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21st July 2010
Preserving Alchi Frescoes-II


For our second day’s stay in the school we had a better meal at dinner time. Assadullah had managed to get a chicken from the village. However, we could not take any non-vegetarian food to the monastery for lunch and we remained confined to vegetables and fruit.


The second day we used the 35 mm Nikon camera and took shots of the miniatures. There were so many and we had to make a selection. Some of the frescoes were peeling off and some had been dirtied over a period of time. However, the most alarming was the deterioration of the mud walls due to seepage of rain. Apart from seepage lines coming down from top, some portions had started peeling off. There seemed urgent need to take some measures for preservation of these invaluable wall paintings. We would bring the fact of the deterioration of these frescoes to the knowledge of the concerned agencies but due to lack of expertise one was not sure whether these could be saved? In any case, we restarted our photographic mission. We first concentrated on the legs of the three standing Buddha statues. It was a very tedious job to focus on these miniatures especially in poor light. We had to use our light. The flash was not useful as it would bounce back from the shine. Also it would damage the frescoes. We sometimes used indirect flash by bouncing it against a white sheet. It took us almost whole day in photographing the miniatures both in 35 mm and wide format.


After having some tea and pack lunch of parathas, we climbed by a makeshift stair to the top floor. This floor had the heads of the Buddhas and there were also many interesting paintings on the walls. The floor was not very strong and we had to be very careful. Here too walls had suffered due to seepage. The walls here had many court scenes with Arab like Kings, and there were something like crosses in a number of paintings. Taking pictures in the attic or the first floor was very difficult. One could hardly move and we had to be very careful lest we fall through many gaps in the floor. After completing the photography of the main chamber we took up a smaller chamber where there are three statues of Goddess. These are in three different colours on three sides. The overall view of the monastery is not very impressive. It looks like a very ordinary type of a village monastery compared the larger ones like Thiksey or Hemis. However, what impressed me most was the intricate wood carving on the door of the main chamber. It definitely bore the stamp of the Kashmiri wood carvers famous for walnut wood carving. In brief, the Alchi monastery is a store house of traditional ancient art and the unique quality is that these art master pieces have been created by Kashmiri artistes. While trying to find out about other places having similar frescoes, we came to know that Bazgo monastery also has these.


So after finishing our assignment in Alchi we decided to visit all other monasteries in Ladakh as we were already here with all necessary equipment. Next morning we headed for Bazgo. However, the monastery was all crumbling down. It is like a fort on a steep hill which has virtually crumbled down. We did find some frescoes but these were not as good as the ones in Alchi. We also came to know about Rizong Gompa which was in one of the nearby valleys. We were told that Rizong is the most disciplined monastery. We drove through the narrow valley to the monastery but the road was not complete right up to it. We left the wagon and had to walk about a kilometre to reach the monastery. We met the head lama and explained to him about our mission of preserving the monasteries. The Monastery was established in 1831 by Lama Tsultim Nima under the Gelukpa order (yellow hats). There are 40 monks in the monastery. The monastery is also called “the paradise for meditation” and is noted for its extremely strict rules and standards. It is also believed that long ago Guru Padmasambhava meditated in the caves around Rizong years before the monasteries were built. It is also inferred that in the small caves in the vicinity, Lamas used to meditate for years in isolation from the rest of the villages. They subsisted on one meal a day, which was provided to them by local people through a 1 foot square window opening in the cave.


The first step was photographing the wall paintings, statues, and tankhas (canvass paintings). He offered us tea and sent a lama with us to show all important artefacts. Paintings here were mostly about various Buddhist teachings. The most common wall painting in all these monasteries is the cycle of life. There are plenty of paintings depicting demons. Various stages in human existence and the hereafter are also depicted. The unending cycle of birth and death is also very common. But we did not see any frescoes like Alchi here. Then we were taken to the inner most chambers. It was very dark and we had to use a candle to look around. We did also use our light. The floor of the inner chamber was very greasy. The lamas use a lot of butter in the lamps which they burn in front of these statues. The most worthwhile thing inside the chamber was very rare and old tankhas. We photographed some of these. The beauty of Rizong is its isolation in a deep valley. The monastery has remained unmolested and the lamas here have been meditating in peace. They have maintained a strict discipline about outside visitors unlike other monasteries in Ladakh.


On our way to Leh, we decided to visit the Likir monastery. This monastery too was located in a side valley. Being in Ladakh with requisite equipment, we had decided to visit other monasteries to ascertain the status of wall paintings etc. We had also heard that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was planning to give the sermon of Kala Chakra in Leh and it would be an interesting event to watch. So after visiting Likir which to me appeared like all other monasteries except that it was situated on a hill in a commanding position, we proceeded to Leh. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had already arrived in Leh. The sermon would start next morning very early in Choglamsar where a special enclosure had been prepared for the purpose. Autar was keener than me to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama who was like a God to Buddhists in Ladakh. We had witnessed strange things in the way. We observed many a Ladakhis in the villages prostrating in the direction of the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was the most revered human being in this part of the world. Next morning we got up quite early and after breakfast started for Choglamsar. There was tremendous rush there. It was impossible to reach near the rostrum. However, luckily Hafiz Sahib, Superintendent of Police (Security) very well known to me was escorting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He arranged special passes for us and we were very close to His Holiness.

(To be concluded)

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