Dhangkar – The Cliffside Monastery

DSCN0722Dhangkar Gompa is something not from this world. Situated on dangerous cliffs, the monastery is over 1000 years old and is perched at an elevation of 12,774 feet. The Dhangkar complex is built on a 1000-foot (300-metre) high spur overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. In 2006, World Monuments Fund selected Dhankar gompa as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. Dhang or dang means cliff, and kar means fort. Hence Dhangkar (or Dangkhar as it is also spelt) means “fort on a cliff”.

Dhangkar fortress served as the traditional home of the royal family of Spiti – the Nonos – for many generations before falling into disrepair in the late 1800’s, when the Nono shifted his headquarters to Kyuling. In recent years, due to the deterioration of the building, some sections of the gompa have been abandoned and a new gompa has been built further down. Meanwhile, the fort of Dhangkar, destroyed by an earthquake in 1975, now lies in ruins, but is still a place worthy of a visit. From the remnants of the fort one can see vast expanses of the Spiti valley.

Sadly, Dhangkar is slowly deteriorating has been listed as one of the World’s Hundred Most Endangered Sites. Check out the Dhangkar Intiative, set up to help the restoration of this magnificent monastery.


Here we are on our way to Dhangkar. Climbing the mountains, we survey the Spiti valley below…

DSCN0714We stop to admire what I call the soldiers of Spiti. These massive rock formations are formed naturally through weathering by the harsh wind. The end up looking like a formation of guards, standing at attention, often 100s of feet high.


The first images of Dhangkar shock me. These huge rock pillars cluster behind the monastery, almost as if they rose from the earth! The largest building is the new hall being built for the Dalai Lama.


Dhangkar sits embedded in the cliff, overlooking the entire valley. The deterioration of the landscape is evident – who knows what force holds this monastery up!


The houses fit in to the nooks and crannies of the cliff.


More towers


The entire cliffside complex. Dhangkar is one of those places where you lose sense of space and time! The monastery on mars…


Tampi and Nono admiring the view, and looking very dignified


A close up of the giants – talk about protection from the elements!


A view from the Gompa of the purple mountains. Spiti has the most bizarre color palette I have ever seen.


Just chillin – perched high on the cliff, ready to take-off! I wonder what life would be like if I lived on the precipice of a giant cliff…


Walking through the cliffs to get to the main temple…


Here it is, the entrance to the good stuff…all of these holy spaces inhabit damp dark places, built into the earth.  The Yogis always preferred meditating in caves…


The confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers…these rivers split into many little tributaries, looking like the branches of a tree from a bird’s eye view


The kids in Spiti are adorable, the stuffed up and snotty from the dry air and harsh climate. This little one saw me walking through the village and demanded to be picked up so who I am to refuse?


Walking through the village that sits next to the monastery. The roads are extremely steep and we find ourselves slipping and sliding


We truly live in a global world. What would a remote village nestled deep in the deserts of India be without a satellite dish?


These structures were built to last through all the harsh elements – even if they do smell like Yak poop


My hilariously sarcastic guide poses for a key shot


Now there is a view you cannot forget. The sun beaming of the Pin River, standing on the roof of the gompa


More mountains, more rocks…maybe it gets old for you, but not me


Founded between 7th and the 9th centuries, Dhankar’s old temple complex is known by the name of Lha-O-pa Gompa (monastery of the followers of Lha-O). The monastery consists of a number of multi-storeyed buildings perched together, giving a fortress like impression.Most interesting at the Lha-O-pa gompa is the small chapel on the uppermost peak above the main monastery – Lhakhang Gongma.


Another view of these ancient treasures…what is it about old things that always makes you want to touch them??

The building is decorated with depictions of Shakyamuni, Tsongkhapa and Lama Chodrag on the central wall.


Working our way up to the roof we enjoy the view while trying to catch our breaths at the high altitudes…


Can you say more cliffs please? Chhering Bodh’s advice: don’t look down.


Here we are at the entrance to the cave meditation room. Budhhist writing on the wall which I can only imagine welcomes the visitor with an: Om Mani Padme Hum. This is the chief mantra associated with the compassion of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who is especially venerated in Tibet. The literal meaning of the mantra is often given as ‘Praise (Oṃ) to the jewel in the lotus, hail (hūm)!’, the lotus symbolizing the ordinary human mind with its inherent jewel-like potentiality for enlightenment (bodhi).


I get goosebumps and ask if I can sit in the meditation room alone for awhile and do some practice. As I enter the room is dank and dark, sacks of barley on the floor, and paintings of the Buddha and the dalai lama in the front. A flame burns eternally in the center…

As I close my eyes, all I literally hear is OM reverberating throughout the entire room. Charged with the spiritual energy of practice for the past 1000 years, it is no wonder this room feels as if it is alive.

DSCN0757 Chhering Bodh was nice enough to wait for me to come out of my little cave….reluctantly…It gave him time for a little nap before we continue on


Prayer flags flying in the whipping wind. The blessings are carried up to the skies…


These flags are everywhere. They even loop them across valleys and cliffs, walking the long and arduous way just to string the flags from one end to the other, making sure the gifts of prayer and spread everywhere.


Looking to our backs we feel protected by our guards..


Another view of the other half of the complex, almost like it is organically springing out of the cliffside.


What a photo to end with. Here is the head monk of the monastery kindly giving me his blessings. Tampi knows him personally so I was lucky enough to see his sweet shining face.His eyes are a milky blue grey and he whispers mantras into the red string he ties around my wrist…

My cousin informed me that he used to serve as the Dalai Lama’s personal bodyguard!

11 thoughts on “Dhangkar – The Cliffside Monastery

  1. Namaste Khushi
    It reminds me a trip I did in 2000 from Naggar to kinnaur. Lot of works at the monatery at this time.
    God Bless

    1. thanks claude…maybe time to go back for you? I am anxious to head back myself and revisit these amazing sites…the world changes to fast who knows what will happen in the next 5 years

  2. hi!!
    how do i get to this beautiful place? i’m going to India this monday and i’d love to know this lost paradise on the mountain.

    1. Hello

      You will most likely have to rent a 4X4 to get there. I took one from Manali to Spiti Valley.

      Enjoy your travels!

  3. Dear Khushi,

    Thank you from Wisconsin, U.S.A., for sharing your beautiful pictures of Dhangkar & your feelings while on the road less traveled, my favorite road.


    1. Dear Sam

      Glad you got something out of my ramblings haha. I hope to travel that road more often 🙂

      You are most welcome

  4. Dear Khushi,

    Thank you for calling attention to this magnificent site. Your photos are stunning!

    As the Dhangkar Initiative notes, it will be key to include a tourism plan for Dhangkar in an overall conservation strategy. Learn more about our work in Sustainable Tourism here: http://www.wmf.org/sustainabletourism.html

    Best regards,
    WMF (World Monuments Fund)

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