At Leh, I pack my stuff and check out of my basic dormitory of eight beds. Staying here has been quite cheap but not really comfortable. I have run out of clean clothes. Hopefully I can get some washing done when I get to Lamayuru tonight. At least, the plan is to see Alchi in the morning and get to Lamayuru by sunset. Exactly how, I have no idea.
After just two days, I am leaving. My stay in Leh has been too short. I can understand why foreigners stay here for weeks or even months. There are plenty of monasteries within easy distance from town – Stok, Spituk, Ridzong, Likir, Saspol, Stakna, Phyang, Sankar, just to name the more famous ones. One can wander the streets for days without getting bored. Entire days can pass staring at the mountains. If one is into Tibetan Buddhism, Leh is the place to get one’s religious beliefs sorted, find a spiritual foothold and perhaps an invaluable guru.
The road to Alchi is decent and for a good part we follow the River Indus. The scenes are superb as usual. I have come to accept that there are no boring landscapes in Ladakh. Every scene is full of meaning. Every moment has the potential to be magical. Yet everything may remain ordinary if you cannot see it or listen to the penetrating silence. Thoughts have to be paused for a while and you have to surrender yourself.
The ride to Alchi is anything but silent. The driver is playing loudly modern Ladakhi songs. Of course I don’t understand any of it but I can tell that the songs are far from being timeless classics or avant-garde masterpieces. In fact, I hate them. It’s not that Ladakhis are lacking in musical genius. The problem is trying to imitate the West with modern beats set within standard pop styles. The imitation is bad, a complete misfit of one cultural typesets into another. There is nothing novel in offering. Had the artists attempted to draw upon Ladakh’s rich cultural legacy and make music with traditional instruments, they might have greater appeal. For now, I am simply praying we will reach Alchi as soon as possible.
‘Where are you going?’ I ask the Spanish tourist sitting next to me. This chat will take my mind off the bad music.
‘We are getting off at Likir,’ he says. He is travelling with a few others, all from Spain.
‘Yes. It’s a 4-day trek to Nurla,’ he explains. I have read about this trek from Likir to Nurla, an easy trek on which altitudes never exceed 3800 meters. Some call it “Ladakh’s Baby Trek.” Not that babies can do this but it’s lot easier than other treks in Ladakh.
‘If you travel light and make an early start each day, this trek can be done in two days,’ I tell my fellow traveller.
As for me, I had previously planned on doing a couple of treks in Ladakh. But there are mountain views everywhere, at the very doorstep of Leh, on the way to monasteries and by the River Indus. Everything is beautiful and incredibly accessible. Why bother with a trek?
At Likir, the Spanish alight in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. They stand around bewildered and huddle together by the road. One of them pulls out a map and everyone consults it. They check their bearings as the bus pulls away towards Alchi. About an hour later I arrive at Alchi.
I am looking around for the monastery but I can’t see it. The monastery here is small and unlike the ones at Hemis or Thiksey, hides amongst other buildings in the village. The reason is it was abandoned way back in the 16th century. Today it is maintained by the monastery at Likir. I walk by a narrow path to find it. I pass by three unique chortens known locally as ka-ka-ni chortens. The domes are built at a higher level with a passageway under them. One can actually walk into and under the chorten. The underside of the domes, the walls and rafters that support it are painted with many miniature Buddhas and chortens. On the outside, the domes are punctured with holes at many levels. This is first time I am seeing such chortens.
The fame of Alchi lies in the wall murals. They form a unique cultural heritage of entire Ladakh. While the rest of the region’s paintings are derived from Tibetan traditions and styles, Alchi is a rare example of the Kashmiri style of Buddhist paintings. Today Kashmir itself has no such paintings, destroyed ages ago by resurgent Hinduism or conquering Islam. I dump my backpack at the entrance of the first temple, the Sumtsek Temple. I remove my shoes.
‘Fifty rupees,’ says a monk at the door somewhat curtly. I look around to read the words on a notice board behind him.
‘I am Indian,’ I reply. I take out twenty rupees. The higher price is for foreigners.
‘Fifty rupees,’ says the monk. He prepares to tear off a ticket.
‘Wait, wait,’ I argue. ‘I am Indian, not foreigner.’ I throw in a little Hindi to prove my origins.
The monk is not happy. He reluctantly gives me a twenty rupee ticket and lets me go through. Ladakh is different from India. In Ladakh, you may be an Indian and a foreigner at the same time. I have to say at this point that Ladakh is not as isolated as the Spiti Valley. Gross commercialism in subtle ways is making incursions into Ladakh. The common excuse that Ladakhis have is that tourist season is short and they have to make money quickly. It was Spiti that first opened my eyes to Tibetan Buddhism. It is a place so remote that even tourists are rare. I love Ladakh but Spiti will always have a special place in my heart.
The Sumtsek Temple is a three-storeyed wood-stone-mud building with large stucco images – the white Avalokiteshwara, the yellow Manjushri and the golden Maitreya Buddha. The facade contains fine woodwork with rich details. This is clearly an Indian influence before the coming of Tibetan Buddhist art.
I remember four temples in all in the monastery at Alchi. Among them, the paintings of the Sumtsek and the Du-Khang stand out. The first thing I notice are the eyes. Faces are painted in profile but the hidden eye is painted fully. It hovers over a sharp nose. This is a style of painting usually associated with medieval Jain paintings. There are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas but more interesting are scenes involving women richly decorated with jewellery. The women sport elaborate hair styles. There is a woman busy with her makeup. She is holding a mirror. Another is lifting a jewel from a conch. There are musicians and dancers. There is a wine drinking party and nearby is a Tree of Enlightenment. There are mandalas that fill entire walls.
The masterpieces of Alchi are many armed goddesses weilding an array of fantastic weapons. Their jewellery, crowns and dresses improvise on the religious art of Jainism and Hindusim. One deity in particular, the fame of Alchi, has a green skin. She must be the green Tara. Her gaze and her smile are mesmerizing. She is not looking at the viewer. She is looking away, perhaps at the wider painted scenes that surround her. Every person or object is rarely in isolation. It stands connected with everything else on this wall-canvas.
In the courtyard outside, yellow flowers are dancing on their long pliant stems. The sun is drenching them with its warmth and brightness. A line of small chortens cast their sharp shadows. I turn a corner to find about a dozen youths, locals and tourists, busy sorting out apricots under the shade of an apricot tree. The local girls are singing a song in chorus. The group is sitting in a circle with a large pile of fallen and rotten apricots at the centre. The kernels of these spoilt apricots are removed and collected in a large pail. They will later be processed to make apricot oil. One thing about Alchi that will not go unnoticed are dozens of apricot trees everywhere.
I return to the Sumtsek Temple. Since photography is not allowed inside the temples, I take out my sketchbook and attempt a miniature sketch of a woman playing a flute. She holds the flute with an incredible grace. The jewellery and dress she wears is a record of ancient fashions. Her body is twisted slightly at the waist as if in dance to the tunes played out. Her entire posture is one of lithe elegance. She gazes abstractedly into vacant space, seeing nothing and completely given to her music. I manage only half the scene when the monk interrupts me. Apparently it is time to close the monastery for lunch. It will reopen in a couple of hours.
I head out of the temple and walk around the monastery. I watch the River Indus flowing below and the cliffs towering on the other bank. On my side, a line of colourful prayer wheels flutter festooned pole to pole. I amble under the shades of apricot trees. I pick a few ripe ones and enjoy the sweet taste. I return to the bus stop and find a place for lunch. A half plate of rice, kala daal and palak makes for a delicious filling meal. It is a meal that costs only thirty rupees. The service is quick. There is really no need to spend a fortune in one of the few upscale restaurants in this village, places really meant for foreign tourists loaded with money.
I would love to finish up the sketch but I have a long way to go if I have to reach Lamayuru before nightfall. The woman will remain unfinished with just one leg and that too naked to the skin. I walk past beautiful village houses and some that have been converted into hotels for tourists. A woman is busy at harvest. The grain is golden and little piles of the harvest decorate the fields.
‘Is this barley?’ I ask her. I have heard that barley is a common crop in Ladakh. She stares at me blankly and mumbles something in Ladakhi. I don’t understand.
‘What do you call this?’ I ask in Hindi. I pick up a few tufts of the crop and show it to her.
‘Nas,’ she replies.
‘Nas?’ I repeat. I assume that’s what it’s locally named.
With fields of golden harvest in the foreground, green poplars swaying in middle ground and mountain ranges in the background, scenes around Alchi are surreal. Stone walls, mud-caked buildings, grass-covered roofs, whitewashed chortens in open fields, dancing lines of prayer flags – these are elements that define Alchi but they could feel at home in any other Ladakhi village. Beyond Alchi, every mountain and hill is different. From one to another, there is so much variance in shade and shadow, colour and texture, shape and form. This is not an afternoon I can forget easily.
The morning bus I boarded at Leh had left at 8 am and reached Alchi at 11 am. It would depart from Alchi at 3 pm. I can’t take this. I need to find another bus to Lamayuru. The road to Lamayuru and Kargil is about 4 kms from Alchi. I enjoy every moment of this walk. It is a solitary road. The silence is immense. On this day of fine weather, the landscape is stunning. A flower of pink, purple and blue adds a dash of welcome colour to this bleak landscape. Amidst the protruding crags, sandy slopes make their dances down to the valley paths. I reach a truss bridge decorated with lots of prayer flags. The metalworks and the flags throw their interwined network of shadows on the bridge. The river below flows swiftly and makes its way between spectacular cliffs. I cross the bridge and wait by the main road. Buses are rare but I am really lucky today. Within ten minutes I get a bus to Nurla. Perhaps at Nurla I can get a ride to Lamayuru. I get into the crowded bus. On the roof are students returning from yet another day at school or college. Boys in caps and girls sheltered under colourful dupattas keep out the sun. The engine revs up, kicks up a cloud of dust and trundles into the shadows of looming cliffs.