A richly painted Avalokiteshwara and a sensuous, full-bosomed Tara, the female Buddhist divinity, greet you from long panels floating down the outer walls of Delhi's National Museum, their reds, purples and greens luminous even under a watery winter sun. These colours, belonging to the finest surviving examples of Indian Buddhist painting after Ajanta, have not lost their intensity over a thousand years. Still, capturing them on camera for an exhibition presented by the Museum and the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Leh was no easy task for photographer Aditya Arya, who flew in tall ladders, scaffolding, lights, and sophisticated equipment from Delhi to shoot last summer in the home of these extraordinary murals—the cramped, pitch-dark 11th century Alchi monastery in the valley of the upper Indus near Leh.
While the monastery's treasure trove of paintings and woodcarvings have been photographed before, this was the most comprehensive exercise, in which Arya was asked to shoot thousands of images, using minimally invasive lighting, not just for display but to document every detail of a heritage that may not last another thousand years. It is a visual feast that unfolds on mud walls covered with soot (from butter lamps lit over centuries), atop doorways, and across the bodies of giant stucco statues in the monastery. Some of the most remarkable scenes are those painted, with a miniaturist's eye for detail, on the dhoti-like garment worn by the monastery's two-storey Avalokiteshwara—gods, goddesses, kings, courtiers, soldiers, dancers, gambolling hares and muscular horses, all brimming with an exuberant vitality.