I was lazing around in a cafe in Ladakh which overlooked the beautiful Himalayas, as I overheard to foreigners talking about the Phuktal Monastery in Zanskar (a district in Jammu and Kashmir). I was instantly captivated by the way they were describing the place. An isolated ancient monastery which exuded a sense of tranquility was exactly what I needed.

As I read up more, I learnt that this monastery was actually built in the 12th century by Sherap Sampi. Yet, just like the soft spoken nature of the Buddhists, this monastery too was kept hidden for a long time. The majestic Phuktal monastery only came to light in the 19th century when a Hungarian historian named Alexander Cosmo de Koros discovered it.

The monastery is built inside the caves, and in those days the sages used to reside there.

The monastery is still active, and about 39 monks are in training to achieve the enlightenment. The senior lamas and monks teach these disciples all the lessons of Buddhism.

This is also the only monastery in India, that must be reached by foot. The supplies of sustenance needed by the monks are brought by donkeys or horses in the summer months, and in winter, the supplies are transported by the frozen Zanskar river.

There is also an educational institute established by the monastery itself. They imbibe the teachings of Buddha along with other regular subjects. From the cost of materials to food to living, everything is borne by the monastery itself. The students come from a nearby village and are usually very poor and uneducated.

The monastery also have a doctor who they call as an Amchi. All the villagers from the nearby town turns to this Amchi for their ailments. The Amchi is also the one who provides the traditional medicines that the patient needs.

The Journey

I couldn’t wait any longer. I just had to get up and visit this fascinating monastery to see it with my own eyes. The very next day, I got up early had a sumptuous breakfast and proceeded to make my way to Phuktal.

The only way to reach this elegant monastery is by walking. I chose to leave from the small town of Padum to start off a bit closer. The jeep from Padum left me at the little village of Ichar. Ichar itself is extremely charming and marred with greenery on all sides. There is a small stretch of land in Ichar that leads on to the next village. I asked a local driver to drop me off to the end of the road, so that I could start my trek from there.

The trek or walk to Phuktal Monastery, actually started for me from here. I lunged my backpack, drank a little water and marched on. Throughout my walk was enchanted by the pure pollution-free greenery that surrounded me. The surrounding was so quiet, broken only by the occasional chirping of the birds that greeted me through out the journey. The walk is actually breathtaking, as I reached the rocky terrain, I marvelled at the intimidating mountains beside me as I walked alone on a rarely treaded path. The feeling was surreal, and radiated pure bliss. The walk is about two and a half hours, and is extremely rough and intense, I was left craving for so much more.

At the end of this trek, I reached the lazy village of Anmu. It is the best place to rest and just take a break. You can also stay here for a night and continue on the next day. I chose to stay overnight at one of the five homestay options that were available.

The next village called Chaa, is about 3 hours away. I left early morning to reach both Chaa and then Phuktal on this day itself. It takes about six hours from Anmu to do both Chaa and then onto Phuktal. Chaa also has stay options.

The trek from Chaa to Phuktal is extremely scenic, and the walk is beautiful and pleasurable. It took me over seven hours to reach Phuktal, since I was caught up in stoping, gaping and taking pictures of the magnificent beauty that welcomed me during my trek.

The Monastery

As I reached the last stretch of my walk, I looked up to see if my final destination was visible at all. The monastery is actually in hidden in the caves, so I didn’t really expect to see it. However, I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to see the astonishing and emphatic Gompa just standing in all its glory. The monastery just lay ahead of me. My adrenaline was pumping.

I had to climb many more stairs to actually reach the monastery, but as I saw it I knew instantly that everything, every sweat and pain was worth reaching here.

I could see monks everywhere in their maroon robes, giving a warm smile to me. I was welcomed here, everybody was welcome here.

The monastery is full of lovely frescos and high ceilings. There is a mesmerising waterfall just over the monastery that makes for a picture perfect scene. The waterfall is said to have healing powers.

The monastery itself was vibrating with a divine presence. I tried to soak in this atmosphere as much as possible. There were young monks as well, some where as young as five years old. They never failed to smile at me.

I came to know that if one wants a culturally rich experience, then they can even ask a monk to host them. Through this, they will be able to participate and observe their rituals and their teachings. I am sure this would be an interesting and eye opening experience.

Source: picturesboss.com

Best Time to Visit

The only time to visit this monastery should be during the summer months. Winters are absolutely trecherous in this part of the town.

There are also few buddhist festivals that are celebrated by the monastery, and can be extremely fascinating to attend. Some festivals include- Monlam Chenmo, Chonga Chodpa, Gyalwe Jabstan, and Gadam Nagchod.

Important Tips

The area is located at 4200m above sea level. This kind of an altitude can lead to nausea and sickness. It might take time to get adjusted. You should bring the essential medicines.

You must carry about two to three litres of water. There are places to fill them up at every stop. You can also buy snacks along the way. A cap to keep the scorching sun away is mandatory

Saying Goodbye

Phuktal was everything I had hoped for and more. From eavesdropping into someones conversation to learn about this place, to actually seeing with my own eyes, my journey had come a long way. The trek itself is so captivating and calming, that divinity can be felt throughout the journey. It was beautiful and refreshing in ever which way possible. The monastery itself was an immersive experience and I would highly recommend it to everyone who read it

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