By Monidipa Dey
To find the true essence of the Himalaya one must travel deep inside the mountainous terrain, and explore the remote areas. One such place is the Spiti valley that with its cold desert-like terrain and ethereal views offers some unforgettable experiences. The ride to Spiti however is a pretty rough one. Roads to Spiti valley are considered to be among the most dangerous ones in the world.There are two ways to enter this beautiful valley: one through Manali via the Rohtang la and Kunzum la, and the other through Kinnaur via the Mallang la. Roads from both sides are tough, sometimes almost non-existent; and while the scenery is mesmerizing, travellers must be prepared for a rough roller-coaster ride.
Spiti, the word when literally translated, means ‘the middle land,’ or the land that lies between India and Tibet. The place is also referred to as the land of lamas. The inhabitants here are predominantly followers of the Vajrayana form of Buddhism, and practice the Tibetan culture. Many colourful monasteries or gompas, some of which historically date back to the ancient and early medieval times, dot the barren hill sides.
Among these, the most unique and perhaps the most beautiful one is the Tabo mud monastery. Located in the picturesque village of Tabo that stands at a height of 10,760 feet, the Tabo mud monastery has a fort like appearance with its thick walls and buttresses. Built of pressed clay and rubble masonry, the monastery complex comprises of a group of beautiful mud-brick structures that have defied many centuries of destruction inflicted by both man and nature.
Founded in 996 CE by Rinchen Zangpo~ the Great Translator, this Buddhist temple complex is the oldest continuously functional gompa in India. The Tabo monastery as of now has nine temples, four stupas, and few cave shrines. A little ahead, in the hill face directly above the monastery, are seen some meditation caves carved into the rock face which are still used by the monks.
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The beauty of this high-walled gompa complex lies in how perfectly it blends with the surrounding mud and wooden houses that are seen typically in Spiti villages. The plain mud-built external walls of this medieval gompa also hide many secrets that lie inside its little temples in the form of exquisite scriptures and wall paintings, safely preserved in the darkness for many centuries.
The beautiful frescoes and murals that are seen on the walls inside depict various jataka stories. Interestingly the Tabo monastery paintings show two distinct phases: the first phase of 996 CE shows clear local and Central Asian influences; while the second phase of 11th century CE shows a clear Kashmiri and Eastern Indian (Pala dynasty) influence. Besides the paintings, the Tabo gompa holds many old manuscripts, thankas, and statues. Tabo monastery holds great significance in Indian history because of its central role in introducing of what we now know as the Indo-Tibetan form of Buddhism to Tibet in the 10th – 11th century CE.
Beside the old monastery complex there is a new monastery and an assembly hall, which were all rebuilt in 1983, after the devastating earthquake of 1975. The monastery is currently being renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and is a protected monument of national historic importance.
Travel Tips: Spiti valley remains open from end of May – June to mid September from Manali side, while the Kinnaur route remains open for a longer period. However for tourists, travelling is advisable from end of June to August, when the weather is perfect and not so cold. Carrying woollens is compulsory, and so is drinking water at regular intervals to keep the body hydrated. While the monastery walls have beautiful frescoes, one must keep in mind that photography is not allowed inside. Spiti valley often faces acute water shortage, so while travelling it is essential to remember to minimise the use of water.
(The author is a travel writer. Images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal.)