When less is more or a Simple life of Sani in Zanskar

Sani was our introduction to the Zanskar valley. It was studded with many firsts: first face-off with “remote location” and “isolation”, a high altitude village stay and a monastery festival. Also the first time we would term taps, flush and a tiled bathroom as luxury.

It was an eye opener to a life so simple yet so happy, it becomes a life less ordinary.

We had hitch hiked in an Indian Oil Truck from Parkachik to Zanskar. After a day long journey and an enforced night stay in the truck, we reached Sani early in the morning.

The group with and the drivers of the Indian Oil diesel carrier we travelled in on the journey from Parkachik to Sani in the Zanskar valley.

The plan was to stay in Padum, and do a day trip to Sani, 6 km before Padum, for the Sani monastery festival. Padum is the headquarters of the Zanskar valley. Zanskar valley can be termed the trekking capital of the Greater Himalayas. Many long treks start from or around Padum, which is well equipped with basic tourist facilities.

Communal tensions had however brought Padum to a shutdown. Which meant we had to put up in Sani.

Sani monastery

We headed straight to the Sani monastery and dumped our bags in the monastery premises. It was getting all decked up for the big festival.

Sani monastery, decked up with fresh painted white colour and colourful prayer flags swaying in the evening breeze just for the Sani monastery festival in Zanskar, a remote and isolated valley in Zanskar.

We asked a monk if there were any stay arrangements in the village. His reply was, “sure, that shouldn’t be a problem”. With that cue, we set out to look for a place to stay for the night (or for as long as it would take for normalcy to return to Padum).

 

Holy lake Tuthot, with clear water and refelection of the cloudy sky surrounded by the Greater Himalayan mountain range in the village Sani an offbeat destination in the adventure valley of Zanskar

A holy lake named Tuthot is the main landmark of Sani. Next to this holy lake is a big camping ground. But it was of no use to us, since we weren’t carrying any tents.

People of the village Sani

Portrait of an old woman, face covered in wrinkles wearing a bright orange woolen cap, typical of the Zanskar region, a remote and isolated valley in India.

Walking around Sani, we sensed a relaxed pace of life, like never before. The agriculture season was almost done. It was time to start preparing for the severe snow-covered winters. Isolation of Zanskar from the rest of the world is an annual winter certainty.

The shepherds had set out in the hills early morning with their flock. The schools were shut too, for the monastery festival. Everything seemed to proceed in slow motion.

Life was as basic as it gets and the inhabitants mingled together as one big family.

An old Zanskari woman, wearing a goatskin coat, chanting with the help of prayer beads, walking down the streets of Sani village in the remote and isolated offbeat Zanskar valley.

Religion and prayers, as a way of life, was unmissable. Prayer beads and Mani wheels were ubiquitous.

Living in the midst of such harsh nature, it was not really surprising!

 

A man dressed in traditional Zanskar outfit walks down the street with the Mani prayer wheel in one hand and a string of beads in the other in the sani village in Zanskar, a remote and isolated valley in India.

Though by Zanskar standards a bigger village, in reality, Sani was just a hamlet. The stretch of the road next to the lake was the entire length of this village.

 

Young girls having fun as the sun gets ready to set in Sani, a small village 6km before Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar valley, the most isolated and offbeat valley in India.

We soon realised Sani had no real hotels (or guest houses).

Our homestay in Sani

But who needs any commercial set ups when the locals are so warm and friendly? The owner of the lone shop in Sani agreed to host us for the two days of the Sani festival. He charged us a pittance for a cozy room and an unlimited supply of fresh, local food.

Houses made with flat stones lined one above the other and “cemented” and painted with a mixture of mud, straw and dung are a typical architectural style of the Zanskar and Ladakh regions.

This was our homestay in Sani. Stone houses like this, is a typical architectural style in the Zanskar and Ladakh regions. Flat stones are lined one above the other and “cemented” and painted with a mixture of mud, straw and dung.

The terrace is an essential part of every house. This is where wood, dung, grass and any other source of fuel is set to dry for use in the winter months.

What these houses do not have, is a bathroom (or a toilet). Drainage system is conspicuously absent in the entire valley. What they have here are dry compost blocks. Lack of good bathroom facilities is not very rare in Indian villages.

But being denied any means of a clean shower after a long tiring journey is something we hadn’t anticipated at all.

Top view of the wood fired stove and a wok with a steaming hot preparation of fresh locally gown green veggies being served by the daughter of the family of our homestay in Sani, a village in the remote and isolated Zanskar valley.

Like most families in Sani, this too was a shepherd family. The mother would usually be out in the hills with their herd. With her father engaged in the shop, the onus of cooking fell on the daughter, Dolma.

We had our first (and only) cup of the famous yak butter tea here, in these cute little ceramic bowls. The taste was a bit too strong for us and we resorted back to regular tea.

Fresh local veggies with chapatis or rice was the brunch and dinner.

Five cookers, blackened by use in wood fired stoves are part of the kitchen in the homestay in Sani village of Zanskar valley, a remote and isolated valley in India.

At mealtimes, the family would join us for conversations. In his younger days, the father would accompany the trekking groups as a porter. One of their sons was in a school in Jammu. Pictures of their visit to Jammu were proudly displayed on the walls.

Once, the mother chaffed about taking her daughter with us, and finding her a suitable boy in Mumbai! It made us wonder if they had an idea where Mumbai actually was. We would often ask the school going kids we would meet if they knew of Mumbai. They would always say yes. On asking where it was, the answer always was “very far off from here”!

Mumbai, Delhi, or any of the other countries they would have visitors from, it all fell in this “very far off” bracket.

To them, it probably was all the same!

Dolma’s deftness in rolling the chapatis just with her hands (without the help of a rolling pin) was striking! I couldn’t help asking her for tips. And some impromptu cookery lessons ensued.

Getting lessons an making chapatis in our homestay at Sani in Zanskar valley

She was happy to teach, but clueless as to why mine didn’t roll out as perfectly as hers!

Being close to the valley headquarters had its perks. Sani enjoyed non stop power supply sourced from a hydroelectric power plant. Cooking gas was easy to reach.

People were overall much better off than their counterparts in the deeper inaccessible parts of the valley.

Attending a Zanskar wedding in Sani

A Zanskar bride dressed in full bridal finery at the Sani festival in Zanskar, a remote and isolated valley in India.

During our stay in Sani, we also got to witness a post wedding party.

 

Men dressed in the traditional outfit in Zanskar

The waft of music led us to a house where the entire village seemed to have gathered. Curious about what was happening inside but not wanting to gatecrash a private celebration, we stood tentatively at the gate. A member of the host family saw us and invited us to join the party. His first line was

“Welcome, have some Chang“.

This was our introduction to the staple drink of Zanskar – the Chang. It is made by fermenting a local barley like grain and is an essential component of their everyday lives.

Large tubs filled with Chang were kept ready and jars of this local brew were doing the rounds.

We had a few sips of this Chang, couldn’t bear much beyond a couple of sips. (Later, we tasted a more evolved version of Chang, named Arhak, made by distilling the Chang. We must say, we quite enjoyed the Arhak!).

Two musicians dressed in traditional Zanskar attire play the musical instruments at a wedding party in Sani village in Zanskar, a remote and isolated valley in India

Young and old, men and women, everyone was in high spirits. Live music added a festive touch. A local bread to be had with pickle, butter or a sweet powder called “sattu” gave company to the Chang.

 

Local bread with mounds of butter distributed at a wedding party as an accompaniment with the local brew called chang in Sani village of Zanskar, a remote and isolated valley in Zanskar

As I stood in a corner, a group of elderly women signalled an invitation to join them. We didn’t speak a common language, so the talk was in signs. They asked me to have some Chang. I said I had already tasted it. To which they questioned where my glass was. My reply that I had put it away, I didn’t want any more, was met with disapproving nods.

No person in Zanskar willingly says a no to Chang, ever!

Old women dressed in the traditional Zanskar outfit enjoying the local brew called Chang at a wedding party in the Sani village of Zanskar, a remote and isolated valley in India.

We asked the host if we could take photos, his reply was, right then would be fine. “After a while, everyone would be out of their senses and dancing like crazy. Please don’t take photos then!”

Later in the night, we would experience a bit of this craziness in our homestay.

The house was filled with the family’s relatives who were in Sani for the festival, and a big noisy family gathering was on. Denying several “Juley, Chang”s (hello, have some Chang), all of us “outsiders” stayed cocooned in our room.

Later, one of the younger guys came to our room and asked us to hide the car keys away from his uncle, who was drunk but insisted on driving!

It was an amazing fun-filled night! We were glad we hadn’t proceeded to Padum.

How else would we have been a part of a family reunion in the remote Zanskar valley?

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Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

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Comments

9 thoughts on “When less is more or a Simple life of Sani in Zanskar

  1. Mahendra Kaneria

    Aap ka zanskar valley ke bare me likha hua mene patha bahoot hi sunder he puri jankari he aap dono ka bahoot hi aabhari hu pranam🙏🙏