Everything felt like a mistake. My mind was numb, blood oozed out of the fingers of my right hand courtesy of the hanging mesh wires on the dangling bridge. It was an indigenous structure made with a combination of stones, branches and twigs with ropes balanced by the weight of a few large stones. The Tsarap Chu flowed beneath and the so-called bridge appeared to sway (Chu means river in Zanskari).
While sipping butter tea in the morning, locals at Purne village had told me that the walk to Phuktal Monastery (also spelt as Phugtal Monastery) was fairly easy and would take two-three hours. Its a constant theme in the mountains; these kind hearted people don’t want to scare off outsiders and hence they encourage travellers to go and see the places that they have come so far for.
After coming across some Nepali workers at the start of the trail, there wasn’t even a bird or another sound for company except the waters of Tsarap Chu which had caused widespread damage in Zanskar & Lungnak Valley some months ago (Remember the cancellation of Chadar Trek in 2015).
The news of destruction in the valley had travelled far and wide and deterred trekkers from making this unfathomable journey. Purne Village had felt like a mirage in the lifeless terrain. Beautiful green fields interspersed and whitewashed houses with barley fields completed a pretty picture of this village perched at over 4000 metres.
A narrow stone bridge at the confluence of two rivers had been crossed to reach Purne. Kargyak Chu was clean and white, while the waters of Tsarap river were dark and muddy; they merged to form Lungnak Chu that eventually meets more tributaries near Padum to be called Zanskar river which flows through the dramatic Zanskar gorge to ultimately unite with Indus river at Nimmu (known as the Confluence), visible from the Srinagar-Leh highway.
I was armed with alpenliebe candy, my trusted partner on treks and long walks in the Himalayas. The path was fairly wide to start with but intermittently became an up and down trek when I had to walk on the riverbank before beginning my ascent again. The scenery was scarcely believable, mountains of various shapes and sizes jutted into the sky; mane stones with religious Buddhist carvings lie scattered on crossings to ward off evil spirits. Phuktal Gompa had been a dream for many years… I was so close now!
At times, the path became slender and clung to the right side of the mountain, loose sand shifted into the river under the weight of my foot and one wrong step would have had me tumbling into the river below. An experienced trek leader from New Zealand had already been washed away by the waters of Tsarap chu earlier this year.
A combination of chance happenings had resulted in me having only nine hundred rupees in my pocket. Though that was the last thing on my mind because I knew with kind mountain people around some way would be worked around that.
After the initial fascination with Ladakh, and then Spiti ; I had come to believe that it was this remote valley of Lungnak that was perhaps the last vestige of Tibetan Buddhism. Closed to the outside world for over nine months every year due to its remoteness.
A Lama in maroon robes had stood, waving his hands and gesturing toward me that indeed the bridge had to be crossed to reach Phuktal Monastery. My head spun when I stood looking at the flowing water at the start of the flimsy temporary structure. The few tourists that came this year had come from Cha village side, via a path that clung to a precipitous vertical drop on a steep mountain – just to avoid this bridge – and the folks at Purne had chosen to not tell me about it. There was no point in instilling fear for something which had to be crossed.
I was supposed to hold the side rope for support and keep breathing normally and not panic if the wind caused the bridge to sway. With a giant leap of faith I was transported to the other side and almost collapsed in the Lama’s arms with a mixture of shock and happiness. Another kilometre remained before I could finally pay my obeisance at the remotest monastery in the world!
Excerpts from Janet Rizvi’s, Ladakh : “The situation of the great monastery of Phuktal is perhaps the most dramatic of any anywhere in Ladakh. It is affiliated to the Gelugpa order, also called Yellow Hat sect which the Dalai Lama practices. The main temples have been constructed inside a huge cave in a cliff face above the river, while the houses of the monks and other buildings cling dangerously to a vertical cliff below. It is believed to have been established in the 11th Century and the paintings inside bear a striking resemblance to Alchi in Ladakh and Tabo in Spiti, both established by the great translator Rinchen Zangpo.”
The wonderfully maintained monastery guesthouse served tea while the monks chatted amongst themselves. It was almost noon and I was asked to rush to the monastery where lunch was being served in the dazzling courtyard that overlooked the entire valley. The monastery watches over life in the entire valley and commands power over important decisions even as they run a monastic school for kids in the entire valley.
One of the senior Lamas assigned a novice to show me around. I watched the paintings and murals in awe while still being in pain due to the many cuts on my fingers. One is not allowed to click pictures inside any part of Phuktal Gonpa. The Bodhisattvas were magnificently carved and appeared to be live forms of the Gods and Goddesses. I was also shown a dark room from where water mysteriously appeared inside the cave of the monastery of which the source is still unknown.
I tried peeking down from the side walls of the monastery when the little lama told me that a kid had fell off and died while doing the same a few months ago. It was a scary thought. We were on a limestone cliff with a sheer vertical drop into the river below.
I was particularly keen to attend the three o’ clock prayer that was held everyday in the Dukhang. That wasn’t to be. The monks advised me to ask for help in crossing the bridge safely and go back to Purne since I was alone and there was a danger of wild animals in the dark. I had promised to them and myself that I would return again and attend the prayers.
I had complimented one monk on his Zanskari hat and he was gracious enough to just take it off and present it to me. Wow, the kind Lamas of Phuktal!!
He said ‘I am happy an Indian has dared to come alone via the long path from Lahaul.’
Later in the evening, when a herd of Ibex had come to drink water from the river under the moonlight, and Ladakhi songs played from someone’s mobile with the free flowing Chaang (barley beer) and I had earned my dinner by peeling fresh peas from the field, I realised happiness lies in little things.
This was such an overwhelming experience for me that words struggled to express my feelings. I shall be penning down the rest of my memories of making this epic trek in Zanskar.
I had stumbled and starved, but the goodness of strangers meant that I was back to civilisation in the small town of Padum even in the absence of cash. I wouldn’t change one thing about life and would make the same mistakes again. It is just too beautiful to live any other way.