The Zanskar Odyssey - Stongdey Gustor Festival
Day 6 of the trip
This blog is in continuation of Day 5 of our Zanskar trip. We woke up all excited next day as we were to attend the Stongdey Gustor festival, an annual festival in Stongdey monastery. Our trip was actually planned around it so that we could cover this festival. The festival was to start around 12 noon so we decided to cover a few sightseeing spots in Zangla village before the festival. The village is located some 30 kms from Padum which of course resulted in a pretty long drive time due to non-existent roads. We also met with a vehicle breakdown on the way. Zangla was historically the most important part of Zanskar along with Padum. The kings ruled from both these places. But what remains of this place now is a small village with a small palace, ruined fort and a nunnery. Surprisingly there is no monastery here. Despite being little hot today, the clouds were putting up an amazing show decorating the blue sky.
We visited Zangla nunnery located at one end of the village road. It consisted of a big prayer hall and a courtyard in between. The nuns were probably on a visit to Stongdey monastery to attend the festival hence we had no one to attend to. We however visited their small age-old underground monastery room with a small door which had many colourful charts hanging all over. The one that interested me was a dull chart of Life Chakra. The centre of the Chakra is where we are, with all needs and wants. Lord Buddha was seen flying out of the vicious Life Chakra circle depicting his end to rebirth cycles. Zangla Palace, which hardly feels like a palace was our next destination. We entered the palace through a mud house with low doors which are said to keep the ghosts away. Next we took stairs to climb up to a stinky central yard of the house and met the host who was to show us the palace. To our surprise the host was the king of the palace. We felt gratified. He opened an old lock to a door and there we saw a lot of antique collection. It was more of a museum than a palace. The main attractions among the antiques were the dreadful Chaam (colourful face masks). Chaams are embodiments of dreadful deities. Masks that have survived for a long time are considered special and very powerful. These masks were worn by the lama dancers in the village monastery’s annual festivals. It was about past 12 now and we rushed to Stongdey monastery.
Like other monasteries in Ladakh, the white-washed monastery complex in Stongdey is constructed in Tibetan style of architecture. Strategically constructed at the top of a rocky cliff, the monastery offers panoramic views of Zanskar region. The monastery is spread over a big area and has many small temples within its complex. People from all the villages nearby had come to witness the festival. As we entered the main temple, we saw people sitting along the sides of the big courtyard. We took the stairs to the first floor and chose our spot to sit and watch the festival. The celebrations were yet to start. We stood there for about an hour, eagerly waiting for something to start, exhausted by the bright sun, thirsty, hungry but unmoved fearing to lose our spot as more crowd was gradually pouring in. As expected the crowd had many interesting faces and our camera was always on, though the main show was yet to start.
Our patience paid off when suddenly people started cheering and clapping marking start of the festival. To our shock, the first thing that happened was arrival of a huge fiery yak tied by ropes held by young men. A sheep and a puppy followed. The yak, sheep and dog are considered to be holy animals who offer their first prayers to God. Yaks and Buddhists have had a largely symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. Many major food sources come from Yaks- butter, milk, and cheese. They’re also used for transportation, clothing, and hauling goods. The yak looked very dangerous and it actually tried to frighten some people away. After a small session of exchange of holy mantras, the animals were taken away. Then started the Chaam dance. Lamas costumed themselves with casually painted masks, ritual swords and dazzling jewels. Drums, trumpets and chanting of monks accompanied the dancers. The dance costume consisted of a gown with long broad sleeves over which a short triangular cape, called a tippet, was worn. The dance continued for a while after which came a lama wearing a very elaborate mask with a laughing face along with two child monks wearing small smiling face masks. This lama is considered to be a Laughing Buddha and the children his disciples who went over among the audience collecting money. The dance programme continued one after other with different people coming and dancing- the nuns, monks with masks of deer, bulls and devils. It was difficult for us to comprehend the story that they were trying to depict and what exactly were they portraying but it was a fun session nonetheless.
We decided to leave the monastery in their tea break; all tired and exhausted drenched in sweat. It was too hot for us to go on and few people told us the main part was over. We had to capture the amazing views seen from Stongdey monastery. We recalled the Sangam - a confluence of Zanskar and Indus river when we left Leh on our Day 2 of the trip. Here we could see the Zanskar river being formed by another 2 rivers - Stod river that joined us from Drang Drung glacier on our way from Rangdum to Padum on Day 4 of the trip and Tsarap river which is born near Himachal Pradesh and people who take the Leh-Manali highway see it often. It was unbelievable that we almost came a full circle through the rivers starting our Zanskar journey near the end of Zanskar river and ending our Zanskar journey at the start of Zanskar river.
Our team met for a small get together in the hotel during the night and we all decided to go onto the terrace for some Astro photography. The moon was yet to rise and the sky was full of bright stars. We got to see a bunch of shooting stars. A few of us spotted a certain pattern of design in the stars and as soon as we realized what it was, all the cameras were ready to capture it – The Milky Way. Slowly, the stars of the galaxy started getting prominent and yes we saw the Milky Way, crystal clear, with our naked eye. I cannot describe the joy of having seen it. It is such a rare thing to witness with so much of light pollution these days. This was definitely the highlight of our trip. We captured the galaxy to our heart’s content and slept early keeping in view our next day’s long journey back to Kargil. Our trip was soon going to end but thoughts of colorful Stongdey, rivers and stars filled our dreams. Our fairytale dreams!
Hope you enjoyed our journey. Feel free to drop in your comments below letting us know your thoughts on the blog and the photographs or drop in your queries about Zanskar. Our next post will be the last in the series.