An Interwoven World: Sensory Experiences of Textiles in the Sumtsek at Alchi, Ladakh

Jordan Quill

i Fig. 9 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, the colossal clay image of Maitreya, showing damage to the paint layer on the dhoti, which displays the life of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.

This article challenges accepted traditions of dating and approach that dominate the field of Himalayan and Tibetan art history, itself a marginalised subject of study in western art history, despite its central role in the story of Eurasian art. 

The wall paintings inside the Sumtsek of Alchi monastery, Ladakh, contain one of the richest repositories of textile motifs found anywhere in the western Himalayas. These painted textiles were created by Kashmiri artists on a crossroads of the Great Silk Roads, under local aristocratic patronage. These patrons aligned themselves with the kings of the Tibetan Empire through inscriptions within the temple, rulers who, like the contemporary Mongols, resided in extraordinarily decorated royal tents. This article argues for a spatial and sensory approach to the textile motifs of the Sumtsek, through which the complex story of the Sumtsek’s specific historical and cultural position is brought to life.

Fig. 1 Front and side views of the Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, with cross sections from both font and side views with scale. The colossal clay bodhisattvas are not shown but reach into the second floor from the ground in three niches visible here, the section shows the position of the central stupa. © Carmen Auer, Institute of Architectural Theory, Art History and Cultural Studies Graz University of Technology, 2020. As printed in Roger Goepper, Alchi: Ladakh’s Hidden Buddhist Sanctuary, Volume II, The Sumtsek ed. Christian Luczanits (Chicago: Serinda Publications, 2023).

The Sumtsek, or ‘Three-Story Temple’, is located in the Choskhor, a sacred monastic complex situated on the edge of the Indus River to the west of Leh, Ladakh, in the village of Alchi (Fig. 1).  It forms the artistic centrepiece of the monastery, and houses one of the richest repositories of painted textile motifs found anywhere in the Himalayas. The Sumtsek is securely dated with new evidence to the early thirteenth century, and the profusion of wall paintings inside tell a story of rich cultural exchange, born out of the specific historical and geographic circumstances of Alchi monastery and its aristocratic founders.

This research aims to disrupt traditional routes of scholarship in the field of Tibetan and Himalayan art, and move beyond problems of categorisation, iconography, materiality, and dating, to think theoretically about the power these paintings of textiles had on the experience of space, what this was referencing, and what it achieved. I will pursue methodologies related to the experience of the structure on a spatial level, relating more directly to the felt sensations of those who entered the temple. I will argue that the significance of the textile motifs in these wall paintings lies much deeper than their ornamentation, in their ability to intensify the felt experience of the temple’s interior. This multi-sensory transformation references an established history of using luxury fabrics to this effect across Eurasia to create carefully curated sensory encounters in a courtly context. Through choreographed ‘collection’, adaptation and display, the founders at Alchi engaged in an established language of cloth, creating their own fabric-clad space to communicate their prestige through felt sensory experience, the feeling itself linked to traditions of Eurasian nobility, and connected with their past in Central Tibet.

Fig. 2 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, Section of the ceiling to the ground floor, second floor also visible. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi –Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.

This spatial and sensory transformation was skilfully achieved without the use of actual textiles. Paintings on wooden ceilings are executed with such brilliance that they evoke the materiality of woven cloth (Fig. 2). Panels representing richly decorated fabrics are ‘hung’ between wooden beams, displaying a collection of materials that reference, through their designs, textiles from beyond the Kingdom of Ladakh, from Persia, Tibet, Central Asia and Western India. Vividly painted, these panels recall and develop motifs created through complex weaving processes, block printing and tie dye, their brilliance preserved by their dust-defying placement, and their designs and distant origins juxtaposed but skilfully unified through colour and the skill of those that painted them.

They hang overhead and at eye level with three colossal clay images embodying Avalokiteśvara, Maitreya and Mañjuśrī, three bodhisattvas, (beings who have taken a vow to achieve Buddhahood but who have delayed exiting Saṃsāra (rebirth) for the benefit of all sentient beings) who populate the temple, reaching from the ground into the second floor. As well as ‘hanging’ overhead, these same textile designs are echoed and animated by figural scenes in wall-paintings and on the dhotis (धोती, an unstitched lower garment) of the clay bodhisattvas, painted in minute detail at eye level, activating the viewer’s sensory memories of cloth and transforming the ceiling into a tented canopy (Fig. 3). A stupa (Tib: chörten, a mound-like structure usually containing relics) at the temple’s centre dictates an intimate encounter with each bodhisattva while the visitor circumambulates the temple, creating common, shared multi-sensory experiences situated beneath a ceiling whose decoration psychologically evokes a world of cloth (Fig. 1).

Fig. 3 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, The colossal clay image of Avalokiteśvara. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.
Fig. 4 The Dukhang, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, late-twelfth century CE, The so-called ‘Royal Drinking Scene’. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.

At the time the Sumtsek was painted, the cosmopolitan locales of Ladakh had already played host to vibrant international trade for centuries, being located on the ‘Crossroads of Asia’.[1] Rock inscriptions offer hints of those who travelled there, positioned on a ‘capillary route’ of the ‘Great Silk Roads’, a vast trading network connecting the Eurasian world.[2] The Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam, a tenth-century geographical treatise in Persian, records that the majority of the region’s inhabitants were merchants who lived in tents, manifesting from an early period a cultural melting pot centred around textiles.[3] The luxury fabrics whose designs clad the Sumtsek’s interior provide evidence of the materially rich cultural flourishing of Ladakh during the early thirteenth century. Competing noble families sought to communicate their prestige through religious sponsorship, and the wall paintings at Alchi reveal a complex dialogue with the surrounding regions. Alongside the circulation of actual textiles, this vast network of contact facilitated the dissemination of ideas, including notions of kingship, legitimacy and power. Inseparable from this moving world of cloth, images of nobility were embodied by royal tents, whose richly-clad interiors utilised the materiality of decorated cloth to generate awe-inspiring multi-sensory experiences. It is in this context that we can better understand the significance of textiles painted within the Sumtsek.

The ceilings of the Sumtsek have been painted directly onto wood. They do not, therefore, function as they do elsewhere in Ladakh, or in other historic temples in the western Himalayas, where textiles are used to cover ceilings securing any debris.[4] This provides solid evidence that their purpose lies beyond the functional. I will argue that even without actual textiles, by understanding the psychological inferences of imagery referencing cloth these painted fabrics transform the Sumtsek into a rich, multi-dimensional sense-scape: a site whose charisma is felt throughout the body. These paintings of textiles tell a rich story of cultural exchange, material wealth, and transregional power, only made meaningful through the psychological response of the viewer, who through sensory projection conjures memories of the multi-sensory characteristics of cloth. It is the goal of this article to unfold this so-far unexplored layer of experienced meaning, digging deeper into the affective strategies of an interior clothed in textiles.

Traditional narratives of Tibetan art history, and many of those related to Alchi, have sought to categorise, classify and separate origins and stylistic ‘influences’ or iconographical themes, and rarely move beyond these connoisseurial descriptions.[5] By instead choosing a methodology based in sensory experience, loosening the categories of vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste, I believe it is not only possible to more fully access felt encounters with the space, but to discover how this feeling was created, and to ask what this achieved and why. Despite its significance in the history of Eurasian art, in-depth scholarship on Alchi Monastery is limited to a handful of studies, of which the most significant is a recently published volume by Christian Luczanits with the republication of a volume on the Sumtsek by Roger Goepper.[6] Another recent study by Peter van Ham has published the wall-paintings in extraordinary detail, and is used to illustrate this article.[7] Studies focusing on Alchi’s wider connections with its historical and cultural neighbours are limited, and those on the textile motifs in the Sumtsek even more so.[8] In the absence of contemporary Tibetan travel accounts and textual sources describing specific visits to the Sumtsek, these textile motifs provide an invaluable means of access and act as historical sources in their own right.

The dating of the Alchi monuments has been the subject of fierce scholarly debate, and though it is not the subject of this essay, a brief explanation is necessary to ground the historical context of discussion.[9]Dating in Tibetan and Ladakhi scholarship generally locates the Alchi complex as one of the temples founded by Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055 CE), during the period of the ‘later spread’ of Buddhism in Western Tibet.[10]However, recent research by Christian Luczanitz confirms the hypothesis of Roger Goepper, who dated the Sumtsek to the 1220s at the earliest.[11] The inscriptions on the third floor of the Sumtsek, on a teaching lineage where the last figure painted is the founder of the Drigungpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, Jigten Gönpo (1143-1217 CE), support this hypothesis, and a newly translated inscription in the Palden Drepung stupa in the Choskhor, substantiates this date. [12]
With the dating of the Sumtsek now secured, it is possible to understand and unpack the context in which its founding took place. The aristocratic patronage of the Sumtsek is made clear by an inscription in its middle floor known as the Garland of Butter Lamps.[13] Part of this inscription reads:

‘Here at Alchi, in Ladakh of Lower Maryul,
This great temple, ‘Heap of Jewels’ [the Sumtsek],
[was] constructed by the patron, Master Tsültim Ö,
[Who is of the] noble Dro clan, a superior lineage.

[Like] the sun and moon are the most resplendent in the centre of the azure blue sky,
upon the narrow earth, [there] arose two supreme Dro,
[Like] they [had] gained the realisation of emptiness without needing to study it,
[The fame of the Dro clan was such that] they did not need to explain their Dro heritage…’[14]

Tsültrim Ö, a monk of the Dro clan, founded the Sumtsek, named as the ‘Heap of Jewels’ (རིན་ཅེན་རྩེགས་པ་), for the benefit of his three paternal uncles.[15] The inscription traces his ancestry in the aristocratic Dro clan (བཞེངས་པའི་ཡོན་བདག་སློབ་དཔོན་ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས་འོད།། གདུང་རུས་ཆེ་(?)x་ཡ་རབས་འབྲོའི་སྡེ།།), which was tightly linked to the imperial kings of Central Tibet, and belonged to the highest class of Tibetan nobility. His patronage is verified in another inscription where he offers the temple and the images it contains as supports (རྟེན་) of the body, speech and mind in praise of the essence of emptiness.[16] These inscriptions emphatically locate Tsültrim Ö as an aristocratic monk who was actively seeking to communicate his prestige through the religious offering of the temple.

Tsültrim Ö was not the first of his family to assert his heritage through patronage at Alchi. The Dukhang (assembly hall) of the monastery is the oldest monument at Alchi founded by Kaldan Sherab at the end of the twelfth century, who also records his Dro heritage in inscriptions.[17] The so-called ‘Royal Drinking Scene’ inside the Dukhang  demonstrates an existing engagement with Eurasian concepts of nobility through drinking, feasting and textiles (Fig. 4). Two figures sit in front of two superimposed screens of dark blue, flanked by attendants. A female figure, dressed in local costume, offers a white, probably silver cup to her male counterpart, who is dressed in richly woven textiles whose Persianate ‘pearl roundel’ design will be discussed below. The cut of the costume does not correspond to any local garment (for example, the Tibetan chuba (ཕྱུ་པ་)), instead referencing the qabāʿ, a tailored long-sleeved coat common in the Islamicate world, and adopted more widely from Baghdad to Tibet from around the ninth century.[18]

Finbarr Barry Flood notes that the Royal Drinking Scene’s ‘emphasis on difference is a stark reflection of the ability of dress to communicate political power, social status, personal wealth, and ethnic or religious affiliation’.[19] He argues that rather than the dress of the princely figure indicating that he is an ethnic Turk marrying into Ladakhi nobility, a hypothesis put forward by some, it is ‘more likely to indicate the adoption of modes of dress associated with the articulation of authority in the powerful adjacent sultanates of Afghanistan.’[20] Following Flood’s argument and taking into account the importance of the heritage of the Dro clan set out in the inscriptions, I agree with observations citing the placement of the painting as a suggestion that it represents a donor figure.[21] If the male princely figure could represent a donor or founder of the monastery, depicted wearing textiles derived from Persia and Central Asia as a conscious means of displaying his status, could we identify him as Kaldan Sherab himself, a wealthy aristocratic monk? Whether this is the case or not, the painting demonstrates that from the time of Kaldan Sherab, textiles were used as a means of elevating the social status of Alchi’s founders.

The significance of the Dro heritage of the patrons at Alchi is that it aligned them with the imperial kings of Tibet. With the murder of Lang Darma in 842 CE and the collapse of the Tibetan Empire, the Tibetan aristocracy had migrated in large numbers to the more secure regions of Western Tibet. The seventeenth-century Ladakh Chronicle (ལ་དྭགས་རྒྱལ་རབས་), tells us how in the first half of the tenth century, Kyide Nyimagön, descendant of Lang Darma, established Ngari in Purang on the request and sponsorship of the local nobility, and formed a marriage alliance with a noble lady of the Dro clan.[22] He split his territory between his three sons creating ‘Ngari Korsum’, giving one the area of Maryul, founding the Kingdom of Ladakh. The Dro clan had also come to Ladakh from Central Tibet, and had long provided queens to its imperial kings. The familial link to the Dro clan is evidenced by the founder of the Dukhang, Kaldan Sherab, which likely makes him the paternal uncle of Tsültrim Ö, who asserts this lineage too in the foundation inscription in the Sumtsek.[23]

The founding family of Alchi monastery actively sought to bolster their position in contemporary Ladakh by aligning themselves with their Dro heritage in their patronage, and the choices of textiles within the Sumtsek were appendages to this purpose, following their use in the Dukhang to achieve similar goals. Their decorative motifs and placement were conscious choices designed to emphasise their wealth, contemporary position on the Silk Roads, and connections to Central Tibet while offering the temple as a religious space to the bodhisattvas that populate it. Tsültrim Ö therefore realised secular ambitions associated with being within the Ladakhi aristocracy, even as a Buddhist monk, through a carefully choreographed language of cloth, using panels of ‘fabric’ to visually reference the palatial practices of his ancestors.

Táng texts record that the Uighur and Tibetan kings of the eighth-ninth centuries possessed vast golden tents, whose material and therefore sensory charisma played an important role in the portrayal of their nobility and authority.[24] They enclosed sounds and smells, and evoked memories of touch through visuals and actual contact. They provided a sensorially intense stage upon which to enact the ceremonials of state and emphasised the wealth and power of the ruling nobility through their materiality.

While holding court primarily within these ornately decorated tents, the Tibetan kings drew from a rich cultural mix in the formation of their imperial courtly aesthetic. During the reign of Songtsen Gampo (ca 605-50CE), for example, Princess Wencheng Kongjo (ca 623-80CE), is credited as bringing Táng silks with her into the Tibetan court when she travelled from China.[25] Amy Heller has described contemporary Lhasa as a place enriched with traders bringing ‘exotic spices and textiles, [and] monks bringing Buddhist texts and images.’[26] These came in caravans from India, Gilgit, Kashmir and Persia, contributing to a rich cosmopolitan atmosphere. The Tibetan kings appreciated, appropriated and adapted this material and have been referred to as ‘keen connoisseurs and great collectors of Asia.’[27]

The founders of Alchi monastery are linked in inscriptions to the Dro Clan, and by extension the kings of the Tibetan Empire. Those kings had held their courts in richly decorated tents, filled with textiles and art brought from the surrounding regions. These environments, bordered by textiles, were designed as spaces to be entered, experienced and entirely overwhelm the visitor in a carefully curated internal environment. Their multi-sensory characteristics were consciously exploited to facilitate regal splendour and authority.

The richly decorated royal tents of Central Tibet during the preceding centuries were joined in the thirteenth by those of the Mongols, also rooted in nomadic tradition and contemporary to the decoration of Alchi. The court of Chingiz (Genghis) Khan (ca 1162-1227CE), moved within similarly rich tents across the Central Asian steppes, these were felt-covered trellis tents, commonly, though incorrectly, known as ‘yurts’.[28] The mystical genealogy of Chingiz Khan, established in the Mongghol’un niucha tobcha’an or Secret History of the Mongols (ca 1228-64CE), links Mongol legitimacy to the structure of the trellis tent.[29]Alanqo’a, the mythical progenitor of the House of Chingiz, was miraculously impregnated through the smoke-hole in her trellis tent, tightly linking the trellis tent to the conception of the Chingizid line.[30] This infused it with dynastic importance and located it as a structure worthy of decoration with fine textiles as the mobile palace of the Mongol Khans. Extant fabric draperies from Mongol Central Asia preserve the material charisma of these royal tents. For example, an exceptional group of panels dated to ca 1300CE are decorated with golden roundels, recalling earlier Sassanian designs re-imagined by Mongol weavers.[31]  Suspended around the felt-covered interior, they evoke the ambience inside the tents of the Mongol elite, manifesting a temporally constructed sense-scape, reflecting the flickering light of the central fire, whilst retaining its warmth. These hangings referred to the association of gold with Tibetan and Uighur kingship, evoking the sensory experience of the courts of the Tibetan Empire. The sensuous atmosphere of the interior was politically significant, felt by the mother of Chingiz Khan and all Mongol Khans that followed, linking the structure, its materiality and decoration, to the lived experience of Mongolian nobility.

Kashmir had long been connected with the surrounding regions of Persia, Central Asia, India, Tibet and Ladakh by its active trade routes. A lack of local patronage in the Kashmir Valley during the Lohara Dynasty (1101-1339CE) led to artists from this region seeking work in adjacent territories, including western Tibet, Persia and Ladakh.[32] Kashmiri workmanship of both the paintings and wood carving at Alchi is largely accepted by scholars, and itinerant Kashmiri artisans continued to work in the western Tibetan region into the thirteenth century.[33] That the paintings of the Dukhang and Sumtsek were executed by Kashmiri artisans is confirmed by visual evidence in the Sumtsek, including paintings on Avalokiteśvara’s dhoti (discussed below) that depict actual places in the Kashmir Valley.[34]

The Sumtsek was painted at a time when the armies of Chingiz Khan, travelling in richly decorated tents, were active around eastern and central Asia. The experienced charisma of these tented courts, ancestrally Tibetan and contemporaneously Mongolian, was referenced, I argue, in the painted scheme of the Sumtsek. It functioned not only as a temple, but as a reminder of its patrons’ aristocratic status within the Dro clan, replicating the internal ambience of these spaces by representing textiles overhead. The textiles of these tents not only created a specific sensory world but communicated the splendour and refinement of the nobility through their decoration, contributing to the intensity of the sensory experiences that they contained. At Alchi, the Sumtsek employs textile motifs not only in panel form on the ceilings, but also uses these same motifs on the clothing of figures within painted scenes. This has the effect of imbuing the ceiling with their sensory characteristics, emphatically locating this decoration as an evocation of cloth, painted largely overhead, creating the feeling of a tented, textile environment. This spatial tactic recalls the tented sense-scapes of contemporary and ancestral elites, thereby bringing that prestige into the Sumtsek, acting as an extension of any inscriptional evidence discussed above of the patrons’ desire to assert their nobility.

Existing scholarship on the textile motifs in the Sumtsek has sought mainly to define either their origins or the techniques of decoration.[35] Though this is valuable for determining the geographical breadth of references embodied within the paintings,  it is important to recognise the multiple layers of agency that informed them: they were painted by Kashmiri artists, under Dro clan patronage (themselves originally from central Tibet but now prominent in local Ladakhi society), in a region possessing wide-spread and historic trading connections along the Silk Roads as well as recent (possibly indirect) contact with the Mongols. This makes forming clear divisions and categories between textile motifs an arbitrary task, owing to their adaptation by the artists into a new coherent visual language. I do not believe that they intend to faithfully describe original textiles, as has been suggested in past scholarship.[36] Instead the development of designs and their unified colour palette indicates that the painters’ aim was not to describe but to evoke a vast array of textile traditions, combining them into a single harmonious painted scheme.

The kings of the Tibetan Empire had delighted in assimilating the arts of their neighbours, and the Mongols too sought to bolster their political image through patronage of the arts, relocating vast numbers of artists and craftspeople from across the conquered world to new centres of power.[37] This new model of artistic exchange synthesised with existing networks of trade and transcultural contact already established along the Silk Roads, creating a rich cultural mix of artistic traditions. In relation to textiles specifically, these could then be used in the construction and decoration of richly ornamented royal tents. Similarly, the ceiling of the Sumtsek is entirely painted with rectangular panels that reference textile designs whose origins illustrate the particular geographic and historical context of the temple. They form a ‘collection’ of exotic fabrics juxtaposed but skilfully unified by the skill of their painters (Fig. 2).

One of the designs prominent in the paintings at Alchi is the ‘pearl roundel’. This motif was first popularised during the Sassanian Empire (224-651AD), decorating silks that circulated and were adapted by weavers across Eurasia. These Persian fabrics are excellently preserved in rock carvings at Tāq-e Bustān in modern-day Kermanshah, Iran. Here, the Trousers of Khosrow II (ca 570-628AD), dated to the early seventh century, illustrate the motif as an adornment of royal clothing since its creation.[38] Subsequently, these textiles were worn by elite Tibetans, and continued to be popular well into the thirteenth century.[39]

Sogdian traders also played a key role in the movement of both Sassanian silks and their own ‘pearl roundel’ textiles into the Tibetan and Himalayan region.[40] Rock inscriptions near Drangtse in Ladakh written in Sogdian from the ninth-tenth century demonstrate these travellers’ presence in the region.[41] Heavily involved in international trade on the Silk Roads during that time, it is likely that these travellers were merchants. The ‘Hall of the Ambassadors’, dated to ca 660CE, in Afrosiyob (Samarqand, modern-day Uzbekistan) offers a tantalising glimpse into the rich courtly environments of Central Asia at the height of the Sogdian Empire, showing gifts being brought by ambassadors to the Sogdian ruler wrapped in ‘pearl roundel’ textiles.

Fig. 5 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, A Kashmiri palace, painted on the dhoti of Avalokiteśvara. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.

Silk fragments preserved at Dunhuang, under direct control of the Tibetan Empire from 781-847CE, also confirm that actual textiles decorated with this motif found their way into the aesthetic language of the Tibetan world from an early period.[42] The cultural and historical status accorded to the ‘pearl roundel’, and its linking to Eurasian kingship and nobility, was consciously referenced on the ceiling of the Sumtsek, placed overhead as a panel of ‘cloth’ (Fig. 2). It is also found on the clothing of figures painted elsewhere within the Sumtsek, (discussed below), activating the ceiling’s reference to the woven materiality of cloth.

Returning to the space of the Sumtsek, the first bodhisattva that you meet while circumambulating the stupa at the centre is Avalokiteśvara (Fig. 3). The encounter is close, with Avalokiteśvara’s dhoti painted in dazzling colours that glow as your eyes adjust to the comparative darkness of the temple’s interior. These paintings have been interpreted as images of life in Kashmir before the coming of Islam, and their vivid detail strengthens their Kashmiri provenance.[43] Though the reasons for commissioning these images cannot be known with certainty, it is possible that the patrons of the Sumtsek chose to present the courts of Kashmir to align themselves with that refined culture, as a wealthy cradle of Buddhism that was therefore reflective of their own position as monks of nobility.

Analysis of the textile motifs on Avalokiteśvara’s dhoti demonstrates that, as with the ceiling overhead, it is enriched with material from neighbouring regions beyond Persia and Central Asia, in India and more locally to Alchi’s context in the Himalayas. Juxtaposed localities of block-printed and tie-dyed textiles are transformed into a new cohesive aesthetic language both on the dhoti itself, and in its surrounding niche. By depicting these textiles within an imaginable world, they reference the viewer’s sensory memory, creating a felt sensation activated through the visual. This is significant as this psychological experience locates the panels with common designs placed overhead as textiles.

Goepper has argued that the images on Avalokiteśvara’s dhoti act as illustrations to the high Sanskrit verse-chronicle, the Rājataraṅginī written by Kalhaṇa in mid twelfth-century Kashmir, which describes monuments that have since disappeared.[44] The paintings therefore form a map of important buildings around the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar.[45] A depiction of a four-story Kashmiri palace visually references the architectural configuration of the Sumtsek, itself built using Kashmiri techniques of wood carving adopted to the Ladakhi environment (Fig. 5). As at Alchi, the upper floors are accessible by an external ladder and are topped by a lantern (Fig. 1). By adopting a comparable architectural structure to the Sumtsek, this image draws visual and spatial parallels between the palatial world of Kashmir and the religious setting of the Sumtsek.

Fig. 6 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, Mounted horsemen during a princely hunt using a bird of prey, painted on the dhoti of Avalokiteśvara. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.

The ‘pearl roundel’ had already appeared on the robes of the princely figure in the drinking scene of the Dukhang (Fig. 4), and this is also the case inside this palace. A royal couple are seated on the fourth story, beneath cloth hangings that reflect and engage with the designs painted on the Sumtsek ceiling, evoking roundels and designs in red, blue and white (Fig. 5). This provides visual evidence for how textiles were hung in a Kashmiri palace, creating spaces of nobility, and resulting in a sensory encounter similar to that of the textile-clad courts of the Mongols and the Tibetan Empire.

A direct link is drawn between the Kashmiri prince in the palace and the male figure of the Royal Drinking Scene in the Dukhang by their pose and clothing (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). Decorated with ‘pearl roundels’, and adorned with ṭirāz (embroidered, usually calligraphic armbands used in Islamicate contexts to denote loyalty), this princely figure’s dress references that of the Islamicate world, his Kashmiri heritage only illustrated by his headdress. By echoing the depiction of the princely donor figure in the Dukhang, it elevates the nobility of the patrons at Alchi to that of Kashmir. By linking the space of the Sumtsek to the Kashmiri palace whose ceiling is hung with cloth, the painting simultaneously evokes those spaces, demonstrating a sustained engagement with Eurasian concepts of nobility.

Fig. 7 Thigma (tie-dye) gönchas (woolen coat), nambu (wool), Ladakh, early twentieth century, The Karun Thakar Collection, London. © Karun Thakar Collection, published in Indian Textiles – The Karun Thakar Collection (Munich, Berlin, London and New York 2014).

On the opposite side of the dhoti, a row of mounted horsemen dressed in courtly textiles take part in a princely hunt using a bird of prey (Fig. 6). The conscious selection of textiles here localises the scene and draws on the specific geographical and historical context of the Sumtsek and its patron. The central figure is dressed in textiles recalling the block-printed cottons of India and those flanking him evoke the tie-dyed textiles of Tibet and the Himalayas. None, however, are painted exactly as they appear on cloth, and this is illustrative of their transformation by Kashmiri artists to unite them into a coherent visual language.

Fragments of block-printed cotton produced in Gujarat, near-contemporary in date to the paintings on Avalokiteśvara’s dhoti have been excavated in large numbers at the site of Fusṭāṭ (Old Cairo), Egypt, securely located by radiocarbon dating to span roughly the eleventh-fifteenth centuries. [46] Indian textiles had been traded with Egypt from at least the time of the Roman Empire, leaving from the ports of Gujarat, preserving material no longer extant in India.[47] Their provenance is confirmed by stylistic comparison to Jain manuscripts and Gujarati architectural decoration.[48] This locates them as a significant component in the Eurasian textile economy of the thirteenth century, and as likely sources of inspiration for Kashmiri artisans. That Kashmir was engaged in trade with the wider Indian world is recorded in texts such as Udayaprabha Sūri’s Dharmābhyudaya written in ca 1233CE, recording that that Kashmiri shawls reached western India during the thirteenth century.[49]

Two other noble figures are dressed in clothes covered in circular designs filled by a cross motif. These evoke the tie-dyed textiles of the Himalayas, duplicated in decorative draperies on parasols and soft furnishings throughout the dhoti (Fig. 6 and Fig. 5). I believe that the Ladakhi patrons of the Sumtsek asked the Kashmiri painters to incorporate a local technique of textile decoration into the paintings, thereby inserting themselves into the narrative.

Nambu (སྣམ་བུ་), a narrow-woven woollen cloth produced domestically across Tibet and the Himalayas, has traditionally been decorated using a tie-dye technique referred to both as thigma (ཐིག་མ་) or druk (ཕྲུག་).[50]This technique of folding, tying and dying creates a cross pattern within a circle, and can incorporate numerous contrasting dyes. Though the origin and age of this technique is not known, comparison with tie-dye techniques in India, whose antiquity is recorded, indicate that it dates back at least to the time of Alchi, which may provide the earliest record of the motif in a Himalayan context.[51] In the absence of thigma fragments contemporary to the Sumtsek, it is helpful to compare these paintings to later extant textiles.

The coats of the figures on the dhoti draw close parallels with later Ladakhi dress, such as colourful striped gönchas (གོན་ཆས་) (Fig. 7). These thigma-decorated sheep’s wool coats were once worn from Zanskar to western Tibet, and the paintings in the Sumtsek suggest that the roots of this form of dress lie at the latest in the thirteenth century.[52] Comparison between thigma decorated woollen textiles and those painted on Avalokiteśvara’s dhoti demonstrates how this local technique has been reimagined through the eyes of Kashmiri artists in their pursuit of a unified painted aesthetic.

As with ‘pearl roundel’ silks of Persia and Central Asia, the block-printed textiles of India and tie-dyed fabrics of the Himalayas, animated in clothing in these narrative scenes, and read visually as tactile material close to the skin, are presented as lengths of ‘cloth’ on the ceiling of the Sumtsek (Fig. 2). With this the patrons of Alchi created a ‘tented’ space that communicated their own culturally specific references to contemporary and ancestral royal tents, confirming interests outlined in inscriptions. This was achieved visually with the textiles’ designs, whose patterns psychologically re-create the felt multi-sensory charisma of these luxury cloth palaces. This motive should not be read as contradictory to Tsültrim Ö’s religious intentions, offering the temple to the bodhisattvas who populate it, but as a parallel ambition fulfilled through the offering’s decoration. The world that he created was one to be entered and experienced, used as a religious place of worship and so containing multi-sensory experiences that were different from those of the tents of Tibetan and Mongol rulers. This was symptomatic of his position as an aristocratic Buddhist monk, rather than a monarch, using religious patronage to achieve secular ambitions associated with his aristocratic position.

In a Tibetan Buddhist context, textiles are used in rituals, offerings, and as canopies to delineate sacred spaces. The use of textile motifs on the ceiling of the Sumtsek has been likened to the use of Buddhist canopies (fringed hangings usually constructed of silk) as a creator of sanctity through cloth.[53] The Sanskrit vastuśāstra (treatise on architecture), Mayamata, written in the eleventh-twelfth century, describes the ceremonial importance of dressing a temple with textiles during its consecration, highlighting the use of textiles in an Indian context.[54] As a sanctified tented temple, home to three colossal bodhisattvas, this textile world is imbued with deeper meaning born in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, accessible when we consider the way in which the temple is experienced.

The visitor is invited to engage on micro and macro levels with the interior space of the Sumtsek by its spatial layout and the detail of its paintings. Colossal bodhisattvas burst out of their niches, reaching from the ground into the second floor, while the fine detail of the paintings that decorate and surround them beckon the viewer forward to discover their brilliance and virtuosity. From a Buddhist perspective, the size of these clay bodhisattvas makes sense, the ‘apparitional body’ or nirmānakāya, being roughly twice the size of a human, with legends of bodhisattvas adopting colossal forms to protect their followers. Utsavi Singh has argued that by entering the Sumtsek with the head bowed, through a low, narrow doorway, and being confronted with these awe-inspiring images of supreme beings, whose form becomes clear as the eyes adjust to the comparative darkness, the bodhisattvas ‘although literally silent, turn into loud, “talking” figures by virtue of the plethora of meanings they imbue.’[55] Adopting such theoretical interpretations centered on phenomenological experience of the Sumtsek is otherwise rarely noted in scholarship, though this is how the space was significant to the local religious community as a destination and site of worship housing actual deities.

Fig. 8 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, A temple housing an image of Tārā, painted on the dhoti of Avalokiteśvara. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.

The Kashmiri royal palace discussed above is described in the Rājataraṅginī as being close to a large Sadāśiva temple, corresponding to a Śaivaite (Hindu) temple depicted on the dhoti adjacent to the palace (Fig. 3).[56] Within the temple, a liṅgam on a yonī is heaped with flowers, and to the right, a male figure dressed in cloth that draws inspiration from block-printed Indian cotton presents offerings, possibly flowers, incense, or lamps to the shrine, recalling intense sensory experiences of heat, scent, sound, touch, and sight.

Other temples housing similarly flower-covered liṅgams and large figural deities cover the dhoti, surrounded by lavishly dressed attendants and visitors, such as one shrine housing an image of Tārā (Fig. 8). The viewer is transported to this world by associating the shrines housing these deities with the space that they occupy in the Sumtsek, surrounded by equally colossal bodhisattvas. Richly detailed depictions of offerings in a Hindu context evoke similarly experiential traditions in Tibetan tantric rituals, providing another means of access through sensory memory, perhaps even suggesting an eclecticism of rituals in the specific context of thirteenth-century Alchi borne out of sustained contact with the Kashmir Valley.[57]

Fig. 9 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, the colossal clay image of Maitreya, showing damage to the paint layer on the dhoti, which displays the life of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.
Fig. 10 The Sumtsek, Alchi Monastery, Ladakh, ca 1220s CE, A male devotee wearing local monastic dress carrying an offering scarf, on the edge of the dhoti of the colossal clay image of Maitreya. © Peter van Ham, from the book “Alchi – Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece”, Hirmer, Munich 2017.

The largest of the three clay bodhisattvas is Maitreya, who occupies the far niche, opposite the doorway, the natural ‘goal’ of performance, and therefore the most significant in the temple (Fig. 9). To the right is Mañjuśrī, whose dhoti is of less interest as a source to evaluate the space and context of the Sumtsek’s textile motifs.[58] The comparatively poor state of preservation of Maitreya’s dhoti indicates that the site has been the location of offerings capable of contributing to the deterioration of the paint layer. Heat and dryness from butter lamps, incense, and other factors such as manual abrasion have caused the paint surface to deteriorate, crack and fall away from its support. This evidence confirms that the site played a role in the enactment of multi-sensory encounters, as would be expected at the base of the temple’s main deity.

The images populating the roundels on this dhoti represent the life of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha.[59] On the margins of this cycle painted on ‘cloth’, attendants are depicted bringing offerings towards the central scene. For example, a male devotee wearing local monastic dress in a half-roundel clutches a scarf in his hands as he bows his head in the posture of prayer (Fig. 10). The textile is the object of his devotion, and is presented to the focus of his worship, the life story of Śākyamuni Buddha.  This imagery directly corresponds to a passage of the Prophecy of Noble Maitreya (འཕགས་པ་བྱམས་པ་ལུང་བསྟན་པ་, see appendix). This canonical Buddhist Mahāyāna sutra is a valuable tool for accessing the mindset and cultural awareness of the patrons and the painters who created the clay image of Maitreya, and therefore is of fundamental importance for understanding the overall decoration of the Sumtsek. Mention of an English translation of the Sanskrit version of this text has been made by Christiane Kalantari in her discussion of Alchi, referencing it generally in relation the ritual offerings of textiles.[60]  Assessment of the Tibetan text, a source more directly connected to the context of this site, alongside close examination of the painted imagery on Maitreya’s dhoti, has to my knowledge not yet been pursued in scholarship, and I believe that it provides previously overlooked access to the sensory experiences of those who visited the Sumtsek.[61]

The importance of making material offerings to Śākyamuni is emphasised by Maitreya as of fundamental importance to guarantee his coming as the future Buddha. Included in the objects listed by Maitreya are umbrellas, ornaments, banners, scents, garlands and ointments (གདུགས་དང་རྒྱན་མཚན་བ་དན་དང་།    དྲི་དང་ཕྲེང་བ་བྱུག་པ་ཡིས་) (see appendix). These objects either stimulate the sense of touch by being constructed with textiles, or awaken the sense of smell, such as ointments, (burned) scents and garlands of flowers. By placing cloth banners and ritual umbrellas in parallel to objects that possess powerful scents, Maitreya evokes an intense multi-sensory spectacle of ritual offerings.

Read aloud, the sound of the sutra, likely recited in the Sumtsek owing to the imagery on the dhoti of Maitreya, the scent of the ointments, perfumes (probably incense) and flower garlands, their aesthetics and the feel of the textiles, all objects likely offered to this clay bodhisattva, contribute towards a powerful multi-sensory experience. Following Singh’s observations, Maitreya becomes a ‘talking figure’, ‘speaking’ his prophecy, standing in a rich and stimulating world contained, bordered and intensified by internationally constituted textiles (Fig. 9).

The imagery of these acts of devotion to the Buddha through material offering in this sutra situates the devotee as an active participant. Maitreya highlights the importance of corporeal interaction with images of worship to Śākyamuni by directly referencing the act of sprinkling saffron water and smearing sandalwood paste onto Śākyamuni’s stupa in order to guarantee his coming as the future Buddha (གུར་གུམ་ཆུ་ཡིས་གདབ་པ་དང་།           ཙན་དན་གྱི་ནི་བྱུག་པ་ཡིས།     ཤཱཀྱ་ཐུབ་པའི་མཆོད་རྟེན་ལ།    མཆོད་ནས་ང་ཡི་བསྟན་ལ་ལྷགས་). By referencing this act of direct sensory contact with an object of worship through sensory engagement, Maitreya generates a tangible link with the world of the divine.

Such engagement continues up to the present day with the tradition of presenting silk scarves, khatak(ཁ་བཏགས་), to deities embodied within images, engendering a sensory encounter with the deity intrinsically linked to touching cloth.[62] Luczanits has even suggested that a painting in the Alchi Dukhang could be the earliest depiction of a khatak to survive, confirming their use as culturally loaded material offerings during the time of Alchi’s founders.[63] The figure on Maitreya’s dhoti presenting a striped textile represents a similar sensory encounter, offering a scarf as an object of devotion, encouraging those who see it to do the same, perhaps even to this very image of Maitreya (Fig. 10).

With textiles designs animated in narrative paintings such as this, and repeated overhead on panels, courtly textiles defined the sanctified space of the Sumtsek, assuming another layer of meaning. The ceiling of the Sumtsek not only evoked the moving tented courts of Eurasian nobility but acted, through Indic and Buddhist associations with cloth and the divine, to create a sanctified space whose woven characteristics contained and intensified activities of multi-sensory experience, as they did to achieve different effects in secular tented contexts.

As a family-owned aristocratic monastery situated at a ‘Crossroads of Asia’, the painted textiles of the Sumtsek communicate the nobility of Tsültrim Ö as a participant in a wider Eurasian dialogue of nobility. Motifs from the regions bordering the Kingdom of Ladakh are adapted and transformed into a coherent visual language, clothing the figures shown in paintings and cladding the ceiling, encompassing the visitor within a sense-scape recalling the same felt experience of the tented courts of Eurasian elites. As a permanent tented dwelling for three colossal bodhisattvas, the Sumtsek’s painted textiles intensified multi-sensory activities, capturing scents and absorbing sounds, drawing upon the visitors’ sensory memories of the tactility of cloth and transforming their experience of the space.

Though past scholarship has focussed on problems of categorisation, iconography, materiality and dating, adopting a spatial and sensory approach to representations of textiles has uncovered new layers of meaning, and enabled us to enter the experienced world of the temple, consciously curated by its patrons. I have argued that the painted textiles motifs of the Sumtsek transform the space into a rich and multi-dimensional sense-scape. This was a site of corporeal experience, whose charisma was felt throughout the body as a container and intensifier of multi-sensory activities. Paintings evoke the tactility of cloth through sensory memory, while their decoration referenced origins in other cultural spheres. This enabled the patrons of Alchi to communicate their nobility, spatially and visually, while simultaneously making a religious offering, thereby engaging in a thirteenth-century language of kingship and nobility from their own position as aristocratic monks situated on a politically important ‘Crossroads of Asia’. Colossal bodhisattvas form the goal of performance, visited as actual deities, inhabiting this tented world bordered and contained by painted textiles.


Extract from the Prophecy of Noble Maitreya (འཕགས་པ་བྱམས་པ་ལུང་བསྟན་པ་), Translation my own with the assistance of Dr. LamaJabb (University of Oxford) and Tenzin Choephel (Lop Lao)

After that the compassionate teacher, the supreme being Maitreya, looking intently at the retinue [said] “Śākyamuni, the chief saviour, the one who sees the ultimate phenomena of the supreme dharma, lord of the universe, put everything onto the path to liberation. Also, in reality, for the sake of my teaching, by offering umbrellas, ornaments, banners, ointments, scents and garlands, to Śākyamuni, you will come to my teachings. By smearing sandalwood [paste] upon, and sprinkling Śākyamuni’s stupa with saffron water, [you] will arrive at my teaching. At that time, [if you] take refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha and performed good actions, you will arrive at my teaching. From embracing all the authentic precepts of Śākyamuni’s teaching, henceforth, from practicing in accordance with the precepts, you will arrive at my teaching. From also offering donations of religious robes, food, drinks and various medicines to the Sangha, you will arrive at my teaching.”

དེའི་འོག་ཏུ་ཐུགས་རྗེ་ཅན།                སྟོན་པ་བྱམས་པ་རྐང་གཉིས་མཆོག         འཁོར་ལ་རྣམ་པར་གཟིགས་ནས་ནི།         ཤཀྱ་སེང་གེ་ཐུབ་པ་སྟེ། གཙོ་བོ་སྐྱོབ་པར་མཛད་པ་པོ།   དམ་པའི་ཆོས་དབྱིངས་གཟིགས་གྱུར་པ།    འཇིག་རྟེན་མགོན་པོས་འདི་དག་ཀུན།      ཐར་པའི་ལམ་དེ་བསྐྱེད་ནས་ཀྱང་། དོན་གྱིས་ང་ཡི་བསྟན་ལ་བཏང་།            གདུགས་དང་རྒྱན་མཚན་བ་དན་དང་།     དྲི་དང་ཕྲེང་བ་བྱུག་པ་ཡིས།     ཤཱཀྱ་ཐུབ་ལ་མཆོད་ནས་ནི།     ང་ཡི་བསྟན་ལ་ལྷགས་པ་ཡིན།   གུར་གུམ་ཆུ་ཡིས་གདབ་པ་དང་།            ཙན་དན་གྱི་ནི་བྱུག་པ་ཡིས།                 ཤཱཀྱ་ཐུབ་པའི་མཆོད་རྟེན་ལ།    མཆོད་ནས་ང་ཡི་བསྟན་ལ་ལྷགས། དེ་ཚེ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཆོས་དང་ནི། དགེ་འདུན་ལ་ཡང་སྐྱབས་སོང་ཤིང་།          དགེ་བའི་ལས་ཀྱང་བྱས་ནས་ནི། ང་ཡི་བསྟན་ལ་ལྷགས་པ་ཡིན།   ཤཱཀྱ་སེང་གེའི་བསྟན་པ་ལ། བསླབ་གཞི་ཡང་དག་བླངས་ནས་སུ།        ཇི་ལྟར་གསུང་བཞིན་བསྒྲུབས་ནས་ནི།      ངའི་བསྟན་ལ་ལྷགས་པ་ཡིན།    དགེ་འདུན་ལ་ཡང་ཆོས་གོས་དང་། ཞལ་ཟས་དང་ནི་བཏུང་བ་དང་།             སྙུན་གསོས་སྣ་ཚོགས་སྦྱིན་པ་རྣམས།         ཕུལ་ནས་ང་ཡི་བསྟན་ལ་ལྷགས།

Tibetan text from: ‘‘Phags pa byams pa lung bstan pa’ [The Prophecy of Noble Maitreya] in bKaʼ ‘gyur (dpe bsdur ma). Par gzhi dang po par thengs dang vol. 76 (Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa’i dpe skrun khang, 2006-2009), 874-875.


I would like to extend my greatest thanks to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, with whom I was granted an audience in September 2019 at his residence in McLeodganj, India, which to this day continually inspires me to study and promote the arts of Tibetan Buddhism. To Peter van Ham, Karun Thakar, and Dr Carmen Auer for generously allowing me to publish their images to illustrate this article. Special thanks must also go to Dr Christian Luczanits, who provided generous support throughout and was kind enough to share proofs of his publications on the Alchi monuments before release in 2020. I would also like to thank Rocco Loperfido, who accompanied me to Ladakh and to Alchi monastery in 2019, and Dr Natasha Morris for the same in Uzbekistan in 2019. I would also like to thank my PhD supervisor Professor Sussan Babaie for her continuous support, as well as Dr. George FitzHerbert at The University of Oxford who supervised this as an original thesis in 2020-1. Special thanks must also go to Tenzin Choephel la and Dr Shanta Kumar Negi la for their unwavering support and guidance with the Tibetan language. The colleagues, friends and family who supported and encouraged me while undertaking this research, in the UK, Ladakh, India, Nepal and beyond are too numerous to list here but without their help, this research would not have been possible. This article is dedicated to the Tibetan and Himalayan communities of today, and the hope for a free Tibet.


[1] Jason Neelis, Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange Within and Beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 257, 270.

[2] Neelis, 257-287.

[3] Vladimir Minorsky (transl.), Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam – The Regions of the World, A Persian Geography 37AH-982AD (London: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2015), 93; Luciano Petech, The Kingdom of Ladakh – ca 950-1842AD (Rome: Instituto Italiano per Il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1977), 12.

[4] This can be seen at Tabo, where strips of fabric (cotton or linen) have been fixed to the ceiling prior to painting with textile motifs, seeDeborah E. Klimburg-Salter, Tabo: A Lamp for the Kingdom – Early Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Art in the Western Himalaya (Milan: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 173-178. Carbon-14 dating confirms that these ceiling textiles were part of the original decorative scheme at Tabo (early eleventh century), proving that this practice existed in the Himalayas with actual textiles before the foundation of the Sumtsek, see Erna Wandl, ‘Painted Textiles in a Buddhist Temple’, Textile History 30 no. 1 (1999): 16.

[5] Though important for understanding the monuments and forming further interpretation, the work in the newly published two volume set, Christian Luczanits, Alchi: Ladakh’s Hidden Buddhist Sanctuary, Volume I, The Choskhor (Chicago: Serinda Publications, 2023) and Roger Goepper, Alchi: Ladakh’s Hidden Buddhist Sanctuary, Volume II, The Sumtsek ed. Christian Luczanits (Chicago: Serinda Publications, 2023), both with photography by Jaroslav Poncar, is largely descriptive. See also David L. Snellgrove and Tadeusz Skorupski, The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh (Warminster: Aris and Phillips Ltd., 1977), vol.1, 29-80; Christiane Papa-Kalantari, ‘The Art of the Court: Some Remarks on the Historical Stratigraphy of Eastern Iranian Elements in Early Buddhist Painting of Alchi, Ladakh’ in Deborah Klimburg-Salter, Christian Jahoda, and Kurt Tropper (eds.) Image and Song in Transdisciplinary Dialogue: PIATS 2003 – Tibetan Studies – Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2006), see especially 198-199; Roger Goepper, ‘Early Kashmiri Textiles: Painted Ceilings in Alchi’ Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 56, (1991–92): 47–74.

[6] Luczanits (2023), and Goepper (2023). A summary of past scholarship is given in Luczanits (2023), 11-13. The proofs of this two-volume publication were kindly made available to be by Christian Luczanits during research for this as an MPhil thesis in 2020. Other key publications include Pratapaditya Pal, A Buddhist Paradise – The Murals of Alchi, Western Himalayas (Basel: Visual Dharma Publications Ltd., 1982); Snellgrove and Skorupski, 2 vols.; Romi Khosla, Buddhist Monasteries in the Western Himalaya (Kathmandu: Bibliotheca Himalayica, 1979).

[7] Photography was prohibited during fieldwork, see Peter van Ham, Alchi- Treasure of the Himalayas, Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece (Munich: Hirmer, 2018).

[8] Finbarr Barry Flood, ‘Mobility and Mutation: Iranian Hunting themes in the Murals of Alchi, Western Himalayas’ in South Asian Studies 7 no. 1, (1991): 21-35; See also Christiane Papa-Kalantari, ‘The Ceiling Paintings of the Alchi gSum brTsegs: Problems of Style’ in Deborah Klimburg-Salter and Eva Allinger (eds) Buddhist Art and Tibetan Patronage Ninth to Fourteenth Centuries: PIATS 2000: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 85-113.

[9] Full analysis with references can be read in the longer version of this article, Jordan Quill, An Interwoven World: Sensory Experiences of Textiles in the Alchi Sumtsek (Mphil thesis, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford, 2021).

[10] Thub bstan dPal ldan, Ladwags – A Cultural History of Ladakh with an Account of its Monasteries [Ladakh – A Cultural History of Ladakh with an Account of its Monasteries] (Leh: Thub bstan dPal ldan, 1985), 74-76; see also Thub bstan dPal ldan, Chags rabs gnad don kun tshang – An Introduction to History, Monasteries, Castles and Buddhism in Ladakh [Complete Essential History, An Introduction to History, Monasteries, Castles and Buddhism in Ladakh] (Leh: Thub bstan dPal ldan, 1976), 10-11.

[11] Roger Goepper, ‘Clues for a Dating of the Three-Storeyed Temple (Sumtsek) in Alchi, Ladakh’ Études Asiatiques: Revue de la Société Suisse d’Études Asiatiques 44, no. 2 (1990): 160; this has recently been underpinned by new research, see Luczanits (2023),12-13; see also Christian Luczanits, ‘The Early Buddhist Heritage of Ladakh Reconsidered’ in  John Bray (ed.) Ladakhi Histories: Local and Regional Perspectives (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 73.

[12] Goepper, (1990), 165-168; Luczanits (2023), 12-13.

[13] Nils Martin ‘The Foundation Inscription of the Sumtsek’ in Roger Goepper, Alchi: Ladakh’s Hidden Buddhist Sanctuary, Volume II, The Sumtsek ed. Christian Luczanits (Chicago: Serinda Publications, 2023), 781-789.

[14] མར་ཡུལ་སྨད་ཀྱི་ལ་དགས་ཨ་ལྕི་འདིར།།








Transcribed from Wylie given in Philip Denwood, ‘Temple and Rock Inscriptions of Alchi’ in David L. Snellgrove and Tadeusz Skorupski (eds) The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh vol. 2 (Warminster: Aris and Phillips Ltd., 1980), 138-139. (?) indicates doubt over the transcription of the preceding syllable (by Denwood), and x indicates illegibility.

Translation my own guided by published translations, including the latest translation by Martin, 786; Denwood, 148.  This inscription was only partly recorded by Denwood, and has since been checked against Luczanits’ personal transcriptions, kindly shared with me via email. See also Luczanits (2023), 13, 23.

[15] Martin, 781.

[16] ‘ཡོན་བདག་དགེའ་སློང་ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས་འོད། ལོངས་སྤྱོད་སྙིང་པོ་མྱེད་པ་ལ།   སྟོང་བའི་སྙིང་པོ་བུང་བའི་ཕྱིར། སྐུ་གསུང་ཐུགས་ཀྱི་གདུང་རྟེན་བཞེངས།’ See Denwood, 137; for the English translation, Denwood, 147; see also Petech, 15.

[17] Luczanits (2023), 23-4.

[18] Finbarr Barry Flood, Objects of Translation – Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009), 66.

[19] Flood (2009),62.

[20] Flood (2009), 71.

[21] Roxann Prazniak, Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief and Art (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019), 145.

[22] Petech, 166; Christian Jahoda and Christiane Kalantari, ‘Kingship in Western Tibet in the 10th and 11th Centuries’ in Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 24 (2015): 80; Luczanits (2023), 19-20; August Hermann Francke, Antiquities of Indian Tibet (New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1914 reprinted 1994), 2 vols

[23] Luczanits (2023), 37.

[24] Peter A. Andrews, Felt Tents and Pavilions: The Nomadic Tradition and its Interaction with Princely Tentage (London: Melisende, 1999), vol. 1, 143-144.

[25] Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand – A Study of T‘ang Exotics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963), 200; Hugh Richardson, ‘Mun Sheng Kong Co and Kim Sheng Kong Co Two Chinese Princesses in Tibet’ in The Tibet Journal 22, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 4.

[26] Amy Heller, ‘Recent findings on Textiles from the Tibetan Empire’ in Regula Schorta (ed.) Central Asian Textiles and their Contexts in the Early Middle Ages (Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 2006), 175.

[27] David T. Pritzker, ‘Allegories of Kingship: A Preliminary Study of a Western Central Asian Gold Ewer in the Royal Court of Tibet’ in Eva Allinger, Frantz Grenet, Christian Jahoda, Maria-Katharina Lang and Anne Vergati (eds.) Interaction in the Himalayas and Central Asia – Processes of Transfer, Translation and Transformation in Art, Archaeology, Religion and Polity (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2017), 105.

[28] For discussion of terminology, see Peter A. Andrews, ‘The White House of Khurasan: The Felt Tents of The Iranian Yomut and Gökleñ’ in Iran 11 (1973): 93-94.

[29] Andrews (1999), 272-274.

[30] Andrews (1999), 275.

[31] Kjeld von Folsach, ‘A Set of Silk Panels from the Mongol Period’ in Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom (eds.) God is Beautiful and Loves Beauty: The Object in Islamic Art and Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 217-241.

[32] Ulrich von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications, 1981), 101, 109; Simon Digby, ‘Between Ancient and Modern Kashmir: The Role of Sultans and Sufis (1200/1300-1600)’ in Pratapaditya Pal (ed.) The Arts of Kashmir (New York and Milan: Five Continents Editions, 2007), 117.

[33] Goepper (2023), 451, 488-490; John Guy, ‘Patterns from the Past’ in Ben Evans and Daniel Shaffer (eds) Indian Cotton Textiles – Seven Centuries of Chintz from the Karun Thakar Collection (Suffolk: AAC Art Books, 2015), 15; Pal (1982), 19-21.

[34] Christian Luczanits, ‘Prajnaparamita, Alchi and Kashmir – On the Cultural Background of a Unique Bronze’ in Luo Wenhua (ed.) An Exceptional and Magnificent Bronze Alloy Figure of Prajnaparamita (Beijing: Poly Auction, 2016).

[35] Roger Goepper, ‘Dressing the Temple: Textile Representations in the Frescos at Alchi’ in Jill Tilden (ed.) Asian Art – The Second HALI Annual (London: HALI, 1995), pp. 100-117.

[36] Goepper gives his reasons for this analysis in Goepper (1991–92), 48; see also Goepper (1995) 117.

[37] Prazniak, 1.

[38] Shinji Fukai, and Kiyoharu Horiuchi. Taq-i Bustan (Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 1969) plates XLIV and XLVI.

[39] Finbarr Barry Flood, ‘A Turk in the Dukhang? Comparative Perspectives on Elite Dress in Medieval Ladakh and the Caucasus’ in Eva Allinger, Frantz Grenet, Christian Jahoda, Maria-Katharina Lang and Anne Vergati (eds) Interaction in the Himalayas and Central Asia – Processes of Transfer, Translation and Transformation in Art, Archaeology, Religion and Polity (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2017), 233; Mariachiara Gasparini, ‘A Mathematic Expression of Art: Sino-Iranian and Uighur Textile Interactions and the Turfan Textile Collection in Berlin’ in The Journal of Transcultural Studies 5, no. 1 (2014): 139.

[40] Assadullah S. Melikian-Chirvani, ‘Iran to Tibet’ in Anna Akasoy, Charles Burnett and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim (eds) Islam and Tibet – Interactions Along the Musk Routes (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 107.

[41] Marjo Alafouzo, The Iconography of the Drinking Scene in the Dukhang at Alchi, Ladakh (PhD dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2008), 35.

[42] Mariachiara Gasparini, ‘Sino-Iranian Textile Patterns in Trans-Himalayan Areas’ in Silk Road 14 (2016): 87.

[43] Goepper (2023), 488-489.

[44] Goepper (1995), 102; Goepper (1991–92), 47; Robert E. Fisher, ‘The Stone Temples of Kashmir’ in Archaeology 35, no. 4 (1982): 48.

[45] Goepper (2023), 490; Snellgrove and Skorupski (1977), 51.

[46] Ruth Barnes, ‘Indian Trade Textiles’ in HALI (Summer 1996): 82.

[47] Ruth Barnes, Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt – The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 25; Eiluned Edwards, Textiles and Dress of Gujarat (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 2011), 26-27; John Irwin and Margaret Hall, Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics (Ahmedabad: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1971), 1; Rosemary Crill, ‘Local and Global: Patronage and Use’ in The Fabric of India (London: V&A Publishing, 2015), 140.

[48] Barnes (1997), 83-4; Moti Chandra, Jain Miniature Paintings from Western India (Ahmedabad: Sarabhai Manilal Nawab, 1949), 2; Crill, 143-144; John Guy, Indian Textiles in the East – From Southeast Asia to Japan (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), 42-45; Barnes (1996), 84.

[49] Moti Chandra, Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics & Coiffure in Ancient and Mediaeval India (Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1973), 236.

[50] The terminology is given in Monisha Ahmed, Living Fabric – Weaving Among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2002), 108; Guy (2015), 19 (footnote 14); Gina Corrigan, Tibetan Dress In Amdo and Kham (London: HALI, 2017), 90. I would like to thank Joss Graham (Joss Graham Gallery, London) and Marc Ribbink (Independent Antique Textiles Specialist, London), for providing access to their private collections.

[51] Felix Elwert, ‘Ladakh and Zanskar: Tie-Dyed Liktse Capes and Gonchas Dresses’ in HALI (Spring 2012): 52.

[52] Elwert, 53, 57.

[53] Papa-Kalantari (2000), 92-3.

[54] Papa-Kalantari (2000), 90.

[55] Utsavi Singh, ‘Talking Figures: Space and Performance at the Sumtsek of the Alchi Monastery’ in Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 75 (2014): 1070-1073. Singh’s evaluation of the space of the Sumtsek resonates with my own experience when visiting the temple during fieldwork in 2019.

[56] Goepper (2023), 492.

[57] Nathalie Bazin, ‘Fragrant Ritual Offerings in the Art of Tibetan Buddhism’ in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 23, no. 1 (January 2013): 31.

[58] Mañjuśrī’s dhoti displays eighty-five mahāsiddhas, see Goepper (2023), 572.

[59] Christian Luczanits, ‘The Life of the Buddha in the Sumtsek’ in Orientations 30, no. 1 (1999): 30–39.

[60] Christiane Kalantari, ‘For Merit and Meditation – Form and Meaning of Ceiling Paintings at Nako’ in Nako- Research and Conservation in the Western Himalayas (Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 2016), 160; Christiane Papa-Kalantari, Celestial Architecture: Donor Depictions in the Spatial Iconography of the Alchi Dukhang/Ladakh (PhD dissertation, University of Vienna, 2008), 105-106. In both, Kalantari sites the Sanskrit text Maitreyavyakaraņa given in English in Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin, 1959), 237-242.

[61] ‘‘Phags pa byams pa lung bstan pa’ [The Prophecy of Noble Maitreya] in bKaʼ ‘gyur (dpe bsdur ma). Par gzhi dang po par thengs dang vol. 76 (Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa’i dpe skrun khang, 2006-2009), 868-878 (see appendix).

[62] Kalantari (2016), 160.

[63] Luczanits (2023), 87-90.