Zanskar Valley, known for its splendid isolation, perched at over 3,500 m is southwest of Leh, and among the highest and most remote regions in the world. Settled up between the peaks of the Zanskar range, the valley is drained by the Stod and Lungnak rivers (also called Doda Chu and Tsarap Chu locally), both of which are tributaries of the Zanskar, which itself flows northwards to join the Indus.
Travellers come to Zanskar via either Leh or Kargil. The ‘gateway’ to Zanskar is Penzi La. Two small, high-altitude lakes with camping sites and views of permafrost mountains are the highlights of this pass, which is the highest point on the Kargil-Zanskar road. A few hundred metres from Penzi La is the enormous Drang Drung glacier, source of the Stod river.
Just 20 kms before Penzi La, you will pass Rangdum. Set in a wild, big-sky valley, the village is home to the 250-year old Rangdum gompa (Admission Rs. 50), built on a low plateau. Its museum has a collection of thangkas, masks and manuscripts.
From Penzi La, a spectacular drive along unpaved roads leads through villages like Abran, Aksho, Hamiling, Shagam and Phey, all within 12 kms of one another and about 50 kms from Padum. Those who care to stop may admire the view, as well as the many boulders engraved with ancient rock art in and around these settlements.
A little further, Sani village (8 km before Padum) has one of Zanskar’s few gompas built on flat land. The Sani gompa has the famous Kanika chorten, which may date to the rule of the Kushan emperor Kanishka.
How to reach Zanskar Valley
To get to Padum, Zanskar’s largest town, you can fly to either Srinagar or Leh, and take a taxi or bus thereafter. From Srinagar it is a 7-hour drive to Kargil, where travellers usually halt overnight before proceeding into the Zanskar valley via Penzi La pass (160 kms from Kargil, 4,200 m). Note that you will have to change taxis at Kargil since the Kargil Taxi Union does not allow ‘non-local’ taxis to ply on the Kargil-Padum route.The 450-km journey from Leh to Padum also passes via Kargil, where it is advisable to halt for the night. You will encounter the dramatic Suru Valley as you drive south from Kargil, crossing the Penzi-la pass. When it snows – as it does for seven months a year – Penzi La is blocked, locking the land and its people in an unchanging world that only the most adventurous travellers have glimpsed.
Kargil: Gateway to Zanskar Valley
The western district of Ladakh is unfortunately associated in the popular imagination with the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. Kargil has a much longer history, however, of bustling, peaceful trade along the Silk Route, which fostered the mingling of cultures from China, Tibet and India. Located almost exactly halfway between Srinagar (204 kms) and Leh (230 kms), Kargil town remains a hub for traders – its bazaar pulsates with life – and also travellers, who can base themselves here and undertake trips to surrounding regions.
The Mulbek and suru valleys are popular trekking destinations nearby, offering breathtaking views. These are fertile regions, with fruit orchards and poplar and willow trees creating a greener, softer landscape than Ladakh is known for. Mulbek (45 kms from Kargil) has two gompas, one belonging to the Druk-pa and the other to the Geluk-pa sect. Also here is a 9-m tall Maitreya Buddha carved in relief on a single rock. Popularly known as the Chamba statue, this carving has been dated to between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD. Nearby, there are ancient edicts inscribed on the mountain in Kharoshti script. Those interested in more recent history could drive west to Drassand visit sites of the 1999 conflict, such as Tiger Hill, which the Indian army recaptured from Pakistani forces.
Places to visit in Zanskar Valley
- Padum, Zanskar Valley
Set on the banks of Lungnak river, Padum is Zanskar’s only ‘town’, with a marketplace, located at an altitude of 3505m and is 80kms from Penzi La, houses small guesthouses and camping facilities. Its oldest part is also its most crowded, with houses sitting cheek-by-jowl with chortens.
Now in ruins, Padum fort was the seat of the kings of ancient and medieval Zanskar. Some historians believe that the Central Asian army of Mirza Haidar captured the fort briefly.
There are two gompas near Padum, in Pipiting and Stagrimo. Perched on a hilltop, Stagrimo is among the oldest structures in Zanskar and governed by the well-known Stakna monastery (see p 37). In the 17th century, King Dechok Namgyal requested the villagers of Zanskar to donate land for this gompa, which today contains many thangkas and statues, including a beautiful Vajravarahi and Avalokitesvara.
Colourful chortens and fluttering prayer flags welcome you as you make your way up to the newly-restored 11th-century Stonde gompa, located 18kms north of Padum. A footpath leads uphill to the monastery’s two assembly halls, one of which is relatively new.
At one end of the courtyard is a temple dedicated to eleven-headed Avalokitesvara; at the opposite end is a complex of temples. One of these, the tshogs-khang, has a badly-damaged, indecipherable inscription at its entrance, and a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha in the bhumisparsha mudra (earth-witness posture). It also has murals of Atisa and Amitabha. The tshogs-khang itself leads to a small temple, with a 2.5-m high statue of Maitreya Buddha within, surrounded by scriptures and thangkas. Strangely, a helmet with the insignia of the British Horse Artillery hangs from the ceiling!
Outside the monastery, on the northwestern side of the hill, is a temple called Dzom-skyid. Its newly-painted murals include protector deities of the Geluk-pa sect.
Not too far is a cave where, it is said, the Tibetan Yogi Marpa once lived and meditated.
- Karsha monastery, Zanskar Valley
Located 17kms from Padum, arguably the best-known monastery in Zanskar, the white-washed and well-maintained Karsha gompa stands out in the barren landscape. Karsha’s main hall and library were both destroyed by fire and, though the library could not be salvaged, the renovated assembly hall is newly-decorated with paintings. The gon-khang (temple of guardian divinities) is also newly-painted, with beautiful murals of Vijaya, Four-Armed Mahakala and Vajrapani. The lower assembly hall, which was not affected by the fire, is larger, and its walls are adorned with older murals of a crowned Sakyamuni and Amitabha.
Two smaller temples in the gompa are: the Kangyur temple, housing scriptures, and another dedicated to Tsong-kha-pa and his two disciples.
West of the monastery are the ruins of a hilltop fort, believed to have been destroyed by invasions in the 18th century.
Located 35kms from Padum, Zongkhul is tucked so deeply in the folds of the Great Himalayan range that even taxi drivers balk at the suggestion of a trip here – the route falls along a trekking trail and is considered rocky and dangerous even by Zanskar standards. It takes considerable lung power to climb the jagged, rock-hewn steps in the Ating gorge that lead to the cave monastery.
Still, those who brave the trip, will be rewarded with a truly ethereal sight, as butter lamps fill the darkness with light and fragrance, illuminating 300-year-old frescoes and beautiful thangkas. In an alcove at the back is a statue of eleven-headed Avalokitesvara.
In fact, Zongkhul comprises two caves, and is associated with the sage Naropa, whose footprint is preserved on the rock at the lower cave’s entrance.
This little monastery of the Geluk-pa sect has a 2.5-m statue of Maitreya Buddha in its assembly hall, flanked by smaller images of Sakyamuni Buddha, Tsong-kha-pa and Avalokitesvara.
A little away from the main complex is a temple dedicated to Maitreya Buddha, with images of Tsong-kha-pa, Padmasambhava, Sakyamuni and Avalokitesvara.
- Bardan Monastery, Zanskar valley
Bardan is located 12kms south from Padum, is a 17th-century monastery of the Dugpa-Kargyud order. Among the oldest monasteries in Zanskar, it is known for its delicately-made miniature stupas of wood, clay, copper and bronze.
Unfortunately, the monastery is in need of immediate repair, though it remains active, with about 40 resident monks. The high façade of the Assembly Hall dominates the courtyard.Within are paintings of the fierce divinity Kagya, the sage Marpa, and four Bodhisattvas – Vajradhara, Samvara, Amitabha and Akshobhaya – drawn on mandalas.
- Phugtal monastery, Zanskar valley
Phugtal is located 34kms from Padum, the only way to get to Phugtal is on foot or horseback, and to get there and back can take the better part of a week. The Phugtal cave monastery is reputedly the most picturesque in all Zanskar. A small cluster of white-washed buildings seem impossibly balanced on a sheer cliff face. At their heart, a deep, hole in the dark mountain leads into the monastery.
Overlooking the Lungnak river, this Geluk-pa gompa has been visited by sages and scholars ever since it was established in the early 14th century by Jangsem Sherap Zangpo, a disciple of Geluk-pa founder Tsong-kha-pa. Legend says that the spiritually gifted Zangpo caused a spring to spout in the cave, a tree to grow above it, and the cave itself to expand. Today, the monastery has a main prayer hall, temples, library, and residential quarters for monks – and the sacred spring continues to flow.
Images of the 16 Arhats, the first disciples of Buddha, are painted on the cave’s walls, which also preserves a collection of old weapons. The assembly hall has several old thangkas and murals. From here, one can access a smaller temple, which has a 2-m high image of Maitreya Buddha.
The Chadar Trek
The Zanskar river, which leads from Padum to Zangla (35 kms from Padum) and then to Leh, freezes so hard in winter that for a few weeks one can walk on it as if it were solid ground. This is known as the chadar (‘sheet’ in Hindi). Constantly shaped by the wind, sun and clouds, the chadar is a dynamic living thing. The ice crunches and cracks under your feet, the wind feels like a knife, while the mild roar of the river deep below keeps you company.
Local merchants have been walking the chadar for centuries, and now adventure enthusiasts are discovering the rewards of undertaking this daunting 14-day, 105-km trek. The adventure begins in Chiling and follows a canyon landscape till Hanumil. Camping stops are in rock caves on the riverbank.
Glimpsing ibexes, dipper birds and, if you are really lucky, the elusive snow leopard. Getting an insight into a fascinating ancient culture divorced from modern life; visiting Buddhist monasteries built into cliffs; basking in the beauty of the landscape. And, of course, after it’s all over, having the satisfaction of completing one of the world’s most challenging treks. Minus-30 degree nights, and thin ice and the risk of frostbite.
photo credits: SaurabhChatterjee, SaurabhChatterjee, sandeepachetan, sandeepachetan, sandeepachetan via photopin (license)