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Western Himalayan Architecture

The period from the 10th century CE played an important role in the Western Himalaya. After the fall of the old Tibetan Empire many monasteries were founded, ensuring the prolongation and spread of Tibetan Buddhism. The temple complex of Tholing in Western Tibet and Tabo in Spiti, both founded in 996 CE, belong to the earliest religious centres of this area. Although Tholing was nearly completely destroyed by the Red Army during the Cultural Revolution, the monastery in Tabo has been continuously active and still contains the original decorations and iconography.

The Unique Architecture of Buddhist Monastery Complexes

In the Western Himalaya, the architectural form of the early temple complexes is unique. The monastery complexes (chos-´khor) of Tabo and Alchi (Ladakh) were built on level, open areas. The temple compounds are surrounded by high walls (lcags-ri), which symbolize the separation of the sacred areas from the profane external world. They also can be compared to the outer boundaries of mandala (ma‰ýala), cosmological diagrams. In the Western Himalayan local tradition, the temples of this early period were built with stone foundations, clay walls and wooden or clay roofs.

A monastery complex includes functional buildings such as a meeting hall (´du-khang), an inner sanctuary (dri-gtsang-khang) and in later temples a chapel of the guardian deity (mgon-khang), which women are not allowed to enter. In addition, one finds important monuments that have mainly a symbolic meaning such as shrines (mchod-rten), called stupas in India. These are seen as holy relics and are objects of veneration by the faithful.

In later periods, monasteries were usually built on mountain tops, as in Kyi (Spiti), Hemis and Chemre (Ladakh).

Local Deity Shrines and Hinduist Temples

In many villages in Himachal Pradesh (especially in Kinnaur and Spiti-Lahaul), next to the Buddhist monastery compound one also finds numerous Hindu temples as well as shrines, built as the abode and site of veneration for local deities (devta). The material used for these buildings is usually wood, especially cedar (deodar), which is sturdy and durable. The wooden shrines, shaped like pagodas or having sloping roofs, often have richly carved ornamentation or are colourfully painted. The simple construction of many sacred and secular buildings in Kinnaur and Lahaul consists of a square or rectangular ground plan and plain stone walls with bracing wooden beams.

The area around the temple is not only the centre for religious activities but also for social, cultural and economic life.