“So what do you need?”
“Yeah, but is there something specific you need?”
“Yes, from food to teachers, from porters to labourers. Anything would be of help.”
We were sitting in the small but cozy room of the head Lama (Buddhist monk) of the Phugtal Monastery. It was a comical conversation, going back and forth from English to Hindi to Ladakhi, but one we felt very privileged to be having. We had been kindly welcomed in this beautiful Gompa, and now it seemed, we could try lend them a helping hand.
A night at the Phugtal Monastery was part of our 6 day hike out of the Himalayas from Padum in Zanskar Valley to Manali. We had already read wonders of the 600 year old Monastery perched on a cliff side overlooking the turquoise water of Lungnak river. The setting is certainly stunning (and hard to reach), but what we couldn’t have imagined is how impressed we were going to be by the people living there.
The flip side to Phugtal’s beauty
Phugtal Monastery or Gompa has a small monastic school and is home to some 70 Buddhist monks who live in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Reachable only by foot, and with limited electricity or running water, life is hard for the monks, especially during the cold winters, when the heavy snow fall and low temperatures isolate them further.
The limited means of subsistence and the Monastery’s inaccessibility makes the monks dependent on outside supply for everything, be it food, equipment, modern medicine and also its educational material.
As much as is written of the beauty of this place, and of all its trekking opportunities, not much is mentioned about the struggles of the monks. They welcome people from all over the world daily during the summer months, but little is talked about returning the favour.
We were lucky enough to be able to talk to a woman from Mumbai, Varsha, who had recently started volunteering there. It is through her, and the stories she kindly translated for us, that we became aware of how much more could be done to help out. We promised them to share this information, with the hopes that it reaches the right people.
Their greatest and most immediate needs* are:
- Supplies: these range from school books and pencils, food, and equipment to maintain the Monastery.
- Volunteers: motivated and skilled individuals willing to go there and help for at least a couple of months could be a great added value.
* Although this is of course, not an exhaustive list of all the needs the Monastery has, we have decided to focus here on those areas we believe travellers can make a meaningful difference in. Further help and assistance would have to be organised directly in communication with Phugtal Monastery.
1. Bringing supplies
These are the main supplies needed:
- School books: Unfortunately the government is not providing the Monastery with the school supplies necessary for them to carry out the national school curriculum. The class we attended had three scruffy schoolbooks for fifteen students. The kids are ages 8 to 18 following the Central Institute for Buddhist Studies school curriculum. Also, easy english books for them to read would be great.
- School uniforms: while the students currently wear the regular red garb, the head monk wishes to provide the young lamas with a uniform, the design for which would be finalised based on the donations collected.
- Pencils and pens: some of the students use pens while most just share the available pencils. They would greatly appreciate having their own pens. Colouring pens would also be wonderful as they are very fond of drawing.
- Entertainment and recreation: the young lamas are very active and entertain themselves in their free time by playing football with discarded bottles and other such items. They would love to have a football or handball made accessible to them.
- Food and subsistence items: the normal meals here consist of basic cereals and a mixed grain powder, that is eaten with the salty butter tea typical of the region. Additional dry fruits, vegetables, fruits and eggs would be welcome sources of nutrition for the children.*
* Please be mindful of the packaging materials used for the items you plan on bringing. With no waste management facilities, all plastic waste needs to be burnt or buried. This is not a sustainable solution. And of course there is also the risk of the packaging just being left around, contaminating the pristine environment. We noticed the kids love to buy themselves candy and cookies (the guest house has a little shop), which results in there being brightly coloured plastic wrappers stuffed in virtually every nook and crook of the Monastery, as well as floating around. This is bound to become more of an issue as the years go by, and your attention and approach can greatly determine the way forward.
How can these supplies be delivered?
One of the issues the monks have is that of getting the necessary supplies delivered to this remote and difficult to reach location. However, many hikers visit the Phugtal Monastery during the summer months. With everyone buying and carrying just one or two small things, the supplies delivered would quickly add up, and would be of great help to the monks. We wish we would have known this before getting there, as we would have happily gotten something to leave behind.
It is of course not strictly necessary that all these supplies are brought in by hikers. With the appropriate funds, the monks can arrange to purchase and get supplies there, themselves. However, as of now, there is no way to make a donation to them online. So anyone wishing to contribute monetarily will have to go in person.
2. A call for long term volunteers
Unlike many other Gompas in the region, where only men can stay, Phugtal welcomes everyone. Female travellers are allowed to sleep in the Monastery’s basic tourist lodge when passing by, and would even be welcome to stay within the Monastery’s walls when working as a volunteer.
Being a teacher
In an ideal situation, this monastic school would have the resources and capacity to employ permanent qualified teachers that provide the necessary education to the kids attending. But the reality is very different. The Monastery takes in kids from the surrounding villages, free of charge, and provides them with accommodation, food and basic education. They unfortunately receive little to no assistance from the government with school supplies, and have a difficult time finding teachers willing to live and work in such conditions. Volunteer teachers are needed.
When we were there, there were 4 teachers tutoring around 30 kids, ages 8 to 18, divided in 4 classrooms. One of the teachers was Varsha, who was there for 3 months. Two of the other teachers were monks from the Karsha Gompa who had come temporarily to help because of the dire needs for teachers. The current situation is unknown due to their satellite phone being down. We will update this should we receive further news.
The school follows the Central Institute for Buddhist Studies curriculum, with additional classes for Buddhist teachings and Tibetan language. As a teacher, you will have to adapt to their methods of teaching, and be flexible enough to improvise as needed. We also think it is necessary that you speak Hindi. Some students understand and can express themselves in basic English, but most (younger) students communicate in Hindi or Ladakhi. If you only speak English, we don’t think you’ll be able to teach the students in the way that is most beneficial to them.
Please take into account, you have the responsibility to make sure you’ll truly be helpful. Only consider a volunteering position as a teacher in the Phugtal Monastery if you already have educational experience and know how to work with students of different ages, in a difficult classroom setting. You will have to be creative and motivated to find daily solutions to the shortcomings of the school. Please take into account the important role you could have in these kids’ life, and make sure your intentions are aligned with what is truly needed.
To volunteer as a teacher you need to have the motivation and dedication to commit to at least 2-3 months. They have had issues in the past with volunteers leaving after just a couple of days/weeks because of the rough circumstances. This is not helpful in any way, so only consider it if you are willing to stick it out. The longer the period, the better. Ladakh and the Zanskar Valley are normally accessible from the end of May to the end of September. The students go to school from March to December.
A word of caution
Varsha, the volunteer from Mumbai, had her own room during the three months she taught in the school, and she lived her day to day with the monks. While facilities were basic, including dry toilets, infrequent showers and very basic food, she enjoyed her stay because of the love the monks gave her and the fun she had interacting with the children. Getting acquainted with and making friends with the visiting tourists was an added bonus.
However, volunteering in such a setting is not for everyone. You will be cut away from the world (the only communication possible is through a satellite phone that you will have access to occasionally), living in a Monastery with very basic conditions: running water and electricity are scarce and there are no modern day luxuries. Buddhist monks, some of whom speak English, and the occasional friendly tourist, will be your only company. Even in the height of summer, the nights get cold. And with limited supplies available, the food will be very basic, and strictly vegetarian.
The nearest big town is Padum, a few hours away (if you walk till the road about 2-3h away, and then get a ride). Padum is a small town in the Zanskar valley. There you’ll be able to eat things like pizza, and stock up on food, but don’t expect much more than that. There are internet cafes that charge you hefty prices for very slow internet, but you will be able to make local and international calls.
We want to be very frank with you when you consider volunteering in the Phugtal Monastery, so that you won’t romanticise the idea of living there. Very few can nowadays sustain these conditions. Keeping an open mind and being flexible is key. We urge you to only consider long term volunteering, as you will need time to adapt to the environment and to the educational methods and facilities. This is also conversely the case, where the monks will have to adapt to your presence and get to know you, so that they can make the most out of your capabilities.
In case after reading all of this, you truly think this could be a mutually enriching experience, make sure to contact Dr. Tsewang Yangjor by phone at +91 94692 97433, +91 97976 45848 or +91 83779 63427, or email him at [email protected]. You can also try directly calling the Monastery at +91 89919 22379 (the number might not always be available).
Leaving more than footsteps behind
So are you planning to visit the stunning Phugtal Gompa any time soon? We totally recommend it! But first, please take a minute to think of how you can positively contribute to the region, and more specifically to the Monastery whilst there. Whether it be by bringing a notebook or two, or spreading the word, your interest will be much appreciated. You can also help by staying in the simple guest house, or leaving a donation, as this money contributes to their subsistence. And remember, keep an open mind towards different ways of living, and always be respectful. When doing so, you are bound to be welcomed into a stunning world you couldn’t even imagine existed!
Should you have any doubts or questions, you can always write to us, and we’ll try to answer them, or try to bring you in contact with people that know more than we do. If you have visited the Phugtal Monastery, or know more about the current needs, and have additional or more updated information, please let us know in the comments or through a direct message and we’ll update this post accordingly.
Thank you for caring!