Surreal Spiti - Travel guide to Dhankar Lake and Monastery
Dhankar, the former erstwhile capital of Spiti Valley, was home to royal family 300 years ago. Today very little remains in this town except a beautiful ancient monastery perched on a hillside cliff and a fort. Dhankar is also a heaven for trekking enthusiasts who often visit this village to trek to Lhalung village or the Dhankar Lake. Dotted with little hamlets, Dhankar village sits on the top of a hill surrounded by nothing but barren mountains. The village literally lives on an edge overlooking the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers. In this blog, we will provide you with a detailed guide on visiting Dhankar village which tips and recommendations on places to visit.
Read our previous blogs on Spiti Valley and Kinnaur Valley by clicking on the below-mentioned links/ images:
5. Travel guide to Dhankar Lake and Monastery (This blog)
Location of Dhankar Village:
Dhankar village is located between the towns Tabo and Kaza. It is stationed at an altitude of 12,780 feet above sea level. Located right at the meeting point of the two major rivers of Spiti Valley – Spiti river and Pin river, Dhankar village rises about 1000 feet above the river confluence. Dhankar is 31 kilometres away from the town of Tabo and 33 kilometres away from Kaza. It is easily approachable by a motorable road. While driving from Tabo, you will have to take a right turn a little before the Sichling village. This uphill road stretch of 8 kilometres will directly take you to Dhankar village. We visited Dhankar as a day-trip while travelling from Tabo to Kaza.
Dhankar is a medium-sized village of Spiti Valley with less than 100 families residing in the small settlement. Dhankar used to be the capital of Spiti Valley for many years till it shifted to Kaza after the administration realised the needs of the modern-day. Located at the ridge, Dhankar must have been an easy task to defend the then capital city. Spitians had developed an elaborate system of defence since ancient times and Dhankar was very much a central part of such defensive schemes. The entire village is built on the dangerous inclines, so much so that one false step can risk an ugly fall down the cliff. The houses are perched in inconvenient positions against the slopes. The Spiti river and Pin river meet and then break into several channels forming a wide expanse of flat land. As you near the village, you will easily identify and locate the Dhankar monastery from far away. It is painted in white and is distinctly in contrast from the barren brown background.
History of Dhankar Village:
Generally, Spitians avoided fighting most of the wars with the wisdom of the Lamas (monks). They would desert the entire village and escape to higher, uninhabited plateaus with their valuables during a war-like situation. They even hid inside forts like the one in Dhankar to keep away from enemies.
However, in 1776, the Bushahris conquered Dhankar and ruled for 2 years. Again, in 1819, the King of Kullu ruled over Dhankar. During the year 1840, Gulam Khan conquered Dhankar and plundered the Dhankar monastery and fort and destroyed many idols. Since then, the monastery and fort are mostly in ruins and are merely blocks and columns. But none of these has taken away from the charm of Dhankar village and the spiritual faith that the Spitians still have in Dhankar monastery.
Places to visit in Dhankar Village:
Dhankar Monastery – Dhankar Gompa or Dhankar monastery is located above the Dhankar village. The ancient monastery belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism. Dhankar monastery is constructed of mud, timber and stone. The outer façade is painted in bright white colour. The monastery was once a part of a fort. In fact, the word Dhankar itself means ‘Fort on a cliff’. The strategic location of the Dhankar monastery offers panoramic views of the Spiti Valley and the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers.
Dhankar monastery houses an idol of Vairochana Buddha and brilliant wall murals depicting the life of Buddha. Due to its fragile condition, only 20 people are allowed inside the monastery at a time. Several corridors are cut in rock face inside the Dhankar monastery that leads to various small chambers that are mostly empty.
The cliff base of Dhankar monastery is highly vulnerable to soil erosion mainly due to heavy wind and now with the rain. In 2006, the World Monuments Fund selected Dhankar monastery as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world and has initiated to attempt its conservation. To protect its sanctity, a new monastery has been constructed at the base of the cliff which is now used as the practising monastery by the monks and lamas.
Dhankar Fort/ Palace – Dhankar fort is located just above the old monastery. It can be accessed by a short hike from the old monastery over a narrow path. The fort mostly lies in ruins and there’s not much to see except the stunning views of the vast expanse of the Spiti Valley. Dhankar fort once sheltered entire valley’s population during times of invasions and attacks.
Dhankar Lake or Dhankar Tso – Dhankar Lake or Dhankar Tso is located at a height of 13,580 feet above the sea level. It is a beautiful freshwater lake situated in the middle of the barren mountains. A moderately difficult trek of 3 kilometres, up a steep slope, from Dhankar village will take you to the Dhankar lake. It will take you around 2 hours to hike up the lake from the village. The trekking trail though not very properly defined is easy to identify. Make sure you wear shoes with good grip as there are a lot of loose pebbles scattered all along the narrow trail.
Just 15 minutes into the trek and you will be offered with breath-taking views of the Dhankar village. The sight of Dhankar monastery clinging to the mountainside and the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers - all surrounded by barren mountains and a few snow-peak mountains in the backdrop, is just amazing. Remember to capture these beautiful moments every now and then as you trek along. You wouldn’t imagine a landscape as beautiful than this cold desert. After climbing a steep hill that would take you about an hour and a half, you will reach the top of a ridge from where the trail flattens and an easy walk of another half an hour takes you to a no man’s land. Here, the entire stretch of land is surrounded by thorny bushes.
Treading along, huffing and puffing, we reached the much-anticipated Dhankar lake. The first sight was however disappointing. We expected turquoise blue coloured water in the lake with brilliant reflections of the sky, but it was green and muddy and had shrunken in size due to less snowfall and rain. Maybe the time we visited was not ideal. Nevertheless, sitting there by the lakeside, silently gazing the reflections of the snowy mountains (Manirang Pass) in the water, we felt at peace. We started descending after an hour of photo clicking and exploring areas around the Dhankar lake. The descend was not that difficult but we had to be really careful of maintaining a good grip to ensure that we don’t slip down.
Note: Trek to Dhankar lake is high-altitude trekking. You will get tired and out-of-breath very easily. Do not opt to visit Dhankar lake if you aren’t physically fit, else you may suffer from AMS due to sudden altitude gain. Remember to carry your water bottles, dry fruits and eatables to keep yourself energized. In fact, we advise you to visit Dhankar lake only if you have a night stay planned in Dhankar village. That will help you acclimatize to the high altitude. Also, the trek takes up almost your entire day and you won’t be able to make most of the monastery and the fort if you are on a day-visit to Dhankar. For us, the trek to Dhankar lake was too much effort for too little gain. However, we highly recommend a small hike of 15 minutes over the trail just for the captivating views.
Stay options in Dhankar Village:
If you could squeeze out some time from your Spiti Valley itinerary, we highly recommend spending a night in Dhankar village. There are plenty of low-range homestay options available for stay. Homestays are the only choice of stay available in Dhankar village, thus keep your expectations low. Just have a word with the locals and they will be happy to allow you to stay at their house or will help you out finding a homestay.
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Very few tourists venture in Dhankar’s direction, making it an offbeat place. So, if you are visiting Spiti Valley, Dhankar is the place you must not miss out on. Though the list of places to visit in Dhankar is not long, the natural beauty and tranquillity of the place will melt your heart.