Zanskar is adjacent to Ladakh in northern India sandwiched between Kashmir and Western Tibet. We’ve been to Karsha on three occasions, in 2008 we finished our 11 day trek from Lamayuru at the nearby village of Pishu. The drive along the rough track from Pishu to Karsha takes an hour. The large, 11th century monastery makes a dramatic site as it comes into view clinging to the steep rocky hillside. Below, the valley opens wide into a flat plain that reaches the town of Padum, oval fields are ripening into different colours, snow capped Zanskar mountains behind.
We’d planned to arrive on the day of the Cham dance festival but we discover that it’s been set back for a day. The Cham dance is also called the Masked Dance festival, an important event in these remote Buddhist Himalayas. The date is determined, often at the last minute, by the local soothsayers. We camp next to a shop in the centre of Karsha village opposite the main prayer wheel and begin the long climb up the steep steps to the monastery, or gompa.
Karsha is the largest gompa in Zanskar; preparations are being finished for the festival. Young monks are carrying gas cylinders up the steep flights of stairs. We walk through gateway stupas sitting astride the path, their ceilings painted with fading Buddhist mandalas. Large prayer wheels are housed in buildings only just large enough to walk round. We’re invited into prayer rooms with fine paintings, statues and silk hangings. Monks, young and old, are hanging about with an air of expectancy, we’re made very welcome. The walls of one balcony are painted a beautiful shade of blue, unusual for Zanskar.
We climb higher, the upper prayer rooms are very beautiful, they’ve been cleaned and carpeted, new butter sculptures stand in front of the glass cased Buddhas; yellow and maroon robes are piled in the centre of the room. We’re given delicious tsampa cakes flavoured with honey, ginger and cinnamon. In a lower room we meet the nuns we met a few days ago at Zangla, they too are here for the festival.
Later in the afternoon we climb back up the steps and through a narrow passage into the courtyard where musicians and dancers are rehearsing for tomorrow’s Cham dance. The younger monks watch the dance master and try to imitate his movements. The atmosphere is relaxed and light hearted, tomorrow will be busy, packed with villagers from the surrounding valleys. The monks will be wearing masks and costumes and the dramas of the classical stories depicting impermanence and the hoped for triumph of good over evil will be enacted with colour, noise and more than touch of comedy and frights. Although we’ll miss tomorrow's spectacle, today we can see the monk’s expressions and we’re the only visitors.
Two teenage monks blow the Dung Chen, the long Tibetan horns; on the opposite wall older monks sit in a row with drums and cymbals creating the profound and discordant sounds that appear to come from deep inside the earth, these sounds almost seem to challenge the earth’s existence. The slow, but periodically frenetic, dances around the central prayer flag in the centre of the courtyard are enacted to the rhythm of the music.
On an adjacent hillside there's a nunnery, in 2016 one of the nuns opened the door into an old temple to Avalokiteshvara. A few days earlier we'd listened to the Dalai Lama teaching in Leh, Ladakh. He addressed the question of inequality in the status of monks and nuns, something he wanted to address but although he would like to see change it was under the jurisdiction of the council, he had no influence. Although monasteries like Karsha are relatively wealthy, the nunneries are invariably much poorer, mostly for cultural reasons.
Monks often get paid to conduct blessings by lay people, nuns rarely have that opportunity and lay people give far more generously to monks and monasteries as they believe there is more merit to be gained - yet it could be said that the nuns live a more devoted life that is truer to the teachings of the Buddha. Life as a nun is very hard and they are often expected to also support the family. I'd recommend giving more generous donations to nunneries than monasteries!