Buddhism has been a living and flourishing religion in Himachal Pradesh since long, particularly in the Western Himalaya of Lahaul, Kinnaur, and Spiti regions. However, not much is known about the status of Buddhism in the remote lands of Chamba.
Churah Valley in Chamba is a seat of two ancient Buddhist Monasteries; Jasaurgarh and Bhanodi Gompa. And both of them in a dilapidated state. The Jasaurgarh Gompa is known after the name of the village it is located in, however the Buddhist name of this Gompa is Samten Choling Monastery.
I was staying at the NHPC quarters with my friends working at Surangani and because my plans of visiting Pangi Valley across the Chaini Pass bore no fruit, I was looking for some other place to visit. The Sach Pass had not yet opened and I almost decided to go back home.
But you don’t come back empty-handed from Chamba ever. Having traveled so far, it would have been disastrous to come back like this.
I have learned an old school trick of taking notes while traveling from Kumar HV, the Highway King of India, as we popularly call him. I was going through my diary and there I found my new destination. Surprisingly, I was just 30 km away from a historical Buddhist Monastic Center of the Churah Valley; the Samten Choling Monastery (Jasuargarh Gompa).
This gompa is located in the middle of a thick forest, a couple of traditional Cob houses surrounding it, and an attendant almost half as old as the monastery is all that you find here.
The gompa is located in Jasaurgarh Village, 25 km NE from Kalhel on the Chamba Pangi State Highway towards Sach Pass. A single link road leads straight to the Jasaurgarh Village where from a kuchha road takes you to the gompa.
A half an hour walk from the road takes you to the gompa, which looks like a typical Lahaul Village gompa in appearance. I was expecting ruins of an ancient monastery but fortunately there was a structure standing at Jasaurgarh, only waiting for its untimely demise.
The walls of the gompa are painted green, a newly constructed combo roof of aluminum and slate, and wooden frames used in places for supporting the roof. The gompa is in-fact just a little room. A new building has been constructed alongside the gompa, which has a couple of guest quarters. The sole attendant of the gompa lives in one of those quarters.
Samten Choling gompa belongs to the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism and it has a collection of ancient Thangkas pinned to its fading walls. Some of the thangkas have been shifted to Bhanodi Gompa in the Churah Valley itself.
There are three main idols placed in the monastery. The leftmost idol is of Amitabha (the God of Infinite Light) while the rightmost idol is of Rinpoche Padamsambhava. The central idol is of Avalokiteswara. All these idols are gradually deteriorating and the beautiful thangkas share the same fate.
Chetin Dorje, the attendant of the monastery is an aging man. I inquired about his age and family but he was too overwhelmed to see me at his place. He walked with difficulty, did not speak proper Hindi yet he did whatever he could to treat his guest well, perhaps his only guest in months or maybe years.
He came to Jasaurgarh at the age of 15. And since then, Jasaurgarh is the only place that he considers his home. Although he wasn’t sure, he told me that he was 80-85 years old and earlier his wife used to stay with him. Now that she is gone, he finds it little difficult to spend his time.
With a promise of coming back, I left Jasaurgarh with a heavy heart, partly because of the dilapidated state of the gompa, and partly because of Chetin Dorje’s story.
He told me about another ancient gompa of the Churah Valley, the Bhanodi Gompa. This following photograph shows how I started my journey towards the Bhanodi Gompa.
We talk about it in the next post.
P.S. 1. O. C. Handa, a well-known connoisseur of Himachali Art & Culture, has written a thoroughly researched book titled Buddhist Monasteries of Himachal but somehow he has missed details of these two monasteries of Chamba.
2. Shri Swarn Deepak Raina, a social activist and Coordinator of the Padamsambhava Tantric University located at Bhanodi has also done extensive research for the promotion and preservation of these ancient monastic centers of Chamba. It was through Shri Raina’s article (published at Hill Post) only; I got to know about these two lost marvels of the Churah Valley.
Although, his stories deal primarily with another ancient gompa of the Churah Valley i;e the Bhanodi Gompa but whatever little information Handa and Raina could provide, that was more than enough for me to start my exploration.
After completion of my journey, I had a word with Shri Raina, and from him I found out that there are at-least 5-6 more monasteries in Chamba District, most of them located in the Pangi Valley.