Zanskar An Introduction
About 20 kms south-east of Rangdum stands the Panzila axis, across which lies Zanskar, the most isolated of all the trans-Himalayan valleys. The Penzila pass (4,401m) is a picturesque tableland surrounded by snow-covered peaks.
As the Zanskar road winds down the steep slopes of Penzi-la to the head of the Stod valley, the majestic " Drang-Drung" glacier looms into full view. A long and winding river of ice and snow, "Drang-Drung" is perhaps the largest glacier in Ladakh, outside the Siachen formation. It is from the cliff-like snout of this extensive glacier that the Stod or Doda tributary of the Zanskar River rises.
The spectacular Himalayan landscape and the lifestyles of the inhabitants attract many tourists to the hidden kingdom of Zanskar
Sight Seeing (Zanskar)
once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Zanskar, Padum (3505 m) is the present-day administrative centre of Zanskar Sub-Division of Kargil district. Its older section, comprising of inter-connected adobe houses and several high-rise chortens, surround a boulder-strewn hillock, site of the erstwhile palace and fort.
The new, upcoming township is fast encroaching upon the cultivated expanse, and a small market is coming up along the newly built road. With a population of nearly 2000, Padum can be described as the most populous settlement of Zanskar, which is otherwise a very scarcely inhabited valley.
This picturesque village is 6 kms west of Padum, on the road to Kargil. The main attraction here is the castle-like monastery, which unlike other monasteries of Ladakh, is built on level ground. By legend its origin is associated with Kanishka (Kushan ruler of 2nd century AD) on account of the Kanika Stupa, which stands in the backyard of the walled complex. The main building comprises a huge multi-columned central prayer hall housing an array of statues of popular Buddhist divinities and Kargud-pa high lamas, while the walls are covered with frescoes and adorned with Thangkas. The most interesting frescoes, however, can be seen in a small, neglected chapel, at the back of the main building whose walls are adorned with stucco murals depicting landscapes and floral designs based on the life of Padmasambhava. Immediately outside the monastic complex is an old cemetery surrounded by a ring of ancient rock-carvings, which reflect Indian artistic influence.
Sani is also associated with the famous Indian Yogi Naropa, who is said to have sat in meditation for some time under the Kanika Stupa. This site is now occupied by a small room housing a veiled bronze figure of the Yogi, which is unveiled once a year in late July on the eve of the Naro-Nasjal festival. People from all over Zanskar valley participate in this festival during which lamas from Bardan Monastery perform masked dances as ritual offering.
The largest monastery of Zanskar, Karsha Gompa is an imposing complex of neatly white washed building blocks comprising several chapels, besides residential cells for its nearly 150 lamas, who belong to the Geluks-pa sect. Built picturesquely along the steeply rising mountainside above Karsha village, the monastery can be seen from far. The central building is a large assembly hall housing an array of figures and the ornate throne of the Head Lama-incarnate. Three adjoining chapels contain numerous statues and other art objects, among which a set of exquisite silver and copper chortens are worth noting for their beauty. Of particular interest in the complex is the Lhabrang, a large temple accessible through a vent in the roof, whose partially damaged walls are still adorned with the original frescos believed to be more than 300 years old. The event to witness at Karsha is the 3-day Gustor festival held in early July when thousands of devotees throng the monastery to witness the mask dances performed by the lamas.
Other places of interest in the Karsha area include an old nunnery called Dorje Dzong, occupying a hilltop to the west of the main monastery. The ruins around this nunnery are believed to be the original monastic foundation of Karsha: the present monastery was founded during the 14th century. An old stupa surviving among the ruins is still adorned with the original murals, which reflect Indian artistic influence. Nearby is the ancient temple of 'Chukshik-jal', which houses an exquisite figure of Avalokitesvara as the main image. Its smoke covered wall frescos are the finest example of Himalayan art.
Karsha can be approached from Padum by the 9 km long link road, across an iron bridge over the Stod river. It can also be approached directly from the Tungri bridgehead along a 17-km link road that branches off from the Kargil-Padum road at Tungri, about 12 kms before Padum.
Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the oasis-like village below, the picturesque monastery of Stongdey lies 18 kms to the north of Padum, on the Padum-Zangla road. An old foundation associated with the Tibetan Yogi Marpa, Stongdey is now the second largest monastic establishment of Zanskar, which is inhabited by a resident community of about 60 Geluks-pa lamas. The sprawling white washed complex has a number of temples, among which the Gon-Khang containing several fierce-faced veiled deities is of particular interest. The climb up to the monastery from the roadside is rather strenuous, but it is worth the trouble for the breathtaking scenery of the valley available from here.
Situated 35 kms further ahead of Padum in the northern branch valley of Zanskar, Zangla was ruled by a titular king till his death about two decades back. The old castle, now in ruins except for a small chapel, occupies a hill overlooking the desertic valley below. Nearby is an old Buddhist nunnery worth a visit to observe the austere lifestyle of the small community of nuns. An old monastery situated in the nearby village of Tsa-zar, midway between Stangdey and Zangla, has exquisite frescoes that should not be missed.
Zangla is the take-off point for the Padum-Lamayuru and the Padum-Markha treks, as well as for the 'Chaddar' trek over the frozen Zanskar river to Nimu, which becomes feasible only during the middle of the winter.
Located 12 kms south of Padum, Bardan is an isolated monastery with about 40 Dugpa- Kargyud lamas in residence. Founded during the 17th century as the first ever centre of the Dugpa-Kargyud monastic order in Zanskar, Bardan controls several smaller establishments in the region, including the famous Sani monastery.
The large assembly hall, around which all other structures are organised, contains beautiful statues of Buddhist divinities and small stupas in clay, bronze, wood and copper. Perched atop a rocky crag rising vertically from the Lungnak riverbed, Bardan falls right on the trekking trail to Manali. Nearby is the smaller monastery of Muney, also worth a visit for appreciating its art treasures.
By far the most spectacularly located monastic establishment anywhere in Ladakh, the Phugthal complex spills out of the mouth of a huge cave, high up in the vertical mountainside of the lateral Shadi gorge, through which a major tributary of the Lungnak or Lingti-Tsarap river flows. Perhaps the most isolated monastic establishment of Zanskar, its foundation dates back to the early 12th century. At least one old chapel, among the several of which it is composed, has frescos and ceiling decorations reflecting strong Indian artistic and iconographic influence, which are almost contemporaneous to those found in the Tabo and Alchi monasteries. Phugthal is accessible from the Padum-Manali trekking route via a 7-Km long trail that branches off from the main trekking route at Purney Bridge. A visit to Phugthal, including Bardan and Muney monasteries enroute, makes a good 5-day round trek from Padum. Alternatively, one can add one extra day to the Padum-Manali trekking itinerary to include a day return visit to this unique monastic establishment which was a resident community of about 40 Geluks-pa lamas.
The other spectacular cave monastery of Zanskar, Zongkhul falls on the Padum-Kishtawar trekking trail, just before the ascent to the Omasi-la pass begins. Built like a swallow's nest on the rock face in the Ating gorge, the monastery is associated by legend with the famous Indian Yogi, Naropa, who is believed to have used for meditation the two caves around which the monastery has been developed. A footprint on a stone near the ingress of the lower cave is highly revered as that of the yogi. The frescoes on the cave walls are very old and reflect a high degree of artistic achievement. These are believed to be the original murals executed by Zhadpa Dorje, the famous scholar-painter of Zanskar who was active in the same monastery about 300 years ago
Owing to the altitudes the Zanskar valley is accessible only during the summer months. The winter months are too harsh for travel in Zanskar. It is noteworthy that in the winter months the water of the River Zanskar freezes and becomes the Chador road.