Dhankar Monastery is a gravity-defying Gompa hanging on a cliff overlooking the Pin River. I clearly remember when I got the first glimpse of this monastery; my mouth remained wide open for quite some time. It feels it would fall off the cliff any moment, till your rational mind takes over. And tells you that it has been standing like this for hundreds of years. The narrow winding road that leads to Dhankar is as picturesque as it gets. Dhankar Monastery gets closer with every turn while the vistas of Pin valley start expanding. Chaotic water channels of the River have a rhythm of their own and it gets enchanting as you keep going up and the view keeps getting wider.
Dhankar Monastery – Himachal Pradesh
Dhankar also pronounced as Dankhar, Drangkhar or Dhangkar literally means fort on the cliff. This monastery is located roughly midway between the Spiti valley towns of Tabo and Kaza. You have to take a detour of about 8 kilometers to visit Dhankar but the road is very good. As long as you have your own vehicle, you can easily reach. The elevation at Dhankar is roughly 13000 feet. That means you may face a bit of breathing problem if you are not acclimatized properly. Having said that, the road would invite you to quit the vehicle and walk.
The day we were there it was raining, but whatever little time it stopped, we walked and it was such a beautiful walk. It was like a dream come true to have the rugged mountains on one side, a quietly flowing river on the other side and the whole vista to you. We hardly saw any people on this road till we reached the new Dhankar Gompa. Where there were monks and villagers going on with their day-to-day activity.
Dhankar monastery is very old but it was at its peak in 17th CE when it was the seat of power for Nono kings who ruled from here. There is a Dhankar lake too, a steep hike above the Dhankar fort & monastery. But you need to trek a bit so we let it go and just soaked in the views that were available from the monastery.
Fragile Structure of Monastery
Due to rains, the kuchcha road leading to the monastery was very slippery and a monk was kind enough to hold our hands and lead us to the gate of the monastery. At the simple stone gate, it was written that no more than 20 people should enter the monastery at any one time. As the structure is too fragile to handle more people. Along with it were the posters seeking help to Save Dhankar. Posters seem to be printed in some upmarket urban center. Not sure if they serve any purpose here as a limited number of people visit this place. Monks and villagers would anyway do what they need to do.
Through steep steps, we reached the first floor of the monastery that had a courtyard like opening in the middle and rooms all around. In one room some monks were chanting and the other rooms were open. We went around and looked at the ornate doors of each room. One of the rooms was full of artifacts – which I guess are used for certain rituals.
At the landing, there was a stuffed mountain goat hanging. It felt a bit eerie to be here. I could sense tantric practices all around me. I could also spot the statue of Vairocana Buddha and many Thangka paintings on the walls of the monastery.
One room had a series of stupas in it that were surrounded by Thangka paintings. Another room had colorful flags and big musical drums.
A fragile flight of steps led to the rooftop of the monastery. I was in dilemma – I wanted to go up but the monks were telling me not to go. Here it was written that no more than 3 persons should go up on the rooftop at any one point in time. You can imagine how fragile the structure must be. On top of it, it was raining constantly multiplying the probability of slipping down manifold. I longingly looked through the hole leading to the top, but all I could see was the cloud-laden sky. Monks communicated through their smile and carried on with their work.
View of the confluence of Pin & Spiti Rivers
The spot that I would remember the most in Dhankar monastery is the window that overlooks the confluence of Pin and Spiti Rivers. If you jet out your head a bit and forget that you are sitting in a room; you could be a bird flying over Spiti valley. This is when I understood why the monks would have chosen to build a monastery on this cliff. Where else would you be protected from the elements and yet be a part of them? The view that you get from this window is beyond what the words can capture.
New Dhankar Monastery
New Dhankar monastery at the base of this cliff is the practicing monastery now. The old one is a treasure trove that conserves the energy of the past prayers. World Monuments Fund has included Dhankar monastery in 100 most endangered monuments in the world. I hope it holds on for a few more generations to admire it.
There is a rural museum just outside the Dhankar monastery. It was closed on the day I was there. I later read a lot of blogs and figured out that no one has ever seen it open.
Video of a drive to Dhankar Monastery
Watch this video clip of drive to the Dhankar monastery.
On the way to Dhankar, we also had a brief rendezvous with Bharal. The Blue Sheep or mountain sheep/goats chasing each other on the bare mountains – almost merging with the color of the earth.
One has to be really blessed to see the magic of places like Dhankar.
Recommend you to read following Places to visit in Himachal Pradesh on my travel blog.