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PAST PROJECTS  |  2010 - 2016


Conservation of the 12th century temple, wall paintings, the fortress and allied heritage structures. In-depth documentation of the structure and its historic and cultural significance.



Wanla is a village in Lower Ladakh located at the confluence of two streams (Yalpola and Shillakong) in a side valley between Khaltse and Lamayuru on an altitude of approximately 3260 metres above sea level. The village is placed on the slopes around a prominent rock hill that once boasted an impressive castle. Today the ridge is dominated by the lofty structure of the three-storeyed Wanla temple, dedicated to the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, and an adjacent residential building erected in the 1980s. Several new quarters have been added along the slope by locals as well. Only two towers from different periods and a number of walls remain of the castle, which had once surrounded the temple. The temple is oriented towards the north eastern side valley hosting presumably the oldest part of the village. The documentation and conservation work on site began in 2000 by members of the Achi Association, Zurich and were carried over under the auspices of Achi Association India after its establishment in 2010. The temple is now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The approach to include the cultural landscape of the complete ridge with its diverse historical settings into a comprehensive preservation concept, led to the survey of the Gateway (Kagan) chorten, located at the foot of the ridge, the heritage path and the 8-chorten building, all of which were completed as separate projects in subsequent years.

In the chronicles of Ladakh, Wanla is mentioned for the first time when the Ladakhi King Lhachen Ngaglug is said to have built a castle at Wanla in a tiger year. This event likely occurred at some point in the 12th century. It may well be that parts of the present-day ruins go back to this original foundation. It is apparent from the architecture and the name, that the Wanla temple can, to a considerable extent, be understood as a reference to the Alchi monuments. However, the architecture, the sculptures and paintings all display enormous technical and cultural divergences.

The three-storied Avalokiteshvara Temple is owned by the Drigung Kagyu order, one of the three main orders of Tibetan Buddhism in the region. Even more, as the founding inscription in the temple records, the temple has originally been built for this order some 600 years ago. Of this order it represents one of its earliest monuments preserved, not only in the region but throughout the Himalayas.Today, Wanla is one of the sub-monasteries of Lamayuru, which is one of the main seats of the Drigung order in Ladakh with all the smaller monasteries and village temples in the region subordinated to it and managed by it. The temple is the focal point of devotion in the village.



In many respects the Wanla temple is a jewel and its value as historical monument is widely underestimated. In Wanla not only a practically complete monument of the founding period is preserved, but the temple even contains an extensive inscription relating to the history of the foundation. Together with the art historical evidence, Wanla provides information on an otherwise practically unknown period of Ladakh’s history, the late 13th early 14th century. This information is also highly relevant to the history of Tibetan Buddhism in general, as the art preserved at Wanla also provides early evidence of the reception and adaptation of Central Tibetan Buddhist art in the Western Himalayas.

The Avalokiteshvara temple is the last remaining, structurally intact part of the former fortress which is situated above the Wanla village. Positioned on a roughly north to south running ridge it can be accessed by winding paths from both valleys. The main axis of the temple runs from north east to south west, with the entrance and the veranda facing northeast. As with all other Buddhist monuments of this region, the temple features a clear geometric cubature. The ziggurat-like form of the temple has three storeys and contains three niches at the back (south) and the sides, which all have flat roofs. To create a site stable and large enough to erect the temple area on the hill top, a supporting structure of dry, stone walls was built on the north east and south west of the ridge. Investigations revealed that in fact the temple foundations only rest on bedrock. 


The building is entered via a formerly open veranda or porch, which now is partially closed by a construction housing prayer-wheels. Also, most of the other external temple walls host these later added niches for prayer wheels and the Tsha Tsha (votive objects made of clay).

The second storey can be accessed by a window-like door from the roof of the veranda. The third storey in form of a lantern consists of a lightweight construction, and is simply placed centrally on the ceiling of the second storey.

Entering the temple, the cubical space of the ground floor is accentuated by the three niches which each contains a large standing Bodhisattva sculpture. The main niche, facing the entrance, projects into gallery level and houses the dominating taller sculpture. The main niche is occupied by the white Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in his eleven-headed and eight-armed form. This image gives the temple its present name Chuchig-zhal (bCu-gcig-zhal) “Eleven-headed”. The left-hand niche (to the proper right of the central image) contains an image of an originally silver-coloured Bodhisattva Maitreya (only in 1996 was this image repainted in white). Opposite Maitreya is the monumental image of Śākyamuni in monastic robes. The main image has a height of approximately 5 meters and the side images are 3.40 m high. 

The upper floor is actually a gallery which is only interrupted at the back wall of the main niche. This massive, main beam carries a painted wall bridging the difference in the roof levels of the two parts of this floor. This storey is, thus, divided into two parts: the back one with a very shallow gallery and a low ceiling, and the front one which faces the paintings on the wall above the beam and has a wider gallery and a higher ceiling. Stylistically, roughly contemporary with the clay images is the group of paper-mâché sculptures representing the generic Kagyüpa (bKa’-brgyud-pa) lineage headed by Vajradhara, Tilopa and Naropa. As in the paintings, the figures in the linage can only be identified up to Milarepa. The succession of the teachers following Milarepa can thus not be reconstructed any more. These sculptures were apparently made to be placed on the shallow backside of the gallery flanking the heads of Avalokiteśvara.

The small lantern, continues the central square formed by the columns/ supports of the two floors below. Interestingly, the lantern is a light-weight structure simply mounted upon the wooden structure below it. A cross-beam of the gallery level ceiling divides the opening of the lantern in halves, creating the impression that the lantern has been an afterthought added onto an already finished structure. Nevertheless, the paintings in the lantern conform to those of the lower floors. The lantern itself is a cubical structure. The exterior is characterised by a flat roof, whereas the interior has a gabled roof construction.


All three storeys, including the niches, are covered with largely original murals, about 80-90% originate from the time when the temple was erected. In the early 1990’s most of the murals were hardly visible due to the thick coating of soot and until a few years ago a bookshelf flanking the altar in front of the main niche obscured a considerable section of the murals. However, cleaning efforts as well as a detailed photographic documentation allowed for a comprehensive survey of the murals' content.

The ground floor paintings have by far the most complex iconographic programme of the temple. It is characterised by a mixture of deities that had been prominent in earlier Western Himalayan monuments, and deities of iconographic themes ‘new’ to the region. However, the main focus is clearly on the themes new to the region and in particular on diverse mandala assemblies of the highest tantra class. Surprisingly, a considerable amount of these topics otherwise is closely associated with the Nyingmapa school. There is a founding inscription which is located immediately to the left of the Maitreya niche, and the donor assemblies are found beneath it and on the wall opposite to it (to the right of the Sakyamuni niche).

The gallery level has a much simpler iconographic programme, with each wall section dedicated to a single assembly only, once represented in the form of a mandala. There is an emphasis on the five Buddhas and their assemblies, and there are no representations which can be attributed to the highest tantra class.

The lantern is somewhat different again, with a complete wall dedicated to the five Buddhas and their consorts sitting on their lap, an iconography that is rarely found. Although other references to the highest tantra class are rare, the iconographic programme is more akin to the ground floor than to the gallery.

To know in detail the iconographic plan of the paintings refer to the article here.


The 3-storied Tsuglhakhang of the Wanla Temple before its conservation


Delicate state of the multiple roofs due to overloading, structural defects and water-ingress.


Votive Chortens/Stupas near the temple complex


The stone foundation of the temple which rests on a large rock boulder which provides stability.


The old circumabulatory path around the temple.


Village farmlands below in the valley and the old access path to the temple.


Intricate trifoliate wood carvings that resemble similar brackets in Alchi Gompa.


The scheme of buildings atop the hillock with the temple in the centre, flanked by the Fortress, Monks' quarters and a residential block for the Rhinpoche.


The conservation measures at the Wanla temple were two-fold – stabilizing the structure of the temple by reducing load from the roof and by conserving the paintings on all three levels. Layers of debris deposited on the roof over several years had put severe stress on the main beam which was nearing collapse. This was addressed by removing the extra layers of mud from the roof but also by introducing a light weight aluminum truss above the beam to distribute roof weight. Appropriate water proofing was carried out and the deep structural cracks stitched and repaired. The wall paintings were consolidated, cleaned and reintegrated. The paintings on the ground level still need cleaning in certain areas.


While the project involved a number of architects, conservators, scientists and historians, the main project leaders included Wolfgang Heusgen (architect from University of Graz, Vienna), Holger Neuwirth (architect), Roland Pabel (Structural engineer), Deldan Angmo (conservation architect from Ladakh), Martina Oeter, Barbara Sadelczek, Alexandra Skedzuhn-Safir, Heike Pfund, Suzanne Bosch, Phillipp Schubert, Sven Trommer, Sandeep Kumar Bisht and Joyoti Roy (wall painting conservators), Christian Luczanits (art historian), Christine Blauer (Scientist) and Ernesto Noriega (Anthropologist).

An e-publication on the Wanla project is underway and it will discuss in detail all the interventions carried out.

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