The impressive Karsha Monastery is built picturesquely on a steep mountainside above the Stod River and can be seen from far, far away. Karsha Gompa (another name for “monastery”) is the largest monastic establishment in Zanskar with nearly 150 resident monks. A short 4-6 kilometers/3-5 miles from Padum, it’s easy to reach by car up to a certain point. After that, prepare to walk up to the main Gompa, still high above you. Slowly, slowly, slowly.
Founded by Phagspa Sherab in the 11th Century, Karsha Gustor sacred dances or chhams are held yearly to commemorate the birthday of Tsongkha-pa, the founder of the Geluk-pa monastic order referred to as the Yellow Hat Sect. Having attended the Hemis Tse Chu Festival last year, I was eager to see the differences between the two different festivals since monastic festivals are one of the most important parts of Ladakhi heritage. These festivals are held to commemorate the founding of a monastery, birth anniversary of its patron saint, or major events held in the history and evolution of Tibetan Buddhism. The festivals are held according to Tibetan calendar. Be forewarned! Changes in dates are normal. Do not plan an entire trip around a festival date unless you have enough leeway in your itinerary to accommodate changes. Take it from one who knows…
Today was Day 2 of the Gustor Festival. Since the festival wasn’t supposed to start until 1:00p, we hung around Padum all morning before leaving at 11:30a for the short ride to the monastery. Stanzin said there would be two hours of masked dances, followed by local cultural dances. Many tourists were hitchhiking on the road to Karsha, an easy, flat walk through the valley. The driver let us off below the main monastery, and we began making our way up many steps with hundreds of locals and other tourists. The locals thought our gasping for breath was pretty darn funny even though we’d already been in Ladakh for two weeks. Karsha’s altitude is 3,772 meters/12,375 feet; a mere bagatelle to these hardy people.
Karsha has the largest library in Zanskar, eight temples, and two assembly halls in the complex. The Complex also houses tankas, valuable scrolls, precious idols and the bone relics of Dorje Rinchen. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to see any of this. Once we found a place to sit (not easy), it was impossible to move. It was difficult to decide exactly when to arrive for a decent viewing spot because once you stake a spot, you’re stuck for the next several hours.
Stanzin and I found a very uncomfortable spot on a ledge with barely enough room for camp stools while ex-Marine decided to stand below in a group. The Karsha courtyard is only one-quarter the size of Hemis Monastery’s courtyard with limited space. Areas were off-limits, reserved for dignitaries, head lama, lesser lamas, and musicians. The roof was filled, monks peered out of monastery windows, late-comers tried to insert themselves into whatever “space” they could and I was wedged between a group of Italian tourists who defended their space fiercely; they wouldn’t concede an inch of space. Crowds around the perimeter constantly encroached into the courtyard where they were pushed back by a costumed dancer brandishing a stick. That routine continued throughout the afternoon.
The Zanskari women were dressed in their best, wearing whatever turquoise, coral, pearl jewelry they owned and brown fleece hats. Occasionally, I’d see a woman wearing an old-style orange fleece hat with what looked like pinned up flaps. Only older women now wear these according to Stanzin.
Visiting Karsha Monastery during this event is a unique opportunity for westerners to experience the colorful gathering of Zanskari people who come from all corners of this remote district. For that matter, the same applies to any of Ladakh’s many monastic festivals. Try to see at least one.
Hunkered down, and waiting. Waiting some more in weather that was disintegrating; becoming cold and raw. Will the festival ever begin? Yes! I hear trumpets…