Organic Dhankar

Dhankar the barren beauty !!

Image by Pranali Wadaskar

Dhankar was a part of the proposed itinerary on my Spiti trip. As I googled on the place, it came across as stark rare kinds, and hence, I looked forward to being there, amongst the other places. I was but cautioned by my guide on the trip; but a little too late, of what I should not be expecting of Dhankar.

Prayer flags at old Dhankar Gompa

And here's the Dhankar that came as a startling experience. As I reached the circumference of Dhankar, the murky Spiti River kept constant company. Soon as my vehicle reached higher ground, leaving the Spiti River behind, I was surprised to see a helipad. Now I was wondering, "Dude, this place has a helipad; and then why did my guide caution me so??"

With my doubts, I entered the dusty village of Dhankar in no time. Crossing the new Dhankar Monastery, my vehicle came and stopped at a strategic point which gave me a whole view of this horse-shoe shaped high altitude village (12,774 feet). The village was truly dominated by these mud spires, the stalagmites that stood bold and high as the protectors of this village. These natural formations were a never before experience, and truly inviting and captivating. The sparse white houses were neatly stacked in the alcove of the horse-shoe.

The stalagmites at Dhankar

This place was a crumbling story of mud, scree and stones,supposed to be razed to the ground any moment. But, have been standing the test of seasons and centuries. Barren and rugged, seems to be holding no inch of soil which could produce, yet the lush green patches remained critically noticed.

Dhankar Village

 I was allotted a home-stay and, I proceeded towards it breathing the thin air. The home-stay was spic-n-span, and unusually quiet. I was shown to my room, which was a humble and cosy abode for the next one day. The view from the window further kept me gripped for a long time unlike my city window which just offered me wire meshes and other balconies to see. My home-stay window gave me a frontal view of the Dhankar Gompa sitting silently against the cerulean sky, which in no time became dramatically blazing as the twilight wore in. The quiet village of Dhankar underneath the Gompa and the mighty snow-clad mountains behind the rugged mountains stood still under the faint chants.

View from my window showing the old Dhankar Gompa at the top

 The Home-stay

I was but avoiding the fact which kept me nagging. Is it, or is it not??

It was at last time to use the toilet after a back-breaking travel all day. I was hopeful that the guide was exaggerating, and its going to be a comfortable affair. Clean toilets and beds have been my priority for any travel, and I was to witness something unusual. Dhankar, my guide said, ‘Has dry toilets. They are eco toilets and usage of water is not allowed. These toilets are built over two floors and the waste gets deposited on the floor below. This waste is further mixed with animal dung and used as fertilisers for the crops.’

The dreaded dungeon - Dry Toilet

And yet, I expected a miracle in this Dung Palace. The cell was one torture chamber and stank hell. To add to the misery, there were no lights and it actually gave a feel of some dungeon. The paper tissues were allowed, yet no water. The first experience was somehow dreadfully over, and yet there were many to come. Yet, I brushed aside the thought, Dhankar was a beautiful village; and could not be overlooked for its organic ways.

Hone-stay Terrace - Image by Pranali Wadaskar

Welcomed by an amazing spiced cinnamon tea, I was refreshed to accept this place as it is, un-adultered, untouched. This place has a helipad and internet connection, yet people use the age-old methods at farming. There must be a reason. The major crops are pea, barley and potatoes. My home-stay owner told me he makes the best peas in the village, which find market in Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. The woman in me also went to the extent of asking him the per kg price he gets, and it well tallied with the Mumbai price for pea. He certainly was doing good!! so I thought. I am not a raw pea lover, but during my entire trip in Spiti, I have been plucking peas from the farms and eating to my heart's content. Sweet, rounded and juicy. But, the secret to these juicy peas, left me contemplating now. Only for a while though, as the dinner was Pea-potato (Muttor-Aloo) and Kidney beans ( Rajma). The irony was, I could not skip dinner, as I was famished.

Aloo-Muttor, Rajma and Cinnamon Tea

Arak, the local Barley Whiskey

Aloo-Muttor, Rajma and baked Indian bread were a culinary delight and so was Arak, the locally blended whisky (barley alcohol). The night was a beautiful affair, lying down on the terrace and watching the star-studded sky. The sense of being able to watch the beautiful sky, the milky way and the trailing stars is unmatched, and brought back the memories of trekking days in Sahyadris. The temperature was dropping, and the winds made it unbearable to stay put any further, and I called off for the day.

Star Trails - Milky Way -Image by Pranali Wadaskar

As I remained in bed thinking about the events of the day, the dry toilet did cross my mind and I had accepted it by now. Some places deserve to be as they are, and change would disturb the very element of their existence. Though, the visit to the toilet remained a self-induced penance. The thin air did not allow me a deep sleep, yet a relaxing one.

The new day brought a new beginning.  Waking as early as 6 am, the day was bright and sun up above the head already. The dawn is as early as 4 am here and the dusk by 5 pm.

A shepherd with his flock against the mesmerising formations

              Life is not easy here

The sun was blazing hot at 8 am and hence, I avoided trekking uphill to the Dhankar Lake and instead opted to go around the village. The Dhankar Gompa visible from my room was overpowering me, and justified a visit. The facade of snow clad mountains overpowering the dusted mountains and valleys, cerulean skies dramatic in their own way, and the plethora of spires which have been around since eons, brought a rugged yet charismatic feel to this place. Dhankar - Dhan means cliff and Kar meaning fort in local language. The Dhankar Gompa is thus situated on a strategic location overlooking the confluence of Pin-Spiti River. The Gompa is more than 1000 years old and once remained the traditional capital to Spiti Valley. The old Gompa lies in ruins now, yet, ethereally beautiful and magnetic. 

The old Dhankar Gompa

New Dhankar Monastery

The new monastery is built in the heart of the village. The old Gompa yet has some hardcore followers, and while I sat there, overlooking the confluence of Pin-Spiti Rivers for more than an hour, I was greeted by many a Juley!! from some tourists from Leh (Juley!! means Hello!! in Leh). While wandering around the village, a traveller from London shared some insights of his journey. 

A pilgrim with the background of Pin-Spiti River confluence as seen from Old Dhankar Gompa

Mud, scree and stones, this place was all about it. Yet, the Oasis it is from the organic life the villagers lead - organic at practices, organic lifestyle and organic ways, it all culminates to make Dhankar a barren beauty, which endures. So while you are in Spiti, make it a point to visit Dhankar, breath in its organic air, live its organic ways and relish in its organic food, whether you like its dry toilets or not.

   The lush pea fields - Image by Pranali Wadaskar

Photos & Text by - Jyoti Rane
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