Ladakh contains some amazing monuments of Tibetan medieval culture, perhaps the most famous and most visited among them being the temple complex at Alchi. But with a little prior research there are some hidden gems to be discovered, far less visited or known about to the outside world, and often in a precarious state that makes you wonder just how much longer they will survive.
Just a few miles from Alchi, located high on a ridge overlooking the village, Saspol Caves is one such place.
Here there are a series of amazing rock-cut temples. Four of these caves are richly adorned with paintings of Buddhist pantheon from 13th – 15th century AD, representing a fusion of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist art.
Access into some of the caves is not easy, in fact for a couple I didn’t even attempt to as the makeshift bridge underfoot didn’t appear to be stable at all, so instead I merely pointed the camera in the general direction of the interior and hoped for the best.
Fortunately, the most richly decorated cave (known as Cave 2) is easy to enter. You can identify where to head for by the orange painted exterior, and it’s also the only cave that has had a entrance door added. The cave is apparently often locked, you can obtain a key from the farmhouse immediately below the caves.
Although I knew roughly what to expect from my earlier research, entering the cave was an incredibly atmospheric experience. Surprisingly there was enough light entering the cave from the doorway to allow you to view the art without the need for a torch once your eyes have adjusted.
The interior of cave is simple, there are no supporting columns that you usually find in central and southern Indian cave temples. The walls are plastered with clay and then covered with brightly colored paintings, consisting of central larger panels surrounded by smaller miniatures showing many Buddhist deities.
The caves were created by followers of Tibetan Buddhist school Drikung Kagyu, focusing on meditative practice. This school of Buddhism is prominent in Ladakh up to this day while in Tibet it has been replaced by other schools long ago.
The paintings are clearly in a delicate state, with fractures in the plaster tearing some of the images apart. Whilst in some places it looks as though attempts have been made to stabilise this decay, I can’t help but wonder what I would find if I returned here in a couple of decades time.
This also made me hesitate as to whether I should blog about it at all, publicising such a location on the internet that clearly would benefit from minimal human contact. But I suspect due to the location and nature of what there is to see here, only those with a passionate interest in such places are likely to make the effort to see the caves.
If you do visit Saspol Caves, please be sensitive to the delicate nature of the temples. Don’t be tempted to touch any of the paintings, and instead of using a camera flash bring along a small lightweight tripod so you can photograph them with longer exposures. Also please ensure you shut the door to Cave 2 when you leave, it’s the ideal place for bats to literally hang out, and I don’t think they are really that bothered by the wonderful art that would surround them.
As the caves are in an elevated position, this is also a great location to get views of the beautiful Indus Valley. Just above the caves is also an ancient ruined fort that I didn’t have time to explore, but might be worth checking out.
To reach the caves from Leh, drive through the village of Saspol to it’s western extent. As the main road takes a sharp left towards the Indus river, turn right up a dirt track that skirts the western extent of the village with mountains to your left. About 200m along this road, keep looking left to see the fort up on the ridge, and the orange painted exterior of Cave 2.
The farmhouse immediately below the caves hold the keys if you find the main cave is locked.
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