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Admire the ancient wall paintings in the temple at Alchi, one of Ladakh’s cultural treasures.
Alchi is one of Ladakh’s foremost cultural attractions on account of its superbly preserved frescoes, many of which date from the early medieval period. As the monks are no longer in residence, and it’s a key stop on package tours in the summer months, it can feel overly touristy: try to get here early or late in the day when it is not crowded, and appreciate it as you would a museum rather than as a living monastic community.
The monastery complex of Alchi Chhoskhor (open: 08.00–18.00, closed 13.00–14.00; entrance fee Rs20/50 local/foreigner) is composed of six temples, stupas, Mani stones and monks’ cells. Tradition has it that Alchi was founded by Rinchen Zangpo during his visit to Ladakh in the early 11th century, though the earliest surviving buildings date from around 200 years later. Although it remains a holy place first and a tourist attraction second, the monks no longer live here: it is cared for by Gelugpa monks from Likir.
Buddhist stupas and a monastery in Ladakh stand out amidst the stark, barren landscape © Vladimir Melnik, Shutterstock
The oldest of the temples at Alchi, and indeed one of the oldest in Ladakh, is the Sumtsek Lhakhang, which dates from 1217. This three-storey structure is built in a traditional Tibetan style but decorated with delicate woodcarvings and fine, tapered columns more typically associated with the artisans of Kashmir. Inside, the wall by the door is covered with 1,028 blue Buddhas, and some of the statues set into niches are as much as 5m tall. The quality of the frescoes is unrivalled, though in places modern restoration work has been poorly executed.
Roughly contemporary to this is the dukhang at the centre of the complex. The wooden door is believed to be original, and hence is more than 800 years old. Here 1,000 small Buddhas are painted on to the walls alongside numerous mandalas, divinities (both male and female) and protectors of the temple.
The newest of these three temples (though only by a decade or so!) is the Jampe Lhakhang, which experts have inferred dates from around 1225. The interior here is less well preserved (probably due to the proximity to the river), but there are still some striking items: the four images of the boddhisatva Manjushri (from which the lhakhang takes its alternative name, the Manjushri Temple) sat back to back atop a vast platform; further images of Manjushri seated on a lion throne, flanked by lions, wearing a crown of flowers, and bedecked in jewels; and a painted wooden ceiling.