Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Classic Zanskar

Karsha Monastery
I stood on top of the Parfi-La (3900 metres), the last pass on the high trail to Zanskar. Below me, like a detailed tapestry, was spread cultivated fields in neat checkerboard patterns of yellow and brown with the  aqua marine Zanskar River running through the valley. Next to me, my guide and cook Tenzing Tsondup’s smile was infectious. He could not hide the joy at looking down on his homeland.  Tenzing and I had come to Zanskar the hard way. Eight days earlier a Tata Sumo had dropped us from Leh to the village of Wanla, near the monastery of Lamayuru. From Wanla we had crossed seven passes, some above 5000 metres, until finally we stood on the last one – Parfi La. The prayer flags atop the pass danced crazily in the breeze while all around us were gnarled ochre coloured hills weather beaten by the snow and wind.  We took a deep breath and started walking down. In a few hours we were at the Ibex Hotel, Padum back in civilization.

Padum, the district headquarters of Zanskar is a good base to explore the surrounding monasteries in the valley. We had two days in Padum before returning to Leh and decided to visit Karsha, Stongdey and Zangla.

That afternoon, we hired a taxi and were en route to the largest monastery in Zanskar,  Karsha.
 Karsha, situated 10 km from Padum,  is a monastery of the Gelukpa sect and houses around a hundred monks. The monastery was founded by the famous translator Phagspa Shesrab around the tenth century. Like many of the monasteries in Ladakh and Tibet, Karsha is built like a fortress and stands defiant against the hillside.  As we drove across the central plain, we could see the monastery from a great distance. It seemed that the monastery and mountain were part of the same hill so well had they been enmeshed together.  We parked at the bottom of the hill and started walking to the top. The buildings are at different levels with white washed walls and bold maroon borders.  Dogs lay asleep in the sun while young lamas laughed and giggled at us vanishing from view the instant we tried to take a photograph! We passed a line of chortens, freshly painted. Prayer wheels were being turned by the locals as they too did their pilgrimage of the monastery. We finally reached the main prayer hall where the central image of the Maitreya Buddha was about three storeys high.  All around were intricate paintings of the life of Buddha, the Bodhisattvas and scenes depicting the victory of good over evil. The “wheel of life” occupied a prominent place at the entrance of the hall. On one side were the Tibetan religious texts, the “kangyurs” hundreds of books lining one entire wall.  Tenzing immediately prostrated himself in prayer before the altar.

We stepped out from the dim hall into bright sunshine. Before us lay the central plain of Zanskar. The sun was setting in the valley and the fields of  barley and peas were the colour of rich copper.  All around were the snow clad  peaks of the central Zanskar range encircling the valley. And as the sun set, a senior lama seated himself in the courtyard of the monastery and started his evening prayers, in this throne room fit for the Gods.

The next morning we started for Stongdey which was also Tenzing’s village. The monastery was perched a good three hundred metres above the village. Stongdey is around 18 km north of Padum on the road to Zangla. It was September, the harvesting season, and we passed farmers threshing and winnowing grain. Tenzing suddenly stopped the car and said “ we’ll walk up from here” and vanished up a trail which looked fit for a  mountain goat! With a groan I followed him  but thankfully the trail soon eased up and we were enjoying our climb. A lammergier (Himalayan Bearded Vulture) soared past us and as I fumbled with the camera, the shot was lost!   Within an hour we were at the entrance of Stongdey.

The Gelukpa monastery of Stongdey is the second largest in Zanskar and houses about sixty monks.  As we walked in a lama accosted me “ do I have some medicines for a headache?” Luckily I did and handed him a couple of tablets. He then took Tenzing and me for a tour of the monastery. In the main courtyard the lamas were seated in the autumn sun.. It was lunch time and soup and Tibetan bread was being served from the kitchen. We were asked to join the meal and suddenly I realized that I was starving  having had breakfast a good many hours earlier!  The rear of the monastery overlooking the Zanskar plain is exceptionally beautiful with rambling flowers, trees and prayer flags. We sat there for some time soaking in the silence of this remote land.

Zangla was the ancient capital of Zanskar and located north of Stongdey about 30 km from Padum. As we drove up the crumbled ruins of the  Zangla fort came into view.  We reached the fort and found the main door was locked. While we waited wondering what to do a car drove up and an elderly gentleman and a plainsman alighted. Finding us standing there, the elderly gentleman enquired as to whether we wanted to go in. “ The door is locked” I said pointing to the entrance.  Mysteriously, he replied “ I have the key” and promptly opened the door. Later we discovered that we were with the King of Zangla, Gyialses Nima Norboo Namgyal and he was the owner of the fort!
The King of Zangla
 On the top floor of this crumbling palace, we saw the room of Csoma de Koros a Hungarian scholar who had spent the winter of 1823 in harsh and bitter conditions carrying out research in Tibetan studies. From the window of his room looking north-west  was a splendid  view towards the pass of Parfi-la and the high trail which eventually led to Lamayuru.  The King stood in his prayer room blackened with soot surrounded by the most fearful and benevolent Buddhist deities.  With a shaking hand he tried to light a butter lamp before it was extinguished in the stiff breeze.  The wind whistled through the small window while below him extended the vast plain of Zanskar, once his kingdom.

The next day we were to return to Kargil and then to Leh. Tenzing mentioned that we had not visited the Sani and Bardhan monasteries.   “Another time Tenzing” I said and it was a good excuse to return to the land of white copper.

For the full essay with photos please see


  1. Hi Sujoy,
    Nice photos and description.
    Thanks for posting.

  2. Excellent narration.

  3. Great piece! Some of your readers may be interested in reading Michel Peissel's excellent book - Zanskar The Hidden Kingdom (published by E.P.Dutton, 1979) about his trip to Zanskar in 1976, much before the Ladakh-Zanskar area became fashionable for trekkers and mass tourism.



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