What is perplexing is that the ﬁgures at Dunhuang which are several centuries earlier, are very clearly hares, slender and athletic; and the later the cave paintings become, the chubbier the hares grow. The Three Hares in Dunhuang are often in prime position, in pride of place within a lotus in the centre of the ceiling. Are they depicting enlightenment, or form and emptiness in the very centre? Or are they showing the ceaseless round of teaching. And are they male or female? Do they symbolise fertility and the moon?
At the royal fortress of Basgo ﬁfteen miles down the road back towards Leh, three centuries later than Alchi, the four hares have paws which deﬁnitely makes them hares, or at least rabbits. But by then the painters were indigenous Ladakhis who knew their game. Why would anyone suddenly opt for deer in Alchi? The deer park at Sarnath? The Buddha’s ﬁrst sermon?
The answer may lie in local conditions. The local Ladakhi hare is the indigenous Tibetan woolly hare which is found on the Tibetan plateau. It is chunkier than its counter-part in Europe, has a longer tail, and is deﬁnitely woollier. It has to survive in minus 40ºC in winter. So there is a possibility that the hares as portrayed in Alchi are mythical creatures, transcendental hares; or drawn as if someone has described them, although they have not seen them for real themselves. Even in medieval Europe early animal paintings were often drawn like this, from informed imagination.
But there is another explanation to the hare/deer/rabbit mystery, as Godfrey Vigne points out in his book Travels in Kashmir Ladakh and Iskardu (1842). He is amazed, as a keen sportsman, to ﬁnd that there are no hares in Kashmir at all, despite the good terrain, which he ﬁnds perplexing. As it is too cold for Indian Hares and there is not enough cover for Tibetan Hares, it is possible that Kashmiri artists may not have even seen a Tibetan hare. So for the moment we shall call them Hares.20
That there are no hares in Kashmir is echoed by Sir Walter Roper Lawrence in his 1895 book The Valley of Kashmir. There is a theory that all the irrigation channels in Kashmir made it impossible for the hare to run around unimpeded, so they legged it to more open ground. There are plenty of hares in Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Eagles and hawks were trained to hunt for hares. Even Hittites hunted with eagles.
So it is just possible that the Kashmiri artists had not seen a hare close to, or they may have been working from hares depicted on woven textiles.
The Three Hare symbol in the Sumtsek temple in Alchi is no mere ornament but an integral part of the design. The vajra is a ritual object to symbolize both the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force). The thunderbolt can also imply the ‘thunderbolt’ experience of Buddhist enlightenment or bodhi: the sudden awakening which is part of the Zen experience.21
The Three Hares can symbolise the Three Jewels: Gonchuk sum (gsang ba gsum): Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; that is, the Buddha, the teaching and the community of monks, which is used when taking Refuge, or starting out on the path. Or in this instance, at a more advanced monastic setting, it may be more speciﬁc as in the Three Jewels related to the Buddha’s teaching. There are the three vajras: the enlightened body, speech and mind of a Buddha. This would ﬁt in perfectly with the idea of enfolding and embracing scenes from the Buddha’s life and their relationship to the Maitreya, the Buddha to come. The Three Vajras are also known as the Three Secrets, Three Mysteries, Three Seats, Three Doors and Three Gateways. or simply ‘the three secrets of the noble ones’ ie lus, body, gsung voice/speech and thugs mind. So there you have it. The three ‘hares’ may well be deer but still have three conjoined ears and still charge round and round on the dhoti of the Buddha to come. Or they may just be imaginary hares or deer, or even yaks!.22
The main point is that the Three Hares symbol (or Three Deer symbol) is painted in very important positions in the Sumtsek temple and in the Great Stupa. We can only wonder at their true meaning. But the fact that they occur at Alchi, in Tsaparang, Spiti and at Basgo is important. They do not seem to occur in later settings when the Tibetan wall paintings became more formal and stylistic. Alchi is still holding onto some of its secrets. It is an extraordinarily important site. Professor Snellgrove describes it as ‘a fantastic chance survival from the past, and truly one of the wonders of the Buddhist world’.