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Report 1932: Ladakh Takes Your Breath Away

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2011

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Page 20 of 25: Alchi Choshkar

photo by Michael

Sumtsek Lhakhang

A track drops down from the end of the road in Alchi, past souvenir shops and a tree said to have grown from the walking stick of Lotsava Rinchen Zango, the Great Translator, who translated many Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan in the 10thC and founded Alchi Choshkor.

The track goes round the outside of Alchi Choshkar, which is surrounded by a wall with small prayer wheels. There are views across the fields and up the river valley to where a new electricity plant is being built.

The oldest temples in Alchi were built around 1000AD by Rinchen Zangpo, who brought sculptors and wood carvers from Kashmir. They were abandoned in the 15thC. The wall paintings are some of the oldest surviving paintings in Ladakh, painted with semi precious stones and so have kept their colours. They are considered to be among the rarest and most extensive examples of Buddhist art in Jammu & Kashmir. Unfortunately no photographs are allowed in any of the temples although post cards and books are on sale in the Dukhang.

Try and visit in the mornings when it is quieter. It may be necessary to find a monk to unlock the temples.

Entry to the site is past large white chortens. The site consists of the Dukhang, Sumstek and Manjushri Lhakhangs which date from the 12-13thC. The Lotsava and Soma Lhakhangs are later.

The Dukhang is at the heart of the complex and is the largest of the temples. From the outside it looks a small, rather insignificant white mud brick building with a red band below the roof. Outside is a courtyard with a small building housing the butter lamps. Entry is through a low painted doorway.

There are two rooms inside. The outer room has plenty of natural light and has a small table where a monk sells books and postcards. In a corner, on the floor inside a glass case, is a beautiful mandala made from coloured sand. These are usually only kept a few days before being destroyed.

All the walls are covered with paintings. There are big and small Buddhas each different, with finely painted face details and each with a slightly different expression. We could identify bad hair days, smirks, cross eyes...

There is a low painted doorway which leads into the inner room. On either side is a glass shrine with statues. One has small plaster images of Buddha stuck on the side wall.

The inner room is much darker and has big mandala paintings on the walls. These are mainly dark blues and reds with touches of gold and silver on the arms. There is a frieze along the bottom of the wall. Above are large circles which contain a square divided into nine smaller squares. There is a circle inside each square with an image of Buddha painted in it. There is a large statue of Vairochana on a throne with lions. Ceilings and beams are all painted.

The Sumtsek Lhakhang is three storied with carved arches on an outside porch. There are old paintings of the 16 Arhats and five Buddhas on the walls of the porch. Being outside, these are the only paintings which can be photographed. The Lhakhang is entered by a very low carved doorway. The inside is dominated by a huge chorten which makes the Lhakhang seem dark. There are three huge statues of Buddha in recesses on the side walls. These are painted white and each has a brightly painted dhoti with different pictures.

The walls are covered with large squares made up of small circles containing an image of Buddha with a larger circle at the centre. Looking up the painted ceilings and big wall paintings of Buddha on second floor can be seen.

The Lotsava Lhakhang is through a wall and down a few steps. It is smaller and newer but has suffered badly from water damage and there are large cracks in the walls. Wall paintings have been redone and are disappointing as they lack the fine detail of the originals and look rather like rubber stamp copies. There isnít the range of colour or facial expressions.

Next door is the Manjustri Lhakhang which has painted ceilings and beams and a highly decorate statue of Buddha in the centre with four faces, each facing one of the cardinal directions.

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