A Cultural Outing in Zanskar Valley

Zanskar is one of the most enchanting and scenic valleys, nestled in a remote corner of Ladakh, that offers some adrenaline rushing journeys in the trans-Himalayan region. Explore the monasteries of this region for the unique tradition, rich culture and heritage values of this valley.

Zanskar is breathtaking, and the stark beauty of the landscape is sure to take your breath away. Decorated by jagged peaks, vast barren plateaus dotted with Buddhist gompas and large whitewashed chortens are a regular feature in Zanskar. The culture of the place is closest to Tibetan Buddhism.

KARSHA: Karsha Gompa is the biggest monastery in all of Zanskar valley and is affiliated to the Gelugpa order. It is located 7km away from Padum and is set on a hillock on top of Karsha village. The monastery can be spotted from afar, as a scrabble of whitewashed houses piled on top of one another. It houses at least 100 monks.

Karsha Gompa is said to have been established in the 10th Century. A road runs to the entrance of the monastery, from where steps begin the climb passing through the dwellings of the monks to the main rooms of the monastery. Murals and carvings inside the du-khang (prayer room) of the monastery are in a degrading condition. There are silver and copper chortens of artistic value that adorn the du-khang of Karsha Gompa.

Gorgoeus views overlook the entire river basin while sunlight causes the green and yellow barley fields to glisten in the sunlight when seen from the open courtyard of Karsha Monastery. It is a joy to attend the prayers that reverberate in the entire village. For decades, Karsha has been the last point where the full Chadar Trek ends (The frozen river trek on Zanskar river).

PHUGTAL: The cave monastery of Phugtal (Phuktal) is one of the most dramatic in the world and dates to the 13th Century even though the style of fresco paintings indicate that some may have been made in as early as the 11th Century. Phugtal monastery belongs to the Gelugpa order and also houses a monastic school.

The Tsarap Chu river flows beneath this vertical structure. To reach Phuktal is an adventure in itself. After getting to Padum, the road can take you to Raru; and from there it is a six hour walk to Phugtal Gönpa. The monastery appears like a hanging cluster of buildings made of mud and stone. An eternal spring flows inside the monastery and I am pleasantly surprised to find a solitary cypress tree on the top.

Bodhisattva carvings inside the du-khang are intricate and artistic. Experts regard temple paintings and thangkas in Phugtal to be identical in style with Alchi Monastery in Ladakh and the 10th century monastery of Tabo in Spiti. Visitors are permitted to stay at the guest house managed by the monks.

RANGDUM: For most visitors, this is the first Gompa that they visit in Zanskar. It is dramatically located on top of a small hillock near Rangdum village. A dirt road goes all the way to the door of the monastery.

Rangdum monastery is affiliated to the Gelugpa order and was constructed in the 18th century. A charming fact is that the monastery also houses a museum containing rare artefacts. Views around Rangdum Gompa are unparalleled.

The monastery is painted in maroon red and is well-maintained. The murals have been well preserved. An old sculpture of a manifestation of the Buddha lies inside a glass structure and is the highlight of Rangdum Monastery.

SANI: Sani Gompa is located in Sani village which is roughly 10 kms before Padum on the Rangdum-Padum road, and can be accessed by taking a diversion from the main road. It belongs to the Drukpa sect. The landscape is beautiful with poplar trees. There are fields growing barley, potatoes and peas close to the monastery.

Sani Gompa is said to be founded by Guru Padmasambhava himself and the main temple in the monastery is dedicated to him. A 2nd Century chorten by the name of Kanika Chorten is close to the monastery and is believed to be built by the Emperor Kanishka. There are some curious looking stones nearby that, according to historians, are engraved with representations of deities in pre-Tibetan style.

STONGDE: Stongde (pronounced tongde) is perched high on a hillock and lies on the way to Zangla. Stongde Village is 10 kms away from Padum and a road to the monastery diverges from there. It is an 11th Century Gelugpa monastery and houses around 80 monks.

It is said to have been established by Naropa’s disciple Marpa. It is so well-maintained that its hard to believe that its almost 1000 years old. There are seven temples in Stongde Gompa, one of them houses some rare paintings. Whitewashed homes among the green fields give character to the endless valley views from the top of the monastery. It is possible for visitors to stay at Stongde Monastery itself.

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LINGSHED: Lingshed monastery (Also Lingshet) is one of the most remote and important monasteries in Zanskar. It was established in the 12th Century and is located on top of Lingshed village. Till very recently it was only accessible by long and arduous climbs across mountain passes, but now a road has been built that makes the trek smaller and easier.

It is a big monastery affiliated to the Gelugpa order and houses around 60 monks. There is also a Solar Austrian school in Lingshed. The du-khang (prayer room) inside Lingshed Gompa has deities of Buddha and Tangyur and Kangyur (Sacred Buddhist texts). Lingshed Monastery lies on the popular trekking trail between Zanskar and Lamayuru. The monastery and village of Photoksar is on the same trail and is home to some rare images.

MUNE: The small hamlet of Mune lies 15 kms away from Padum. It is perched at 3800m along the Lungnak Gorge and is affiliated to the Gelugpa order. The monks of the monastery operate a basic guest house near the Gompa which enables the visitor to attend the morning prayers. The experience of calm living with the monks while not yet far away from civilization is unparalleled and a must do for visitors.

BARDAN: The 17th Century Drukpa monastery of Bardan is 7km away from Padum and can be reached by road on the way to Raru village. It is dramatically located on a rocky crag just above the road on Tsarap Chu river. It is almost unbelievable to see this monastery constructed on a rock that rises almost 100 metres directly from the river.

The du-khang (prayer room) inside Bardan monastery houses a statue of Maitreya and the walls are decorated with murals. Ladakh’s strong cultural ties with Zanskar mean that Stakna Gompa of Indus Valley in Ladakh is in charge of proceedings and also organises the masked dance festival of Bardan Monastery.

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ZANGLA: Zangla was once the capital of Zanskar and is proudly referred to as ‘The Kingdom of Zangla’. A visual extravaganza awaits you in the form of an ancient fortress built on top of a hill just before the start of the village. It was constructed in the 11th Century. The fortress can be accessed by a road, while the walking path is lined with ancient chortens. Zangla lies approx. 32 kms away from Padum.

DZONGKHUL: Dzongkhul Gompa lies before Padum and is incredibly built on the rock face of a gorge. Reaching Dzongkhul Monastery is possible by road and it is approximately a 3 hour drive from Padum. It is said to have been founded by the great Buddhist saint Naropa himself, who is believed to have meditated in one of the two caves near the monastery. It is a monastery affiliated to the Drukpa order and appears to be inside a cave.

The du-khang contains thangkas and images of drukpa lamas. The nearby shrine at Tsilatse is said to contain an 11 headed Avalokiteshwara. A footprint can be spotted near the entrance of one cave which is said to be of Naropa.

Dzongkhul monastery is said to be established in the 11th Century and contains some fresco paintings that are from the 17th century. It lies on the very difficult trekking trail from Zanskar to Pangi Valley.

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