Where time stands still

Sandy & Vyjay
Saturday, 18 May 2019

The Basgo monastery in Ladakh is unique — because of its history, architecture and mystical grandeur

A strange thrill surges through your being as you drive along the barren and cold desert landscapes of Ladakh. It is a land where the boundaries of the journey and destination get blurred and the distinction between prayer and prayed dissolves. 

Nature with its unusual panorama of course awes you in Ladakh but it is the ancient monasteries that dot the landscape which lend it a mystical, and sometimes intriguing, aura.

One of the unique and strangely fascinating monasteries in Ladakh is the Basgo monastery often referred to as Basgo ruins or Basgo Palace. This is located about 42 km from Leh.

A deviation from the main road and a drive on a bridge spanning the historic Indus river takes you to the Basgo village. The picturesque village lies in the midst of verdant greenery which is a striking contrast to the dark brown mountains that surround it. A winding road that snakes between masses of huge rocks leads to the Basgo monastery. 

The first glimpse of the monastery is breathtaking — white and ancient looking structures rise to the skies, precariously perched atop cliffs that seem to have been carved from the earth. The drive to the top of the cliffs to reach the monastery felt like a journey back in time to a medieval era. We disembarked from our tempo traveller at the top to walk a few hundred metres to enter the citadel of Basgo that stretched out in front of us.

The Basgo monastery, the citadel that encloses it as well as a palace are said to have been built between the late 15th and 17th century. Basgo, which lies in ruins today, was once the capital of Ladakh when it was under the Namgyal rule. Basgo with its natural secure fortifications because of its geological composition was a major deterrent to invading armies. 

In the 15th century, Raspa Bum (Grags pa bum) was designated as the chief of Basgo and received the region of Basgo as part of a political treaty with his brother Raspa Bumde (Grags pa bum lde) who was the ruler of Leh in those times. Raspa Bum and his successors ensured that Basgo played an important role in the politics and history of Ladakh. The famous Namgyal dynasty later ruled the Ladakh region and added to the temples of Basgo. 

Today nothing remains of what was once a palace, except a pile of stones and rubble. The citadel still stands defying the vagaries of time and the three temples retain their mystical grandeur.

The Basgo monastery featured in the year 2000 list of World Monuments Watch brought out by the World Monuments Fund. The ravages of the weather and time had wreaked havoc and the monastery, the temples, the statues, murals, and floor were in a precarious condition. However the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Hemis Monastery, World Monuments Fund, and other international agencies achieved a remarkable turnaround. What is really noteworthy in this success is the active involvement of locals who have formed an organisation called Basgo Welfare Committee. The efforts have been recognised with UNESCO presenting the award of excellence to the Basgo Welfare Committee in 2007. Though much of the monastery and the original palace are in ruins, the three temples are conserved beautifully and still function.

There are three temples built in the centre of the monastery on an elevated mound. They are all dedicated to Maitreya, the Bodhisattva who is believed to be the future Buddha. The temples are called Chamba, Serzang and Cham Chung.

As we enter the whitewashed walls of the temple complex, we are struck by the serenity and the fact that there is no one around. The only sound is the rustling of the wind and our own footsteps. Then we see a young monk and follow him to enter the Chamba temple. A massive clay idol of the Maitreya Buddha in sitting posture looks down benignly upon us as we enter the dark interiors of the  temple. The hands are in the Dharmachakra Mudra which signifies the teaching of the wheel of Dharma. The statue is dressed in colourful robes and has a powerful but tranquil aura around it. 

The walls of the temple are ornamented with beautiful and colourful frescoes. A board put up by the Basgo Welfare Committee at the entrance to the monastery says that the idol in this temple was installed by the King Drakspa Bumde sometime between 1450 and 1490. The colourful frescoes are said to have been done during the reign of King Tsewang Namgyal(1580-1600) who is one of the noted kings who ruled over Ladakh.

The Serzang temple has an equally mesmerising statue of the Maitreya Buddha, the idol is, however, made of copper. We stare in a state of hypnosis at the compelling and serene features of the idol. It is said to have been built during the reign of King Jamyang Namgyal between 1600 to 1615. However, it could have been completed only in 1622 during the reign of King Singay Namgyal. 

The Serzang temple also served as a library and the important religious books of Buddhism including the Kangur and Stangur have been preserved here.

The third temple which is perched on the topmost level is the Cham Chung temple. In many ways, this temple is a testimony to the secular nature of the kings of Ladakh of those times. The small temple looks like a Balti or Central Asian mosque from the outside. As you duck into the small doorway of the temple, what you see is a Buddhist temple in every sense. The idol of the Maitreya Buddha seems very small as compared to the massive statues in the other two temples, the painted stucco statue is also referred to as “the gentle small one,” owing to its size as compared to the others.  

What strikes you, however, are the frescoes which depict fierce and fearful deities, which are absent in the other two temples. The Cham Chung temple is said to have been built originally as a mosque by King Jamyang Namgyal, the son of Tsewang Namgyal, for his Muslim wife, Gyal Khatun whom he had married in exchange for his own freedom after the region was ransacked by Ali Sher Khan Anchan, a famous Balti King.

As you move around the ruins of Basgo, you feel as if time has stood still. The rays of the setting sun cast their glow on the remains of what was once a citadel echoing to the sounds of prayer chants and the laughter of children. 

The writers blog at imvoyager.com and they can be reached at imvoyager18@gmail.com

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