The monasteries, villages and wildernesses of Zanskar

(In 2012, a friend and I hired a horseman from the village of Darcha and trekked through the high pass of Shingo La into the villages of Zanskar. This is a continuation (and the conclusion) to the journey I began to recount in the previous post. The focus of these posts is to showcase the photography. I will do a more detailed report of the trip on a future post.)

The terrain below Shingo La was steep and punishing as we slipped and slid through vertiginous snowfields and mighty scree slopes to reach the campsite of Lakong. The lone granite peak of Gumbarunjon would be the defining feature of the spectacular wildernesses between Lakong and Kargiak as the Kargiak river photogenically wound through the arid technicolor moonscapes. 

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Although the goal of the trek was to spend as much time in the wilderness as possible, we couldn’t believe how relieved we were when we reached the stupas lining up the trail to the village of Kargiak and met its people at the trekkers cafe on the outskirts. The five days spent outside the realms of civilized society were beautiful but we were craving for genuine human warmth and conversation. The architecture here felt one with the landscape, whitewashed stone and wood houses set amidst green fields with the craggy mountains of Zanskar hanging above. 

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Beyond Kargiak, the trail passed through more villages and increasing human activity until we reach the campsite of Purne, the trailhead for the walk to the monastery of Phugtal. After you’ve walked through a landscape of sheer scree-ridden canyons, you cross a bridge, turn left and up there hanging in the sky on a sheer vertical cliff would be the Phugtal monastery. The first sight of this magnificent sanctuary is bound to impress even the most jaded eye. I spent 2 nights at the monastery guest house, a humble, spartan establishment, conversing with the monks and making repeated trips to the monastery above to have a closer look at the ancient murals and rituals at the monastery. It was a fitting end to what had a spectacular few days walking in the Zanskar mountains.

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The walk to Shingo La and the Zanskar landscapes

In July 2012, a fellow traveler and I employed a horseman from the village of Darcha in Lahaul and walked up to the village of Padum in Zanskar. I’ll recount the episode in more detail in future posts because it was an eventful, adventurous journey with emotional upheavals and strange encounters but the principal focus of this post (and the one after) would be the pictures I managed to capture of the landscapes and some of its people.

While there is a motorable road that swings by the trail today, in 2012, the only way to traverse the high pass of Shingo La and cross into Zanskar, perhaps the remotest corner of India, was to walk. The first 4 days leading up to the pass were a pure wilderness where the only signs of habitation were the ramshackle tea-tents put up at the campsites. The walk up was a brutal slog, with perilous stream crossings, precipitous scree slopes and the temptation to turn back and call off the hike to go back and chill in the comfy German Bakeries of Manali grew with every step, an urge we were glad we didn’t succumb to when we reached the pass.

Shingo la, at 5091 meters (16, 701 feet) was an airless wilderness, an amphitheater of sorts where one was surrounded by the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range on one side and the jagged spurs of the Zanskar mountains on the other. There was a dainty, partially frozen lake, shimmering blue and turquoise at the foot of the pass. It was a gloriously beautiful scene and we would have lingered far longer than we did if we weren’t gasping for air and didn’t have to walk 5 more hours down to the campsite in the valley below.

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Street Stories from Chennai

Georgetown, Chennai is one of the few pockets of the city that still bustles with an old world charm and character. These are some of the shots I took while walking in and around the streets and the flower markets in this atmospheric corner of the South Indian metropolis.

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Dawki

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On the way from Shillong to Mawlynnong aka “the cleanest village in Asia” as its known in tourist parlance, we made a longish detour through the settlement of Dawki.  It lies on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border crossing on the southern edge of Meghalaya but the reason a lot of us casual tourists come here is not to enter Bangladesh but to float in the clear waters of the Umgnot river on the fishing boats idling on the riverbanks. I had been to Dawki back in 2010 and while the place has been well and truly discovered now, it was still pretty quiet with just a handful of tourists for company.

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On my previous trip, I had two sunny days to enjoy the setting and the crystal clear waters all the way to the hamlet of Shnongpdeng which is a handy base to explore this area with a few homestays offering basic food and accommodation. This time around, it was cloudy and rainy and while the lack of sunlight meant you couldn’t see all the way to the bottom of the river-bed, it was still beautiful to be on the river.

In a way, I liked the fact that I got to see the place in different conditions than before even if it meant getting my clothes and the camera drenched. My lenses went all misty on me for the shot below but I quite like this foggy, grainy image of the fishermen in Dawki working in the drizzle on the turquoise waters of the Umgnot river.

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There have been proposals since time immemorial to demolish the 86 year old suspension bridge that you see in the shot below to build a new, sturdy one that could support the coal economy of the region more efficiently. Call it bureaucratic lethargy or lack of political will but they haven’t been able to get it done yet. So for now, people like myself who like their architecture more old-fashioned and aesthetically pleasing can still gawk at the old structure that connects the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and provides overland access to Bangladesh.

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The boat rides on the Dawki river take you to a wide sand-bank where, if it weren’t for the rainy weather, I could imagine myself sitting for hours on end reading a book and staring at the misty mountains beyond. I looked wistfully at a couple of guys setting tents on the sand and wished I had come here with more time on hand. It is as tranquil a setting as one could imagine.

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Gour PE Wrap-up – The Baishgazi wall and the Gour landscape

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The Baishgazi wall was a massive brick wall built by Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah to protect and encircle the main palace area of Gaur. Much of the palace now lies in ruin where just the foundations remain. 

 

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The archaeological site is still being excavated by the ASI but the caretakers here appeared to be pessimistic about the possibilities of uncovering anything worthwhile in the future. On a quiet day, you find more goats than people wandering about the brick foundations.

 

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The site is reached by walking through a verdant green landscape of mango orchards and photogenic pools of water. It’s worth coming all the way to Gour just to experience what a true rural hinterland in Bengal could be like.

 

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Languid fishing poles loll in stagnant pools of water while fishing boats float by to inspect the catch. It feels as if these scenes couldn’t have played out very differently in the 15th century to which many of the monuments that dot the landscape belong.

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Gour PE #2 – Firoz Minar, Qadam Rasul Masjid and Fateh Khan’s tomb

Just down the road from the Dakhil Darwaza and the Baroduari mosque, you find a tall tower said to be built by Saifuddin Firoz Shah to commemorate a military victory. 

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And a 2 minute walk from the minar will get you to the Qadam Rasul Mosque, which is said to contain the Prophet’s footprints. Built by Nusrat Shah in 1530 AD, the compound also hosts the tomb of Fateh Khan, who was a commander of Aurangzeb’s army. A caretaker ferries you around if you’re interested and admonishes you if you take pictures inside. It’s a rather sombre site if you manage to ignore people taking group pictures and selfies outside the tomb and while the site is ruinous, it does retain a little architectural glory in its marble columns and the brick engravings on its walls.

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Fateh Khan’s tomb, remarkable for its architecture which is completely different from the shells of other buildings around
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One of the guardians of the Prophet’s footprint
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The old walls of the Qadam Rasul compound
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Around these ancient structures, the bucolic life in the old capital continues like it always has
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Gour #1 – The Boro Shona Mosque

A few kilometers south of Malda and Ramkeli, close to the Bangladesh border, one finds the ruins of the ancient seat of power at Gour. It’s not a particularly difficult place to get to – autorickshaws from the WBTDC Hotel in Malda charge a quite reasonable 400 Rs. for a full day trip to the monuments here.

Although its early history is unclear (it is said have been an important cultural center during the Pala dynasty and the Senas before them but there isn’t a lot of archaeological evidence that points to either), Gour came into historical prominence with the Sultans of Bengal who made it their capital for over 3 centuries from the 12th century AD.

The Boro Shona Masjid (The Big Golden Mosque) is also known as the Baroduari Masjid aka the 12 door mosque (though the structure only has 11) was commissioned by the then Sultan of Bengal Alauddin Shah and built by his son Nusrat Shah in 1521 after his death. Alauddin Shah became Sultan after he ended the brief rule of the Abyssinian Habshi synasty by overthrowing then ruler Muzaffar Shah. This mosque, the largest of all monuments in the Gour area, is supposed to have been his masterpiece. While much of it lies in ruin, its scale and architectural excellence is still imposing. It’s walls were once gilded in gold (giving the mosque its original title) and was built to commemorate the 15th century Sufi saint Nur Qutb e-Alam. Some of the doorways still serve as gateways to get in and out of what is now a peaceful, bucolic village.

The first three pictures are of the Dakhil Darwaza, the magnificent gateway which serves to provide access to what was once a fortified citadel.

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Reiek Tlang I (the mobile camera version)

Reiek is a hill about 30 odd kms from Aizawl. At an altitude of 1594 metres, it doesn’t seem particularly daunting but once you make the steep hike up to the top here, the views are just gobsmackingly beautiful. From the top here you get a panoramic view of the city of Aizawl on one side and an endless range of Mizo hills on the other. If you aren’t here on a weekend, it’s an extraordinarily tranquil spot. I, for one, was glad there were a few people around because the hike up is quite steep with some exposed sections that could be a nightmare for anyone who suffers from mild vertigo.

All of these pictures were taken with my Galaxy S7 phone.

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