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Phuktal Monastery, Leh Ladakh Overview

The Phuktal or Phugtal Monastery is an isolated monastery situated in the south-east part of Zanskar region in Ladakh. The Gompa owes its legacy to the renowned preachers and scholars who in ancient times resided in this cave. It has been the place for meditation, teaching, learning, and enjoyment. Phuk means "cave", and tal means "at leisure" in Zanskari dialect. The Phugtal monastery, which once was a retreat, looks like a honeycomb from a distance, hence giving it the name. The 2250 years old monastery is the only one that can be reached by foot. Trekking lovers would find this as a great getaway full of enchanting sights and sounds.

The primary focus at the monastery is on the beliefs of Buddha culture - Vasika, Posadha, and Pravarna. The Phuktal Monastic School is located nearby, delivering free education to the children. Built inside and around a magical hollow cave makes Phugtal Monastery a fascinating site to visit. What is unique about this is that the degree of water flowing through the cave remains the same in spite of the pace of water outside. Moreover, it has medicines for various treatments which are entirely a gift from nature. Due to such amazing and influential facts listed under its name, Phuktal Monastery situated atop the Zanskar range becomes a mandatory location to visit when in Ladakh.

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Trekking to Phugtal Monastery

An adventurous trek in Zanskar Ranges ends with complete peace and solitude at Phugtal Monastery. This trekking expedition is a test of your grit which takes you through the indescribable beauty of the surroundings. A straight path naturally eroded with sculpted rocks, brings you to one of the oldest monasteries in India. For the trek, reach Anmo village from Padum via taxi. It serves as the lowest trekking point and has three stupas marking the beginning of a tiresome yet positive journey. The way to Phugtal is full of steep and narrow passages, and hence you need to be very careful. As you trek forward in an hour or two, you manage to reach Cha village which is the midpoint of the passage atop. From here, it is a 6km trek to the monastery which can take 3-5 hours depending on your speed and strength.

Usually, people prefer Cha as it falls on the shorter route. The trek consumes almost a whole day, but as you reach the monastery, which is an amalgamation of Tibetan and Buddhist carvings, art, and scriptures, every ache comes to an end. If you wish to add some more adventure, you can make your way through Purne, a village situated across the river Lungnak which comparatively is a longer route (Padum - Rera - Pepula - Purne - Phuktal). It takes two days from this route to reach the monastery. Daunting, enigmatic, enchanting- the feeling of this trek is mesmerising! 

Structure Of Phugtal Monastery

The unique entrance of the Phuktal Monastery is constructed with mud and timber. It is made in a way that it depicts the image of a cave. The remote location of this monastery, above the cliff face of Lungnak, a major tributary in Ladkah, is ideal for their meditational activities. At present, it consists of three small and one big prayer rooms, a library for teaching purpose, a kitchen, guest rooms for visitors, the house of approximately 70 monks, and the main temple. One can find the image of 16 earliest legendary followers of Buddha on the walls of the cave. Frescoes and ceiling are decorated with an old chapel which is one of the tourist attraction.

History

Built around 2,550 years ago, the Phugtal Monastery finds itself around a natural cave believed to receive footfalls of several scholars, sages, monks, and other preachers. Jangsem Sherap Zangpo is the founder of the present Gompa who established the same during the 15th-century. He was the disciple of Je Tsongkhapa, founder of one of the newest schools of Tibetian Buddhism, Gelug. There is also a stone tablet which serves as evidence to Alexander Csoma de Korös' stay between 1826 and 1827 at this place while he was working on an English-Tibetan dictionary.

A legend of three brothers, Dangsong, Pun, and Sum, who had supernatural powers, and Zangpo is very famous in the history of the Phugtal Monastery. The three of them used to impart the teachings of Dharma at the monastery. As Jangsem Sherap Zangpo visited Phuktal, they entrusted the place to him and left. With his powers, Zangpo made a spring to run from the cave, making a tree grow on the top and making it larger. Moreover, it was under his shelter of mind that the monastery was constructed.

Not only this, Phugtal monastery has many other facts stored in his heritage history. It is said that the earliest residents of this honeycomb monastery were sixteen Arhats who were great followers of Buddha's teachings. Many other legendary scholars, teachers, and translators such as Phakspa Nestan Dusdan, Zanskar Lotsawa Phagpa Sherab, Lama Marpa Lotsawa, and Padmasambhava visited and stayed for weeks and months here. A French director, Marianne Chaud has made a documentary upon the life of monks living around the monastery.

Festivals at Phugtal Monastery

Festivals form an integral part of the Phugtal Gompa. The celebrations are an occasion for local monks to interact with other villagers. By this, they wish to preserve the age-old traditions, spreading Dharma. Below is the list of some major festivals celebrated at the Phugtal Monastery. Moreover, the dates may differ when compared to the Gregorian calendar as the Tibetans have a lunisolar calendar.

1. Smonlam Chenmo: Also known as Monlam Chenmo, this Great Prayer festival is one of the most significant Tibetan Buddhist celebrations of the year. It marks the beginning of the New Year. Falling towards the end of February and the beginning of March, ceremonies are taken forward for the wellbeing of people and continued world peace. A vast number of people visit the monastery to cherish the atmosphere of festivities.

2. Chonga Chodpa: Celebrated in the first week of March, this festival is a harvest ceremony. Torma is a unique statue of the deity created by the monks. Carefully prepared with barley flour and butter, the villagers later worship it. People dedicate themselves to a devotional mode, and prayers take place.

3. Yarnas: Held between July and mid-September, the festival is also called as the Varshavas Ceremony. The monks live in confinement within the monastery and some limited areas to organise and perform special daily rituals and pujas. These pujas take place for the achievement of good karma over plants, insects and other microorganisms. The devotees also fast in the name of the sacred power. The entry of visitors is also restricted. If they wish to enter, they are supposed to take permission from the head Lama.

4. Gadam Nagchod: The Lightning Ceremony, which is the other name of this festival, is held during the beginning of December. It marks the death anniversary of Je Tsongkhapa who was the founder of a Tibetian branch, Gelug.

Phuktal Monastic School

Following the Buddhist teachings of sharing and delivering knowledge, the Phugtal Gompa has built a school which manages to cater children from the nearby villages. Set up in 1993 by Geshe Lharampa Nagri Choszed, it provides education free of cost. It has a curriculum which has both the traditional and modern teachings. The monastery bears every cost from rooms, study material, food, and other services. It even brings sponsors to the temple of education. Situated near the monastery, the monastic school provides a ray of hope to children residing in the areas that are far fetched from towns. It is an attempt to make students capable of living a quality life.

Tips

1. No photography is allowed inside the monastery.
2. Best time to reach is between the months of July and September as during other months the passes are blocked due to snowfall.
3. Start the trek as early as possible in the morning so that you reach the resting place or the monastery before the sun bids goodbye for the day.
4. Carry enough food and water that lasts for two days as it is uncertain that you would find some on your way.
5. Wear good trekking shoes to avoid any injuries due to slipping. And most importantly be careful!

How To Reach Phugtal Monastery

There is no direct transportation available to the Phuktal Monastery. It requires you to trek for several hours to reach here. At first, you need to reach Padum from where it is advisable to take a taxi to reach the Anmo village. Further is a trek that leads you to the monastery. It depends on you if you can finish it in a day or two. In between Cha is the stopping point.

Another route is from Paduma to Rera and further a trek from Purne to the monastery. Pepula is the midpoint between Rera and Purne. 

It is advisable to go with a tourist guide or a local if you wish to reach safely within the desired time.

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