Adventure · Himalaya · Photography · Travel Writing

Journey to Dhankar Gompa


(This is a part of a series of posts about my solo backpacking trip to the remote Himalayan region of Spiti – literally the middle land sandwiched between Tibet and India. It was an unplanned trip – I really was planning to visit Iran, but had visa trouble – boarded a bus last minute from Delhi to Shimla and continued onward on a voyage of discovery. The previous post in this twenty part series is  here – p.s. I’m still working on giving a structure to my blog).

I was up early the next morning and caught the lovely light filtering through clouds and reflecting off the crags that ensconce Tabo.

I then went immediately towards the monastery to make good on my promise – I just had to visit it again. Lamaji was there, smiling as ever and happy to see me. He was much more relaxed than yesterday as there were no tourists still. I wont bother you with additional descriptions but suffice to say that the experience this morning was relaxed and pleasurable to both parties.

Lamaji showed me around leisurely – including the chortens that had weathered down and collapsed – they were in the process of repairing it.

He also showed me the seven other smaller sections of the monastery. They were as spectacular as the main one – especially one, called the golden room (?) surpasses the Tsug-lakhang. Another temple (each individual building is called a temple) houses a tall Maitreya statue (the Buddha of the future). Before I left, I bought a set of ten picture post cards from the table that I had seen yesterday. The proceeds from these sales go to educate children of Tabo. They also sell printed versions of wall paintings that look like thangkas but the picture postcards are very high quality.

Later, the geyser in the bath worked great and I felt refreshed and was down in the kitchen area of Kesang guest house around eight AM. A spitian kitchen is pivotal to the way people live in the valley. It would be confusing to the plains-dwellers to compare it with our kitchen since the area is actually a dining room but for the stove in the center.

Central to the kitchen rests this heavy implement, made of iron, about two feet by fifteen inches and about twelve inches high. The top has an opening just large enough for a pot to sit on. The charcoal goes in from the side and there’s a small lid that can be closed to avoid cinders and ash from falling out. Smoke exhaust is from the top and to avoid it flooding the room, it is passed via a tall pipe that goes straight out the roof. The pot on top, usually has water in it – this water, can be used for cooking, making tea or just about anything else. It also helps to keep the indoor humidity levels more tolerable. The stove itself is not kept on the ground directly but on a tray to catch any stray ash that comes out of it and that is again raised from the ground. The area around the stove is covered nicely with carpets, mattresses and bolsters.

It was in this kitchen that I was introduced to R and A, a couple traveling through Spiti. R was an aspiring music director and A was going to study marketing in London later that year – they were both from South Bombay and I think this brought them together. They, like me, had not planned this trip much and after volunteering a bit in Mcleodganj had made their way up here. They were really ‘into’ Bollywood music though and spent the entire time we had breakfast gawking at the TV.

Soon after breakfast A asked if I’d like to share a car ride to Dhankar and I readily agreed. Mr Bodh had arranged for an alto (a small car) which was going to cost us 1600/- for the round trip to Dhankar and the driver would stay with us for a while so if we wanted we could trek to the lake (A really wanted that, R wasn’t too keen and I was neutral except that my idea of a trek is limited to getting grocery bags up the five floors using a staircase – maybe once a week – if it’s a good week). Together, four of us (including the driver) left Tabo.

We went slowly, in fact really slowly. I didn’t complain at all since it gave me a great chance to photograph the scenery. Also, we could stop as many times as we like – an option I exercised, as we went close to the river –

And then I wanted to shoot video –

And again, when I felt like photographing the goats [quick note on the goats- at the average valley floor altitude of  4200 meters, these parts are very conducive to rearing Pashmina goats. They yield the famous wool from which soft shawls and scarves are made (sometimes called cashmere). Best pashmina comes from Ladakh – Changthang plateau (but that’s another trip and another story).

And then again as we went farther from the river –

And finally again as we were quite high above the river –

…till I thought one of them was going to scream on me but they didn’t. They were just really nice to me – that is the kind of happy day that it was.

The road itself is good for the most part but the surroundings look like a trail mix of dust, sand and gravel. I cannot imagine what this place would be like in the winters when the snow melts. There isn’t a patch of green in the entire frame.

Through this journey of an hour (if you go non-stop), there are myriad curios shapes formed by the wind. These towers straight from a disneyesque Cinderella castle meets star wars tattooine landscape are clubbed together too close and look like they can fall down any minute – but apparently they never do.

Shortly before Dhankar (about 3 kms or so) the road starts ascending with the now familiar switchbacks as Dhankar gompa is situated at 800 odd meters higher than Tabo. The Alto was so slow on these bends that we actually got a bit frustrated. However, it did allow us to ask the driver to stop on one of the bends and capture this video –

We got a good view of Dhankar from here – and oh my god what a place it turned out to be.

I had heard much about Dhankar (the first time I think from here itself after reading an old post by Mridula), but never researched anything. The landscape surrounding Dhankar and its setting is something that one sees in the movies and only when you see it in person do you realize how gravity defying the placement of the monastery is. On the right in this shot below, the yellow building is the new monastery and below is the village of new dhankar – on the left, perched atop an impossible crag of what looks like earth just about to crumble is the ‘fort’ of Dhankar.

Actually, Dhankar in spitian means a fort (kar) set on a cliff (dhang) so this view completely justifies its name – the gompa sits on a spur with an altitude of 300 meters.

The view opposite dhankar is no less spectacular.

With the only clouds in the sky looking like cotton candy, picture postcard views were easy to come by today –

We got back in the car and went towards the monastery, now only gawking at the Gompa. To give you an idea of its setting and the size, below is a crop from a photo – if you look carefully, then on the right bottom is a car, the same size as ours and to the left is the fort.

The landscape has several high sand spires formed due to wind erosion. Some of the houses of new dhankar sit directly below them. The spires look like they house a few goblin’s lair but they are really compact and barring an earthquake, in no danger of collapsing. This photo should give an idea of the scale of these structures (look at the cars to the right, at the bottom).

At a quarter to eleven, the car was parked near the Gompa and we were trudging towards it – that’s the word given that the lack of oxygen was immediately noticeable. I looked up to notice that some of the earth around had caves built inside it, painted with Tibetan script (I suspect mantras) and was used for meditation at some point of time. Across the crags, one sees prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Looking down below one immediately gets an idea of how difficult it must be to build anything on this treacherous landscape – and this gompa has been around since the twelfth century!

Dhangkar was very important till at-least the 17th century when the ruler of spiti established his capital here. The ruler’s hereditary title was ‘Nono’ and the locals had to seek his permission before cultivating anything. I shot this video here from the top of the fort (before we entered) the courtyard and that gives a good idea behind the choice of this seemingly precarious location, the view over the river valley is commanding –

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7 thoughts on “Journey to Dhankar Gompa

  1. Thank you 🙂 This is a series of posts (posted ten so far), all under himachal. It was a fascinating solo bus journey through kinnaur and spiti.

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