Zanskar valley, in the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir, is probably the most isolated valley in India and Phuktal is amongst the most remote places in Zanskar.
A few hours of drive from Padum, the biggest town in Zanskar, brought us to the “end of the road”. After this, a compulsory walk of several hours (5 for the locals, we took a little less than 8 hours) through high mountain passes of the Greater Himalayas lead to the Phuktal monastery.
The Phuktal monastery is the epitome of monks living high up in the mountains, detached from the rest of the world.
All of this made the trek to the Phuktal monastery not just offbeat but also an exciting adventure.
The start of the trek to Phuktal monastery
On the left side, villages of Cha and Anmu are the only sign of civilisation. They are spotted from afar by the lush green cultivation around them, a stark contrast to an otherwise golden barren landscape.
Another camping option enroute Phuktal is a village called Purne, on the opposite side of the river Lungnak. A wooden bridge (spot it in the picture!) takes you over. To reach Phuktal monastery via Purne, you need to cross three such bridges, but the route is wider and not so high up, hence a lot safer than via Cha.
Our night halt on the way to Phuktal monastery (also called Phugtal) was in a village named Cha.
Anmu is the first village on the way to Cha just after the end of the motor-able road.
Soon after we started our walk, came a point where we couldn’t figure a way ahead. We had to literally walk down the cliff which fell into a gorge deep down.
While we were just staring scarily at this difficult patch, contemplating a safe way to cross, Tenzing from the village Anmu came by. Without any hesitation she crossed through, as easily as one would climb down the stairs in their house.
Realising our predicament she came up again, and helped us all! We couldn’t have thanked her enough!
Later, while crossing through Anmu, her family invited us over for tea. It was an idyllic setting, a house on a hill, with a kitchen garden in front, small cozy cheerful rooms and loads of kids’ laughter! We had some tea, home-made bread and the most amazing yogurt.
Humbled by their hospitality and hearts filled with gratitude, we carried on.
The night halt on the trek to Phuktal monastery
The house where we spent the night at Cha is seen here at the back.
Cha is midway between the end of the motor-able road and the Phuktal monastery.It’s a tiny village, without any shop or school.
It does have a health centre and a satellite phone and is the headquarters of the Lungnak Block, as the area is called.Trekkers sometimes halt in Cha on the way to the Phuktal monastery.
Longer treks to Manali via Shingo-la also pass through Cha.
A few houses have realised the opportunity and offer their house as home stays for trekkers.
Journey to Phuktal monastery begins.
This is what we had to cross to reach the Phuktal monastery. It was a straight path without much chance of getting lost, except within our own selves.
Walking through these wind battered rocks, the forces of nature surrounded us everywhere.
Their presence was powerful, enigmatic and left us in awe. Perhaps, this is what a religious experience is all about!
Rocks carved with ancient scriptures in Tibetan script are seen everywhere.
These petroglyphs are pieces of art! They are usually just casually strewn around monasteries. We found many of these around Phuktal.They could be centuries old, or they could be made recently by a monk chiseling away in a monastery.
The Phuktal monastery
This is what we were after, the most important and the most remote monastery in the entire Zanskar valley. Hidden in a cave on a hill side!
After the long, breath taking (as well as breathless making) walk up at around 4200 meters in the Phuktal valley, the sight of the Phuktal monastery was, more than anything – relieving!
The three stupas mark the boundary of any village in Zanskar.There is a small guest house just before these stupas, where visitors can halt for the night. As we had halted in Cha, we didn’t stay here.
We continued our walk through the winding steps (seen in the far corner in the picture) that start soon after these stupas.
Young monks at Phuktal monastery
Should we call them monks or kids or kid monks?
It was break time for these youngsters. Their energy was un-missable.Take their maroon robes away, dress them up in clothes for “young adults” and they could pass off as school children in a playground.
Except that, they WERE in their maroon robes, attended the monk school in the monastery, studied ancient scriptures and would go on to live their lives devoid of all worldly possessions!
Lunch time at Phuktal monastery
Yeah, that’s the view at the meal times. It won’t cost you a dime. Just a lifetime of being a monk! However, just for this day, we got to savour it!
By the time we reached the Phuktal monastery the monks had gathered for lunch . We were welcome to join them.
We went and sat next to them. One of the young monks gave us a bowl and served us the same food that the monks were having for lunch. After some chanting, the lunch began.
The plastic spoons are of course ours!
It was simple, mostly boiled, healthy food. Some food was shared with the crows and other birds that joined in. The meal was followed by tea.After this, the monks retired for their afternoon chores.
We returned via Purne.
We had to change mountains thrice, crossing three rickety wooden bridges over the river.
But the path was broader – it’s used by the horses as well. It was also at a much lower elevation.
In the picture, the mountains on the left are through the village Cha. The ones on the right are through the village Purne. Both these routes lead to the Phuktal monastery.
The locals had recommended the route on the left, through Cha. For them, it was a faster, shorter route, around a hour and a half away.
“For them” being the operative word here – it took us a good four hours to reach there. It was treacherously high up, a bit too narrow, and (I am not exaggerating here), not something your heart could take again!
The people of Zanskar, are people of the hills after all! The hills are their homes. They belong to the hills and the hills belong to them. You, will, alas, always be a foreigner here!