11th c. Treasures in Himalayan monasteries - BENOY BEHL
- by BENOY K. BEHL
The few surviving monasteries of the 11th century bring to light
important aspects of the development of Indian 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
Also see When the Ajanta Caves Lit Up