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The Phugtal Monastery, India

An 8-Hour Walk to Get Groceries: This Monastery is so Remote That Almost No One Has Heard About It

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The Phugtal Monastery is a Buddhist monastery located in the Ladakh region of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. This monastery was constructed inside a natural cave, and is considered to be one of the most isolated monasteries in its region. It is perhaps due to the remoteness of the Phugtal Monastery that important Buddhist scholars, sages, and translators have visited it over the centuries.

The Cave of Liberation

The name of the monastery is said to have been derived from two words – phuk / phug, and thal. The former means ‘cave’, whilst the latter means ‘at leisure’. The monastery’s name has also been spelled occasionally as Phugthar. The word thar here means ‘liberation’. Therefore, the monastery’s name may literally mean ‘the cave where one is at leisure’ or ‘the cave of liberation’.

The Phugtal Monastery was built inside a cave

The Phugtal Monastery was built inside a cave (CC by SA 3.0)

2,500-Year History

The Phugtal Monastery was built around the site of a natural cave in the Lungnak Valley of Zanskar, which is a region in Ladakh. It has been claimed that this site had been visited by Buddhist scholars, sages and translators since about two and a half millennia ago, long before the establishment of the monastery. For example, the earliest visitors to the site are said to have been the 16 Arhats, a legendary group of the Buddha’s followers. Images of these Arhats can today be seen on the walls of the cave. Other renowned Buddhist figures who have visited the site include such Tibetan scholars and translators as Padmasambhava and Phakspa Nestan Dusdan.     

The 16 Arhats, depicted, may have visited the site that the Phugtal Monastery is now built upon

The 16 Arhats, depicted, may have visited the site that the Phugtal Monastery is now built upon (public domain)

Legendary Origins

The monastery itself is traditionally said to have been founded around the 15 th century by Jangsem Sherap Zangpo, the founder of the Gelug school, one of the newest schools of Tibetan Buddhism. According to legend, prior to Zangpo’s arrival, the cave was home to three scholars, who also happened to be brothers – Dangsong, Pun, and Sum. The three of them, who are believed to have the power of flight, taught Dharma at the cave. When Zangpo arrived, the brothers left the site, and gave the cave to him. Legend has it that Zangpo caused a spring to run in the cave, and a tree to grow above it. Moreover, the holy man made the cave grow larger, and was thus able to construct the Phugtal Monastery. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that there are no historical records of the monastery’s foundation. Nevertheless, it has been indicated that the style of the monastery’s paintings allows it to be associated with the Tabo Monastery in Spiti, which was founded around the end of the 10 th century by Rinchen Zangpo.

Phuktal monastery, Zanskar, India

Phuktal monastery, Zanskar, India (sandeepachetan / flickr)

The Phugtal Monastery was only discovered by the West during the 19 th century, when a Hungarian scholar by the name of Alexander Csoma de Koros  - the author of the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar book  - visited and stayed in the monastery between 1826 and 1827. It would perhaps be fair to say that the path to the Phugtal Monastery has changed little since the time of de Koros’ visit in the 19 th century. This is one of the few monasteries in Ladakh that can only be reached by foot (or on the back of a donkey / horse). This is evident in the way supplies are brought to the monks residing in the Phugtal Monastery. During the warmer months, the supplies are delivered on donkeys or horses. During the winter, on the other hand, these supplies may be sent to the monks via the frozen Zanskar River.

The spectacular route to Phugtal Monastery

The spectacular route to Phugtal Monastery (CC by SA)

Today, the Phugtal Monastery includes such facilities as a main temple, prayer rooms, a library, living quarters, and teaching facilities. As many as 70 monks reside in the monastery today. The isolated position of the Phugtal Monastery is ideal for meditation as well as for spiritual learning. Apart from that, tourists are attracted to the monastery by the frescoes and paintings that decorate the interiors of the structure.  

Top image: The Phugtal Monastery, India (Amusing Planet)

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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