A Guide to its Murals
Rolf Gross
February 1996

Alchi is a group of 5 small temples in the Indus Valley in Ladakh, about half-way between Leh (64 km) and Khalatse (55 km). Although the buildings are small and inconspicuous, they house a plethora of superb murals that are unique among surviving Tibetan painting. At one time Alchi was a monastery of the Kadampa, it seems to have later changed to the Drigung-Kargyüpa order and has now practically reverted to the status of a museum which is being administered by the monks from Likir.
Once you are in Ladakh a visit to Alchi is an absolut must. It houses by far the most beautiful murals of all Tibetan gompas. Take as many big flashlights along as you can find, the place is dark. You will need at least 2 hours to see all, and you will probably want to go back a second time.
Bus connections to Alchi are less than convenient, only one bus a day from/to Leh, you have to stay overnight. Of course, one can always rent a taxi from Leh. The one-way trip from Leh to Alchi takes about 2 hours. One can also take the bus to Khalatse and get off at the Alchi turn-off above the Alchi bridge on the main road and walk to Alchi, an interesting hike of about 40 min: Just above the bridge, in the two big turns of the side-road to Alchi is a field strewn with big rocks. Many have inscriptions and drawings that date from the 8th and 9th century when the Tibetan army camped here! Form these grafitti it is possible to identify the home towns of the army detachments. Then follow long rows of chörtens and mani walls with some of the most beautiful mani stones in the valley.
In 1986 there were two guest houses in Alchi. We stayed in the old, two-story house adjacent to the gompa compound, cheap and spartan but ok. There is a newer one in a "modern", one-story house near where the cars park and the bus stops. Simple food can be found in the older guest house. In the summer there is also a "tent-hotel" for German tour groups.
One special note: The monks in the Ladakhi monasteries will request a small entrance fee of the order of 1 or 2 dollars and issue you a ticket. The monasteries in Ladakh used to be supported by the local princes and communities. The princes are long gone, the communities are impoverished. The Indian government is highly desinterested in and the local Kashmiri Moslem government is even hostile towards their Buddhist minorities. Foreign tourists have become the major source of income for the Ladakhi monasteries. Do not be stingy, they need your money badly. -
In addition the treasures of Alchi are so special and in such dire need of protection and repair that an additional larger amount of money specifically given to the monk for, e. g., the repair and stabilisation of the Sumtsek is highly in order - if you enjoyed yourself in this Paradise. - Ask the monk for a receipt in some form (e.g., an equivalent number of tickets) to make sure he does deliver the money to his prior!

Map of Alchi Gompa
1. Various buildings (old guesthouse) 2. Soma Lakhang, 3. Kangyur Lakhang, 4. Sumtsek, 5. Dukhang, 6. courtyard, 7. Garden, 8. Lotsawa Lakkhang, 9. Manjushri Lakhang, 10. Chörten
The most important murals are in the Sumtsek which, together with the Dukhang, are the oldest buildings. If you are not pressed for time, I recommend to go backwards in time and first see the Lotsawa and the Manjushri Lakhang, the Soma Lakhang, and the Dukhang - in that order - to adjust your vision and gain a better appreciation for the superb quality of the murals in the Sumtsek. This is especially recommended to anybody who is not familiar with Tibetan religious paintings. - But do not spend more than half an hour in these rooms, do not exhaust your eyes! If you do not have much time, look only into the Dukhang and visit the Sumtsek extensively.

Lotsawa Lakhang
There are two small rooms behind a porch in the garden near and north of the Dukhang. The Lotsawa Lakhang (Hall of the Translator) is dedicated to the monk and translator of Indian sutras Rinchen Sangpo (958-1055), who was born in Sumda, a small village a few hours across the mountains south of Alchi. Rinchen Sangpo was probably the founder, certainly the spiritual mentor behind the murals of Alchi. His portrait, red monk's coat, no hat, hands in the teaching mudra (turning the wheel), appears behind the central stucco-sculpture on the left of the rear (West) wall of the room.
In the beginning - if you are not a Tibetan Buddhist - try to overlook the sculptures in the temples. Many are contemporary with the buildings, but compared to the murals they are primitive, and most of them have been garishly repainted recently. - Of course, - made from clay and filled with sacred manuscripts - they are the objects of veneration to the faithful - and the gilded Bodhisattva Shakyamuni - or Gautama, the historical, human incarnation of Buddha Amitabha - in the Lotsava Lakhang is, although conventional, one of the more beautiful sculptures at Alchi. The white shawls are gifts by the pilgrims. The two doll-like sculptures on both sides of Shakyamuni are Rinchen Sangpo on your left and Lokeshvara, a tantric, four-armed Jidam-version of Shakyamuni on your right.
You have to get used to the fact that each of the five fundamental "Djanibuddhas" of the Tibetan Buddhist Tantrayana has a large number of "Bodhisattvas", incarnations that are symbolic images of the different spheres in time ("kalpa") and insight (enlightenment). - (See the "Guide to the Tibetan Buddhas"). The many arms and many heads or faces, another concept startling to the western observer, express the multivariedness of psychic images. Like dream images, psychic images seen in deep meditation have more than one meaning, they are multi-dimendional.
In Alchi it is also important to remember that spiritual "wisdom" (prajna, female, corresponding to Sophia in the Hellenistic gnosis) in the Tantrayana is the domain of the woman (only Woman knows the absolute Truths of Life!), so several of the images in the Sumtsek are entirely populated with female emanations of one of the five Buddhas.

The central mural behind the "altar" repeats the same triad: Shakyamuni flanked by Rinchen Sangpo and Lokeshvara. These represent the first level of meditational, or spiritual insight.
The left wall shows the next higher step in meditational or spiritual-psychological visualization: Two large mandalas flank an image of the overriding Buddha Amitabha in the checkered coat worn by Buddhist mendicants and Sufi(!) alike. The left mandala has Avalokiteshvara, the Djani-Bodhisattva of Amitabha at its center surrounded by the male representations of Amitabha. The right mandala shows their complementary female representations with Pandara at the center. All of these figures have names - two in fact, a Sanscrit and a Tibetan one - and are symbols of a particular psychic state of awareness.
Entering through the gate in the "East", at the bottom of the mandala, the meditating student (the "mystagogue" in the Greek gnosis) follows a clock-wise path through the mandala concentrating in turn on each personification until he reaches the center. In the process he identifies himself with each of the psychic states that define the complex of Amitabha.
The three images are surrounded by "one-thousand Buddhas" separately identified by their four colors (blue, yellow, red, green) and four mudras. Amitabha is red and holds his hands in his lap in the meditational mudra.
Finally there is the only fierce image in the room, a blue Mahakala over the door. This image exists in all Tibetan shrines in this place. Mahakala is the great Protector of the Dharma, a wrathful manifestation of Avalokitéshvara. On the internal level he is able to cut down the ego. To show this he tramples on a human body - usually female (!) - that represents Maya, the multiplicity of the world, but also the Ego both of which have to be overcome by the meditator.
Aesthetically and artistically the murals of the Lotsawa Lakhang are a mixture of the two styles found in the Sumtsek (style 1) and in the Soma Lakhang (style 2). They are coarser and more primitiv, which leads to the conclusion that they are imitations of the two styles painted by local artists after the paintings in other two buildings were finished, perhaps in the 12th or 13th century. The figures of the Buddha and Budhisattvas are copied from those in the Sumtsek. The figures between, and especially the devellish faces below Rinchen Sangpo's portrait, are copied from those in the Soma Lakhang, they ward off the evil spirits that may distract the meditator.
Pay attention to and remember the ornamentations directly above and to the right and left of the main images: Apsaras (female "angels") blow trumpets assisted by various, curious mythical beasts taken from Indian mythology.

The neighboring Manjushri Lakhang is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Manjushri, who is shown in his four manifestations as a central group of stucco images. The murals in this room are in sad condition and have been painted over by new, inconsequential murals. Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom and literature, a version of Maitrya, the Bodhisattva of the future in the Amoghasiddhi-Buddha family, but in the Tantra he can also assume forms derived from each of the other three Buddha families, hence the three images of the altar sculpture. The sculptures are contemporary with the murals in the Sumtsek, but have been overpainted quite recently.

Lakhang Soma
The Soma Lakhang (New Temple) is the nearly cubic, white-washed building, slightly set back, next to and south of the Sumtsek. An unadorned single door leads into an overwhelming space: its four walls are covered with a profusion of murals from top to bottom.
A complete, sequential identification of all images would go beyond this brief description. However, a few images we recognize: A blue Mahakala over the door, Shakyamuni in red in the center of the wall facing the visitor, three large mandalas, dedicated to tantric cycles, on the left wall, and the Medicine Buddha (blue) surrounded by "one-thousand Buddhas" on the right-hand wall.
What is interesting about these murals is that here, for the first time, appear the multi-armed and multi-headed "fierce" manifestations in sexual union (Yab-Yum) with their female partners that are characteristic of the Tantric cycles practiced by the Kargyüpa of the Drigung Order. This change from Kadampa to the more radical Kargyüpa may have happened in the 12th century.
These Tantric images are visible on the highest tier of the wall opposite to the door. On the left of the observer, right-hand of Shakyamuni, are shown the Bodhisattva Vajrapani (see the Table of "Buddhas of the Vajrayana Mandala"), Guhya-Manjuvajra, and Kalachakra, and to the left-hand of Shakyamuni: Hevajra-Heruka, Samvara, and finally Mahamaya-Heruka.
Each of these multi-armed figures stands for an entire family of Bodhisattvas, male and female, who populate the mantras used in the meditational exercises of the Tantrayana that came to Tibet in the 10th and 11th century. They are seen in union with their female conjugations, to express the main object of the Tantra: the Union of Opposites, a process that was designed to remove the last barriers of rationalistic thinking and open up a vision of the un-divided sphere of the Supreme Buddha in the student.
It should be remembered that these temples were used primarily by the monks of the monastery for meditational practices. As is still the case today, the general public only visits these places on pilgrimages, prays to the main images and lights butter lamps. There was and still is - except for very recent mass-initiations into the Kalachakra by the Dalai Lama - no equivalent to a Western lay-service in Tibetan Buddhism. This explains why the sanctuaries are so small and the imagery so highly esoteric. - It also explains in part why Islam has spread - and is still spreading - in Ladakh: It has an agressive "social program" and addresses and cares for the lay community not only the monks.
The figures are embedded in a vast profusion of images, some figures are identifiable by their color, instruments, number of arms or mudra - others appear to simply fill wall-space.
Discernible are several bands of paintings depicting stories low on the entrance wall: scenes from the life teaching of the Gautama Shakyamuni - so-called "Jataka Stories". It is interesting to notice the many palm trees in these pictures - and another pecularity, whenever the face of a person is shown in profile, the hidden eye is separated and drawn outside the body. Both the peculiar eyes - which also recur in the Dukhang and the Sumtsek but only very rarely anywhere else - and the palms are typical of early Jain manuscript illuminations. The Jain are the third split-off (about 500 BC) religion from Hinduism in India. It is not entirely clear how these artistic mannerisms came to Alchi (perhaps as thankas?), but they do show the complicated conglomerate of influences brought by the artists from outside Tibet. In fact, on closer inspection of the murals in the Lakhang Soma it appears that the characteristic features of these style-2 murals in their entirety have Jain connotations - for example the shapes of the figures and the devillish faces under the large Shakyamuni - seen also earlier in the Lotsawa Lakhang - are also typically Jain.

The Dukhang serves the monks as their meditation room, it is the only active part of the complex. An uninhibited examination of its murals is, therefore, difficult.
To enter the Dukhang one has to pass a partially roofed courtyard which has a number of simple murals, however the wood carvings deserve more attention.
On the southern wall, below a panel crowded with Tantric Bodhisattva figures are two bands showing Jataka stories. The two panels with ships full of people in the ocean, and the scene with the pool crowded with female(?) Bodhisattvas are parts of a story of a rich Indian merchant, a follower of the Gautama, and his daughter Maitrakanyaka. One nude female reclines in a most nonchalant position at the pool's edge, aura and all! The same story has an elaborate rendition in one of the cave paintings (7th cent) at Kizil in Central Asia. Below are the lush gardens of India. A four-armed Prajnaparamita in a medallion presides over these, for Ladakh, paradisical scenes.
The wood work around the door to the sanctuary is a rare piece of original Kashmiri carving from the 11th cent. So is the gable: fable-animals, a lotus blossom, all gaily painted. The figure under the overhang represents Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of transcendental insight. His female conjugation, a six-armed Prajnaparamita, appears prominently in the frame above the door. The side-frames are filled with four Boddhisattvas and Taras that still show their Ghandara-Hellenistic inspiration. Ten scenes from the life of Shakyamuni (e.g. his birth) are found on the next outer band.
The interior contains an altar sculpture, a small chörten containing the ashes of a revered Abbott, rows of cushions on which the monks sit during service - and a number of remarkable murals.
This time the stucco altar is dominated by a gilded image of Vairocana the central embodiment of the insight the Vajrayana promises. He is surrounded by an astonishing scroll work of angels blowing trumpets, fabled animals, - improbable cross-breeds between dolphin and elefant-seal higher up and variations of hungry lions, showing their fierce teeth, below. The outer fringe contains shelves with various crowned, Tantric Bodhisattvas. The "lions" are relatives of contemporary Jain(?) sculptures in Khajuraho (11th century) where they appropriately represent the Beast of Desire. With only minor modifications this altar could easily grace a Bavarian baroque church of the 18th century! - It is, as will soon turn out, a faithful plastic rendition of the scroll work surrounding the Buddha images in the murals of the Sumtsek. A lesser imitation we have already encountered on the altar in the Manjushri Lakhang.
The murals of the Dukhang are in the style of the Sumtsek, but because they are harder to inspect here let us be brief and look only at a few unusual features.
Of the large mandalas on the left wall, one is a Saravid mandala dedicated to Vairocana, i.e., with four heads but only two arms, surrounded by his male and female emanations, the other shows Manjushri surrounded by his hierophanies (appearances) in forms of the Djanibuddhas (2) or their female conterparts (2). This mandala is known as Dharmadhatu-mandala. A beautiful, but badly damaged green Tara (Amogasiddhi, future Buddha) as Prajnaparamita appears in a scroll-work medallion between the two mandalas. Her counterpart, Manjushri also appears on the right wall. Next to and left of the door is another Saravid mandala but with a white (Vairocana) Prajnaparamita at the center. - This shows the - to the uninitiated - bewildering interchangeability of Tantric images, but also the important rôle the female aspect plays.
On the right side of the door (facing it) are a few scenes showing the donors(?) of the temple, a practice specific to Western Tibet - and probably inherited from Central Asian painting. The remarkable scene is one in which the king is served tea or wine by his demur wife. The important detail is their dress and head gear. The king wears a precious silk robe embellished with heraldic lions - which are of Iranian origin! The lady is draped in a diaphonous veil no less elegant. This scene and a parallel one in the Sumtsek have given the art historians much headache. The simple explanation is probably that this mode of dressing was de rigeur at the royal courts in Kashmir and Ladakh at the time.

After this excursion into the iconography of 11th-century Tantric painting, we hope to be able to enjoy the murals of the Dukhang unrestrained.
However, as we enter, we are at once and literally overwhelmed by three huge, multi-armed - and clumsy stucco giants (the anatomical question of how to attach four arms to the body is always a tricky question, here the arms separate at the elbow, how inconvenient!). - They stand, two stories tall, in the wall niches of the three directions the mandala the Sumtsek represents. Their heads are in the clouds, their eyes staring at the mandalas of the second story. We feel dwarfed, but then realize that they are dressed in spectacularly painted dhotis (long Indian loin cloths) right at our eye level.
Clockwise, the giants represent the three Bodhisattvas of transcendental insight: Avalokitéshvara, Maitreya (or Vishvapani?), and Manjúshri. Their dhotis are the non-plus-ultra of Alchi - and of Tibetan painting. No manuals, no doctrins, and no (known) precedence restricted the artists, their imagination went absolutely wild. - So take your flash lights and reading glasses and let yourself be transported by this dhoti-world. - There is actually little to explain, because we do not know much about this world.
The first giant, Avalokitéshvara, shows a fantastic world of three-storied houses in which royal couples have a tet-a-tet and saintly ladies watch knights on and off horses, chörtens, footmen blowing trumpets, archers, a falconer, banners and baldachins, a topless lady waving. Notice the turbaned king on horseback with his precious coat. All have the Jain eye! Between the houses are a number of temples with images of Buddhas, adorants suround them. Full-bosomed apsaras fly through the air with banners. Notice the uncanny trompe l'oeil that foreshortens the perspective as the cloth tucks between the legs. - What is going on here? One reviewer believes that these are the many temples that Rinchem Sangpo founded and the noblemen that funded his effort. Another sees in this a symbol of the spreading of the Mahayana to many lands. But who cares, you can look at this one dhoti for an hour and discover still new details!
The next giant Maitreya's (or Vishvapani's) loincloth is even more exotic, but here we can at least make out teaching and initiation scenes. One interpreter believes that these are Jataka stories. Male and female Bodhisattvas teaching, a few royal donors on horse back or feasting with their women, warriors in a sword dance, a beautiful woman in lotus position with three feathers(?) on her head, a chörten, apsaras flying overhead. Every scene is neatly packed into a round medallion connected to the next one by vajras. In the interstices between the circles rabbits chase each other - Symbols of Samsara? "The world multiplying . . . like rabbits?"
Manjushri's dhoti is covered with an, at first sight, very restrained ornamental pattern of red and orange squares on a green background until one gets closer and notices that between the ornaments happen the wildest Tantric scenes. Most reviewers see these as Indian Mahasiddhas, fully illuminated yogi, giving Tantric instructions: Tantric dancers, holy men teaching diminutive female students - and the reverse too, some gurus have their students sitting in their lap, a few trees, there is much gesticulating with the hands, here and there an especially exuberant female dances all by herself - almost everyone is stark naked. What dynamic, uninhibited human bodies. How dull is our Western religion, are our Western saints! What a beautiful way to gain the supreme, transcendental insight Manjusri promises!
But maybe all of this does not depict the "unreal" world of Samsara and Suffering, - could these be scenes from the "real" Paradise of the Buddhas? This point of view is supported by positively identifyable scenes of the Buddhas' paradises on the walls of the - alas inaccessible - second floor, that can only be admired in reproductions. - Don't try to scale the rickety ladder outside to the upper deck! I tried that, and the good monk, who held the key and had taken our money, got very upset, besides the whole structure is so flimsy that you would almost certainly break through.
It is my contention that the postage-stamp-sized mural details of the Sumtsek, painted by Kashmiri artists, eventually go back to the illuminated manuscripts of the Central Asian Manichean communities (8-9th cent), and that the modern Kashmiri boxes are their last survivors. Possibly they came to Kashmir and to Ladakh in the form of thankas. - However, although Tucci makes a remark in this direction, nobody else supports me. . .
Some of the most interesting paintings cover the walls of the niches of the Bodhisattvas. To the right and left of Manjushri are the only two royal scenes of the first floor: One is reminiscent of the drinking scene in the Dukhang , the other shows the queen(?) between a lama with a conical Chinese(?) style hat and a prince all in black. My favorite however is the beautiful Prajnaparamita on the left of Avalokitéshvara. Across from her is a Bodhisattva (Amitayus) surrounded by most fantastic animals and apsaras on a red background. The dress of the Bodhisattva is embroidered with miniture elephants each with a mahout archer. You almost need a magnifying glass to appreciate the perfection of these figures!
The same is true of the murals covering the three walls. The southern wall (both sides of Avalokitéshvara) are dedicated to Amitabha, who thrones in a most sumptuously embellished medallion among hundreds of small Buddha figures. Amitabha in deep meditation wears a dark blue robe covered with fantasy-elephants. On the dress of the Amitabha on the western side of the niche the elephants are replaced by riders on horses. Both sit on a throne of blue geese - who are supposed to be peacocks, the numinous animal of Amitabha! See the musicians underneath the second Amitabha playing a traverse-flute(!) and a bowed string instrument among others? They come from central Asia and ultimately from Iran.
The western end-wall on both sides of Maitreja is dedicated to Akshobya whose hautingly simple, dark blue image, clad in a white chiton, sits on his throne of elephants. Notice that the surrounding Buddhas are likewise identical Akshobyas in the earth-calling mudra. Water leaking from the roof has obliterated part of the left half of this wall.
The northern wall to both sides of Manjushri is covered with hundreds of Manjushris in the four colors of the Djanibuddhas. The two central images are also four-armed Manjushris in the yellow color of Ratnasambhava. Which shows the mutability but also the omniscence of this Tantric Bodhisattva.
Last not least, don't forget to have a close look at the ceiling. You will find a panel with archers on horses, another very ornamental one also with archers but interspersed with fighting lions. These are Iranian inspired. Yet another panel shows sword-fighting, female dancers in round medallions among more riders, some on elephants.
The murals of the inaccessible Second Floor can only be glimpsed at from below. Its walls are filled with large mandalas and, on the far, Western wall, with panels showing the paradises of the five Djanibuddhas.
On the right (North) wall are two mandalas of the five Djanibuddhas. The left one is unique, it is made up entirely of their female aspects with Vajrayogini, the female aspect of Vairocana, at the center. The right mandala shows their male counterparts. Above the Bodhisattva sculptures are their corresponding Tantric images: above Avalokitéshvara his widely occuring 11-headed, 22-armed form can be seen. As his appropriate complement appears, above Manjushri, an 8-armed Prajnaparamita, and above Maitreya a simple Shakyamuni as Vairocana.
The Third Floor shows only more the three mandalas of the three protector Yidams of this shrine in their highest forms: Avalokitéshvara, Manjushri, and Prajnaparamita, the personifications of the three paths to salvation: Compassion (Avalokiteshvara), Transcendental Insight (Manjushri), and Transcendental Wisdom (Prajnaparamita). This floor is the sum-total of Alchi, the ultimate key to its program.
However, never mind all these complex relations, meanings, explanations, and names, for us the greatest pleasure of this room lies simply in looking at the magical beauty of its paintings - for hours!
As you leave take note of the carved entry and balcony, they date from the 11th century and are rare and unique, only a door in the Lhasa Jokhang and a door-frame in the White Tempel of Tsaparang are comparable. All three were carved by Kashmiri craftsmen.

A Guide to the Buddhist Cham-Mystery Dances
at Hemis Gompa, Ladakh
Rolf Gross
February 1996

Mystery plays were once performed at many monasteries in Tibet and Bhutan, today they survive only in Ladakh in their original form. In part this has to do with the large number of Kargyükpa monasteries in Ladakh which still harbor elements of the magical rites of pre-Buddhist times. The personae and symbols of the Cham dances have their origin in early Bön rites, where they were part of the winter solistice celebrations in the first month of the new year. Animal sacrifices, fertility magic, and the exorcism of demons were their theme and object. Buddhism simply clothed them in an often only slightly modified guise: demonstrating the victory of the Dharma over the demons and glorifying the deeds of the great magician and Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava.
For this reason the most important Cham dances of Ladakh take place in the winter months. The following is a list of the Ladakhi Cham festivals with their dates. Because they follow the lunar calendar their dates in the Gregorian calender vary. For 1996 I made these astrological calculations myself, so please check with the monks, they may have different ideas - especially when they try to increase their income from the tourists!
Tibetan religious New Year is on the second new-moon in the Gregorian
calender year
hence in 1996



18 Feb 1996

STOK Guru Setchu:

9-10. day of 1st month

27-28 Feb 96

MATHO Nanrang

14-15. day of 1st month

3- 4 Mar 96


29-30. day of 2nd month

16-17 Apr 96

HEMIS Guru Setchu

10-11. day of 5th month

27-28 Jun 96



15-16 Aug 96



4-25 Aug 96



29-30 Oct 96


17-18. day of 11th month

5- 7 Dec 96


18-19. day of 11th month

7- 8 Dec 96

LIKIR Gugtor

28-30. day of 12th month

14-16 Feb 96

LEH Dosmoche

29-30. day of 12th month

15-16 Feb 96