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ZANASKAR

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.

About 20 kms south-east of Rangdum stands 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.

Zanskar is a tri-armed valley system situated between the Great Himalayan Range and the Zanskar mountains, the three arms radiating star-like towards the west, north and south from a wide central expanse. Here the Zanskar River comes into being by the confluence of its two Himalaya n tributaries, the Stod/Doda and the Lingti-Tsarap rivers. It is mainly along the course of this valley system that the region’s approximately 14,000 strong, mainly Buddhist population, live.

Spread over an estimated geographical area of 5000 sq kms of mountainous territory, Zanskar is surrounded by high-rise mountains and deep gorges.It remains inaccessible for nearly 8 months a year due to heavy winter snowfall resulting in closure of all access passes, including the Penzi-la. This geographical isolation and the esoteric nature of Buddhism practised here have enabled its inhabitants to preserve their identity, so that to-day Zanskar is the least interfered with microcosms of Ladakh. Closer observation of the lifestyle evokes admiration for a people who have learnt to live in perfect harmony with the unique environment.Buddhist population, live.

Within the mountainous ramparts of this ‘Shangri-La’ are a number of ancient yet active monastic establishments. Some of these foundations have evolved around remote mountain caves, which are by legend associated with famous Buddhist saints. These are in fact the main places of attraction for the visitors in the area, in addition to the haunting beauty of the spectacular landscape and the ancient culture.

Spread over an estimated geographical area of 5000 sq kms of mountainous territory, Zanskar is surrounded by high-rise mountains and deep gorges. It remains inaccessible for nearly 8 months a year due to heavy winter snowfall resulting in closure of all access passes, including the Penzi-la. This geographical isolation and the esoteric nature of Buddhism practised here have enabled its inhabitants to preserve their identity, so that to-day Zanskar is the least interfered with microcosms of Ladakh. Closer observation of the lifestyle evokes admiration for a people who have learnt to live in perfect harmony with the unique environment. Within the mountainous ramparts of this ‘Shangri-La’ are a number of ancient yet active monastic establishments. Some of these foundations have evolved around remote mountain caves, which are by legend associated with famous Buddhist saints. These are in fact the main places of attraction for the visitors in the area.

Sightseeing in 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.

Incidentally, it is only in Padum where there is a community of Muslims constituting nearly half the township's population, its origin in the area dating from mid 17th century. Lately, Padum has become famous as a major trekking base and a popular tourist destination. Several places of tourist interest in the vicinity of the townships can be visited in the course of entertaining walks.

The nearest site is a set of ancient rock carvings on a huge boulder near the bank of the Lung-nak river, just below the old township. These date from the 8th century and provide epigraphic evidence that the region was under the influence of Indian Buddhism since ancient times. The Stagrimo monastery, with about 30 resident lamas, clings to a tree-covered ridge above the old town, at an hour's uphill walk along flower-strewn green hill slopes.

Sani

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.

Karsha

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.

Stongdey

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

Zangla

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.

Bardan

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.

Travel tips

Zanskar experiences drastic fluctuations in the daily temperature even during the height of summer. While the days are pretty warm, even hot at times due to the desert effect, the evenings can become quite chilly and require additional clothing. It is advisable to be prepared with a pullover and a down jacket. Other essential items include a sturdy pair of walking shoes (with strong rubber or synthetic soles for grip), a good sleeping bag and a pair of woollen socks or some thick cotton socks. It is also essential to bring along a good quality tent if one intends to travel or trek around by oneself, and a good rucksack for back packing. It is also important to carry provisions from Srinagar, Leh or Kargil if a longer tour of the adjoining villages is intended.