There are a number of ancient monastic establishments, some of which having evolved around remote mountain caves, which are by legend associated with famous Buddhist saints. These are in fact the main places of attraction for the visitors in the area, in addition to the haunting beauty of the spectacular landscape.
Once the capital of the ancient kingdom, Padum (3505 m.) is headquarter of Zanskar Sub-Division. The oldest part of the town comprising inter-connected adobe houses and several high-rise chortens, surround a boulder-strewn hillock, site of the erstwhile palace and fort. The new township is fast encroaching upon the cultivated area, and a small market is coming up along the newly built road. Padum is famous as a major trekking base and a popular tourist destination. Several places of interest can be visited in the course of entertaining walks. The nearest site is a set of ancient rock carvings on a huge boulder near the bank of river, dating from the 8th century which provides epigraphic evidence about the region having been under the influence of Indian Buddhism since ancient times. The Stagrimo monastery with about 30 resident lamas clings to a tree-covered ridge above the old town, at an hour's uphill walk. Across the expanse of cultivation lies Pibiting , dominated by its picturesque hilltop monastery built in the shape of a Stupa.
Sani monastery is built on level ground amidst the village houses. By legend, it's associated with Kanishka (Kushan ruler of 2nd century AD), on account of the Kanika Stupa, which stands in the backyard of the walled complex. The main building comprises a huge multi-columned central prayer hall housing an array of statues of popular Buddhist divinities and Kargud-pa high lamas. A small chapel, at the back of the main building has its walls adorned with stucco murals depicting landscapes and floral designs based on the life of Padmasambhava.
Sani is also associated with the famous Indian Yogi Naropa, who is believed to have sat in meditation for some time under the Kanika Stupa. This site is now occupied by a small room housing a veiled bronze figure of the Yogi, which is unveiled once a year in late July on the eve of the Naro-Nasjal festival during which Lamas from Bardan Monastery perform masked dances as ritual offering.
KarshaGompa is the largest monastery of Zanskar. The imposing complex of neatly white washed building blocks comprising several chapels and the residential cells for its nearly 150 lamas dominates the valley. The central building is a large assembly hall housing an array of figures and the ornate throne of the Head Lama-incarnate. Three other adjoining chapels contain numerous statues and art objects, among which a set of exquisite silver and copper chortens are worth noting for their beauty. Other places of interest in the Karsha area include an old nunnery called DorjeDzong, occupying a hilltop to the west of the main monastery. The ruins around this nunnery are believed to be the original monastic foundation of Karsha. An old stupa surviving among the ruins is still adorned with the original murals, which reflect Indian artistic influence. Nearby is the ancient temple of ' Chukshik-jal ', which houses an exquisite figure of Avalokitesvara as the main image. Its smoke covered frescos are fine example of Himalayan art.
Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the oasis-like village below, the monastery of Stongdey is located at 18 kms to the north of Padum, on the Padum-Zangla road. An old foundation associated with the Tibetan Yogi Marpa , Stongdey is now the second largest monastic establishment of Zanskar. The white washed complex has a number of temples, among which the Gon-Khang containing the statues of several veiled deities is of particular interest. The climb up to the monastery from the roadside is strenuous, but it is worth the trouble for the breathtaking scenery of the valley available from here.
Located 2 kms south of Padum, Bardan is an isolated monastery with about 40 Dugpa- Kargyud lamas in residence. Founded during the 17th century as the first ever centre of the Dugpa-Kargyud monastic order in Zanskar, Bardan controls several smaller Gompas, including the famous Sani monastery. The large assembly hall, around which all other structures are organized, contains beautiful statues of Buddhist divinities and small stupas in clay, bronze, wood and copper.
A spectacularly located monastery, Phugthal complex spills out of the mouth of a huge cave, high up in the vertical mountainside of the lateral Shadi gorge. The most isolated monastic establishment of Zanskar, its foundation dates back to the early 12th century. At least one old chapel of the complex has frescos and ceiling decorations reflecting strong Indian artistic and iconographic influence, which are similar to those found in the Tabo and Alchi monasteries.
The other cave monastery of Zanskar, Zongkhul is built like a swallow's nest on the rock face in the Ating gorge. It is associated with the famous Indian Yogi, Naropa, who is believed to have used for meditation the two caves around which the monastery is developed. A footprint on a stone near the ingress of the lower cave is highly revered as that of the yogi. The frescoes on the cave walls are very old and reflect a high degree of artistic achievement. These are believed to be the original murals executed by Lama ZhadpaDorje, about 300 years ago.
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