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Buddhist Monasteries Save Kashmir’s Painting Heritage

About the 11th century. This is the monastic complex of Alchi. Alchi is known to be one of the 108 monastic centres. It is a legendary number but likely to also have been true. 108 monasteries, a chain of monasteries which were the early monasteries of the trans-himalayan region. These were made in the rule of King Yeshe-Ö of Guge, which consisted of Western Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, and Kinnaur. And all these marvellous monastic temples were painted and sculpted by artists were invited from Kashmir, which was one of the great Buddhist centres of that time. And the art which is found inside these monasteries whether in Ladakh or in Western Tibet, is also important because it is the only surviving visual representation of the culture of Kashmir of the ancient period. As paintings within the Kashmir Valley itself were destroyed, and it is only in these paintings ranging from a Ladakh till Western Tibet, that we see the art, the architecture, the textiles, the themes, which would have existed in Kashmir at that time.

Now this is a green Tara. You would notice that, that exquisite shading, that exquisite rendering of form, which you see beginning in the paintings of Ajanta. You would also notice the protruding further eye, which is in the medieval tradition of Indian art. And you would see a profusion of textiles, which would remind you, that this was on an artery of the Silk Route which connected Asia to Europe.

And this artery came down from Kashmir and Ladakh, through Nala Sopara down to Kerala in South India. You might also notice the figures on the side; while the deities are made in the centre, these figures that are made on the site convey a great sense of liveliness and joy. In fact it is the sense of joy, which is a very particular quality of the art of Kashmir. We are reminded, that one of the greatest philosophers of aesthetics of the Indian tradition, Abhinavagupta, lived in the Kashmir Valley just before the period of the artists, who would have painted this.

Again a detail from the Alchi paintings made by the Kashmiri painters. This is a temple to Balarama, and you would notice that it has a tower to the green Tara in it. And this is a feature which is, this feature of having the deities of Hinduism and Buddhism together is a feature that you see not only here, but you see in the caves of China, and you see in Japan and so many other places. You might also notice the musicians in the lower part of the painting, again filled with that sense of joy which fills these paintings.

This is a mandala deity, in the monastery of Nako in Kinnaur, in a very high altitude a part of Kannur. Again it is the Kashmiri painters, again you would see that gentleness, and that inward look, that grace, that lilting grace which reminds you, that there is an end to the sorrow of the world.

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