The district of Lahaul-Spiti is a cold desert area as it hardly gets any rain. Mountain ranges here are bare, bereft of any vegetation. As you drive up and down the Trans-Himalayan range, you see the region’s stunning landscape. Snow is a common feature here and some peaks never let it go, no matter what season it is. The rivers swiftly flow at the base of these mountains, carrying the water formed by melted snow. The sky here has a special shade of blue that you don’t get to see elsewhere, especially in the cities. Complementing the blue sky well are small, beautiful meadows of the valley. Colourful Buddhist flags can be seen fluttering in the breeze, indicating the culture of the land. Large prayer wheels and stones carved with the Buddhist mantra ‘Oṃ maṇi padme hum’ can be seen at the entrance of many villages. When you reach a village, you might wonder how these communities live in such isolation. Nonetheless, there are many places to visit in Lahaul-Spiti.
1. Tabo Monastery
Tabo Monastery is an ancient monastery that was established in 996 CE. It is considered to be an important monastery and is often referred to as the Ajanta of the Himalayas. The complex has 9 temples and many stupas—all of which are made in mud and have been standing like this for more than 1000 years. The main temple is an assembly hall where monks used to pray together. This hall has all its walls painted with Buddhist stories. There are stories of the life of Shakyamuni (the Buddha) and various Bodhisattvas. There are also 33 stucco sculptures of Bodhisattvas on the walls with their names mentioned for recognition. You can go around the hall and admire the paintings, some of which date back to the time when the monastery was built, but most of them are from a later period when probably conservation and restoration work was carried on. The paintings do seem to be inspired from Ajanta paintings though the style of is a bit different. Other temples are usually closed, but monks might open them for you on request. These temples belong to Buddhist deities like Tara and Buddha Maitreya. No photography of the paintings is allowed at Tabo Monastery though you can take pictures of the complex outside. However, picture postcards of these beautiful paintings are available with monks for sale.
2. Tabo Caves
On the hill facing Tabo village, one can see a series of caves with colourful Buddhist flags fluttering outside. At first, it is difficult to make out whether these are natural or man-made caves. Some of these caves are even multi-storeyed. Incidentally, one of the caves up there is also a part of Tabo Monastery complex that is now under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). A flight of steps take you to this cave on the hill that has a small temple and a hall like chamber where prayers and other rituals were performed. A small kitchen attached to this mud cave is where monks used to cook their food. Other caves are difficult to reach as you the walk is tedious up the hill. You can easily spot that these caves must have been inhabited at some point in time. Locals told us that evidence of smoke and food has been found inside these caves. From these caves, you get a lovely panoramic view of Tabo village and its mud monastery with the Spiti River and the towering mountains forming the backdrop. I wish there were some efforts taken to preserve these ancient caves.
3. Tabo Rock Art
Tabo is a small village located on the banks of the Spiti River. It is well known for its monastery that is more than a thousand years old and has amazing Ajanta like paintings. Its caves show that monks lived here even before there was any settlement in the area. It is, however, the carvings on big rocks that tell us that this area was probably inhabited since pre-historic times. The carvings have not been documented so the exact time period is not known. To explore these carvings you have to go behind the local school and keep looking at all the big rocks. Some of these will surprise you with amazing figures on them. The most prominent symbol is that of Swastika that can be seen on many rocks, and many times on a single rock. In terms of density, these are followed by carvings of different animals like deer and humped bull. There are also human figures and weapons like bows and arrows carved on rocks. However, a lot of these carvings have faded away and are difficult to interpret.
4. Giu Mummy
When you drive from Nako to Tabo, you cross a bridge over the Spiti River after Sumdo and take a detour of about 7 km to reach a small hamlet called Giu. This is an almost isolated habitation with no other village in view, but what makes it famous is over 500-years-old mummy of a Buddhist monk. On a small hillock just on the outskirts of the village in a small room, inside a glass cabin, lies the mummy of an old monk. The nails, teeth and hair of the mummy appear as if of a living person. There are many theories about how this monk’s body has remained in this state without decay and without the use of any chemicals for preservation. Apparently his body got buried beneath a glacier during an avalanche and remained there for hundreds of years till ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) personnel found it during some road clearance project. It was then brought to Giu and placed here, and a small shrine was built around it. Another theory claims that the yogic posture in which the monk sits can self preserve the body. Whatever the case be, it is no less than a wonder to witness that how a human body has preserved itself for so many years without any decay or chemicals. When I visited, a new big temple was being built next to the existing shrine.
Kibber is one of the most beautiful villages that you can see in Spiti and is located around 16 km away from Kaza town. Located at a height of 4270 m, the village till recent claimed the status of being the highest village in the world connected by motorable road. The road to Kibber village crosses one of the most popular monasteries in the region—Key Monastery. A number of boards welcome you at the entrance of the village, which has around 60-70 houses on multiple levels. Each house is painted in white with blue and black outline on doors and windows. Like every village, Kibber also has its own monastery, but unlike others, it has a wildlife sanctuary that is inhabited by many animals. The sanctuary is also known for rare medicinal plants; I wonder how much endurance these plants would need to grow at such high altitude!
6. Key Monastery
Key Monastery, also called Ki or Kye Gompa, is the primary monastery of Kaza region. Located on the edge of a hill, overlooking the Spiti River, this is the most beautiful landmark of Kaza. You can see it from quite some distance, hanging from an almost cliff-like hill. When you reach the entrance arch of the monastery, look towards the valley and you are probably looking at the most beautiful part of Spiti Valley. Key Monastery, situated at a height of more than 4100 m, dates back to 11th CE and monks have been living and getting trained here since then. Inside the monastery is a prayer hall that is quite ornate. If you happen to visit in the morning, you can witness the morning chanting and prayer session of monks. Young and old monks in their trademark red garment chant in unison, creating a beautiful ambience. The gompa also has a library that has a number of ancient murals and manuscripts. Having said that I personally feel that Key Monastery looks far more beautiful from a distance and is best admired from across the river where you get to see it as a part of the landscape of Spiti.
Kaza is a big city of Spiti Valley; before you imagine a busy hill city, let me tell you its population is around 3000 only, which is probably less than the height it is situated at. It is situated on the banks of the Spiti River and has a market that is the centre for all kinds of trade in the region. I took a small walk around the market and stopped at the restaurant-cum-shop established by Spiti Ecosphere—an NGO that works in Spiti and helps villagers establish homestays as well as sells many products of the region. Kaza is home to the world’s highest retail petrol station and almost all the travellers exploring the region stop here for fuel. The next petrol station is either in Manali or in Reckong Peo as you head towards Shimla—both quite far from here. Landscape wise, Kaza is kind of situated in a valley surrounded by tall mountains on all sides and the Spiti River meandering around it. It is the base for trekking and mountaineering activities in Lahaul-Spiti. The popularity of Kaza among tourists is visible in the number of homestays here. Of course, this is also because there are no big hotels around. It can be reached from Shimla side throughout the year and from Manali side only when Kunzum Pass and Rohtang Pass are open during summer months.
8. Dhankar Monastery
Monasteries in Spiti impress you with their unique location—almost hanging on the tip of a peak and overlooking beautiful valleys. It always intrigued me as to how monks chose such a place to build such monasteries. How did they reach these summits when there were no roads to take them to even the base of the hill and with rivers flowing all around. Dhankar Monastery, located at a height of almost 3900 feet, is one of the finest examples of such monasteries in Spiti Valley. A serpentine road now takes you to the base of the monastery and with a flight of few steps you will find yourself standing in an ancient space where monks have prayed for centuries—uninterrupted. Dhankar Monastery was a part of a fort, in fact the word Dhankar itself means fort in local language. It was the capital of Spiti Valley during 17th CE. The monastery is presently in a fragile condition, and not more than 20 people are allowed inside at a time, though I wonder if more than 20 visitors ever come together here. On the roof of the monastery, only 3 people are allowed at a time. From the monastery you can trek to Dhankar Lake that is situated even higher than the monastery. The view from the small windows that are located right above the cliff is spectacular.
Rangrik is a small village located about 6 km from Kaza across the Spiti River connected by a small bridge. I am calling it small but by the standard of Spiti’s villages, it is quite a big village with a population of about 900 people. It is a relatively green patch in an otherwise barren landscape. When I visited Rangrik in July, there were lots of flowers around. I noticed tall grass with yellow flowers and I was told that it is cattle feed. It is dried and kept for year-long consumption of cattle. Across a small dam in the village lies a small cave that has a mysterious stone with magnetic properties. While I understand the magnetic properties of the stone, it was the cave that was intriguing. A small 6 feet by 6 feet space that had everything needed for a stay of an individual—a kitchen, a prayer place, a bed and a reading and writing table. Some monk probably used to live here in seclusion. The cave is kept open, which tells a lot about the culture of this place. A Buddha statue has been recently installed on a hill next to the village with the Buddha overlooking the village all the time.
Langza, Hikkim and Comic form a small village circuit that takes you to some of the highest villages in the world. Hikkim has the highest post office in the world. Langza is known for two things—fossils and the giant Buddha statue that overlooks the valley as if keeping an eye on it and protecting it from evil forces. Located on a meadow surrounded by the Himalayan mountain ranges, Langza is a lovely village. As I walked towards the colourful Buddha statue, many young children, mostly girls approached me. They all had curious looking stones in their hands. I looked at some of them and knew they were fossil stones that are also known as shaligram. I asked them where do they get these from and the prompt answer was that they get them from the jungle. These fossils in some way preserve the life from the time when these tall mountain peaks were actually a part of the sea. I had a small conversation with the girls and found them extremely confident in dealing with tourists and in making sure no one clicks their pictures. The Buddha statue is relatively new but again stands at a vantage point where only your eyes can capture the entire scene and not camera.