Translator's Temple

With a population of more than 1500, Ribba is one of the larger villages in Kinnaur. Lying on the eastern bank of the Sutlej, it extends over a broad, fertile site at an average altitude of 2550 metres. The Buddhist community of Ribba is unusually large for the area, and its activities centre on a large recently-decorated structure called the Translator's Temple (Lotsaba lHa-khang). The old temple, which is integrated into the back of the larger structure to which it gave its name, consists merely of a small, nearly cubical building with a shallow veranda on all four sides.

The small core structure of the Translator’s Temple (Lo-tsa-ba lHa-khang) at Ribba, Central Kinnaur, is certainly one of the most important Buddhist monuments in the region. It is most probably the oldest preserved Buddhist monument in the western Himalaya, as it appears to date back to a period preceding the life of the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo (Rin-chen-bzang-po; 958–1055). The small, almost cubic structure comprising the original temple is mainly made of wood and much of the woodcarving, especially the extensively carved front façade, can be attributed to the foundation of the temple. The seven clay sculptures and the paintings (including the inscriptions) preserved inside the monument are clearly later additions.

It should be clarified that not all the wooden elements of the structure as preserved until recently are original. Some parts exposed to the weather are copies once or several times removed. However, it is still the practice in Kinnaur today that during the renovation of a temple the originals are copied as precisely as possible, and I witnessed several instances of this process. Certainly, the architecture is crucial for understanding the historical and cultural background of the temple, but any study of it needs to be combined with a scrupulous survey of all the carved wooden elements preserved.

Literature

In the article on 'Early Buddhist Wood Carvings from Himachal Pradesh', which first made the site known, I considered only those woodcarvings that can without doubt be attributed to the foundation itself, leaving aside the more or less faithful copies that had replaced the original ones. I also attempted to relate the earliest woodcarvings preserved in Kinnaur, Spiti and West Tibet on a stylistic basis and to extrapolate a progressive development for the woodcarvings of the region. This analysis showed that the temple must predate the rise of the West Tibetan kingdom. The suggested date of the early tenth century at the latest compromises between the stylistic links with Kashmiri art of the eighth century onwards and the comparison with the late tenth-century door at Kojarnath, with which it shares some essential features.

At a conference of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) in Leiden in 2000 three papers focused on the same site, all of which have since been published. Klimburg-Salter describes the architecture more comprehensively and includes architectural drawings. Her paper also contains the local story of the temple’s foundation by Rinchen Zangpo as recorded by Veronika Hein in September 2001. Di Mattia views Ribba in the wider context of western Himalayan art only and in this way tends to obscure matters rather than shed light on the uniqueness, date and historical background of the Ribba monument. Thakur, too, tries for a more comprehensive approach, but attributes all the decoration of the temple, regardless of its quality and style, to the foundation of the temple, a view that is supported neither by the archaeological evidence nor by stylistic comparisons with other monuments in the region.

It is interesting that none of these authors mentions that my study was the first to make the site known, and that all three papers quote my study only with regard to my early tenth-century attribution, ignoring my argumentation and the fact that I do not suggest a fixed date (I suggest the early tenth century at the latest). The three authors suggest different attributions: while Klimburg-Salter favours a ninth-century date on the basis of the Kashmiri elements found in the Ribba woodcarvings, di Mattia (2002: 103) and Thakur (2002: 39-42) prefer to see Ribba as part of the early foundations of the West Tibetan kingdoms in the late 10th century. As these attributions contradict each other and as none cites convincing arguments for the date suggested I stand by my original attribution.

  • Luczanits, Christian (1996) Early Buddhist Wood Carvings from Himachal Pradesh. Orientations 27 (6): 67-75.
  • Klimburg-Salter, Deborah E. (2002) Ribba, the Story of an Early Buddhist Temple in Kinnaur. In: Buddhist Art and Tibetan Patronage Ninth to Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter & Eva Allinger. PIATS 2000: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, edited by Henk Blezer, Vol. 2 of 7. Leiden, Brill: 1–28.
  • di Mattia, Marialaura (2002) Indo-Tibetan Schools of Art and Architecture in the Western Himalaya: the Instance of Ribba in Kinnaur. In: Impressions of Bhutan and Tibetan Art. Tibetan Studies III, edited by John Ardussi & Henk Blezer. PIATS 2000: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, Vol. 2 of 3. Leiden, Brill: 91-112.
  • Thakur, Laxman S. (2002) Exploring the Hidden Buddist Treasures of Kinnaur (khu nu): A study of the Lha khang chen mo, Ribba. In: Buddhist Art and Tibetan Patronage Ninth to Fourteenth Centuries, edited by Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter & Eva Allinger. PIATS 2000: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, edited by Henk Blezer, Vol. 2 of 7. Leiden, Brill: 29–44.