Karsha Monastery, Zanskar
Karsha monastery, Zanskar’s largest and one of its most ancient, is about 6kms NE of Padum. A tarred road leads all the way to it from the main junction in Padum. Most travelers prefer walking the distance but after a 5-day trek to Phuktal monastery and back, we were in no mood to walk again. So we hired a cab to take us there.
The village of Karsha sits at a higher elevation than Padum and clings to a mountain-side, giving it a very picturesque setting! Our cab climbed half-way up the mountain-side, passing the village homes and entered the monastery complex through an arched gateway. Here we alighted and then walked over to the open square from where the views were absolutely fantastic! We could see the green oasis of Padum in the distance and beautiful mountains all around! If there was a bench to sit, we could have sat there for hours staring at this gorgeous scenery; Zanskar is truly magical!
When we finally tore our eyes away from the landscape, we realized that the Karsha monastery is located at the very top of the complex, with wide, cemented steps leading up to it. As we trudged up the hill, we thanked our stars for having had the foresight of hiring a cab for the distance leading up to this hike. However, since the steps were built in between buildings with trees on either side, it was a shaded climb and therefore, relatively easy. At the top we reached a large central courtyard with a typical, 2-storied monastery facade facing the entrance. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed inside here anymore as part of its roof has collapsed. Restoration work is ongoing but it will be a while before it’s opened for public viewing again. A young Lama offered to take us around to the other shrines, of which there were many within the complex. The first one we were taken to was a large prayer hall, which was on an upper storey, overlooking the courtyard. Here the main idol was that of Lord Avalokiteshwara and it was enclosed within a glass cabinet, which had other smaller idols as well!
Later we were taken to 3 other shrines out of which one had a huge bust of a preaching Lord Buddha with a jeweled crown, while another’s walls were completely covered with murals of a 1000 Buddhas and the third had a lovely porch from where one could have unparalleled views of the village and valley below! All these shrines were lovely with a distinct air of antiquity. The whole tour of the complex took almost an hour and gave us a wonderful overview of the Karsha monastery complex.
In the evening Madhu and I walked around Padum trying to find a shared ride back to Kargil. We eventually walked to the taxi stand, which lies beyond the market area, towards the Stakrima monastery. Here we negotiated with a cabbie and agreed to pay Rs.1500 for the entire middle-row seat of his Tata Sumo for a drop to Kargil the following morning. He said he would pick us up from the guesthouse at 4:30am in the morning and then may wait at the junction until 5am to try and get more passengers for the ride. We paid him an advance of Rs.500 and shook hands over the deal.
As we ate dinner and settled back in our hotel room for our last night in Zanskar, I had mixed feelings about our travel here. On one hand I had loved Zanskar’s unique landscape and culture, its remoteness and its wonderfully warm people. Traveling and trekking here had felt like an adventure and had given me a great sense of fulfillment. However, on the other hand, after 10 days in the region, I was dying to get back to a place where electricity could be had for more than 4hrs a day ! This experience has made me appreciate all the comforts that our regular, urban lives give us and all the little things that we take for granted.
The people of Zanskar, though, seem to have made the most of their circumstances and have learnt to live in harmony with nature, no matter how harsh it gets. Only time can tell what impact the new roads from Leh and Darcha will have on them a few years from now.