Alchi - A Priceless Cittamani
Alchi-yul-bskor, “The sanctified realm of Alchi,” is situated near the banks of the Indus River, west of the capital of Ladakh.
The sacred compound is called mChod-rten bskor-ba’i-yul, because it is surrounded by stupas.
Alchi, which was restored during the second transmission of Buddhism, lies in a remote valley of the Himalayan Plateau and can be likened to a priceless Cittamani.1 The chos-bskor, the “monastic compound,” consists of three temples and two mchod-rten that date back to its first construction: the gTsug-lha-khang, the “Main Temple” (referred to as “Dukhang”), the gSum-brtsegs, the “Three-tiered Temple,” the Jam-dpal-lha-khang, the “Manjushri Temple,” the Great Stupa, and the Small Stupa. Later temples are the Lo-tsa-ba’i-lha-khang, the “Translator’s Temple” which is dedicated to Lochen Rinchen Sangpo, and the Lha-khang-sar-ma, the “New(er) Temple.”2 An inscription in the Dukhang attributes the building of Alchi to Kalden Sherab (11th century) from Nyar-ma Monastery, which was founded by Lochen Rinchen Sangpo. David Snellgrove translated the inscription:
“Being worthy, he had attained a pure human body, and being wealthy, he was a great dispenser of gifts. Possessing wisdom, he understood profound teachings and progressed as one going along the ten stages from the first, known as ‘Joyful’ onwards. This teacher, so correctly named, knew the characteristic of worldly existence to be that of a mirage and that wealth and possessions are non-substantial, and so in order to instruct people in the essentiality of relativity, he asked for this monastery to be built as a place for meditation and study. With this purpose in mind, he expended wealth and possessions.”3
The inscription describing Kalden Sherab that Snellgrove and Skorupksi translated and published reads:
“He entered as a youth the religious life and underwent austerities, and was one of the noble ones who found a Middle Way between sutras and tantras. Exerting himself at the monastery of Nyar-ma in Mar-yul, by the favour of the abbot and other wise men, he sucked like a bee at the essence of their thoughts. Having accumulated merit in a previous life, now in this one he is wealthy. Free from avarice in his thoughts, he made gifts without distinction of persons. Remembering favours done, he did favours in return. In order to help living beings he constructed with difficulty the fort and the bridge. Disinterested acts of virtue and strict meditation he practised continually. He built here in the Alchi valley this great monastery, his faith being the main factor and his wealth the secondary one.”4
The Dukhang, “Main Temple,” is the largest and earliest structure in Alchi. Ruins of the ancient fort stand on the hill in the back.
Mural of the Wheel of Life at the entrance to the Dukhang.5
Repainted four-headed Buddha Vairocana in what may be the tranquil state of teaching in the Dukhang. He is seated on a richly ornamented throne-frame that is flanked by four goddesses. The paintings and sculptures in the earlier temples of Alchi mostly refer to Vairocana Buddha in his form as Kunrigs, “Omniscient One.” Vairocana’s throne is decorated with lions that represent his vehicle and is surmounted by gandharvas, who are blowing trumpets while riding winged serpents.6 The votive plaque dedicated to Tsongkapa may have been placed between Buddha Vairocana and Akshobhya much later.
The Sumtsek Lhakhang
Everything in the Alchi Sumtsek accords with the times of Lochen Rinchen Sangpo (958-1055 A.D.) and serves as a testimonial of more than a commitment and oath. Lochen’s accomplishments are an answer of profound engagement to deeper, richer, and bountiful truths and have not withdrawn in 1000 years. Being one of the world’s most celebrated temples, Sumtsek is a coherent whole embedded within stupas and it remains a powerful force of attraction that is concealed behind tall poplar trees. It is recorded that Rinchen Sangpo planted the mchod-rte-shing, “the papal tree,” at the entrance.7
Lord Buddha is seated in a triangular arch directly above the entrance to Sumtsek Lhakhang. The protruding lion-head beam-ends are testimonies of Kashmiri woodwork crafting.
Above the carved wooden doorway is an auspicious kyung or mkha’-lding (Sanskrit garuda) that symbolizes the stream charged with courage and spirit of supreme ripeness.8 The garuda is suspended beneath Lord Buddha, who invites everyone to partake of rare blessings; the figures on both of his sides are in the pose of enthusiastic attention and service. The upper partition of the doorway is carved with the Five Buddhas; the side frames are ornamented with floral and animal designs.
On this mural inside the Sumtsek, Bodhisattva Manjushri is surrounded by a vast array of smaller images of himself depicted in the colours of the Five Buddhas (white, blue, yellow, red, and green). The mandala may have been redecorated in the 16th century. Snellgrove and Skorupski asked, “Who could have produced such a complexity of styles in Ladakh in the 11th century?” They concluded, “Probably Tibetan painters who, while preserving much that had been learned in Tibetan Central Asia, had by this time been already working for several decades side by side with Kashmiri artists.”9
Inside the Sumtsek, the clay sculpture of Buddha Maitreya in the northern niche of the main wall, opposite the entrance; Bodhisattva Chenrezig stands to his right side and Bodhisattva Manjushri to his left. Each statue has four arms and is 4m high, Maitreya a little higher. The robe of Maitreya Buddha is decorated with 48 episodes from the life of Buddha Shakyamuni, 41 beginning with the last sojourn to Tushita and ending with the First Sermon at Dear Park, 5 scenes preaching, and 2 depicting Lord Buddha’s Parinirvana. The robe of the Lord of Compassion is adorned with pictures of sacred places in Kashmir. The robe of Manjushri shows the 84 Mahasiddhas, all painted figures adorned with a halo. Each niche for a statue also has 4 secondary deities and 2 flying goddesses.10
The walls of the second floor of the Sumtsek are elaborately decorated with paintings of Vairocana Buddha at the height of Buddha Maitreya’s head, with murals of the 11-headed Chenrezig at the height of Chenrezig’s head, and with murals of Prajnaparamita at the height of Manjushri’s head. The walls of the third floor are painted with protecting divinities and rows of religious masters. An inscription on the wall near the head of Buddha Maitreya reads:
“Towards the north of Jambudvipa is this snowy land with its high mountains and good soil, ‘Pugyal’s Tibet.’ It is filled with Dharma practitioners who possess the thought of enlightenment. It is the abode of many scholars and noble men in Upper Ngari, and here in Alchi this precious tiered temple has been founded by the teacher and benefactor Tsultim Od, who is of noble lineage, of high rank, of the Bro’ clan.”11
Bodhisattva Chenrezig, western niche -
Bodhisattva Manjushri, eastern niche.
Each Bodhisattva has an entourage of small divinities in stucco, an attending goddess of Buddha Maitreya to his right side and
one to his left side.
An inscription on the wall of the ground floor at Buddha Maitreya’s left foot states:
“Tsul-khrims-‘od, in order to demonstrate that possessions are non-substantial and to inculcate the essentiality of universal relativity, has set up these three receptacles of Body, Speech and Mind. In order to remove bodily impurities and to obtain a Nirmanakaya, he has set up Manjushri as a ‘Buddha-Body’ image. In order to remove vocal impurities and obtain a Sambhogakaya, he has set up Avalokiteshvara as a ‘Buddha-Speech’ image. In order to remove mental impurities and to obtain a Dharmakaya, he has set up Maitreya as a ‘Buddha-Mind’ image.”12
A stupa was erected in the centre of Sumtsek Lhakhang.
The upper wall of the entrance to the Lhakhang (perhaps 11th century) clearly shows the architectural structure for earliest buildings, of stonewalls, wooden beams, and columns for the roof.
An inscription on a wall in the Lotsawa Lhakhang is a homage to Palden Atisha, to his disciples, and spiritual sons:
“Lamas who come into the world in succession like Buddhas of the Good Age (‘Lord of the Dharma’), protector of living beings, father and son with their great unequalled love, Rinchen, the Jewel, King of Initiations, giving contentment to living beings, I bow in salutation to these peerless Lamas, the leaders of living beings.”13
Murals of Buddhas, praying or teaching, above a large stupa. Snellgrove & Skorupski explained that “variant styles of stupas had been produced in India, and these slightly differing forms have been produced in great profusion in Ladakh. Such a choten tends to become a little shrine and thus be constructed inside wherever an appropriate place may be found.”14
Blessings and prayers!All photos taken in Alchi in 1983 by Gaby Hollmann, compiled in 2007, copyright.
1 Citta is “mind” in Sanskrit, mani is “stone,” ratna is “jewel.” The site of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa wrote, “Cintamani is literally the ‘thought-stone’ or the stone which magnifies one’s thoughts, i.e., fulfils one’s wishes.” Site of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa, Lord Padmasambhava, Embodiment of all Buddhas, kagyuoffice.org, 2006, note 13. – The famed French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) knew, “Instead of saying that a spiritual spirit is a material spirit - or more simply that a spirit is spiritual - we should say that an elemental spirit has become an element. We progress from qualities to a substance. Conversely, when we yield completely to material imagination, the material dreamed in its elemental power will rise to become a spirit, a will.” Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams - An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, translated from French by Edith R. Farrell, 3rd printing, Dallas, 1999, p. 116.2 See the site: Univie.ac.at/itba, Feb. 2006.3 David L. Snellgrove & Tadeusz Skorupski, The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, Prajna Press, Boulder, 1977, page 30.4 Ibid., p. 30.5 For a description of the Wheel of Life, see Thrangu Rinpoche, The Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination, free download in the site of Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche.6 Gandharvas are the Sanskrit term for the Tibetan dri-za, described by Thrangu Rinpoche as „a class of deities who are celestial musicians and live on odours.” Thrangu Rinpoche, Transcending Ego, Namo Buddha Publications, Boulder, Co., 2001, p. 64. The Rangjung Yeshe Glossary of Terms (2005) states, “(…) one of the eight kinds of nonhuman beings who protect Buddhism.”7 A legend surrounds the construction of the 11th century Monastery of Nako in Ribba (situated close to the border of Spiti). Rinchen Sangpo is believed to have felled a gigantic tree and built the temple overnight exactly where the top of the tree landed. The entire temple is said to be made from the wood of that tree. When the villagers woke up the next morning and were surprised to see the new temple, they saw Rinchen Sangpo fly from the roof to the other side of the Rarang River nearby, from where he consecrated the precious site. A rock can still be seen at Rarang with an impression of Rinchen Sangpo’s back. See Benoy K. Behl, Treasures in Monasteries, online, 2006.8 See especially Milarepa, The Anger Cooling Song, in: Selected Songs of Realization as taught by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, translated by Jim Scott, Hamburg, 1996, pp. 40-42. Furthermore, garuda is “the mythological bird, able to travel form one end of the universe to the other with a single movement of its wings. It is also known to hatch from the egg fully developed and ready to soar through the sky.” Yeshe Tsogyal revealed by Nyang Ral Nyima Oser, The Lotus-Born. The Life of Padmasambhava. Foreword by Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Boudhanath, 2004, p. 252.9 Snellgrove & Skorupski, ibid., p. 40.10 See Christian Luczanits, The Life of the Buddha in Sumtsek, in: Orientations 30, issue 1, 1999, pp. 30-39.11 Snellgrove & Skorupski, ibid., pp. 45-46.12 Ibid., p. 48.13 Ibid., p. 71.14 Ibid., p. 77.