After relaxing for two full days in a cheap guest house in Padum, I was mentally and physically ready to explore Zanskar’s tourist attractions! Karsha Gompa is the biggest monastery in entire Zanskar valley. Karsha Village is located 7 km away from Padum and the monastery is set on a hillock on top of the village. Karsha Gompa houses at least 100 monks and is affiliated to the Gelugpa order.
There are stunning views from the monastery overlooking the valley and the river basin. The sunlight causes the green and yellow barley fields to glisten in the sunshine when seen from the open courtyard of Karsha Monastery. It is a delight to attend the prayers with the lamas, the sounds reverberate in the entire valley.
Karsha Monastery is most famous for the Gustor, which is held in July and is an important festival with masked dances for the people of Zanskar. Karsha has also been the last point where the traditional Chadar Trek ends (The frozen river trek on Zanskar river).
A slideshow of the Little Lamas of Karsha Monastery, Zanskar.
Zanskar Valley’s stark beauty lies in the landscape dotted by jagged peaks and Buddhist gompas. In surreal settings, large whitewashed chortens are a regular feature in Zanskar. The culture may perhaps be the closest to Tibetan Buddhism that a visitor is most likely to see.
A Brief Introduction to Zanskar
The Zanskar Valley is so remote, I had first felt that I might have been dreaming. The landscape is spectacular; lush barley fields dominate the villages lying at this forbidden altitude of over 4000m. Sandwiched between the high passes and remote mountains of the Zanskar range lies the Zanskar valley and another important fact is that it was largely discovered by the French in the mid 1970s. For operational purposes, Zanskar region is a part of Ladakh.
Snow blocks the Penzi La pass for more than 8 months in a year, and thus the Zanskaris are usually confined to the small valley in the absence of an airport. A motorable road to the district headquarters of Padum has made life easier. Going from one village to another in Zanskar still means a trek of 4-5 hours over treacherous and narrow paths.
There are few villages that have a satellite telephone for contact with the outside world. Of the few schools that exist in Zanskar valley, the biggest one is run with help from the French Alps Himalaya foundation. There are modern schools in Padum and impart excellent education now.
A Buddhist Monastery
A monastery or gompa literally means ‘solitary place’. Due to lack of flat ground, mostly monasteries are built on a slope, and they rise tier upon tier. They are mostly whitewashed structures amid the barren landscape that is customary of Ladakh & Zanskar.
Lha-Khang & Du-Khang are the prayer halls in every monastery. The dwelling of the Rinpoche (Or head lama) is usually on the top. Buddhist gompas are living places of worship and dominate the daily life of Ladakh and Zanskar.
The walls of a monastery are painted with murals depicting life of the Buddha and the lessons. There are also murals of various incarnations such as Padmasambhava, Sakyamuni, Green Tara etc. There is also likely to be many statues of the Buddha along with Bodhisattvas (small clay & metal idols of Buddha). Some monasteries also have a gon-khang; a separate room for tantric masks.
I had a great breakfast at a Nepali dhaba in Padum and was trying to find a shared ride to Karsha Monastery, 8 odd kilometres away. Since no vehicle came for a long time, I started walking. After covering a kilometre or two, some jeep taking workers to Karsha stopped! I was happy to pay 20 Rupees for this ride!!
Karsha Gompa was established in the 10th Century and is the most important monastery in Zanskar. The monastery is accessible by a road that goes all the way. Also, there are steps that pass through the dwellings of the monks to reach the main rooms of the monastery.
The monastery was undergoing renovation when I reached. Some lamas were chanting prayers. Murals and carvings inside the prayer room of the monastery are in a rapidly degrading condition. Work was also undergoing to restore the same and there was an expert artist painting some walls when I was there.
There are silver and copper chortens of artistic value inside Karsha Gompa. There’s a separate room where Tantric Masks are kept and the monks refuse to open that for me. I wait for a long time but since there is no cooperation, I decide to let go and try my luck another day. I spotted a few homestays in the Karsha village and would have loved to spend some time in the solitude here. It was so much prettier than Padum.
In short, since travel isn’t perfect (like life), I didn’t have the most perfect exploration of Karsha Gompa. I don’t know if it was the monks who didn’t care whether I saw anything or not, or if it was just that my luck had exhausted after the epic solo trek to reach Zanskar!
Visiting Karsha Monastery is definitely one of the most recommended attractions in Zanskar. This post by SandeepaChetan for Things to do in Zanskar is a wonderful compilation for prospective travellers.
Hopefully next time!
Also read : Doing the unthinkable – Solo Trekking to Zanskar