Phugtal Gompa: The Holy Road Less Travelled

Phugtal Gompa: The Holy Road Less Travelled

when I met Tundup and Olivier beneath a ripened
grapevine in the courtyard of Tundup’s ancestral home in Dah, a
Brokpa community of roughly 100 households in the Himalayas of
Ladakh. The two men had met a decade before in the same village
when Olivier was conducting an anthropological study of the kinship
practices of the Brokpa; the two men had continued to meet in Dah
over the years that followed. We soon discovered that we would all
be traveling the 300 km journey towards the Zanskar Valley – me on
a local bus, and them driving a tiny dilapidated Maruti Suzuki.
Though a relatively short distance, it required two full days to
traverse the countless switchbacks and high mountain passes.
Olivier was initially hesitant to offer a seat in his vehicle to a
chattering Canadian girl, though he finally succumbed, if only to
save me the bone-jarring bus journey to Padum.

Crammed into his two-door hatchback, we inched our way across
the expansive stretches of Zanskar’s high-altitude semi-desert,
where cloud shadows formed and dispersed, ancient glaciers hid in
isolation and giant mountain ranges surrounded swathes of
cultivated land upon which families lived in humble settlements.
Zanskar is an incredibly isolated region of the Indian Himalayas,
further cut off from the rest of the country by severe winters that
last for half of the year. It is a land upon which the drama of the
elements is deeply inscribed upon the faces of those that endure
them. Ninety-five percent of Zanskaris practise Tibetan Buddhism
and it was their glimmering white chortens (Buddhist shrines) that
were often the only visible sign of human habitation.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Padum, the adventure we
had shared solidified our friendship like the hardened dust caked
upon our skin. I was invited to stay at Pasang’s house – another
old friend of Olivier’s – and the following blissful weeks were
filled with nighttime whisky-fuelled jigs and yak-butter-tea
breakfasts. I started to fantasise about staying all the way
through the season until the blinding white of winter; I couldn’t
bear the thought of our summer sojourn ever coming to an end.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, was due to visit Padum for three
days of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. The town’s meagre population of
700 people swelled to thousands, with everyone dressed in their
finest traditional garments. Women were adorned in woolen capes and
peraks – a turquoise-encrusted headdress – while men wore heavy
robes and traditional, conical hats with the brim upturned to form
two points. Buddhist monks from all of the neighbouring monasteries
were clearly visible in their yellow and red robes and
unusual-looking felt hats that resembled yak horns. Villagers from
the most far-flung homes in the region would walk for as many as
five days to attend the event; for some, it would be the first time
seeing His Holiness in person and for others, it would be their
last. In a place where devotion is the centre of life, there is no
greater event than this.

Up until that point, Oliver, Tundup, and I had done a thorough
job of exploring the entire region in our tiny Maruti, with the
exception of one place: Phugtal Gompa. Shaped like a honeycomb and
perched on a cliffside high atop the Lungnak river, the
12th-century monastery was one of the few remaining in Ladakh which
could only be reached by foot. Legend claims that a monk once
attained enlightenment in the natural cave that forms the inner
sanctum of Phugtal and it is now home to 70 monks of the Gelug
School of Tibetan Buddhism. It would be a three-day return journey
to the monastery from Padum, and neither Tundup nor Olivier were
keen to make the effort. Our local host, Pasang, convinced me that
the route was straightforward enough that I could do it on my own,
and that I would find ample company following the Dalai Lama’s
visit when the many pilgrims would return home along the footpaths.
I didn’t consider myself much of a mountain trekker, but I knew I
had to go – both to satisfy my curiosity and to overcome my lack of

I was reluctant to leave my comfort zone and I felt wholly
unprepared for such a harsh landscape. Combating the effects of
altitude, the weight of my pack and a bout of loneliness, I set out
with a number of locals returning from the teachings. Much to my
dismay, however, the crowds quickly thinned out until I was
completely alone; I lagged behind, struggling to breathe in the
oxygen-starved environment. For the most part, the route was easily
navigable except for the odd spot where it criss-crossed with other
paths leading to one of the few small settlements of stone houses.
Occasionally, I met a family and was amazed by the varying ages of
the travellers; one couple I met were in their eighties and walked
faster than I could. The only other traffic I encountered was a
caravan of mules loaded with supplies – the primary means of
bringing much-needed goods to communities in the hinterlands of
Zanskar. As evening approached with its long, dark shadows falling
on the valley, I knew I needed to find a place to stay for the
night. As if the heavens had heard the prayer in my heart, Konchok,
a young Zanskari man who spoke English, walked up behind me and
struck up a conversation. He lived a short distance ahead and
offered to take me in for the night and walk with me to Phugtal
Gompa the following day.

Konchok’s house was made from flat slabs of stone lined one
above the other and filled in with a mixture of earth and straw.
The spartan interior was similar to the outdoors in both
temperature and dustiness. For dinner, we ate rice and peas with a
tangy yoghurt that tasted like it had spoiled; when no-one was
looking I scooped it back into the pot. Konchok’s relatives were
more than happy to host me, as giving weary travellers refuge was a
part of their culture. Distances are so great and human habitation
so sparse that having an “open-door policy” guarantees survival for
those on foot. For myself, it magnified the degree of trust that
pervades Zanskari society and the calibre of people that I
continued to encounter.

The following morning, the sun ignited the red-rock canyon and
as Konchok and I set off together. I felt more confident
with the aid of local guidance, but not long into our day I
realised that his company hindered the deep introspection solitude
had offered. I didn’t want to make small talk while I battled
breathless moments and bargained with my perseverance. As it turned
out, Konchok struggled to walk at my slow pace and so we began to
drift until he was a good distance ahead of me. In these moments my

was restored. By the time I turned the final bend and
saw the white, square structures of Phugtal Gompa built into the
crags of the rock face, I had found my rhythm and connected to a
deep reservoir of life-force that fuelled me forward. Though I had
been aided by the generosity and compassion of Konchok and other
strangers who cared for me along the way, it was the humility which
they embodied that taught me how to surrender to a deeper faith in
myself and my journey.

Konchok left the monastery at first light, likely reaching home
before I even set off for the day. I was pleased to be alone again.
I needed space to reflect on the things at work in my heart and I
felt excited to be walking in the fresh mountain
air once again. I could’ve made it back to Padum that day, but
contrary to my mournful departure, I was now sad to return. So
instead I walked even slower and chose to stay one final night in
Pepula, sleeping on a stone bench in a tea house where a horseman
graciously offered me his blanket. I would soon return to my
friends with whom I would have many years of adventures to come,
but at this moment, beneath the greatest carpet of twinkling stars
I had ever seen, I allowed the land to infuse my soul with its song
and my heart burst forth with gratitude for the people who call it
home. Although Phugtal Gompa was like a scene out of Indiana Jones,
the journey had become less about seeing a monastery and more about
the spiritual transformation that occurred when I stepped onto an
unknown path. I had become the pilgrim of my own mythic journey,
one that did not necessarily have a destination but would continue
for as long as I was willing to cross the threshold of my

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