You would not find any adventurer or tourist talking or writing about this place. Not even the crazy hippies coming from the far off lands of Europe know about this place hidden from the outside world. Here lies a forgotten gompa dedicated to the benevolent Buddha, constructed by his faithful followers hundreds of years ago.
The Gompa of Bhanodi in the Churah Valley of Chamba is an ancient monastery that was constructed at least 150 years ago. While modern monasteries mushroomed all across Himachal, the locals as well as the authorities neglected this wooden wonder equally. Located right across the Chamba – Sach State Highway near Kalaban, this gompa is still waiting for a road.
Nestled amidst the towering mountains of the Pir Panjal ranges, Bhanodi Gompa is a different world in itself. As Shri Raina* puts it, Bhanodi is a one-man civilization, that of Bawa Sonam Gyatso, the lone caretaker and also the Head Lama of this centuries old house of faith and dedication.
After I left Jasaurgarh, my next destination was Bhanodi but all I knew about this monastery was that it existed somewhere near Bairagarh. I had to ask bus conductors, PWD laborers, and bank officials about this gompa but nobody could give me any concrete information about its location. At Tisaa, I asked a shopkeeper and he told me about the whereabouts of this gompa. Surprisingly, he knew Bawa Gyatso, Head Lama at the gompa, and he was happy beyond measure when I told him about my intentions of visiting the gompa.
Almost 10-15 km before Bairagarh, near Tarella, a kuchha road branches off to Bhanodi Village and one has to walk from Tarella to the gompa as the government’s plans to construct a road were obstructed by some trouble mongers. Since then, the road construction works are in limbo and now that a temple has come up in the middle of the proposed road, it seems almost impossible that an all-weather road will ever be constructed here.
I had borrowed my friend’s
motorcycle bullet, so I managed to cross the wooden bridge and travel a considerable distance on the link road. The bridge shook heavily as the 180kg motorcycle thundered on its aged floorboard. But however clichéd it may sound, luck always favors the brave. As it had rained heavily the previous night, the risk factor was certainly not in my favor, yet I managed successfully to cross over the bridge.
The trail passes through a thick forest and there is no dearth of water on this trail. You will find small villages, comprising of only two houses in one case, on this route. If you are not accompanied by a guide, it’s highly likely that you will find the trail confusing and frustrating. I found gujjars and gaddis moving with their cattle to the Pangi Valley in search of greener pastures.
And nobody knows these Himalaya better than the gaddis. They shared with me their adventurous journeys in the Pir Panjals. They told me about a lake in the Churah Valley bordering the Langera region. Surajkund, as they call it, is as big as Parashar Lake. Every year during the festival of Janmashtami, pilgrims hike up to the mountain to take a holy dip in this lake. This calls for another visit to the Churah Valley sometime in near future.
It took me almost three hours to reach at the base of the gompa. Surprisingly, there was a police check post there. The Satrundi Post on the Sach Highway shifts to Bhanodi during winters and cops keep a vigilant eye on the movement near the border area.
You must carry your valid photo identity cards in order to visit the gompa. Without a valid identity card, you may not be allowed to move past the check post.
A short hike up from the Police Post lands you entirely in a different world altogether. I was my good fortune to be there at a time when Bawa Sonam was about to start his ceremonial proceedings because it was on this day only when Sonam Chepel, founder of the Bhanodi Gompa left for his heavenly abode.
A single man, miles away from the civilized world , Bawa Sonam was so engrossed in his duty that he did not notice my presence for almost half an hour. And when he did, he kept apologizing for the next half an hour.
This place was once visited by the first CM of the state, Dr. Y.S. Parmar and thereafter nobody even bothered to look at the gompa. Another road was proposed via Satrundi but that road is still under construction and it might take another decade considering the pace of its construction.
The walls of the gompa have visible cracks and the age old thangkas are being used as curtains. Some of them wouldn’t even make for a good mop cloth. Stuccos of Padamsambhava, Avalokiteswara, and other Buddhist deities are safeguarded in a wooden closet that itself needs a complete overhaul. The stucco of Padamsambhava is at least 15 feet tall.
There must be 15-20 thangkas at the gompa and most of them call for urgent restoration and preservation measures.
The documents and artifacts of historical importance have been shifted to Kalimpong after thieves broke into the monastery long ago. The state government constructed a trekker’s hut way back in 2006; a whopping sum of 38 lacs was spent on that exercise. Even today that trekking hut is under construction.
Bawa Sonam Gyatso fondly brings his photo albums and shares his lifetime experiences with every stranger he meets. He was born at this place only and he fondly remembers his old days when this region was frequented by tourists’ and pilgrims alike. Things started to change when the devil of terrorism affected the border area and since then nothing is normal, says Bawa Sonam.
Today, Bawa Sonam has grown old beyond measure. Although he is just 65, his lifelong struggle to resurrect the lost glory of Bhanodi Gompa has taken a huge toll on his body, but nothing could deter his spirit.
Bawa Sonam spends his time between Bhanodi and Rajeri, another small village downhill during winters. All these years, Bawa Sonam has waited for someone to help him resurrect the lost glory of Bhanodi Gompa.
He is still waiting!
P.S. Shri Swarn Deepak Raina is coordinator of the Shri Guru Padmasmbhava Tantric University , Bhanodi. He can be contacted at 09418010622 and you can email him at deepakraina1951 [at] gmail (dot) com.