Amidst the serene and quaint atmosphere of Zanskar valley in Ladakh lies the Phugtal Monastery, which is believed to be one of the oldest monasteries in the world.
Well covered in the frostiness and charms of the Himalayan mountains, Leh Ladakh spans various folklores, stories, traditions, and hidden gems that have been quite away from the reach of travellers. And one such honey-hive structured construction of mud and wood is one of the world's largest and oldest monasteries, called Phugtal monastery — a place for monks seeking salvation.
The peaceful valleys and caves have always been home to monks who follow Buddhism and aim to spread them. Phugtal monastery is one such flag bearer for the monks at Zanskar Valley of Ladakh, where it is situated. It is believed that the Phugtal once was a cave in the mountains where monks or scholars seeking enlightenment would live. Another belief about Phugtal Gompa, or monastery, is that the dedicated followers of Lord Buddha, like the Arhats and Guru Padmasambhava, once lived in this cave over a thousand years ago at different times.
As far as its history goes, according to the reports, it was founded by Gangsem Sherap Sampo, a disciple of Gelug founder Tsongkhapa in the early 12th century. The monastery, which was constructed in the 12th century, however, remained anonymous until Alexander Csoma de Koros visited the place and stayed between 1826-27. Another unique part about the monastery is its name, which is derived from the word 'Phuktal,' where Phuk means 'cave' and Tal or 'Thal' signifies 'at leisure.'
The current-date monastery
Reaching Phugtal monastery was never easy, and it is not to date. However, the ways have become a bit easier only last year from Padum as a dirty path from Zanskar to Purne has been built. Perched on the cliff-side and near the River Lungnak, the monastery is only accessible by foot. While travellers can take cabs to Padum, they need to start walking from here as the road ends there. Various travellers have documented that one reaches the monastery in a day’s or two’s walk through two villages Chatang and Purne.
After all the effort, the gate to various activities opens up as one reaches this Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. The monastery, along with housing an ancient cave and the sacred spring, has a temple, a kitchen, four prayer rooms, a library, and residential quarters for not less than 70 monks. These monks, although lives in serenity, also come out on the festivals like Chonga Chodpa, Chudsum Chodpa, Smonlam Chenmo, and Gyalwe Jabstan.
The festivals in the monastery start at the end of February, according to the Tibetan Calendar. During the festivals, the monks also come out of their exile and interact with the locals, and villagers also go to the monastery; some to offer prayers and worship.
You will find Ibex and blue sheep here as they graze freely around the surroundings. Moreover, the Tsarap River flows beneath the monastery, which is connected to a wooden bridge that faint hearts must not cross. The bridge, also known as the Phugtal bridge, is the only connection between the two banks of the Zanskar river and acts as a medium for the monks to get food supplies.
On the other hand, life in the monastery seems divine and peaceful. With monks entering the place at a tender age to elder monks teaching them, the monastery offers a secluded life in the valley. As the monks preach Buddhism and Philosophy to the kids, the monastery school has been becoming the only educational source for the kids for years.
While there would be many other stories of the old caves and the monastery that are still alive at the place, one of the most visible ones is through the wooden door of the kitchen. According to a lama, who documented their experience in a major travel publication, it is the hole of the bullet dating back to the Mongolian or Tibetan attack of much long time ago.
Source: Times Travel and Outlook