The Production of “Knowledge” on Alchi

In autumn 2018 Peter van Ham published his latest tome called Alchi. Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece, in cooperation with Amy Heller and Likir Monastery.1 Clearly indebted to earlier works on the monuments, it claims to build on these and to update them (p. 14). However, where the book asserts expertise there sadly is none. Overstatements and obvious mistakes render the text unreliable throughout.

It is enough to read the jacket-cover’s text, which concludes that “it is for the first time ever that permission for a full documentation of the monastery’s artwork and inscriptions has been granted.” This wilfully overlooks the works of Snellgrove & Skorupski, Jaroslav Poncar, or the Japanese researchers who equally documented the monuments of Alchi with the permission of Likir Monastery, which oversees the Alchi Choskhor complex. The self aggrandisement that is apparent here is characteristic of this work, and sadly is replicated in the book’s review by David Shulman in the New York Review of Books of December 5, 2018. How could such a basic misrepresentation escape an otherwise reputable publisher and reviewer?

The jacket-cover text sets the tone for the publication as a whole, which at best imitates scholarship. This is particularly evident when considering how often the author cites himself in the footnotes, as if these earlier works were based on original research and not themselves parasitic. Rather than addressing the quality and appearance of the Alchi murals, the text warms up dated and superficial comparisons to the murals of Ajanta (p. 76), and even expands them to Gandhara (p. 68), nearly a millennium earlier even by the author’s dating. Rather than trying to explain the distinct content of the Alchi murals, the text descends into new-age stereotypes about esoteric Buddhism.

An excellent example of Peter van Ham’s “scholarship” is the identification of a deity seated against a background of flames depicted on page 111. Using a Kushana coin as comparison and projecting Gandharan cosmopolitanism across a millennium onto the time Alchi was founded, the deity is identified as “Atosho-Agni, a Greek-Indo-Iranian Fire God”. The text that accompanies this “identification” is a prime example of the non-sensical guesswork offered when previous scholarship did not already cover the subject. In fact, the deity is Viśvakarman, the divine artist and patron deity of artists, as is indicated through his attributes—anvil, hammer and tongs—and the fire that all allude to metalwork.

The discussion of the famous six-armed Green Tārā on page 108, which now can be identified as Mahāśānti Tārā, documents that the author does not shy away from reinterpretation either. The suggestion that this goddess is a conflation of Vasudhārā with other deities, is baseless since the attribute held by her is misunderstood. It is the well-known tridaṇḍa, a stick with three ends, not “a vegetal stem sprouting three rudimentary buds, a sheaf of rice symbolizing an abundant harvest”, an attribute also held by Avalokiteśvara. The claim that the goddess is yellow, not green, is another wilful misreading because it supports the mistaken identification better. Re-identifying the deity, the author does not consider that the presence of Vasudhārā in a niche with Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara and in the centre of a pentad of forms of Tārā would itself require an explanation. Iconography is clearly not the author’s long suit.

To be sure, these are not questions of academic opinion, they are questions of engaging with the evidence and understanding what it communicates. There is no doubt that the Alchi monuments were carefully planned by their founders, and the challenge is to reconstruct their intention through the analysis of what remains. There is no indication throughout the publication that this is a concern for van Ham. In the contrary, he appears to identify deities simply for the sake of not having to say that he does not know, at times without consideration what is actually depicted. A striking example is the identification of the three medallions on the right wall of the Dukhang as depicting the protectors of the three families (p. 136). This group, most often represented in the form of three Bodhisattvas, occurs in many variants, but there is no version that would even remotely conform to what is depicted at Alchi.

It would probably take as much text as written in the massive publication, to point out its every misleading statement or misinterpretation. This type of guesswork, using literature on the iconography of Buddhist deities without understanding the background and interrelationships of these deities, is equally prevalent in earlier works of the author. More generally, van Ham’s accounts in this and earlier publications are the product of a pseudo-scholarship that simplifies and names without actually understanding the matter properly. It is amateurish in the worst sense of the term. The fact that Peter van Ham’s previous publications have not been taken seriously in the academic world, and thus have rarely been reviewed,2 may well have helped the author to claim expertise. Collaborations with scholars, such as Amy Heller in this publication, may have helped in this regard as well.3

However this may be, Peter van Ham obviously had go to great lengths to gain permission to document Alchi. In the course of this effort at promotion he even managed to arrange for a seminar on “Archaeological Research in the Western Himalayas with a Focus on Ladakh” to be organised in his honour at the Centre for Archaeological Studies, Ranbirpur, an event reported in the State Times News on July 23, 2017. Which actual researcher on Ladakh, and there are many that have done substantial work on the region, can claim such an honour for himself?

Regardless of this shallow acclaim, the publication represents a major step backwards in the understanding of Alchi monastery and its monuments. This is also obvious when the dates of the monuments are discussed. Rather than using the information provided by the site itself in a coherent manner, it embeds it in a historical fantasy in which the actual founders of the temples have no place (e.g. p. 29–30, 34–53, 350). The main purpose seems to be to disguise or ignore evidence for the actual date of the Alchi temples in order to be able to retain the 11th-century attribution to which Likir Monastery still adheres. A number of different theories are offered or assumed throughout the volume to support this date.

In this regard, Amy Heller’s contribution (p. 398–405) feeds into the confusion by taking a section of a Sumtsek inscription and linking a name that occurs there to the Purang-Guge kingdom and to the foundation of the Alchi temples. Unfortunately, Heller offers only a translation of the fragmentary text and the reader cannot verify it, as the inscription is not included in clear photographs or in a diplomatic edition. She also does not consider where in the inscription this particular account is found, and there is no direct connection of the passage she cites to the founder of the temple.4 Otherwise, the reader is treated to well-known observations as if they would be ground-breaking revelations, both in terms of content and technology, such as the fact that red ink is hardly visible in infrared light, as found in the “Critical Analysis of Late Inscriptions” on page 403.

Heller’s contribution fits into her broader efforts elsewhere to support an early date of Alchi at all costs, and by considering only those parts of inscriptions that appear to fit her theory. How else can it be explained that in her recent study of the Great Stūpa inscription, which claims to review Goepper’s work, she did not notice that a stanza, the first verse of which she cites p. 540–541,5 actually must refer to a person? In my transcription and translation, which is based on the same photographs available to Heller, this fourth stanza of the inscription reads:

དུས་གསུམ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་༎ སྲས་མཆོག་བླ་མ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་༎

འཕྲིན་ལས་ལྷུན་གྲུབ་རྫོགས་མཛད་པའི་༎ རྗེ་འབྲི་འགུང་པ་ལ་ཕྱག་འཚལ་བསྟོད་༎ ༤

Superior son of the Buddhas of the three times, jewel teacher, who accomplished the
spontaneous existence of awakened activities, Lord Drigungpa, I pay homage to you and praise you.

This stanza follows the homage to the three jewels, and its last line has been misread for Goepper’s edition of the text, reading gsung for ‘gung and ignoring the rje entirely.6 The syllable ‘bri is only preserved in fragments. So much for a critical re-reading and correction of Goepper’s pioneering work!

This significant detail changes the interpretation of the inscription in its entirety and also puts the Sumtsek lantern inscription into context, as this monument was built at the same time as a shrine for relics of Drigungpa. Intentional oversight or not, Amy Heller’s approach to the material is selective and superficial.7 In none of her publications has she addressed any of the other arguments that were brought forward in support of Goepper’s early 13th century date for the Sumtsek. A particular lacuna in her work on Alchi is the absence of any consideration of the religious themes depicted at Alchi. How can the Sumtsek have been founded earlier than the formulation of the notion of a group of eighty-four mahāsiddha that are depicted in it? How does one explain the presence of the Mahāsiddha at Alchi since they are intimately connected to the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra teachings?8 This is only one of the obvious contradictions between an 11th century date and the stage of development in the public representation of Buddhism at evidence in Alchi that Amy Heller and other proponents of an 11th century date choose to ignore. Her contribution, thus, perfectly matches the overall quality of the work.

Needless to say, van Ham’s publication was already outdated when it was published, as I am working on a publication covering all the Alchi monuments since many years. My research on Alchi, and that of many other scholars, is based on the comprehensive documentation by Jaroslav Poncar, who always generously provided his photographs to scholars. One irony here is that while Poncar has never used his interior photographs of Alchi for his personal commercial or professional benefit, even if representatives of Likir may believe otherwise, Peter van Ham’s publications count among the most commercially oriented publications on the Western Himalayan region. One can, thus, only hope that Likir has secured itself the rights to access and use the photographs van Ham has taken, and that it has agreed to the exhibition staged in Germany in August 2020.9

Publications of the type of van Ham’s live of two premises, photography and making the monument accessible to a wider public. The concerned publication—and all the previous I have looked at more closely—fails in both accounts, as neither its hyper-saturated images nor its foundation-less texts fulfil this premise. The former is surprising, as one would think eventually the photography and colour management would improve. The latter is the actual concern: do we really need pseudo experts to copy, distort and embellish academic work in such a manner that it takes away from the monument? I doubt that the general public needs such a translation and it definitely does not benefit Likir Monastery or Ladakh overall.

In fact, rather than bringing Alchi closer to the interested readers or supporting the case of Likir Monastery, this publication misleads both. What is worse, by reenforcing an unsubstatiated 11th century West Tibetan heritage for the Alchi monuments, it continues to take them away from the Ladakhi, whose ancestors have left enough information for us in their inscriptions, to clearly make this world class monument their own work and merit.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to soon being able to present the results of my own studies, which will properly back up what is summarized here.

August 10, 2020

  1. Peter van Ham, and Amy Heller. Alchi: Treasure of the Himalayas. Ladakh’s Buddhist Masterpiece. Munich: Hirmer, 2018. A more complex version of this text was originally written for Ladakh Studies, which did not accept it for publication but rather wanted an ‘academic’ review, which the book does not warrant. After several discussions with colleagues and friends, I decided to put this abbreviated version of the text here. I am grateful to Rob Linrothe for his comments on the text.^
  2. Rob Linrothe wrote a brief review for ALA Choice of: Peter van Ham. Tabo—gods of light: the Indo-Tibetan masterpiece. Hirmer, 2015 (c2014). 307p bibl ISBN 9783777423265.^
  3. Rob Linrothe and Gerald Kozicz contributed to the book on Mangyu. I also supported some of his earlier work with photography, albeit at least partially involuntarily.^
  4. This inscription has not been fully understood in previous works, and will be presented properly by Nils Martin in my upcoming publication.^
  5. Amy Heller and Shawo Khacham, “Tibetan Inscriptions At Alchi, Part I: Towards a Reassessment of the Chronology,” in Tibetan Genealogies: Studies in Memoriam of Guge Tsering Gyalpo (1961-2015), ed. Guntram Hazod and Shen Weirong, (Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House, 2018).^
  6. See Roger Goepper. “The ‘Great Stūpa’ at Alchi.” Artibus Asiae 53, no. 1/2 (1993): 111–143.^
  7. In a way nothing has changed in her approach over the past decades, see Luczanits, Christian. “Methodological Comments Regarding Recent Research on Tibetan Art.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 45, (2001): 125–145.^
  8. On the date of this collection of legends see Dowman, Keith. Masters of Mahamudra. Songs and Histories of the Eighty-Four Buddhist Siddhas. New York: State University of New York Press, 1985: Appendix 1, 384-388. Note that this collection came together at the time of Padampa Sangye, who is depicted three times at Alchi, once with the other siddhas on the dhoti in the Sumtsek Mañjuśrī to symbolise the transmission of this tradition to Tibet. Van Ham’s claim that this image has been repainted (p. 53) is not substantiated in any way and disregards the depiction of the same siddha in other monuments of Alchi, including the Shangrong temple.^
  9. It is interesting to note in this regard, that the fear that the monuments will be reproduced in full size elsewhere has been one of the controversial issues concerning photography at Alchi.^