The Zanskar Valley

Zanskar is a subdistrict or tehsil of the Kargil district, which lies in the eastern half of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The administrative centre is Padum. Zanskar, together with the neighbouring region of Ladakh, was briefly a part of the kingdom of Guge in Western Tibet.

The Zanskar Range is a mountain range in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that separates Zanskar from Ladakh. Geologically, the Zanskar Range is part of the Tethys Himalaya, an approximately 100-km-wide synclinorium formed by strongly folded and imbricated, weakly metamorphosed sedimentary series. The average height of the Zanskar Range is about 6,000 m (19,700 ft). Its eastern part is known as Rupshu.

It also separates Kinnaur District from Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. The highest peaks of Himachal are in the Zanskar Range.

Zanskar covers an area of some 7,000 square kilometres (2,700 sq mi), at an elevation of 3,500-7,000 metres (11,500–23,000 feet). It consists of the country lying along the two main branches of the Zanskar River. The first, the Doda, has its source near the Pensi-la (4,400 m) (14,450 ft) mountain-pass, and then flows south-eastwards along the main valley leading towards Padum, the capital of Zanskar.

The second branch is formed by two main tributaries known as Kargyag river, with its source near the Shingo La (5,091 m) (16,703 ft), and Tsarap river, with its source near the Baralacha-La. These two rivers unite below the village of Purne to form the Lungnak river (also known as the Lingti or Tsarap). The Lungnak river then flows north-westwards along a narrow gorge towards Zanskar’s central valley (known locally as gzhung khor), where it unites with the Doda river to form the Zanskar river.

For locals and trekkers alike, the Shingo La is technically one of the easiest 5000m passes in Indian Himalaya, involving no glacier trekking nor steep climbs.

“The Shingo La, the main route into Zanskar from Lahaul, is an unpleasant pass. It isn’t particularly high, at just 17,000 feet, but it is squalid and sordid and lacks grandeur.”
The Zanskar river then takes a north-eastern course until it joins the Indus in Ladakh. High mountain ridges lie on both sides of the Doda and Lingti–kargyag valleys, which run north-west to south-east. To the south-west is the Great Himalayan Range which separates Zanskar from the Kisthwar and Chamba basins. To the north-east lies the Zanskar Range, which separates Zanskar from Ladakh. The only outlet for the whole Zanskar hydrographic system is thus the Zanskar river, which cuts the deep and narrow Zanskar Gorge through the Zanskar range.

These topographical features explain why access to Zanskar is difficult from all sides. Communication with the neighbouring Himalayan areas is maintained across mountain passes or along the Zanskar river when frozen. The easiest approach leads from Kargil through the Suru valley and over the Pensi La. It is along this track that in 1979 the only road in Zanskar was built to connect Padum with the main road from Srinagar into Ladakh. One of the first Tibetologists to spend an extended period in the region was Alexander Csoma de Koros, who spent over a year living in the region in 1823. After being integrated into the newly formed state of India in 1947, Zanskar and the neighboring region of Ladakh were both declared restricted areas and only opened to foreigners in 1974. The first colour film of life in Zanskar was shot in 1958 by an expedition of three British housewives.

Flora and fauna
Much of Zanskar’s vegetation is found in the irrigated villages, and on the upper slopes which receive more precipitation and where it consists of alpine and tundra species. Most impressive are the meadows covered with thousands of edelweiss. At the foot of the Gumburanjon mountain blue poppies can be found. Crops including barley, lentils, and potatoes are grown by farmers at the lower elevations. Domesticated animals such as the yak, dzo, sheep, horse, and dog are found in the region.

Among the wildlife that can be found in Zanskar are the marmot, bear, wolf, snow leopard, kiang, bharal, alpine ibex, wild sheep and goats, and the lammergeier.

Zanskar is a high altitude semi-desert lying on the Northern flank of the Great Himalayan Range. This mountain range acts as a climatic barrier protecting Ladakh and Zanskar from most of the monsoon, resulting in a pleasantly warm and dry climate in the summer. Rain and snowfall during this period are scarce, although recent decades have shown a trend towards increasing precipitation. Several water-driven mills were built during ancient periods of drought at a great distance from the villages, but have been abandoned because running water is now available nearer to the settlements. Zanskari houses, though otherwise well built, are not adapted to the recently increasing rainfall, as their roofs leak, catching their surprised inhabitants unprepared. Most of the precipitation occurs as snowfall during the harsh and extremely long winter period. These winter snowfalls are of vital importance, since they feed the glaciers which melt in the summer and provide most of the irrigation water. Parts of Zanskar valley are considered some of the coldest continually inhabited places in the world.

Zanskar’s population is small, the April 2006 medical census records a population of 13,849 people. The medical census is the most accurate indicator of population as it collects birth, death, and census information from Zangskar’s 22 medical aid centers. Roughly 95% of the inhabitants practice Tibetan Buddhism, while the remainder are Sunni Muslims, whose ancestors settled in Padum and its environs in the 19th century. The majority of Zanskaris are of mixed Tibetan and Indo-European origins; notably Changpa, Dard and Mon. The latter are in fact ethnically Dard, but “Mon” is used in order to distinguish them from later Dard settlers.

The population lives mainly in scattered small villages, the largest being the capital Padum, with nearly 700 inhabitants. Most of the villages are located in the valleys of the Zanskar river and its two main tributaries. Given the isolation of this region, the inhabitants tend towards self-sufficiency, and until recently lived in almost complete autarky. External trade has, however, always been necessary for the acquisition of goods such as tools, jewellery, or religious artefacts.

The Zanskaris’ main occupations are cattle-rearing and farming of land that they almost always own. Cultivable land is scarce, and restricted to alluvial fans and terraces, cultivated fields being rarely found above an altitude of 4,000 metres. The Zanskaris have developed a system of intensive arable agriculture and complex irrigation to produce enough food in these conditions. The scarcity of cultivable land has also resulted in a tendency towards a stable, zero-growth population. An efficient birth-control system in Zanskar has historically been achieved by the common practice of polyandrous marriage, in which several brothers are married to the same wife, and the widespread adoption of a celibate religious life. A high infant mortality rate also contributes to population stability.

In the summer, the women and children stay far away from the villages to tend to the livestock. This system, known as transhumance, is similar to the one found in the Alps where the animals are sent during the summer higher up in the mountains (the alpages) and were kept by the children and women.

Aside from some 300 Sunni Muslims living in Padum (out of a population of about 700), almost the whole population of Zanskar is Buddhist. However, most of the senior government posts are filled by Muslims of Tehsil centre Padum. Almost every village has a local monastery, often containing ancient wall-paintings and images. There are two main branches of Tibetan Buddhism here — the Drugpa, including Sani Monastery, Dzongkhul, Stagrimo and Bardan Monastery – all loosely affiliated with Stakna in the Indus valley. The Gelugpa control Rangdum Monastery, Karsha, Stongde and Phugtal Monastery, which all pay allegiance to the Ngari Rinpoche, who has his main seat at Likir Monastery in Ladakh. The present emanation of the Ngari Rinpoche is the younger brother of the Dalai Lama.

Livestock, and especially the yak, is of paramount importance in Zanskar. Yaks are used to plough the land, to thresh the grain, to carry heavy loads (up to 200 kilograms), and their dung not only serves as fertiliser but is also the only heating fuel available in the region. They are a vital source of milk and sometimes, but rarely, of meat. The yak’s fur is used to make clothes, carpets, ropes, and bed covers.

The first traces of human activity in Zanskar seem to go back as far as the Bronze Age. Petroglyphs attributed to that period suggest that their creators were hunters on the steppes of central Asia, living between Kazakhstan and China. It is suspected that an Indo-European population known as the Mon might then have lived in this region, before mixing with or being replaced by the next settlers, the Dards. Early Buddhism coming from Kashmir spread its influence in Zanskar, possibly as early as 200 BC. The earliest monuments date from the Kushan period. After this eastward propagation of Buddhism, Zanskar and large parts of the Western Himalaya were overrun in the 7th century by the Tibetans, who imposed their then animistic Bön religion.

Buddhism regained its influence over Zanskar in the 8th century when Tibet was also converted to this religion. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, two Royal Houses were founded in Zanskar, and the monasteries of Karsha and Phugtal (see picture) were built. Until the 15th century Zanskar existed as a more or less independent Buddhist Kingdom ruled by between two and four related royal families. Since the 15th century, Zanskar has been subordinate to Ladakh, sharing its fortunes and misfortunes. In 1822 a coalition of Kulu, Lahoul, and Kinnaur invaded Zanskar, plundering the country and destroying the Royal palace at Padum.

In the mid-20th century, border conflicts between India, Pakistan and China caused Ladakh and Zanskar to be closed to foreigners. During these wars Ladakh lost two thirds of its original territory, losing Baltistan to Pakistan and the Aksai Chin to China. Ladakh and Zanskar, despite a tumultuous history of internal wars and external aggressions, have never lost their cultural and religious heritage since the 8th century. Thanks to its adherence to the Indian Union, this is also one of the rare regions in the Himalaya where traditional Tibetan culture, society, and buildings survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In the last twenty years, the opening of a road and the massive influx of tourists and researchers have brought many changes to the traditional social organisation of Zanskar. In 2007 the valley suffered its third year of a desert locust infestation with many villages losing their crops. The response of the monasteries was to carry out Puja ( prayer ) to get rid of them while the government was advocating the use of insecticides which the Buddhists were reluctant to use, but in some cases were forced to try with as yet undocumented success. In 2008 it was reported that the Locusts had left the central Zanskar plains.

Tourism is probably the major disruption that Zanskar has experienced during recent times. The opening of this region to foreigners has brought benefits such as the financing of schools and the restoration of monasteries and roads, but has also taken its toll on this fragile mountain environment and its population.

People living in Zanskar speak Zanskar Skad, and can speak a little bit of mixed Hindi and Urdu[citation needed], but can’t read the same. Monks who have studied outside of Zanskar may know Standard Tibetan. Educated people of Zanskar know English as it is a compulsory subject in Indian schools. Zanskari zanskar pe skad is a dialect of Ladakhi and has four sub dialects known as Stod skad, Zhung skad, Sham skad and Lungna skad. It is written using the Tibetan Script.

Alchi Monastery

Alchi Monastery or Alchi Gompa is a Buddhist monastery, known more as a monastic complex (chos-‘khor) of temples inAlchi village in the Leh District, of the Indian state under the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council of Jammu and Kashmir. The complex comprises four separate settlements in the Alchi village in the lower Ladakh region with monuments dated to different periods. Of these four hamlets, Alchi monastery is said to be the oldest and most famous. It is administered by the Likir Monastery.

Alchi is also part of the three villages (all in lower Ladakh region) which constitute the ‘Alchi group of monuments’; the other two villages adjoining Alchi are the Mangyu and Sumda Chun. The monuments in these three villages are stated to be of “unique style and workmanship’, but the Alchi monastic complex is the best known.

The monastery complex was built, according to local tradition, by the great translator Guru Rinchen Zangpo between 958 and 1055. However, inscriptions in the preserved monuments ascribe it to a Tibetan noble called Kal-dan Shes-rab later in the 11th century. Dukhang or Assembly Hall and the Main Temple (gTsug-lag-khang), which is a three-storied temple called the Sumtseg (gSum-brtsegs), are built in Kashmiri style as seen in many monasteries; the third temple is called the Manjushri Temple (‘Jam-dpal lHa-khang). Chortens are also an important part of the complex.

The artistic and spiritual details of both Buddhism and the Hindu kings of that time in Kashmir are reflected in the wall paintings in the monastery. These are some of the oldest surviving paintings in Ladakh. The complex also has huge statues of the Buddha and elaborate wood carvings and art-work comparable to the baroque style. Shakti Maira has vividly explained the beauty of this small monastery.


The history of the monuments in the Alchi complex and in the other two villages in the Alchi group is not precise, in spite of many inscriptions and texts displayed on the walls.

Alchi MonasteryTraditionally, the creation of the Alchi complex is attributed to the famous scholar-translator Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055) in the 10th century, along with the Lamayuru Monastery, the Wanla, the Mang-gyu and the Sumda. During the tenth century, the Tibetan King Yeshe Od of Guge, in order to spread Buddhism in the Trans Himalayan region, took the initiative by allocating 21 scholars to the region. However, due to harsh climatic and topographic conditions, only two survived, one of them the esteemed scholar and translator Rinchen Zangpo who established Buddhist activity in the Ladakh region and other areas of India including Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim. During his sojourn there, he also went to the neighbouring countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Zangpo became known by the epithet “Lohtsawa” or the “Great Translator”; he is credited with building 108 monasteries in the trans-Himalayan region in his quest to disseminate Buddhism. He institutionalized Buddhism in the region; these monasteries are considered the mainstay of Vajrayana of Tibetan Buddhism (also known asLamaism). Zangpo engaged Kashmiri artists to create wall paintings and sculptures in the legendary 108 monasteries; only a few of these have survived, with the Alchi Monastery complex in Ladakh having pride of place among all monasteries that he built.A

Since the monasteries of this period did not belong to any of the established Tibetan schools, they were initially brought under the control of the Kadampa order. When the condition of the monasteries deteriorated, they were mostly taken over by the Gelukpa order, with the exception of Lamayuru which was placed under the Drigunkpa sect. After worship at Alchi monastery ceased for some reason in the fifteenth century, it also became under the Gelugpa sect controlled from Likir.

Geography and visitor information

Alchi is located on the south bank of the Indus River at an altitude of 3,100 metres (10,200 ft) and 65 kilometres (40 mi) outside of Leh (to its west). Leh is connected by air from Delhi. The road approach to Leh starts at Manali, a route that is accessible from May or June to October, depending on the snow fall conditions in the valley.[3][10] The village is in the high altitude rain shadow area of Ladakh. It is laid out in four settlements on the banks of a tributary of the Indus River. The monastic complex is separate from the other village settlements.[1][6]


An image of Tara in Manjushri

The monastery complex has three major shrines: the Dukhang (Assembly hall), the Sumtseg and the Temple of Manjushri, all dating from between the early 12th and early 13th centuries. Chortens are also an important part of the complex. In addition, the Alchi complex has two other important temples, the Translator’s temple called the ‘Lotsabha Lakhang’ and a new temple called the ‘Lakhang Soma’.[1] This collection of four small shrines in the Alchi village has been described by The Hindu:

… as a jewel of colours and forms that is so utterly beautiful that the normal state of breathlessness in this high altitude becomes a deep gasp.

The artistic and spiritual details of both Buddhism and the Hindu kings of that time in Kashmir are reflected in the wall paintings in the monastery complex. These are some of the oldest surviving paintings in Ladakh. The complex also has huge statues of the Buddha and “lavish wood carvings and art-work — almost baroque in style.”Shakti Maira vividly explains the beauty of this small monastery as “stylistically rendered in an eclectic mix of Tibetan and Kashmiri faces and clothes.”


Entrance Door portal of Manjushri temple

Dukhang or the Assembly Hall is at the heart of the monastery complex, where monks perform worship and ceremonies. It is large and ancient, and the original wooden door frame is retained. Many additions were made to the ancient structure during the 12th and 13th centuries. The colonnaded veranda leads to the hall from a front courtyard and frescoes of one thousand Buddhas are depicted in the passageway. The Wheel of Life and Mahakal can be seen at the outer gate. The walls of the Dukhang, dedicated toPanch Tathāgatas, are painted with six different mandalas that surround the Vairochana, the main deity worshipped in the hall. The mandalas are set among by many paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, goddesses, fierce divinities and guardians of dharma, and also lesser divinities.


The Alchi Sumtseg in the Alchi complex is one of the most outstanding, but its purpose is not clearly established. The Sumtseg (gSum-brtsegs) means a three storied building, though small, was built with loam and natural stone (reflected in the bland exterior) in the Tibetan building tradition. However, the luxuriant woodwork columns, facades, walls, clay images and paintings in the interior of the monastery were made by Kashmiri artists.The sanctum in the ground floor and the first floor measures 5.4 metres (18 ft)x5.8 metres (19 ft) with the niches of 2.1–2.7 metres (6.9–8.9 ft) width and 4 metres (13 ft) height (niches in the main wall are larger in size vis-a-vis the side walls). The niches depict the main images of three Bodhisattvas (all in standing posture and about 4 metres (13 ft) in height) and its associate secondary deities (four in each niche) with two flying goddesses in each niche. Except for the main wooden door on the top floor, which is dilapidated, the rest of the Sumtseg is well preserved in its original form, as built in the early 13th century. The second floor of the building is more in the form of a balcony with a lantern mounting. Image of Maitreya, the largest in size (4.63 metres (15.2 ft)), is deified on the back wall and flanked by the images of Avalokiteshwara to its right and Manjushri to its left. An interesting aspect of the elegant drapery (dhotis) worn by the deities is the display of different themes printed in different textile patterns; Maitreya’s dhoti depicts the life of Buddha, the Avlokiteshwara’s dhoti shows holy places and royal palaces and Manjushri’s dhoti has adepts (of 84 Mahasiddhas) printed on it. Iconographically, the deities have a single head with four arms but differently portrayed. Each deity is identified to a different Buddha. Maitreya has a five Buddha crown representing Vairochana. Avalokiteshwara’s crown represents Amitabha and Manjushri’s crown represents Akshobhya. An inscription in the main niche states that the three images are reliquaries representing body, speech and mind-compared to the three bodies of the Buddha-namely, Maitreya denoting the Buddha body of reality, Avolokiteshwara representing pure rapture and Manjushri representing emanational body. In simple terms, they represent the Buddhist concepts of Compassion, Hope and Wisdom.

Further, depiction of Buddha’s life in textile prints on the dhoti is a unique representation of the cycle of the life of Buddha that is arranged in a reverse sequence. It is in medallion form painted red, with each medallion measuring 15 centimetres (5.9 in) over a blue background. 48 scenes representing 41 episodes with five preaching scenes and two scenes of punarnirvana – all are arranged in pre-determined sequence representing the events in Buddha’s life between the last journey in Tushita heaven and the first sermon in Sarnath.

Dating of the Sumtseg has been made on the basis of the names of the priests inscribed on the top floor of the structure. The last name inscribed is that of the Drigungpa school of Drigungpa or Jigten Gonpo (1143–1217) from which it is inferred that Sumsteg was established in the early 13th century.

Alchi Monastery

Manjushri Temple

From various analysis of the iconography of the temple compared with that of the Sumtseg and Sumda Assembly hall, it has been inferred that the temple dates to around 1225 AD. Manjushri Temple, also called ‘Jampe Lhakhang’, is built around the four central images of Manjushri (seated back to back) seen on a common platform that is 5.7 metres (19 ft) square. Four pillars form the enclosure for the images; the pillars are supported with cross bracing connected to the painted wood ceiling. The paintings on the wooden ceiling are similar to those in the Sumtseg and the two chortens, but are unrefined. Located close to the Indus river, the temple is not well preserved except for wood carvings on the doors and pillars. The Lotsaba temple to its left side is a later addition. The Manjushri images are on a common pedestal (85 centimetres (33 in) high), painted recently to give an overall picture of fright since the decorative scrolls are derived from the tails of Makara surrounded by images of animals, gods and symbols. The normal colour attributed to Manjushri images is orange, but in this temple they are depicted with different colours.[15]

Each of the four images is single-headed with four arms that are adorned with a sword, a book on top of a lotus, a bow and an arrow. Each wall in the shrine is dedicated to a Buddha image. Manjushri is depicted on the main wall, seated on a lion throne; the side walls have images of Amitabha on the right and Aksharabhya on the left. The images are set around the central image of Manjushri in a niche in the wall. Manjushri is adorned with jewellery (pearls and other moulded forms) and a crown made of a flower band. In the base of the throne on which the Manjushri image is deified, is a depiction of ‘Seven Jewels’ and ‘Eight Suspicious Symbols’ (flanked by lions) enclosed in a square frame that is distinctive. The top of the throne frame has makara mountings.


Photo is of painted ceiling of chorten in the complex, paintings supposed to be of 12th/13th century AD.

The earliest recorded Chortens are the Great Chorten and the Small Chorten (stupa) to the early 13th century, following the building of the Sumtseg. These chortens are decorated gateways known locally as ‘Kakani Chörten’ and ‘Ka-ka-ni mchod-rten’ that are considered unique to Alchi with historical link to other monuments. More chortens were added between the 13th and 14th centuries. In the Alchi complex, there are also three other chortens, which have ancient paintings.