High Altitude Wetlands are important sources and resources for crucial freshwater, biodiversity storehouse, livelihoods, and ecosystem dynamics, and as well as weather regulators (WWF). Fragile and mostly hidden among the high mountain ranges, these freshwater ecosystems are now being studied for understanding and mitigating the impact of climate change for their effective management. Majority of these wetlands are some of the few natural ecosystems that have not undergone rampant human modification. As large reservoirs of brackish as well as freshwater, these wetlands are a central component of the great river systems of the Indus and the Ganges. However, it is largely understood, that the conservation of these high-altitude wetlands and lakes in the Himalaya poses an immense challenge, mainly by nature of their difficult terrain and locations.
Dhankhar Lake is one stunning, high-altitude wetland in the trans-Himalayan cold desert region of Spiti, in Himachal Pradesh. The lake is located above the small sleepy village of Dhankhar, about 3 kms, straight uphill from the village gompa. The village boasts of their famous Monastery, one of the five main Buddhist centres and a major tourist destination in Spiti valley. The monastery complex is built on a 300 m high spur, overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers – surely, among the most spectacular settings for a gompa.
Dhankar gets its name from ‘Dhang’ meaning cliff, and ‘kar’ meaning fort, literally meaning fort on a cliff. It was supposedly, the traditional capital of the Spiti Kingdom during the 17th century, being the seat of the early rulers of Spiti, the Nonos, who ruled the valley from here.
Today, the monastery seems to be crumbling, with its thanka’s and statues crying for maintenance and proper conservation. During 2006, the World Monuments Fund selected Dhankar gompa as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. The recent visit of the Chief Minister, on the Himachal Day eve, did assure some help to the monastery.
There is only one trail that leads to the lake, the trek following a barren, dusty path that attains altitude with each slow step uphill. Mind you, it is a difficult trek, a true test of fitness and stamina, as both are required to go from an altitude of 3700 m to 4150 m in just over 2.5 kms. While hiking the steep trail, one can stand to get his breath back and look backwards to experience the beautiful view of Dhankar village and Gompa standing among the weathered mountains, along with the panoramic view of the confluence of Pin and Spiti rivers, shining and sparkling in the backdrop.
This short duration trek, also witnesses fluctuations in temperature, for which extreme endurance is needed as it goes from warm to hot, to windy with extreme UV radiations. However, once you reach, this magical lake makes you wonder in awe, the lake water changing its colours, the blowing wind makes it shimmer in the sun and soothing to the mind, all with mesmerising effect.
The lake is fed from the glacier, and is amazingly picturesque, being surrounded by the snow-capped Manirang mountain range in the distance, across the Spiti river. Manirang range, being among the highest mountains in Himachal, bordering between Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti districts. Close to the peak is the high Manirang pass, one of the early trade routes between Spiti and Kinnaur, before the motorable road was built. The trail over the pass starts from Mane Yogma on the right banks of the Spiti river and runs across to the Ropa valley in Kinnaur.
The lake is frozen for almost eight months in the year, and when snowmelt occurs the lake has water can be seen moving in ripples, mainly between mid-May to September. It is during that period that the lake appears turquoise blue to hues of green as seen from different angles. Notwithstanding, the lake has its charming effects even when frozen.
During the brief summers, the lake is surrounded by shrubs of Caragana versicolor draped in bright yellow flowers and Lonicera spinosa with numerous tiny white flowers, that are characteristic of these altitudes, in the region. Besides, the trek also offers several tall bushes of the desert Webb’s rose (Rosa webbiana) draped in scented pink showy flowers.
The stupa here is also ancient and I felt wonderful chanting a prayer here. If you are lucky, then it is also a good location to sit and spot the elusive Himalayan Ibex and Blue sheep.
Many stories and myths are associated with the establishment of the Dhankar Lake.
One religious myth is that Lord Shiva stayed here for some time while he was wandering in search of Lord Vishnu. His most loved devotee and squire, Nandi drunk some water from this place and as a reward Lord Shiva blessed this area with plenty of water in the form of a lake.
Another religious myth is popular that Lord Indra saw the dryness of this area and become very disappointed. He requested Lord Shiva to investigate the matter but Lord Shiva was in search of Lord Vishnu. Seeing the delay, Lord Indra thrown his axe and by its impact, a spring came out and formed a lake. Since then, on every Mouni Amavasya (January month), a festival is celebrated by the residents of this area. One story goes that Lord Shiv stayed at this lake for some time in search of Vishnu. While Shiva was wandering in search of Vishnu, his attendant Nandi drank some water from this place and as a reward Lord Shiv blessed the area with plenty of water. The myths and legends always add reverence and peace in these locales. No wonder once you reach the lake, the feeling is surprisingly out of the world, just amazing, making you forget the steep uphill tread and the gasps for getting the thin high mountain air. Truly, these majestic high-altitude landscapes can conjure up our most primal emotions and feelings.
To sum it all up – ‘Less to be said about this enchanting lake, and more to experience it.’
Dr. Vaneet Jishtu, a field botanist specialising in high altitude himalayan flora, conducts a wide range of research at Himalayan Forest Research Institute (HFRI), where he works. At Shimla he has pioneered in setting up an arboretum, a botanical garden where a vast collection of Himalayan trees have been planted. He lives in Shimla