Dhankar Monastery, Spiti Valley, India, July 2010

Dhankar Monastery, Spiti Valley

Dhankar Monastery (or Gompa) was built as a fort monastery (Dhan=cliif, Kar=Fort) built on the the Tibetan pattern.  Nestled on a 300 metre rock spur, high above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers.  The gompa stands at 3894 metres above sea level.

I stayed here for a while, in the nearby new monastery, home of more than 150 monks.  The old monastery only has a few hardy monks living within.  Most of the monasteries buildings are derelict, including rooms full of old frescoes, images of Buddha in his many incarnations and Lamas.  The main monastery building has an incredible energy, ancient, with its crocked stairways and small musty rooms.  Very little renovation has taken place, giving it ancient mystique and a reverential air.

From my bedroom window I could see Dhankar hanging on its precarious rock tower, above the silver veins of the rivers and the mighty granite Himalayan peaks that surround.  All along the valley I witnessed similar rock towers collapsed, piles of red rock beside the only road.  This is due to an increase in rain fall in this, the highest desert on earth.  Global warming seemingly to blame.  The views around Dhankar are truly magical and imprinted on my minds eye forever, this is the most beautifully situated building I have ever seen.

Its history dates back to the 12 century (maybe longer) and was the capital of Spiti for many years.  In the 17th century the rulers of Spiti, The Nonos, used Dhankar as their capital.  Its main feature is a statue named ‘Vairochana’, it also holds many important ancient scriptures and tankas.  The Dalai Lama has visited many times and it is possible to see the small bed that he, and every Dalai Lama has slept on in the main ceremonial room, below a large golden prayer wheel.

Making prayer flags in the monastery

I spent time with the monks, who were very open and hospitable, inviting me to meditation and prayer sessions.  One memorable session ended with Mary and I being offered gifts of decorated sweetened barley stupas, biscuits, crisps and chocolates.  The giant golden buddhas were offered the same, but they also received bottles of coke.  We were always well looked after, lots of sweet chai or salted butter tea on offer.  After hours chanting, the monks needed some liquid refreshment.  I loved how they all had their own decorated mugs.  It seemed to keep most of them awake, there where many bobbing bald heads in the morning sessions and much yawning.

A gang of young monks in the old monastery invited me to watch an England world cup match, but after trekking over there and bashing on the old red door (nearly taking it off its hinges) there was no answer.  The old monastery is fitted with its own Tata satellite dish!  These young dudes seemed interested in all things modern, which could be down to the Shakira videos they were watching most days.  It must be hard to be a teenage monk up here.

Most of the monks were locals, living in the village Shichilling directly below, but many of the younger monks came from other villages in Spiti Valley.  Dhankar is very prestigious monastery, one of the most important in the whole region, along with Tabo and Key monasteries.

Dhankar Monastery with sun low

I stayed in the hostel attached to the new monastery and many travellers and seekers make the steep ascent, I regularly had company.  Always and interesting crowd.  I became friendly with the owners of the hostel and one of my favourite times there was helping to deal with over 40 English public school girls, who turned up unannounced with a huge amount of baggage carried by an army of donkeys and porters.  They had the look of  an epic expedition as they came over the brow of the valley.  They were a nice bunch, strange to bump into so many English people in this little isolated pocket of the world.  I helped to cook them omlettes and a curry, with vats of tea, as the cook was detained in a local police station.  The hostel only has around 10 rooms, so their were young, shrieking English girls littered all over the place.  Still, they left seeming happy enough, in a brisk, detached British fashion.  We were glad to see them disappear in a huge cloud of orange dust and goretex, getting back to the business of doing nothing.

With Manik and S********(could never remember his name!), Team Hostel

I have many happy memories of clamouring down the steep, loose rocked, village paths to one family home or another, looking for barley wine for an evening tipple.  This happened normally with only moonlight to guide me and without a common language.  The villagers seemed to know what I wanted, especially after a few attempts and I invariably ended up sitting in an old crones kitchen, above the cattle, with immaculately arranged shelves of silver pots and pans.  The old dear would scoop empty plastic water bottles of the potent spirit, out of a pale and then we’d sit and laugh; pull drunked faces, sip the brew, pick hay from our teeth.  The wine seemed to evaporate before it reached the gullet and after 15 minutes you were actually completely smashed.  This stuff had turned many a monk blind.  Being well oiled, the walk home was always a little easier, the crevasses seemed not so deep, the shepherds dogs just feisty puppies.

Dhankar kids, Upper Dhankar Village

I liked the guys from the hostel and the monks and villagers, so I used it as a base for exploring this part of Spiti Valley.  I was overwhelmed by the beauty and isolation of this area.  The diversity of landscape and colour leave you speechless and humbled.  It was difficult to imagine such a place in winter time, when temperatures plummet to around minus 30oC and the entire valley is cut off.  The locals told me they just sit at home with the family or visit friends, drink barley wine, laugh and sing old songs.  This seemed to me like a good way to spend a large part of the year.  Reaffirming bonds with the ones they love past and present, it would go some way to explain the strong sense of culture the people of Spiti have maintained despite being colonised throughout history.

Dhankar Village

Buddha with cosmic enlightenment surround

The people of Spiti Valley are peaceful, and there aren’t many of them, around 10,000 in modern times.  Throughout history they have been invaded and re-invaded by the Tibetans, Hindus, Sikhs, British etc.  I was glad to hear that the Brits did some good up here, documenting the history of the area for the first time, building roads and bringing a form of democracy.

Dhankar is part of the Gelupa (the yellow hats) branch of Tibetan Buddhism, the same as the Dalai Lama, the reality is that many Indian (or Spiti) elements are woven into the belief system.  Its more Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.

Padmasmbhava, the Tibetan tantric mystic, responsible for bringing Buddhism to this part of India, passed through here in the 8th century.  Converting and incorporating local belief systems.  One such cult still exists, the ‘Bons’.  The holy men wear colourful garments and have dreaded, long hair.  Their religious ceremonies resemble a circus performance.  They chop large rocks off each others chest, using swords.  The men also hover in mid air, their full body weight balanced on the tip of an upturned sword.  I regret that I could not see this with my own eyes, the Bon monastery is quite remote.

Dhankar is sinking and nobody can tell how long it will cling to the rocks.  The World Monument Fund have listed Dhankar as one of the worlds 100 most endangered sites.  Have a look here for a website that is helping http://www.wmf.org/field.  I just feel blessed to have spent some time there and got to know such wonderful characters.

I left one morning for the sharp path, descending hundreds of feet, fully loaded with back packs and a heavy heart.  It took me a while to scramble down to the main road below, where I’d hitch back to Kaza and modernity.  I remember thinking that in all this travelling; all these places, there is little true beauty to be found. And even when you find it, one day you awaken and leave.  You move on, seeking the magic hidden around each new bend.

Dhankar from a hilltop overlooking Spiti Valley

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    lijiun said,

    It’s beautiful! Thanks for your sharing! Cheers!


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