Lost and Found – Alchi Monastery in Ladakh, India

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, India, Jammu & Kashmir | 26

My first visit to Ladakh took me to the Lamayuru monastery – one they say is the oldest monastery in Ladakh. When this fact was shared during this visit, it also, sparked off an intense debate. Was it really the oldest or was Alchi Monastery the oldest? While Google settled Lamayuru as being the oldest, it sparked off a curiosity about Alchi Monastery. This could only be doused by a visit there. And it finally did – with my latest visit to the Alchi Choskor Monastery.

The Monk residences at Alchi Monastery in Ladakh

An internet search triggered a strange pull to the Alchi Monastery in Ladakh. For one, it was ancient. Two –  there were not enough pictures but intriguing descriptions. And Lastly, it was lost in the realm of time but found again with the relics of time. A visit here proved that it was quite unlike the other monasteries that I had seen. It was more like a colony. And yet, had the elements of a typical Buddhist temple. It is this that makes it one of the key attractions on a Leh Ladakh tour.

History of Alchi Monastery

Mahaguru Rinchen Zangpo, who is considered to be one of the most important people to spread Buddhism in Ladakh. He, in fact, built 108 monasteries across this region, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Tibet – all between the years 958 to 1055. Most of these have not survived over time. Alchi Monastery, along with the Lamayuru monastery are among the few that exist today.

If you were to date back Alchi monastery, historians would probably give you a date in the 12th century. They would attribute Kal-dan Shes-rab – a Tibetan noble for the various historical murals in Alchi Monastery. However, the local lore credit Mahaguru Richen Zangpo and say that he was the one who commissioned various artists from Kashmir to create the wall paintings and sculptures within the monastery. He is said to have built this around the same time as the Lamayuru Monastery – and hence, a constant debate on which was built first.

Chortens at Alchi Monastery

Alchi Monastery near Leh, got buried in the sands of time. Plundered over and over by the various invaders, the place deteriorated. Eventually, worship stopped here until the Buddhist group – Gelukpa (the prominent leader being Dalai Lama), who also, manages the famous Likir Monastery.

Arriving at Alchi Village Ladakh

Alchi Village in Ladakh

With a fleeting glimpse of the ruins of Basgo still on my mind, I arrived at a quaint looking village by the gushing river Indus. A patch of green amid the rich textured brown mountains with a few highlights of white – that is how Alchi village appeared to me. Crossing over a bridge, zipping past the fluttering prayer flags, we arrived at the Alchi Monastery guest house.

Alchi Monastery Guest House

The village itself looked interesting – one where an overnight stay would be good. The little street shops, pretty homes, warm people and tons of restaurants – yes – tons of eateries. It seemed like a place that would be relaxing and fun at the same time.

The layout of the Alchi Choskor Monastery

Right in the beginning, I mentioned that this was quite unlike the other monasteries. Well, the layout was one of the reasons why. The reason this place is called Alchi Choskor is that it is a complex of Buddhist temples. The Choskor refers to a monastic complex. The layout is like a cluster of small match-box like buildings, each serving a different function. All of them are very obviously ancient and kinda cute!

Map of Alchi Monastery, Ladakh

A small dilapidated signboard at the entrance gave me a map to identify these structures. A quick chat with a local told me that there were three major clusters that we needed to visit – the Dukhang, the Sumtsek and the Manjushri Temple complex. Loaded with this information, I put on my blinders as I walked past the pretty street shops of Alchi – right up to the main gate of the Alchi Monastery.

Alchi Village Street Market

The Chortens & Dukhang of Alchi Gompa

The Chortens at Alchi Gompa

White Stupas or Chortens greeted us as we walked through the small door of the Alchi Monastery. These seem to dominate the central courtyard. The ones along the boundary were quite unusual for they had a narrow tunnel to the other side in them. So far, whether in India, Nepal or Bhutan, I had only seen stupa that had a solid wall. This was another unique thing at Alchi monastery that I noticed.

Stupa with tunnels at Alchi Monastery

Before I moved through one of those tunnels to explore the rest of Alchi Gompa, I noticed a few of those matchstick buildings along the boundary of this courtyard. Most of them were the monk residences. Passing through one of the tunneled chorten, you reach an important building  – the Assembly hall called Dukhang. Sadly, this was closed when we visited but I am told that within in lies a treasure of murals and frescoes. A friend who had seen it told me that the corridor was decorated with 1000 Buddhas, while the ceilings had colorful paintings. As I understand, this is also, the oldest building of the Alchi Monastery. Pity I missed it!

Sumtsek at Alchi Monastery

Come fast” beckoned a monk. “Time to close“. And with that, we rushed towards what seemed to be the largest building in the Alchi Monastery. It also seemed to be the most elaborate in terms of its decor. Ancient woodwork and faded wall paintings enhanced the Sumtsek. An ancient rickety staircase led to the upper floor but owing to its deteriorated state, it obviously was out of bounds for the visitors. The building was made with loam and natural stone.

Wood art at Sumtsek Temple -Alchi Monastery-Ladakh
Close - up of one wooden bracket of Sumtsek temple in Alchi Monastery

Since the monk was in a hurry to close, I bend over to enter a really small door to the Sumtsek temple of Alchi Monastery. What I encountered stunned me pretty much like the temple at Basgo ruins – except that instead of one head, there were three staring back at me from a height. Three idols of various avatars of Buddha stood tall within. The central one was the Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) while on either side were the Avalokiteshwara Buddha and Manjushri Buddha. The Maitreya Buddha was 4.6m tall while the other two were just a little shorter. 2 stories tall, they gazed down at us.

No pictures were allowed within and that explains the lack of pictures on the web too. I guess, even here you will have to rely on my description. Prior research on google told me to look out for the dhotis of each of these Buddhas. Each one was unique. The Avalokiteshwara Buddha had one with the designs of palaces, while the Maitreya one had the life of Buddha depicted on it. The dhoti of the Manjushri Buddha had a different design of the Buddhism – one of Dakinis and Mahasiddhas.

Sculpted Buddha Fresco at Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery
Fresco with a Hindu God at Sumtsek temple, Alchi Monastery
Alchi Monastery Wall Paintings

Surrounding these central idols were beautifully painted walls. It is here that you could see the Kashmiri and Hindu hand of the original designers. Paintings of Hindu Gods were interspersed with those of Buddha. The same theme continued to the exterior, where I could capture these images. I spend a little more time observing them as well as the sculpted wood frescos around. Just a while more before the same monk beckoned us to visit the last set of temples in Alchi Monastery.

Manjushri Temple & the other temples at Alchi Monastery

Manjushri temple at Alchi Monastery

The next complex had not one but three temples side by side. The exterior was not as elaborate as what you could see at the Sumstek. I was personally drawn over to the central one – the Manjushri temple. I believe this was the main temple and this was evident by its elaborate wooden door.

Manjushri Idol as seen from the door at Alchi Monastery

Photography is not allowed here too but the kind Monk told us that we could attempt a shot from outside the main door, without a flash. Hence, the only capture of the interiors of the Alchi Monastery. What you see is just one part of the Manjushri idol. There are three more which are kept back to back against this idol. So essentially, as you walk around the idol, you will face one idol in each cardinal direction.

The idol with four hands was recently painted and restored. The pedestal on which it was kept shone with coins that seemed to be embedded within it. The shrine itself was a small one, enough to allow a single file of people to walk around the central idol. And while we did that, we also, admired the gorgeous Alchi wall paintings.

Lotsa Shrine in Alchi Monastery, Ladakh

A small groove on the left hand of the main shrine gave us a view of the Lotsa Temple. This temple had another idol of Buddha with equally gorgeous murals. The best part of this small window is that if you look at it from Lotsa temple, you will see the beautiful face of the Manjushri Buddha staring back at you. The monk was not available for a permission to take this picture and I stuck to the rules of not taking one. The third temple – Vairochana Shrine in Alchi Monastery, was closed and hence, I skipped along to the scenic outdoors of Alchi Monastery.

Prayer wheels to the Indus Bank

Prayer Wheels enroute to Indus river at Alchi Monastery

I hurried past a line of Prayer Wheels to the sounds of a flowing river. A gorgeous landscape unfolded. The green flowing river along the brown textured mountains created the perfect Instagram spot. Each angle presented a memory for life. Ideally, I would have liked to sit on the ledge and stare at the flowing water for hours but I just had a few minutes. I had to get back to the intriguing ruins of Basgo.  With a quick snap and rapid turning of prayer wheels, I traced my steps back to the parking area of Alchi Monastery.

Take a peek at what I found at the Ruins of Basgo.

View of the Indus River at Alchi Monastery

True that there was plenty left unseen in this lost monastery of Alchi but then, there were some things that I found here too. The pretty landscape, the age-old paintings and the stunning statues that I can still see in my mind’s eye. Alchi Monastery is definitely a recommended place to visit in Leh Ladakh. What do you say?

Getting here

Travel Tips

  • The Alchi Monastery timings are from 8 am to 5 pm with a one-hour lunch break from 1 pm.
  • The entrance fees to this Monastery is INR 20 for domestic tourists and INR 50 for the foreign tourists
  • There are plenty of restaurants in Alchi Village for you to try out. However, the one that I recommend is Alchi Kitchen, right next to the monastery. We tried a variety of cuisines here and loved it all.
  • There are quite a few hotels in Alchi that you could consider staying in. Alternately, you can head back for a stay in Leh.
  • You will have to leave your shoes outside every shrine.
  • Photography is not allowed inside the shrine. The monk might allow you to take a picture from outside the shrine. Please ensure that you have the requisite permission from them before attempting this. If you do get the permission, remember to switch off the flash as the idols and the paintings inside are really old.
Wares of Alchi market
  • The Alchi Street Market has some interesting wares to shop for. However, the prices are on the higher side as compared to Leh. Remember to bargain well.


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