Where to travel
In Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, badlands make a backdrop to small Dhankar Village dotted with flat-roofed white houses. Terraced fields that are cropped during spring and summer seasons perk up the landscape. The age-old monastery complex and the fort overlooking the main route followed by the invaders from Bushar and Ladakh complete the map of the erstwhile capital of Spiti. From the monastery, a short trail leads to placid Dhankar Lake.
Who will enjoy this short adventure trip idea?
People who love short cultural and physical adventures in the Himalayas
What to do & see: physical, cultural
Dhankar (Gran-mkhar) / Dhangkar Village
Dhang means a cliff and kar means a fort. In the cliff-fort village, the days are long and nights are chilly in summer. During winter, the villagers move to Kaza, as the water freezes and weather becomes inhospitable.
More than ten centuries old village located on the inner slope of a mountain spur is about 35 km from Kaza, headquarter of Spiti. The three fourth stretch of the road runs parallel to the Spiti River. The last quarter of the road is very steep. Public buses do not ply on this part of the road leading to Dhankar at an altitude of 3,890 meters. The road further links Kaza to Lalung Village.
Dhankar Monastery Complex
Old Dhankar Monastery at Dhankar Village is distinct from a distance simply for its awe-inspiring location with many benefits. The gompa on inaccessible cliff enabled Spitians to survive many onslaughts in the past. For the artistic, historical, physical, and spiritual merits, the temple found place in World Monument Fund Watch List 2006.
The monastery comprising of seven floors resembles a pile of boxes. These boxes in fact house monk chambers-family units, stores, and Buddhist temples. On the left bank of the Spiti River, the monastery precariously balances on stalagmites sculpted by ice and hostile weather agents. The stalagmites witness the confluence of the Spiti and its tributary Pin River.
The Kangyur Lha-Khang, a hall in the lowest floor, houses a library of scriptures and Buddhist images painted in gold color. The murals are fading under a veil of dust. Many dusty thankas (religious paintings) are also hanging in the hall. The eastern window unfolds the mountain and valley panoramas.
The monastery features Dhayan Buddha statue consisting of four figures of Buddha sculpted back to back. The medieval murals featuring Lama Chodrag, Tsongkhapa and Sakyamuni adorn the walls of the monastery.
The passages and steps are dark and cold. The monastery built around an open courtyard is in disrepair because of neglect, poor maintenance and geotechnical instability. Only some parts of the gompa are used for prayers. The monastery, near Indo-Tibetan border, is made of locally available materials timber, stone, and mud. The murals are as old as the 15th century.
The temple resembling a fort is also called Lha-‘od-pai-dgon-pa, a distortion of Zla-‘od, the famous Buddhist monk born in A.D. 1121. The followers of the monk are called Zla-‘od-pa. It is believed that the monk built or renovated the monastery dedicated to Gelukpa Sect of Buddhism.
The Rural Museum outside the monastery houses old saddles, instruments, costumes, devotional objects used by Buddhists, and Buddhist scriptures in Bhuti language.
In November, the monks perform masked dances at the gompa during Guktor Festival.
Dhankar Initiative was set up to restore glory of the old monastery. Recently, however, a new monastery was built in Shichling Village (approximately 3,400 meters) on Kaza-Tabo Highway. New monastery is about ten kilometers uphill walk from Dhankar Village located in the southeast of Kaza.
Ruins of the fort are not far away from the monastery. The fort, the home of the royal family of Spiti, Nonos, was big enough to accommodate all the subjects during onslaughts.
dZong, the fort-palace, had a deadly dungeon that featured a cell without a door. Prisoners and meals were lowered into the cell through a small exit/entry point in the roof. Air and light entered into the cell from another tiny opening. The prisoners therefore did not have any chance to escape the cell surrounded by thick stone walls on two sides and steep rocky precipices on the remaining sides.
A steep, well-marked, and short trail starting near the monastery goes to the lake (approximately 4,270 meters), a big clean water body fed by glacial streams. The trail is strewn with scree and moraine gravels that shift under your feet. If you do not find the dusty trail, ask anybody in the village. The lake and the monastery in fact are located on opposite sides of the same mountain. Extremely fit, more adventurous travelers may like to climb the hill ignoring the trail. The direct climb however requires balancing on pebbles.
Carry water for the hike. The height difference is more than 1,000 meters along the short trail. As you approach the lake, temperature falls substantially. It becomes windy. During winter, the lake freezes for eight months.
The trail lends itself to the views of the thinly populated Dhankar Village (less than 50 people), the monastery, the fort, and the Spiti and Pin valleys. The flat ground around the lake is fit for camping. A small gompa guards the lake. View the lake from different angles to see various hues of the water.
The brown barren mountains surrounding the lake offer vantage points for watching the snow clad peaks of the Himalayas. On a clear day, silvery tops of the Manirang North (6,593 meters) and South (5,888 meters) peaks guarding the Manirang Pass can be spotted from the mountain tops. You can also spot Kamelang (5,902 meters) and Sisbang (5,843 meters) peaks.
Comparatively easier descent requires less time. However, start the day hike early morning to spend more time at the lake and in the neighborhood. If you intend to camp at the lake, you should carry camping gear and supplies.
When to go
Mid May to September: ideal period for the hike
How to reach
Shimla – Kaza: A twenty-hour drive along all-weather road requires two days to cover about 412 kilometers. The road goes via Rampur, Puh and Tabo.
Tabo – Dhangkar Village: a four hours drive
Shimla – Rohtang Pass – Keylong: An eighteen-hour drive covers about 375 kilometers. The road however remains closed for six months during winter, because snowfall blocks the Rohtang Pass.
Keylong – Kunzam La – Kaza: The 185-kilometer-long drive requires about six hours. The road is however inaccessible for over nine months in winter as the Kunzam La receives heavy snowfall.
Kaza – Dhankar: Local buses ply on approximately 35-kilometer long route. However, you have to take a cab for the last stretch of 7-8 kilometers. Alternatively, you can walk.
Manali – Rohtang Pass – Keylong (115 km)
Manali – Rohtang Pass – Batal – Kunzam Pass – Kaza (200 km)
Dhankar does not have hotels. The village however has a few guest houses and home stays offering the basic facilities.
Manirang Family Guest House does not have a modern washroom. A mud enclosure featuring a hole in the floor doubles as a toilet. The enclosure does not have water supply. The room has no cot but has a clean mattress. The price for boarding and lodging starts from INR 350 per night. The guest house signboard reads that it offers three rooms with double bed and the Indian, the Tibetan, and the Spitian fare. The spacious hall is perfect for reading, resting, and chatting.
Dhankar Monastery (Yak and Yeti) Guest House located behind the new gompa is managed by the monastery. The guest house features rooms and modern clean bathrooms. The kitchen serves dal, rice and roti for meals. The tariff starts from INR 400 per night.
Home stays offer very limited amenities and services. Lack of washrooms is however a major concern in these economical accommodations. The electricity is available between 11 am and 2 pm.
You can camp at the lake. However, you have to carry full camping gear and supplies.