Adventure · Himalaya · India · Photography

In and around Dhankar monastery


This is a part of a series of posts about my backpacking trip in the remote Himalayan region of Spiti. Previous post is here.

My share-jeep mates had already gone inside the Gompa at Dhankar while I was busy shooting video – a few minutes later, I followed them too. Immediately inside was the courtyard – at this time the wind at nearly 4000 meter altitude was so strong, the prayer flags had turned vertical.

The first stop was a room that houses a deity and a seat – the one that the Dalai Lama sat on when he visited. It is a common tradition in the monasteries across Spiti and Ladakh to leave the room of His Holiness undisturbed once he has visited the place. These rooms and seats are usually kept so clean that if he were to visit any given day, he would not find anything out of order.

The ante-chamber to this room is decorated with murals, some of which suffer due to the wall having cracked a bit.

I think I suffered visiting this monastery a bit since our driver was not very communicative – he had some trouble understanding our questions and was unable to help us understand what was what. To top that, the section known as the rural museum was closed and we also didn’t have a guide and hence I think we skipped quite a bit of the monastery itself. However, what happened moments later, surpassed my expectations not only from this visit but from the trip itself.

I heard some chants emanating from a smallish room on the left side of the courtyard. I walked towards a door that is no more than three feet tall, took off my shoes and barely made it inside the room – it is called the monk’s prayer room. Here, three monks had started their chanting. I kept observing, unable to understand a word but completely mesmerized by the soothing intonation of the words and the accompanying rhythm of the music. The acoustics of the room further bolster the effort and the impact on the casual visitor is that one feels at peace. Looking at my camera one of the monks smiled gently and signaled that it’s ok to capture the proceedings. I made two videos actually and have uploaded only one – as below.

As I came out into the strong sunlight I looked around a bit, a dead, stuffed goat hangs from the wooden ceiling – memory of the times when the nono ruled these lands.

The strategic nature of the location of this gompa was evident from many features – the view from this window is onto the spiti river.

With limited options inside the monastery (of places to visit), we discussed about the trek to Dhankar lake and (feeling short of breath already due to lack of oxygen at this altitude) the plan was promptly and collectively abandoned in favor of exercising our jaws by eating lunch.

Lunch was going to be at a home-stay that our driver knew of – it included the tour of their entire home and how they lived through the terrible cold months when all of spiti is covered by snow that in turn gets packed and becomes ice. Some of it was still around on the ground. On the way I noticed the traditional construction of houses – a kind of grass is used as insulation while constructing the roof – you may see it jutting out of the sides.

After we were welcomed by the smiling owner cum householder of Tanzin guest house (who is seen making tea for us in the first photo), we got a guided tour of their home – I followed A who was most curios (I had seen Ladakhi toilets in Ladakh earlier). My interest was more in the prayer room – despite living so close to a gompa, and with practically every village and turnabout having a mani-stone or two and a prayer flag fluttering, homes also maintain their own prayer rooms with statues of various buddhist gods. Dhamma pervades every aspect of live in Spiti.

The family’s kitchen, where we sat was warmer than outside and also provided us the much needed relief from the blustery winds. The all important shelf is itself kept quite neatly – with utensils arranged in order – irrespective of how inexpensive they might be individually.

We sat near the stove in the center that had a large kettle of water on it and discussed about how important religion is to the people of Spiti. The driver told us that the whole spiti valley has people who are so religious, that by tradition, they used to willingly give away the first born to be a lama. It brings with it the fringe benefit of a steep rise in social status and the family is usually given some land by the village seniors. Of late, this trend is declining, due to rise in economic opportunities and the associated thrust on education, career and the rat race.

I noticed a pretty carpet with a Tibetan design and was told that this one was sourced from Dharamshala – but cheaper pieces could be procured from Nepal as well.

As we waited for the lunch to be served, I realized my phone was missing and looked to my left to find the youngest of the family all set to destroy it by smashing it on the table. She was momentarily distracted by my camera and her father managed to deprive her of her newest target of destruction (phew!)

Lunch was unique – the climate here is so harsh that for months on end there’s no supply of fresh vegetables – hence spitians have learnt to dry and store many kinds of foods – this green bit that you see is a locally grown seasonal and substitutes for spinach. It’s cooked in gravy as well as sometimes mixed in rice. The red powder is a chilly based dry ‘’chutney’’. The food was unlike anything I’ve eaten before and was delicious.

For a few minutes, I envied the view they had (first below) and then quickly snapped out of it thinking of how impossible this place is to live in for us city bred sybarites.

Once done with lunch, we considered going to the new gompa where the lord of dhankar (a life sized statue of a bodhisattva) resides. It is said that before building any new house in Dhankar, one must seek permission from the Lord of Dhankar. Also for some reason, those possessed by demons or mentally unstable due to any reason are brought here to be cured of their ills. Spiti is so full of stories – they fill in nicely for any isolation you might feel in this barren landscape. I got a parting shot of the isolated watchtower of the Dhankar gompa.

With all of us feeling the effect of the altitude, we decided to get back to Tabo quickly. So we got back into the car and sped away – as fast as the driver would go, that is.

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