tradition of painting in India. It has murals dating back to the 11th century, which have retained their deep and lyrical grace.

The dukhang or prayer hall of Nako has a Vairocana shrine, in keeping with the monasteries associated with Rinchen Zangpo. As in the dukhangs surviving at Alchi and Mangyu, the walls are covered with mandalas of Buddhist deities. A remarkable Vairocana mandala covers the entire left wall of the dukhang. It is detailed with hundreds of painted divinities. Many of these are among the finest paintings surviving in India today.

A mural painting in the Sug Lakhang, which depicts Manjushri, the Bodhisattva, who cleaves the darkness of ignorance with the sword of his wisdom.-

The paintings of Nako are fine examples of original 11th century paintings. They have exquisite modelling of form and depiction of volume, which is achieved with the gradual lightening and deepening of colour. The painted figures portray a deep sense of peace. As is always the case with the classic art of India, these paintings present a deeply harmonic view of the world. Besides the depth of compassion, there is a lilting grace that lightens the spirit.

Besides the dukhang, the monastery of Nako has four other lakhangs, including the Lohtsawa Lakhang named after Rinchen Zangpo. These have fine mud statues and paintings of later periods.

Besides Nako, Kinnaur has a treasure of revered remnants of temples built by Rinchen Zangpo. Myths and legends surround the magical construction of these marvellous monasteries, under the supervision of Rinchen Zangpo, practically overnight. The residents of Ribba ascribe the building of the lakhang in their village to some mysterious happenings of one night. Rinchen Zangpo is believed to have felled a gigantic tree and built the temple overnight at the place where the top of the tree landed. The entire temple is believed to have been made from the wood of that single tree. When the villagers woke up in the morning, wondering about the sudden emergence of the building, Rinchen Zangpo is said to have soared from the roof of the temple across the river to Rarang, from where he consecrated the temple. A rock in Rarang is believed to have an impression of Rinchen Zangpo's back, and it is revered even today.

A sculpture at the Lhalung monastery showing the Buddha amidst lively mythical creatures and foliated designs.-

The original structure at Ribba is a Sumtsek, adjoining which there is also a later temple. It has a carved wooden ceiling and door panels, which are similar to those of the other trans-Himalayan temples of the 11th century. The shrine contains mud statues and some remnants of paintings on the walls.

The village of Kanam, also in Kinnaur, does not have a monastery associated with Rinchen Zangpo. However, it has a labrang where he is known to have stayed. The temples in the villages of Ropa and Puh also have associations with Zangpo.

Tabo lies in a fertile valley in Spiti and has remained accessible as it is located along the highway. Along with Alchi in Ladakh, Tabo has a surviving complex of many lakhangs. The Tabo complex provides a view of the trans-Himalayan Buddhist art from the end of the 10th century onwards.

A mural in the Sug Lakhang, the main prayer hall in Tabo monastery, a detail of figures worshipping relics of the Buddha.-

The main prayer hall of Tabo, the Sug Lakhang, has the oldest surviving sculptures and paintings. These date from the time of the founding of the monastery at the end of the 10th century, through a period of renovation in A.D.1042 and later stages. It presents a vast canvas of beautiful paintings, ranging from large depictions of Bodhisattvas across the walls to a lower register of paintings on a smaller scale depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha and the journey of Sudhana. These are exquisitely made paintings, though they do not achieve the heights of lyrical expression and lively forms found at Nako and Alchi.

In the earliest paintings of Tabo, the farther eye of the figures is seen protruding beyond the line of the face. This is seen in the Green Tara and other paintings of Alchi, and is a pan-Indian style seen in Jain manuscript paintings as well as later paintings in the Choti Kacheri temple in Uttar Pradesh (c. 13th century) and the Lepakshi temple in Andhra Pradesh (16th century).

Along with Alchi, Tabo is of immense value as it gives us a vision of the large and magnificently decorated temple complexes of Rinchen Zangpo's time. The Tabo complex consists of eight other temples besides the Sug Lakhang. These temples are also covered with wall paintings of later periods, perhaps 500 years after the founding of the complex. Besides, the Brom Ston Lakhang and others also retain some fine paintings on the ceilings, which can be dated to the 11th century. Of the paintings of the later period, those in the Gonkhang have a notable vitality and individuality.

There are 33 statues in the Sug Lakhang, made from local mud, of which the monastery structures are also made. These are dateable to either the time of the construction in A.D. 996 or the time of renovation in A.D. 1042. Most of these statues are placed against the walls of the temple and are graceful and expressive.

An exquisite sculputure at the Lhalung monastery, depicting the gentle expressions and grace of a Bodhisattva.-

Following the destruction of the great universities of eastern India and the Buddhist centres of Kashmir in the 12th and 13th centuries, the legacy of Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy and art came to be preserved in the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan regions. In the second great coming of Buddhism in the 11th century, the 108 monasteries created by Rinchen Zangpo carried the traditions of Buddhist philosophy and exquisite art to western Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur, where these were nurtured.

The murals of these surviving monasteries are particularly valuable as paintings of the early period have survived in very few places in the country.

The writer is an art-historian, film-maker and photographer. He is the author of The Ajanta Caves. He has documented and brought to public attention the vast treasures of the 11th century monasteries of Ladakh.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor