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.

History of Ladakh

Rock carvings found in many parts of Ladakh indicate that the area has been inhabited from Neolithic times.[12] Ladakh’s earliest inhabitants consisted of a mixed Indo-Aryan population of Mons and Dards,[14] who find mention in the works of Herodotus,[b]Nearchus, Megasthenes, Pliny,Ptolemy, and the geographical lists of the Puranas.[15] Around the 1st century, Ladakh was a part of the Kushana empire. Buddhism spread into western Ladakh from Kashmir in the 2nd century when much of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet was still practising the Bon religion. The 7th century Buddhist traveler Xuanzang describes the region in his accounts.[e]

In the 8th century, Ladakh was involved in the clash between Tibetan expansion pressing from the East and Chinese influence exerted from Central Asia through the passes. Suzerainty over Ladakh frequently changed hands between China and Tibet. In 842 Nyima-Gon, a Tibetan royal representative annexed Ladakh for himself after the break-up of the Tibetan empire, and founded a separate Ladakhi dynasty. During this period Ladakh acquired a predominantly Tibetan population. The dynasty spearheaded the second spreading of Buddhism, importing religious ideas from north-west India, particularly from Kashmir. The first spreading of Buddhism was the one in Tibet proper.

According to Rolf Alfred Stein, author of Tibetan Civilization, the area of Zhangzhung was not historically a part of Tibet and was a distinctly foreign territory to the Tibetans. According to Rolf Alfred Stein,[16]

“… Then further west, The Tibetans encountered a distinctly foreign nation — Shangshung, with its capital at Khyunglung. Mt. Kailāśa (Tise) and Lake Manasarovar formed part of this country, whose language has come down to us through early documents. Though still unidentified, it seems to be Indo-European. … Geographically the country was certainly open to India, both through Nepal and by way of Kashmir and Ladakh. Kailāśa is a holy place for the Indians, who make pilgrimages to it. No one knows how long they have done so, but the cult may well go back to the times when Shangshung was still independent of Tibet.
How far Zhangzhung stretched to the north, east and west is a mystery … We have already had an occasion to remark that Shangshung, embracing Kailāśa sacred Mount of the Hindus, may once have had a religion largely borrowed from Hinduism. The situation may even have lasted for quite a long time. In fact, about 950, the Hindu King of Kabulhad a statue of Vişņu, of the Kashmiri type (with three heads), which he claimed had been given him by the king of the Bhota (Tibetans) who, in turn had obtained it from Kailāśa.”

A chronicle of Ladakh compiled in the 17th century called the La dvags royal rabs, meaning the Royal Chronicle of the Kings of Ladakh recorded that this boundary was traditional and well-known. The first part of the Chronicle was written in the years 1610–1640 and the second half towards the end of the 17th century. The work has been translated into English by A. H. Francke and published in 1926 in Calcutta titled the Antiquities of Indian Tibet. In volume 2, the Ladakhi Chronicle describes the partition by King Skyid-lde-ngima-gon of his kingdom between his three sons, and then the chronicle described the extent of territory secured by that son. The following quotation is from page 94 of this book:

He gave to each of his sons a separate kingdom, viz., to the eldest Dpal-gyi-gon, Maryul of Mngah-ris, the inhabitants using black bows; ru-thogs of the east and the Gold-mine of Hgog; nearer this way Lde-mchog-dkar-po; at the frontier ra-ba-dmar-po; Wam-le, to the top of the pass of the Yi-mig rock …

From a perusal of the aforesaid work, It is evident that Rudokh was an integral part of Ladakh. Even after the family partition, Rudok continued to be part of Ladakh. Maryul meaning lowlands was a name given to a part of Ladakh. Even at that time, i.e. in the 10th century, Rudok was an integral part of Ladakh and Lde-mchog-dkar-po, i.e., Demchok was an integral part of Ladakh.

Faced with the Islamic conquest of South Asia in the 13th century, Ladakh chose to seek and accept guidance in religious matters from Tibet. For nearly two centuries till about 1600, Ladakh was subject to raids and invasions from neighbouring Muslim states, which led to the partial conversion of Ladakhis to Noorbakshi Islam.

King Bhagan reunited and strengthened Ladakh and founded the Namgyal dynasty[17] which survives to today. The Namgyals repelled most Central Asian raiders and temporarily extended the kingdom as far as Nepal,[12] in the face of concerted attempts to convert the region to Islam and destroy Buddhist artifacts.[10][12] In the early 17th century efforts were made to restore destroyed artifacts and gonpas and the kingdom expanded into Zangskar and Spiti. However, despite a defeat of Ladakh by the Mughals, who had already annexed Kashmir and Baltistan, it retained its independence.

It appears that the Balti conquest of Laddakh took place in about 1594 AD which was the era of Namgyal dynasty by Balti king Ali Sher Khan Anchan. Legends show that the Balti army obsessed with success advanced as far as Purang, in the valley of Mansarwar Lake, and won the admiration of their enemies and friends. The Raja of Laddakh sued for peace and, since Ali Sher Khan’s intention was not to annex Laddakh, he agreed subject to the condition that the village of Ganokh and Gagra Nullah should be ceded to Skardu and he (the Laddakhi Raja) should pay annual tribute. This tribute was paid through the Gonpa (monastery) of Lama Yuru till the Dogra conquest of Laddakh. Hashmatullah records that the Head Lama of the said Gonpa had admitted before him the payment of yearly tribute to Skardu Darbar till the Dogra conquest of Laddakh.[18]

In the late 17th century, Ladakh sided with Bhutan in its dispute with Tibet which, among other reasons, resulted in its invasion by the Tibetan Central Government. This event is known as the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war of 1679-1684.[19] Kashmir helped restore Ladakhi rule on the condition that a mosque be built in Leh and that the Ladakhi king convert to Islam.[20] The Treaty of Tingmosgang in 1684 settled the dispute between Tibet and Ladakh but severely restricted Ladakh’s independence. In 1834, theDogra Zorawar Singh, a general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh invaded and annexed Ladakh to the Sikh Empire. After the defeat of the Sikhs in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the province of Jammu and Kashmir was transferred to Gulab Singh, to be ruled under British suzerainty as a Princely-State. A Ladakhi rebellion in 1842 was crushed and Ladakh was incorporated into the Dogra state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Namgyal family was given the jagir of Stok, which it nominally retains to this day. European influence began in Ladakh in the 1850s and increased. Geologists, sportsmen and tourists began exploring Ladakh. In 1885, Leh became the headquarters of a mission of the Moravian Church.

At the time of the partition of India in 1947, the Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession to India. Pakistani raiders had reached Ladakh and military operations were initiated to evict them. The wartime conversion of the pony trail from Sonamarg to Zoji La by army engineers permitted tanks to move up and successfully capture the pass. The advance continued. Dras, Kargil and Leh were liberated and Ladakh cleared of the infiltrators.[21]

In 1949, China closed the border between Nubra and Xinjiang, blocking old trade routes. In 1955 China began to build roads connecting Xinjiang and Tibet through this area. It also built the Karakoram highway jointly with Pakistan. India built the Srinagar-Leh Highway during this period, cutting the journey time between Srinagar and Leh from 16 days to two. The route, however, remains closed during the winter months due to heavy snowfall. Construction of a 6.5 km tunnel across Zoji La pass is under consideration to make the route functional throughout the year.[12][22] The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir continues to be the subject of a territorial dispute between India, Pakistan and China.[citation needed] Kargil was an area of conflict in the wars of 1947, 1965 and 1971 and the focal point of a potential nuclear conflict during the Kargil War in 1999.

The Kargil War of 1999, codenamed “Operation Vijay” by the Indian Army, saw infiltration by Pakistani troops into parts of Western Ladakh, namely Kargil, Dras, Mushkoh, Batalik and Chorbatla, overlooking key locations on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Extensive operations were launched in high altitudes by the Indian Army with considerable artillery and air force support. Pakistani troops were evicted from the Indian side of the Line of Control which the Indian government ordered was to be respected and which was not crossed by Indian troops. The Indian government was criticized by the Indian public because India respected geographical co-ordinates more than India’s opponents: Pakistan and China.[23]

In 1984 the Siachen Glacier area in the northernmost corner of Ladakh became the venue of a continuing military standoff between India and Pakistan in the highest battleground in the world. The boundary here was not demarcated in the 1972 Simla Agreement beyond a point named NJ9842. In 1984 India occupied the entire Siachen Glacier and by 1987 the heights of the Saltoro Ridge which borders the glacier to the west, with Pakistan troops in the glacial valleys and on the ridges just west of the Saltoro Ridge crest.[24][25] This status has remained much the same since, and a ceasefire was established in 2003.

The Ladakh region was bifurcated into the Kargil and Leh districts in 1979. In 1989, there were violent riots between Buddhists and Muslims. Following demands for autonomy from the Kashmiri dominated state government, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was created in the 1990s. Leh and Kargil Districts now each have their own locally elected Hill Councils with some control over local policy and development funds. In 1991, a Peace Pagoda was erected in Leh by Nipponzan Myohoji.

There is a heavy presence of Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police forces in Ladakh. These forces and People’s Liberation Army forces from China have, since the 1962 Sino-Indian War, had frequent stand-offs along the Lakakh portion of the Line of Actual Control. The stand-off involving the most troops was in September 2014 in the disputed Chumar region when 800 to 1,000 Indian troops and 1,500 Chinese troops came into close proximity to each other.[26]