THERE IS A certain mystique about Zanskar. This is no doubt due to its remoteness and altitude, between 3,350 m (10,991 ft) and 4,400 m (14,436 ft), and the fact that the region is difficult to access – the only motorahle road into the valley is usually open from around early June to mid- October. But Zanskar’s reputation as a Shangri-la also derives from the grandeur of its landscapes, the simplicity of life in its villages, and the serene ambience in its gompas, often built around ancient cliff-top meditation caves.
Zanskar contains the valleys of two rivers, the Stod and the Lungnak which, flowing towards each other along the northern flank of the Greater Himalayas, join to become the Zanskar river. This continues north through a gorge in the Zanskar Range, to join the Indus.
The western arm of Zanskar, the Stod Valley, and its central plain are fertile and well-watered villages form green pockets and the virtual absence of trees contributes to an extraordinary sense of light and space. The inhabitants of this region are mostly agricultural farmers, growing barley, wheat and peas in the lower villages, and raising livestock yaks, sheep and dzos (a hybrid between cows and yaks) in the higher villages. In winter, many of these farmers take the only route out of the area, trekking for six gruelling days across the frozen Zanskar river, to sell their highly prized yak butter in Leh. In contrast to the fertile western arm and central plain, the eastern arm of Zanskar the Lungnak Valley is a forbidding and stony gorge, with few villages to be found in the vicinity.
The main gateway to Zanskar is the Pensi-la (4,400 m/14,436 ft), about 130 km (81 miles) southeast of Kargil. There are spectacular views from the top of this pass, especially of the impressive Drangdrung Glacier, which is the origin of the Stod river. The road then continues down to Padum, 230 km (143 miles) southeast of Kargil, at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,483 ft). Padum is Zanskar’s main village and administrative headquarters. This is the only place in the region with basic facilities including accommodation, transport and a few rudimentary shops. It is also the starting point for a number of treks in the region . Padun itself has few sites of interest, except for a rock engraving of the Five . Dhyani Buddhas in the centre of the village. A new mosque serves Padum’s small community of Muslims. There are a number of interesting sites to explore in the vicinity. Within easy reach on foot, is the village of Pipiting, which has a temple and chotten on top of a mound of glacial debris, and a pavilion which was specially constructed for the Dalai ama’s prayer assemblies.
A short distance away is Sani, 8 km (5 miles) northwest of Padum, one of the oldest religious sites in the Western Himalayas. Within the monastery walls stands the Kanika Chorten, its name possibly linking it to the Kushana ruler Kanishka whose empire stretched from Afghanistan to Varanasi in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The monastery itself is said to have been founded by Padmasambhava in the 8th century, and its main temple has some fine murals. Even more interesting is another small temple in the complex, which has unique, beautifully painted stucco bas-relief decorations, and niches in the walls for images. Sani is surrounded by a stand of poplars, conspicuous in this otherwise treeless landscape.Visible from Padum, the buildings of the Gelugpa monastery of Karsha, 10 km (6 miles) northeast of Padun, seem to spill down the mountainside west of the main valley, until they merge with the houses and fields of the village. This site includes ancient rock engravings, and the murals in its Avalokitesvara temple, just outside the main complex, seem to put it in the same period as Aichi . Tradition, however,attributes the monastery’s foundation to the ubiquitous Padmasambhava. Karsha has a large community of resident monks, and holds its colourful annual festival between July and August.
Stongde, on the opposite side of the valley, 12 km (7 miles) from Padum, is perched on a ridge, high above the mosaic of the village’s fields. Believed to have been founded in the 11th century, it houses no fewer than seven wellmaintained temples, some of them containing exquisite murals.
The villages of Sani, Karsha and Stongde are connected by motor transport, though the monasteries in the Lungnalc Valley are less accessible. The narrow footpath leading up the valley winds along unstable scree slopes high above the river, and the walk is strenuous. It takes a sharpclimb on foot or on horseback to reach Bardhan and Phugtal monasteries. Barman , 9 km (6 miles) southeast of Padun, is spectacularly located atop a crag jutting out from the mountain and rising some 100 m (328 ft) sheer out of the river. It has fine wall paintings dating back to the time of the monastery’s foundation in the early 17t century. Of all Ladakh’s many monasteries however, none, not even Barman or Lamayuru, can rival Phugtal, 60 km (37 miles) southeast of Padum, for the grandeur and drama of its location. Its main temples are constructed inside a huge cave on the mountainside above the Tsarap river, at a point where the drop to the water is almost sheer. Yet below the temples the monks’ dwellings have somehow been built on or into the cliff-face, and the whole improbable complex is linked by a crazy system of ladders and walkways. There is no record of Phugtal monastery’s foundation, but the style of its paintings, some of them quite striking, link it with the Tabo monastery in Spiti and the traditions established by the Tibetan saint Rinchen Zangpo in the 11th century. Its monks belong to the Gelugpa order.