When we talk about Ladakh, almost all of us talk about the Buddhism influence found in this cold desert destination. We visualize us letting our faces be touched by the whistling winds in which the prayer flags fly, going to the monasteries that lead a peaceful life in its mountainous regions and witnessing the monks live their lives here. But how did Buddhism come to be so widespread in Ladakh to begin with? How did Ladakh become a predominantly Buddhist state? Legend has it that Phuktal Monastery’s founder is to be credited for it!
The monastery was founded by Jangsem Sherap Zangpo back in the early 15th century. He was a disciple of the Guleg School of Tibetan Buddhism which was founded by Je Tsongkhapa. Folklore states that Tsongkhapa had instructed Zangpo to spread the teachings of Buddhism in Ladakh, even instructing him to gift the king of Ladakh with a drop of Tsongkhapa’s blood and bone powder. The king was delighted and helped Zangpo with the endeavours of spreading the message of Buddhism in this state.
And yet, even with the significance it has held in the religion’s spread across the state, the founder’s monastery in itself took a back seat. It still remains one of the least visited monasteries in the state, existing in the remote Zanskar Valley’s even further remote region of Lungnak Valley near a river of the same name. The monastery rich with one too many mythical stories is perched on a cliff in a manner that it looks like a massive honeycomb, leading many to even call it the “Honeycomb Monastery”. Rich in legends and in rustic architecture, the monastery is home to just 80 monks and maintains its lesser visited status on account of the fact that it can be reached via a trek! Roads have been built to bring you to a nearby point but not all the way and well, the charm of a trek would be something else, wouldn’t it? No roads, no vehicles to lead you to it, except for you to tread upon the gravel, hear that crunch sound beneath your shoes, gaze upon the Ladakhi landscape and arrive at the monastery.
How to reach: Fly down to Leh and then travel from Leh to Padum by booking a taxi. Flights to Leh work out expensive, so, as an alternative you can fly down to Srinagar and then travel to Leh by road from there. The drive from Leh to Padum takes about 12 hours, so, make sure to be prepared accordingly. And then, your trek starts from Ichar.
Best time to trek/visit: June to September
Duration: 3 days
Please keep an extra day for acclimatizing before commencing with your trek. This is crucial at such high-altitude locations.
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Altitude: 4,200 metres
Trek route: The route will of course depend on what you decide with your local trekking guide, but possible options include:
Padum – Raru – Ichar – Chah – Phuktal Monastery – Purne – Anmu – Icher – Raru – Padum
Day 1: Padum – Raru – Ichar –Chah
Approximate Duration – 6-8 hours
Arrive and Padum and make sure to acclimatize before starting your trek. Wake up after being well rested and start your trek from Padum. The town in itself makes for quite an interesting visit as it is the only town and administrative centre in the entire Zanskar Valley! So, this might just be one of your last glimpses of modern civilization until you return from the trek. It is named after Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, also called Padmasambhava. The town is home to picturesque valleys like Zongkul, Toringmo Monastery and even the Drang-Drung glacier! Ah, yes, you may want to take out a few days and spend time at Padum as well. ? Some say that it might be the next Leh, so, make sure to visit it in time.
Your trek starts off by driving up till Icher which is the last point accessible by road for the trek. From there you will start making your way forward to the village of Chah. All the while the rugged peaks of start unfolding and opening right in front of your eyes. The stunningly blue Lungnak River shall also join you on your route. As you’re headed to Phuktal, it maybe interesting to know that legend even narrates how the spiritually gifted Zangpo had perfectly set the cave where the monastery resides. They say he used his powers to cause a spring to appear near the cave, for the cave to become massive and for a tree to also appear near it. Thus, the gorge within which the monastery lives and breathes is actually a major tributary of the Lungnak River whom you shall be greeting today. Come evening you can reach and rest up in simple yet memorable homestays. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself blessed with a starlit night you’ll see a magical sky!
Day 2: Chah – Phugtal / Phuktal Monastery – Purne
Approximate Duration – 5-6 hours
And today, you shall be making your way to the ever so intriguing monastery. The route from Chah to Phugtal gets narrow and steep so brace yourself. You shall reach there within a few hours but as you have to head to Purne from there make sure to reach early so that you can spend time at the monastery, after all it pens quite the mysterious aura around it. The famous honeycomb cave is said to have given shelter to many visitors. Including the 16 Arhats of Buddhism.
Who are Arhats? They are the followers of Buddhism held in highest form of reverence by other followers of the faith on account of having successfully attained a livelihood as prescribed by the doctrine of Buddhism. Also known as the Arahants, they are sometimes believed to be 50, or even 500. But only 16 are reduced to painted form, name and written records, probably because these 16 are said to be the very first to have achieved this feat! And, they are believed to have taken shelter at Phuktal Monastery where you shall be headed on this day.
The name Phuktal or Phugtal comes from “phug” meaning cave and “thar” meaning leisure. Another name, more commonly used by the locals, is Phugthar wherein the “thar” is said to signify liberation. These names itself start to speak to you about what the monastery represents. But as you are amongst the rare few headed there, you can take the chance to interact with a monk and learn from them all about this wonder to get an even more personal insight. Observe the honeycomb structure, let your mind wander thinking about the centuries it has seen and let Lungnak sing to you stories you may not hear otherwise. From there you shall head to the village of Purne which shall take you 2-3 hours.
Day 3: Purne – Anmu – Icher – Raru – Padum
Approximate Duration – 7 – 8 hours
After exploring the monastery, the valley, its nearby stretching landscapes and local lifestyle, it is time for you to head back. Hopefully the stories of the land you’ve explored and its scenic views shall keep you pleased all the way down. It’s going to be a long couple of hours for you to head back but for one last time, let Zanskar keep you charmed all the way. And like I said earlier, there are other nearby attractions too that you could visit if you wish to.
So, which is the Buddhist monastery that you are most eager to visit?