Buddhist Pilgrimage in Ladakh
Buddhism, particularly the Trans-Himalayan Buddhism from Tibet is the extremely essence of living in Ladakh . Partly simply because with the royal patronage, the central part of Ladakh has the greatest concentration of major Gompas or monasteries. Monasteries of Phiyang, Hemis and Chemrey belong towards the Namgyal dynasty period and are a major attraction during their monastic festivals. The reformist group monasteries are also well represented in central Ladakh by Thikse, Likkir, Rhidzong and Spituk. Buddhist study centers are setup at both Leh and Choglamsar. Summer meditation sessions are held in the Mahabodhi Meditation Center on Changspa Lane.
It is primarily along the course of this valley system that the region's 10,000 strong, primarily Buddhists population lives. Spread more than an estimated geographical area of 5000 sq. kms, Higher rise, mountains and deep gorges surround Zanskar. The area remains inaccessible for almost 8 months a year because of heavy snowfall resulting in closure of all the access passes, including the Penzi-la. To-day, Zanskar has the distinction of being the least interfered with microcosms of Ladakh, and one with the last few surviving cultural satellites of Tibet. Within the mountain ramparts of this lost Shangrila stand numerous ancient yet active monastic establishments. A few of these religious foundations have evolved around remote meditation caves believed to have been used by a succession of famous Buddhist saints for prolonged meditation in pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment.
Once the capital with the ancient kingdom of Zanskar, Padum (3505 m) is the present day administrative headquarters of the region. With a population of nearly 1500, Padum can be described as the most populous settlement of Zanskar. Incidentally, it is only in Padum that there is a community of Muslims constituting nearly half the township's population. Lately, Padum has become famous as a major trekking base and a popular tourist destination. Several places of tourist interest in the vicinity of the township can be visited in the course of entertaining walks. The nearest monument is a set of ancient rock carving on a huge boulder near the river bank, just below the old township. These dates back to the 8th century and provide epigraphic evidence that the region was under the influence of North Indian Buddhism since ancient times. The Starrimo Monastery with about 30 resident monks clings to a tree-covered ridge above the old town. Across the expanse of cultivation lies the old village of Pibiting, dominated by its picturesque hilltop monastery, a superb manifestation of stupa architecture.
The monastery of Stongdey lies 18 kms. To the north of Padum, on the road leading to Zangla. An old foundation associated with the Tibetan Yogi, Marpa, Stongdey is now the second largest monastic establishment of Zanskar, inhabited by the resident community of about 60 Gelukpa monks. The sprawling whitewashed complex has a number of temples, each a repository of the region's rich monastic legacy. Stongdey can be reached by foot in about 4 hours along the recently laid rough road. The climb up to the monastery is rather strenuous, but it is worth the trouble for the breathtaking scenery of the valley available from here.
Lying deep in the northern arm of Zanskar at the end of the 35 km long rough road from Padum, Zangla was being ruled by a titular king till his death a few years back. The old castle now in ruins except from a small chappel, occupies a hill, overlooking the desert valley below. Nearby is the old Nunnery worth a visit for the austere life style of the small monastic community of nuns. An old monastery situated in the nearby village of Tsa-zar has exquisite frescos that should be missed. The village lies mid-way between Stongdey and Zangla. Zangla is the nodal point on the popular Padum-Strongdey-Zangla-Karsha-Padum round trip, which covers most of the cultural sites of Zanskar. The old rope suspension bridge spanning the tumultuous Zanskar near Zangla- a rare feat of folk engineering - is no more in use, but still visible. The river is now crossed by a temporary footbridge for approaching the left bank along which the trail to Karsha follows. Zangla is also the take-off point for the Padum-Markha valley treks.