Driving past on the nearby Srinagar–Leh highway, you’d never guess that the spectacular sweep of wine-coloured scree 3km across the Indus from Saspol conceals one of the most significant historical sites in Asia. Yet the low pagoda-roofed Chos-khor, or “religious enclave”, at ALCHI, 70km west of Leh, harbours an extraordinary wealth of ancient wall paintings and wood sculpture, miraculously preserved for more than nine centuries inside five tiny mud-walled temples. The site’s earliest murals are regarded as the finest surviving examples of a style that flourished in Kashmir during the “Second Spreading”. Barely a handful of the monasteries founded during this era escaped the Muslim depredations of the fourteenth century; Alchi is the most impressive of them all, the least remote and the only one you don’t need a special permit to visit.
Legend tells that Rinchen Zangpo, the “Great Translator”, stuck his walking stick in the ground here en route to Chilling and upon his return found it had become a poplar, an auspicious sign that made him build a temple on the spot. One tree near the entrance to the Chos-khor, denoted with a signboard, is symbolic of this event. The Chos-khor itself consists of five separate temples, various residential buildings and a scattering of large chortens, surrounded by a mud-and-stone wall. It is best to concentrate on the two oldest temples, the Vairocana and the Sumtsek, both in the middle of the enclosure, although the nearby Manjushree and Lo-Tsawa shrines also boast colourful murals and the former a huge, brightly painted statue of the Buddha of Wisdom.