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Ancient Murals of Alchi Monastery – an art-collector’s delight

September 23, 2011 3 min read

Alchi is a sleepy and simple unglorified village about 70 km to the West of Leh. Nothing in its approach route or in the buildings and structures of the village prepares you for the the visions that are about to blind you with their sheer beauty.

Even as you park in a tiny cramped space and walk between the curio shops that line the path to the gate of the monastery, you are not being prepared for the impact.

When the monastery building is sighted, it looks ordinary. Just like the many more you have seen in Ladakh – and if a comparison must be made, then these buildings look much less spectacular – much less artistically designed. And so you walk on. With a blank mind. Expecting to see a little historical stuff, memories of which will merge with the rest of the art seen in Ladakh. With so much exposure from photographing the art of the Thiksey, Hemis and Chemrey monasteries, the eyes are already well exposed and well saturated in the beauty of Ladakhi art. And so I am expecting a repetition, one more day of ‘ordinary’ beauty – i.e. ordinary in Ladakh, even though on the world platform it is spectacular.

I stop for a river side shot at the entrance, distracted by the bird’s eye view from the hillside on which Alchi monastery is located. I am in no hurry to go look at whats inside. Because I simply do not know what lies waiting for me. They said murals. And that sounded nice but my adrenalin was not really shooting up, after exposure to so many murals.

In all my years of collecting art, contemporary painting have never attracted me. They are nice but I never have felt the need and the greed to possess them. Antique paintings are another matter. The few that I have, I can stare at for hours and feel grateful for having my eyes to view them, and for having had the little money it took to buy them when I did. I have also lusted for several Indian folk paintings put up in museums to the point of feeling very very sad and dejected that I can never possess these. Antique and ancient paintings do bring out the worst greed in me.

So with this mindset I enter the temple complex. Pay the entrance fees to a monk, get my ticket, take off my shoes and step inside the dark unlit hall of the first temple. Windows at the top of the structure allow a little rays of light inside, and those allow me my first glimpses, until my eyes adjust to the dimness.

It was like being hit by a tidal wave of beauty, of color and of caricature. Completely swamped by painted art all 360 degrees around me, my vision was going crazy trying to capture it all. Adrenalin levels were getting unbearable. It was like the explorers of Egyptian pyramids must have felt when they first sighted the rooms full of treasures. I was getting drunk on the visuals. It was a feast and I was so thrilled and exhilerated to be there! All these extreme emotions, in a place of dim light, complete silence, peace and serenity – were completely antithetic. With Buddha watching over me, my eyes were dancing wildly as my spirit followed. It was truly intoxicating to be there. In one of Osho Rajneesh’s talks he describes a ‘baavla’ a spirit who loses himself in dancing to the beat of the universe. That word described me in those moments – losing myself dancing to the visions of those paintings. I lost awareness of all my senses …..except my eyes….the eyes were racing to keep up with the thirst of the brain.

Cameras were not allowed inside. And I have no pictures from inside the monastery temples. But a few from the structures outside the temples will be  posted below in October.

My memory will not remember the details of all I saw and that is really sad….because these visuals are easily the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen.

Here are some images of the interiors of  the outer chortens:

The paintings here cause a pain in the heart for art collectors, who may see and may covet but may never own these….I have felt the pain of intense greed in this monastery and felt the pain of futility of desire …..The irony is stark and glaring ….maybe my spiritual quotient needs some attention!

Hi res images of the complete set of Alchi mural images is available on www.jainamishra.com


Sept 2011

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