Chapter 17 of 22
Unmindful of the day’s activities, we leisurely got up from an extended slumber and ordered heavenly breakfast. Strange enough, it was for the first time when over the past couple of weeks, we stepped outside, to begin a day’s events so late at 0900hrs.
The limited shops in the market, lined evenly on both sides of the street, were still in the process of opening to commence their trade for the day. We straight headed to the olden part of the town, where we hoped to get directions for the Burdun monastery. Without losing any time, we were on the potholed and bumpy narrow road to the Burdun Gompa. Although, the monastery was located at a distance of less than six kilometres from the taxi-stand in old town, to our surprise, the road ahead was blocked by the BRO to remove boulders from the motor-trail. Dejectedly, we parked the Innova at the taxi-stand and set out towards another ancient Gompa of the Zanskar – the Stagrimo Gompa.
Claimed to be built after the Karsha monastery, the ancient Stagrimo Gompa (3720m) is situated at an hour-long walk distance along flower strewn green slopes. Positioned atop a tree-covered green mound above the old town, the monastery depicts various Buddhist morals and values through paintings. Not only that, the grand-view from the terrace encompassed the entire Padum town, Stod valley towards its west, Zanskar valley to its north as well as the ancient Karsha monastery positioned up the village across the Doda. Offering splendid views of the Doda, there is a guesthouse, under-construction, situated in close proximity of the Gompa. While descending from the monastery, we came across a Red Fox, which instantly vanished into the wilderness around. I so regretted not fitting my camera with a telephoto, otherwise, I might have been lucky in capturing the rarity of the land.
The late-morning walk not only refreshed the spirit but digested what was ought to be a ‘heavenly’ first-meal. Past the mosque, the town-market comprising teashops, general stores, internet-cafés, etc. had fully opened by now. Parking our car at a safe location, we reached for a teashop. The owner, a Muslim by religion, filled us in with respect to various unheard-of travel-options in the area around as well as the suggested route. I was particularly interested in spending a good part of the day at the historical Karsha Gompa. The chinwag later got diverted to the current socio-economic aspects of the residents in general. After gossips, we straight headed towards the Karsha monastery, situated across the Doda, at half-an-hour’s comfortable drive.
Clinging to an outcropped feature of a vertical mountain-face, in the shadow of Sasririgo and Rinamphu peaks, the eleventh-century Karsha monastery belongs to the Gelugpa or the Yellow-Hat Order. On the way, we visited the Starrimo Gompa of Pibting village as well as strayed through village Kishrak, Rubruk, Yalung and passed alongside the Kalachakra Gompa, where His Holiness Dalai Lama performed Kalachakra initiations. Positioned atop a green mound in the periphery of the village Pibting, the Starrimo Gompa (or Guru Mandir as the locals referred to) attached to a larger monastery, is famed to be a finer example of stupa architecture.
The Zanskar valley is one of the few remaining areas that still follow the old traditions of Buddhism from the days of the Kushanas. Remembered after his name as the Kanika chorten, it is assumed that emperor Kanishka built a stupa at village Sani, regarded as one of the eight oldest Buddhist sites in the world. Considered to be originated from the Khasha race, which once dominated across the entire Western Himalayan region from Kashmir to Nepal, the mons constitute a major bulk of population in the Zanskar valley. Known to be devoted Buddhists, it is for this reason that the valley has over 30 well-looked-after historical monasteries as well as chortens.
The current administrative headquarter of the Zanskar valley – Padum – was also the capital of the Gyalpo of Zanskar. The town, comprising not more than 800 houses, is predominantly composed of Buddhists along with a small Muslim population, said to be the descendants of the army of Zorawar Singh who raided the region during his trans-Himalayan military campaign in the early-nineteenth century. The town’s other places of interest include the mud Palace of the local Kings, nearby monasteries as well as the rock carvings, near the river bank, which are said to be pertaining to the eighth-century.
Past the iron-bridge over Doda, the freshly-tarred road looped to reach the Karsha village. Confirming to the road ahead of the village, we parked our vehicle on a bridge over a glacial-stream at the foot of the monastery compound, alongside a few olden chortens. I picked my camera fitted with a wide-angle lens and climbed up the cemented-footpath, dotted with ancient chortens and monastic-cells on both sides, to reach the entrance of the historical Gompa. Founded by the translator Phagspa Shesrab, today the fortress-like imposing monastery is controlled by the younger brother of the Dalai Lama. Regarded as a major scholastic centre of Buddhist studies, the monastery houses fine statues of Buddha, Shakyamuni, Tsongkhapa and Avalokiteshwara as well as olden wall paintings.
It took me 15 panting-minutes to climb up to the main entrance of the monastery. Due to an on-going renovation work in a section of the monastery-complex including that of the main entrance, I was directed towards an alternate way, dotted with Ibex heads pointing downwards from the sidewalls of the white-cells, to reach the main courtyard. Consisting of over thirty interconnected-buildings or cells, constructed over the centuries along the hill face, the monastery complex also comprises the ancient Chamba Ling temple.
Full of monks belonging to different age-groups including a few naughty young ones, the courtyard was abuzz with routine monastic-activities. Taking my shoes off, I ambled inside the main prayer hall where a few lamas were reciting prayers from sacred texts. Without disturbing the assemblage of about 30 lamas, who were sitting cross-legged on small wooden platform in four rows facing each-other, I inquiringly occupied a place for myself, which allowed decent views of the proceedings.
As the senior lamas, dressed in monastic red and yellow robes, reached for a collective-break between the chants, the serving lamas – younger ones – moved line-to-line pouring butter tea from heavy copper kettles which they carried. Each monk kept his own tea vessel. Switching off the flash, I began capturing activities inside the prayer hall. Taking notice of my presence, from the shutter-noise of the camera, the head lama called one of his subordinates and murmured something into his ears.
The next moment, two young lamas brought a set of rugs for me to sit upon. I noticed that virtually all the monks were suddenly looking at me, taking interest in my activities. Almost immediately, I was offered hot butter tea in a decorated copper-teacup. I discerned that my presence inside the prayer hall was being welcomed. As the monks resumed the recital, I slipped myself out of the hall without creating any noise. Even though, I failed to decipher anything out of the recital, except the rhythm, the blissful hour that I spent inside the assembly-hall will remain with me forever. Om Mane Padme Hum!
Outside, in the courtyard, a majority of monks had disappeared by now, only to partake in the Gompa’s mission and carry out their scheduled tasks for the day. Alongside the corridor, three young lamas were churning butter, in utensils made of copper, as well as cleaning lamps, part of their routine chores to prepare for morning and evening prayer ceremonies, usually the spells when the ageless Karsha comes to life. The view from the wooden-frames in windows of the corridor was simply superb. Contrasting with the red-brown colour of the window, the barren snow-capped Great Himalayan Range as well as the sedimentary ridge of the Zanskar Range located at the far end of Doda basin, under a cloudless blue sky, with fluttering prayer flags and ancient chortens as well as monastic cells pitched below, presented a timeless landscape.
Later the trio procured a couple of conch shells and blew with maximum intensity to inform all the resident lamas, near about 180, that the meal was ready. As a section of the monastery complex was closed due to renovation, I decided to get down. Situated adjacent to the village, a couple of guesthouses were under construction, which when ready would add to the list of good accommodation options in the Zanskar valley.
Captivated by the landscape, we were in no mood to go back to Padum. At a solitary teashop-cum-dhaba, located a little ahead of the village, we halted to eat late lunch. One may feel amazed to find that a majority of the shops in the region are serviced by support-staffers from Bihar as well as Jharkhand and not the locals. By the time, the helper prepared the meal; I took out the trekking map of the area.
Geographically, the Zanskar valley is stretched over the highland spread between the northern slopes of the Great Himalayan Range and the Indus as well as from the Pensi La to the Lingti peak (5900m), near the Baralacha La, on the West-East axis. The Stod River which originates from the Darung Drung glacier, near the Pensi La, drains this valley forming a horse-shoe bend, locally known as Doda, near Karsha. A majority of the Zanskar’s villages, out of over 25, are located around this stretch. The Lingti River (or Tsarap Lingti Chu as known locally), which originates from the slopes of the Lingti peak, pours into the Doda creating the factual Zanskar at Karsha after which heading in the northerly direction, the river slices the Zanskar range creating a deep gorge and ultimately merges with the Indus at Nimmu. Numerous streams including the Oma, Paldar, Khurna, Markha, Sumdah, etc. join the Zanskar from either side on way to Nimmu.
Being at a higher elevation than most other valleys of Ladakh, the climate in the Zanskar consequently remains dry cold often marked by high-velocity winds in the afternoon. Accessibility has always been a problem in this cold and treacherous terrain. Even though the BRO is in process of constructing a motorable connect with Leh as well as Darcha (for Manali), most of the passes from the valley leading to the outside world are tough and arduous.
Come winter and the locals make full use of the frozen Zanskar River to move between the valley and Leh, a trekking-journey which may otherwise take days through numerous passes. Apart from the popular trek over Shingo La, another access to Lahaul (Udaipur) is across the Kangla-jot (5280m) along the Miyar nala. The Pensi La which leads to the Suru valley is the easiest. A popular trek, frequented by traders and Bakarwals, goes to Kishtwar (Paddar) across Umasi La (5300m).
Passing through villages and the market, we reached our guesthouse. That evening we strolled alongside the right bank of the Doda. People were threshing grains, out of the summer harvest, with the help of Dzos, crossbreed of cows and yaks. The broadest section of the valley allowed 360 degree views encompassing different mountain ranges. As the sun prepared to end the day, the monasteries became active again. The emblematic monastic-sound produced with the help of long copper-trumpets, cymbals, conch-shells as well as drums escaped through the monastery-courtyards into the villages and out across the valley.
The following day, we started our activities at 0700hrs. As planned, I had armed my camera with a wide-angle lens to capture the landscape as well as the pre-identified subjects. Past the sacred lake Tuthot and village Sani, soaking in the views and the landmarks which we had missed earlier, we accelerated towards the Pensi La. The canister-baby seemed to have recovered from the night’s sleep much before than we did. Misbehaving, the canister fumed so badly that the diesel-smell was now getting almost intolerable. Tightening the fuel cap, I took the canister from luggage compartment and placed under my lap. At least it stopped discharging fumes now!
Up till Pensi La, a majority of the altitudinal areas are covered with wild glacial expanses. On the slopes and alongside the river, limited vegetation is composed of scarcer trees where sometimes even the ripening of crops is unstable. The harsh winters provide an opportune window to the locals to organise and participate in religious as well as cultural festivities.
In about four hours, we reached the top of Pensi La. However, to my utter disappointment, the pass was encircled with dark clouds which disallowed landscape-photography. We thought of taking a tea-break at Rangdum where we hoped the weather to show some improvement. The outcast sky stubbornly refused to reveal the altitudinal gems of the Suru valley. Clearly, I had lost the photography gamble from the day before yesterday’s weather. Past the marmot country, we reached the historical Rangdum Gompa, manned by a small army encampment. Parking our vehicle at the foot of the hillock, we entered the military outpost to submit our credentials.
Perched on top of a hummock alongside the road in an elliptically stretched highland, the eighteenth-century Rangdum Gompa is encircled by sedimentary mountain sides of the Zanskar Range as well as the glacier-encrusted rocky mountains of the Great Himalayan Range. Housing up to 30 monks, the monastery follows the Gelugpa sect in spreading the Tibetan-Buddhism learning in the region.
Geographically, the monastery may fall in the Suru valley but culturally it is very much a part of the Zanskar. The distinctive element on the stones of the mani-walls at Rangdum includes pictures of chortens as well as mandalas apart from the usual inscriptions. Inside, the Dukhang and a gallery showcases an impressive collection of Tibetan and other artefacts, associated with Buddhism, of the region.
The pasture-rich countryside is fully tapped by the residents in rearing pashm goats as well as by nomadic shepherds called Bakarwals from Kashmir valley. As for agriculture, the hostile terrain, mostly due to long winters, is very desolate and at times crops may not even ripen in the brief summer. The locals count on their livestock as well as provisions from lower Suru Valley or from Zanskar. The residents of both the side villages are known to be descendants of the monastery’s agricultural serf-tenants. Subsequently, the Gompa commands perpetual control over the entire highland including the agriculture fields as well as other topographical features.
Even though the weather showed no signs of improvements, we made a brief stopover at the teashop at Juldo. By the time the owner readied the tea, I emptied the irritating canister into the tank of the Faithful, which was still half-full. What a major relief it was! In another six hours we reached Kargil and checked-in at the same hotel. The obstinate weather simply refused to improve and continued giving us jitters all along the way to Kargil. On the way, settlements like Sankoo seemed to be better options for a night-halt than Kargil but we wanted to cover maximum possible distance to start the next day’s activities.
Before going to bed, I pondered over the claims made by the taxi-operators of Kargil with respect to advices related to worst road conditions, impracticality of Innova on the Zanskar-terrain and the requirement of minimum 40L of surplus fuel. I thought that Innova did a fantastic job on a rough motor-trail. Just ensure the vehicle has enough fuel to last 700km.
View and read more on the area at the Zanskar Region Photoset on Flickr
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