Shelter: Cave Monks

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Photo by Emily Strasser.

Built into a cave high above the Tserap River in the remote Himalayan valley of Lugnak, the ancient Phuktal Monastery is a hard day’s hike from the closest road. Just getting to the region, Zanksar, tucked on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau between Kashmir and Ladakh in Northern India, takes twelves hours on murderous mountain roads from the closest city, or a ten-day trek through the mountains. Yet despite the difficulty, this place seems to have a way of being found.

Legends spanning thousands of years tell of the meditators, miracle workers, and spiritual seekers who have taken refuge in the cave, including the sixteen disciples of the Buddha called the Arhats, the great Guru Rinpoche who emerged into the world as a pure eight-year-old child from the center of a lotus flower, and three scholar brothers possessing the power of flight. When Jangsem Sherap Zangpo arrived in the 14th century, he used his uncommon powers to enlarge the cave and set a spring running inside; he built the monastery that stands today, which continues to as a refuge for prayer, meditation, and scholarship. In the early 19th century, the Hungarian linguist Alexander Csoma de K?rös found his unlikely way to the monastery, where he stayed for over a year while working on the first Tibetan-English dictionary. A hand carved stone slab inside the temple commemorates his sojourn.

The series of stacked whitewashed buildings seem to have grown out of the yellow cliffside, as inevitable a part of the landscape as the sharp peaks tracing zigzags against the sky or the Tserap River, a tributary of the Zanskar, churning massive and gray below. From a distance, only the maroon monks’ robes stand out against the dusty greens and browns.

Inside the temple, the once-bright murals are darkened from hundreds of years of incense smoke. Many of the monks, though, are young, with wide eyes and smooth faces. They watch visitors in curious clusters until a bell calls them to a meal or prayer. Sitting alone on a crumbling rock wall beneath a string of bright prayer flags, listening to the steady low chanting that drifts from the temple before the sound diffuses into the vastness of this landscape, even the skeptics may begin to believe the legends. The government intends to extend the road to reach the monastery within the next couple of years. Some of the locals, who live in the houses that dot the high gorge walls and spend their days coaxing peas, carrots, and potatoes out of the dry ground, say it will take ten years. Some laugh, and say fifty. Some say the road will never come.


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