The paint­ings of the Saspol Caves in Ladakh Text and pho­tos by Anu­radha Shankar

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text and pho­tographs by Anu­radha Shankar

Be­lieved to have dated back to the 13th-15th cen­turies, the Saspol Caves are lo­cated across the river In­dus from Alchi, the site of one of the old­est monas­ter­ies in Ladakh. The glo­ri­ously de­tailed Bud­dhist paint­ings in two of these five caves de­pict a com­plete icono­graph­i­cal cy­cle, of acharyas, pro­tec­tor deities and Bod­hisattvas

The land­scapes of Ladakh are ev­er­chang­ing; with ev­ery curve of the road, a new vista is re­vealed. The only con­stant is the sheer scale — the moun­tains seem to touch the skies, and the un­du­lat­ing land seems to ex­tend for­ever. And amidst these moun­tains lie hid­den, jewels of our Bud­dhist her­itage, mostly in the forms of for­ti­fi­ca­tions and monas­ter­ies, dat­ing back cen­turies. The for­ti­fi­ca­tions blend in with the var­ied brown shades of the moun­tains, while the monas­ter­ies stand a stark white against them. In­side the monas­ter­ies how­ever, is an­other mat­ter, with bright paint­ings — mu­rals as well as thangkas — en­liven­ing the in­te­ri­ors. While this con­trast is ev­i­dent in the monas­ter­ies, with the walls, ceil­ings, and even the icons painted in vi­brant colours, nowhere does this distinc­tion stand out more, than in the caves of Saspol.The Caves

Saspol is lo­cated across the river In­dus from Alchi, the site of one of the old­est monas­ter­ies in Ladakh. Lo­cal lore dates the monastery to the 10th cen­tury C.E, but his­to­ri­ans date it to the 12th and 13th cen­turies. It is about 65 kilo­me­tres west of Leh, at an al­ti­tude of 10,200 ft. Carved into the face of the moun­tain, the Saspol Caves ap­pear, at first glance, to be slightly larger than pi­geon­holes. It is only the en­trance to the main cave, white­washed, and out­lined with red ochre, that draws our at­ten­tion to­wards them. A rough and nar­row path, marked by loose peb­bles leads up to the caves. There is space for just one sure­footed per­son to nav­i­gate the path at a time. Great care and cau­tion is re­quired, but the climb is worth ev­ery ef­fort be­cause within these caves are some of the most spec­tac­u­lar Bud­dhist paint­ings in Ladakh. There are five caves in all, and these have been dated to the pe­riod be­tween 13th–15th cen­turies. In re­al­ity, the caves are far from the pi­geon­holes they ap­pear to be, from a dis­tance. They are airy and filled with light. Two of the caves are painted, and it is the so-called Cave 3 where most of the paint­ings are still in­tact. It has a sin­gle en­trance, yet light per­me­ates the en­tire space, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the cor­ners, and no torches are needed to see even the mi­nut­est of de­tails. It, how­ever, does take a few mo­ments for the eyes to ad­just af­ter en­ter­ing the cave, and when they do, the paint­ings are re­vealed in all their glory. There is also, what ap­pears to be an al­tar on one side with oil-smeared lamps — the only ev­i­dence of re­cent wor­ship. Oth­er­wise, the cave is bare,

The Paint­ings

Ev­ery inch of the walls of Cave 3 is cov­ered with paint­ings, which re­flect the dis­tinct in­flu­ence of Ti­betan Bud­dhism and art, and are thought to date to the 15th cen­tury, based on in­scrip­tions as well as styles. They are neatly laid out in reg­is­ters (sec­tions), and ac­cord­ing to Bellini [2014], who has done ex­ten­sive work on the paint­ings and their sig­nif­i­cance, they de­pict a com­plete icono­graph­i­cal cy­cle, of acharyas, pro­tec­tor deities and Bod­hisattvas.

The ‘Acharyas’ or Mas­ters

The cen­tral fig­ure in this cave is that of the Śākya­muni Bud­dha, on the north­west­ern wall, fac­ing the en­trance. This is Va­jrāsana Bud­dha, seated in va­jrāsana, a de­pic­tion that evokes the Bud­dha’s de­feat of the neg­a­tive forces rep­re­sented by Mara at Bod­hgaya. On the right of the Bud­dha is a com­plete panel, start­ing with the fig­ure of the Acharya Atiśa, who is cred­ited with the sec­ond re­vival of Bud­dhism in Ti­bet [4] . The Acharya, who was born in Ben­gal is said to have been in­vited to Ti­bet in the 11th cen­tury to re­vive Bud­dhism. The panel has the Acharya on the top cen­tre, seated on a lo­tus. Danc­ing on the corol­las of the lo­tus on ei­ther side, are two pro­tec­tor deities, which help iden­tify the Acharya. Be­low Atiśa are shown a triad of acharyas, iden­ti­fied by in­scrip­tions as a mas­ter and his two dis­ci­ples. [5] Be­low the triad is a small panel show­ing the con­se­cra­tion of a shrine (prob­a­bly this very one at Saspol?). A ta­ble with rit­ual ob­jects is on the right, while on the left are a group of peo­ple. It has been sug­gested that this is a de­pic­tion of the 15th cen­tury ruler of Ladakh, who in­vited monks from Ti­bet to es­tab­lish a monastery here. The north-east­ern wall, too, has a de­pic­tion of an Acharya, who has been iden­ti­fied as Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gel­ugpa school of Ti­betan Bud­dhism, who lived be­tween the 14th and 15th cen­turies.

The Pro­tec­tor Deities and Bod­hisattvas

Va­jrab­hairava, the main pro­tec­tor de­ity of the Gel­ugpa School is de­picted to the left of Śākya­muni Bud­dha, along with other pro­tec­tor deities such as Sam­vara, Guhyasamāja and He­va­jra. Bellini has sug­gested that this im­age of Va­jrab­hairava, could prob­a­bly be the ear­li­est such de­pic­tion of this im­por­tant pro­tec­tor de­ity. The south­ern wall has a de­pic­tion of a eleven-headed and thou­sand-armed Aval­okiteśwara (a Bod­hisattva who em­bod­ies the com­pas­sion of the Bud­dhas), flanked by two monks and sur­rounded by eleven medal­lions, which de­pict other monks; and be­low him is Us­nisav­i­jayā, the Bud­dha of longevity. Next to them is an un­usual de­pic­tion of the Bod­hisattvas Man­juśrī (as­so­ci­ated with in­sight), and Maitreya (the fu­ture Bud­dha), in con­ver­sa­tion with each an­other. They are iden­ti­fied by their at­tributes — a book and sword for Man­jushri and an ewer and three stu­pas for Maitreya, shown placed on lo­tus ste­les next to them. This scene refers to a vi­sion of Acharya Atiśa, who, af­ter read­ing some Bud­dhist texts, saw the two Bod­hisattvas seated, hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion on the same texts, un­der the watch­ful eyes of Va­jrapāni, who is de­picted at a lower level on the same wall. Painted un­der these two Bod­hisattvas is a rare de­pic­tion of Va­jravidārana, con­queror of Va­jra and dis­peller of neg­a­tiv­ity, in blue and flanked by birds. The most im­pres­sive paint­ing on this wall, how­ever, is that of the Par­adise of Amitābha Bud­dha, also known as Amitāyus, the Bud­dha of eter­nal life. He is shown here, seated in Sukha­vati, the realm of bliss, sur­rounded by the eight great Bod­hisattvas, as well as other Bud­dhas and pro­tec­tors.

The east­ern sec­tion of the north­east­ern wall has the de­pic­tion of the man­dala of Vairochana, the pri­mor­dial Bud­dha, and the small­est wall, the south-east­ern one, has a de­pic­tion of two Va­jrapā­nis — one fierce and one peace­ful. Apart from these cen­tral fig­ures, the paint­ings also de­pict many more Bod­hisattvas, pro­tec­tor deities, monks as well as Ma­hasid­dhas. Cave 2, which is not in as good a con­di­tion as Cave 3, has paint­ings only on two of its walls. Though the icono­graphic scheme in this cave is the same as in cave 3, it is not as com­plete. The cen­tral fig­ure is that of Śākya­muni Bud­dha again, with Dī­pankara by his side. There are also de­pic­tions of other Bod­hisattvas such as Amitabha and acharyas.


The paint­ings of Saspol are im­por­tant, be­cause of their de­tailed icono­graphic cy­cle, which in­cludes not only pro­tec­tor deities and Bod­hisattvas, but also his­tor­i­cal fig­ures of acharyas. They help to not only date the caves, but also re­veal the emer­gence and the quick rise of the Gel­ugpa School of Bud­dhism in the re­gion. The spec­tac­u­lar cave 3 is, in essence, a small cell with an al­tar. It was prob­a­bly the cen­tral cave, meant for wor­ship and med­i­ta­tion. More than half a mil­len­nium af­ter its creation, the cave re­ceives enough light for the ca­sual vis­i­tor or the wor­ship­per to see the paint­ings with­out the aid of torches. This is prob­a­bly be­cause of the place­ment of the cave — its lo­ca­tion on the moun­tain as well as its en­trance in the south-east, bring­ing in a lot of light. Was this the rea­son why Cave 3 was cho­sen to house the most in­tri­cate paint­ings? We can only guess and will prob­a­bly never know. The sim­ple cave and the ex­quis­ite paint­ings evoke im­ages of the monks, who had left the world be­hind, liv­ing in these caves, with the barest of ne­ces­si­ties, yet cov­er­ing their walls with the most beau­ti­ful paint­ings in the most vi­brant of colours, bring­ing in, could we say, the colours of life through their mas­ters and gods, into their bar­ren ex­is­tence and a bar­ren land­scape as well?

This page, top: Par­adise of Amitabha Bud­dha, also known as Amitāyus, the Bud­dha of Eter­nal Life, in Cave 3

This page, left: a view of north-western wall of Cave 3 with the al­tar in the fore­ground; bot­tom: view of the land­scape of Saspol Caves from the path lead­ing to the caves

with only the paint­ings to talk of its erst­while im­por­tance.

This page, left: a rare de­pic­tion of Va­jravidārana, con­queror of Va­jra and dis­peller of neg­a­tiv­ity, in blue and flanked by birds, in Cave 3; bot­tom: a paint­ing of the fig­ure of Śākya­muni Bud­dha in Cave 2, with Dī­pankara by his side

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