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Rob Linrothe. Thirty Years On: Revisiting the Chuchikzhal Complex in Karsha

I first met the devout, learned and powerful patriarch, the venerable Karsha Lonpo, in 1992, on my second hike through Zangskar in the Indian Himalayas (map and Fig. 1). Sonam Wangchuk is his given name, but his title is the Karsha Lonpo, a hereditary position meaning the ‘headman’ or ‘prime official of Karsha village’. Along with the title he inherited a religious complex on a hillside, and his efforts to sustain it form the heart of this narrative. On top of a high ridge on the hill are the ruins of a fortified settlement, the village’s early habitation site (Fig. 2). From the 10th to the 15th century or so, the ruined structures constituted a citadel overlooking the barley fields well below. The village later moved to the bottom of the hill, and Karsha Monastery, with fine murals surviving from the 15th century, is perched on the hill’s twin across the stream that bisects the village. Between the village and the ruined citadel is a two-storey shrine housing an over-life-sized statue of the eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva known as Chuchikzhal (Fig. 3). The shrine is believed by locals, including the Lonpo, to have been built in the 11th century, although since the sculpture has repeatedly been repaired and repainted, there is little by which to assess that conviction’s validity. The mural paintings inside are probably 14th century (Linrothe, 2007, p. 70). The location of an annual nyungné fasting ritual (Gutschow, 1999), the shrine is considered religiously significant by the entire community of nuns (who have built a nunnery beside it), the Karsha Monastery monks, villagers living nearby and even Buddhists from farther afield, who visit on pilgrimages to sacred places in Zangskar. The whole hill area of the village is now referred to metonymically as Chuchikzhal.

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November/December 2020
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