The Virgin Vale
20-km south of Rangdum stands the Pazila watershed
across which lies Zanskar, the most isolated of all
the trans Himalayan Valleys. The Panzela Top (4,401
m) is the picturesque tableland adorned with two
small alpine lakes and surrounded by snow-covered
As the Zanskar road winds down the steep slopes of
the watershed to the head of the Stod Valley, one of
Zanskar's main tributary valleys, the majestic "Drang-Drung"
glacier looms into full view. A long and winding
river of ice and snow, the Drang-Drung" is perhaps
the largest glacier in Ladakh, outside the Siachen
formation. It is from the cliff-like snout of this
extensive glacier that the Stod or Doda River, the
main tributary of river Zanskar, rises.
The Mountainous Panorama
Zanskar comprises a tri-armed valley system lying
between the Great Himalayan Range and the Zanskar
mountain; The three arms radiate star-like towards
the west, north and south from a wide central
expanse where the region's two principal drainage's
meet to form the main Zanskar River.
It is mainly along the course of this valley system
that the region's 10,000 strong, mainly Buddhists
population lives. Spread over an estimated
geographical area of 5,000-sq-kms, high-rise
mountains and deep gorges surround Zanskar. The area
remains inaccessible for nearly 8 months a year due
to heavy snowfall resulting in closure of all the
access passes, including the Penzela.
Today, Zanskar has the distinction of being the
least interfered with microcosms of Ladakh , and one
of the last few surviving cultural satellites of
Tibet. Within the mountain ramparts of this lost
Shangrila stand a number of ancient yet active
monastic establishments. Some of these religious
foundations have evolved around remote meditation
caves believed to have been used by a succession of
famous Buddhist saints for prolonged meditation in
pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment.
Khampa, the nomadic shepherds who originally roamed
the grazing pastures of the Tibetan plateau, would
have been familiar with the high passes into Zanskar
many centuries before the villages of the Zanskar or
Indus valley were established.
In the 11th century, the eminent scholar Ringchen
Brangpo wandered the Zanskar valley selecting sites
from the 108 monasteries that were to be found
throughout the west Himalayas. At the same time,
legend has it that the sage Naropa meditated at the
site of Sani monastery.
The Advent of Foreign Travellers
The famous Hungarian explorer Coso de Koros was one
of the first European travelers to visit the region.
He spent nearly a year, in 1826-27, at the monastery
of Phugthal translating Buddhist texts from Ladakhi
into English. An inscription of his name can be
still found in the monastery.
few years later, the Dogra general Zorawar Singh led
his army over the Umasi La during the conquest of
Ladakh and the Zanskar. In 1834 he reduced the
powers of the royal families in both Padum and
Zangla to a nominal status and established the fort
at the village of Pipiting just north of Padum. He
is also said to have paid a small fortune to hire a
local guide to lead his army directly across the
passes of the Zanskar Range to the Indus Valley in
Order to mount a surprise attack on the king of
The Dogra conquest was recorded by Thomas Thomson, a
member of the East India Company's Boundary
Commission crossing the Umasi La in June 1848 en
route through the Zanskar and Indus Valleys to the
On the route to Zanskar, Panikhar, which is commonly
considered to be on the border of the Suru Valley,
is an important place. There is a high pass between
Panikhar and Sankoo, a moderately sized valley about
42-km from Kargil, Ladakh . Zorawar Singh and his
forces entered Ladakh from the Suru Pass in 1832 en
route to conquer Tibet. He built a fort whose ruins
stand to this day.
Panzella Pass is situated at an elevation of more
than 4,200 m over the Zanskar range (Penzella
mountains). It separates Zanskar from the Suru
valley and other parts of Ladakh. On either side of
the pass there are camping grounds used by migratory
grazier communities and travelers. At the top, an
enchanting view of the surrounding ranges and
countryside greets the visitor.
At the top of the pass, there are two springs of
greenish water credited by legend to be the
birthplace of the progenitors of the famous Zanskar
breed of ponies. Different forms of vegetation come
up around the pass soon after the snow melts in
summer. These include many species, which have
medicinal value. Marmots live in burrows, moving to
lower elevations in winter. The brown bear is also
found on the slopes of the Penzela Pass.
The Penzela glacier, where the Suru River arises, is
situated on one of the flanks of this pass. On the
Zanskar side, an extensive stretch of flat land is
present at the foot of the pass. It is dissected by
a number of streams and supports riverine
vegetation, which becomes thick in summer. This is
an ideal camping ground for graziers and trekkers.
The Penzela Pass remains open only from May to
September, being closed for the rest of the year due
to heavy snowfall.
Karsha is another large settlement across the river
from Padam, at a distance of about 8-km from the
latter. It has a small market, school, dispensary
and post and telegraph facilities. There is also a
monastery at Karsha, which is revered by the
population living in the surrounding region