Have you ever had a dream where the Journey never ends or you don't want it to end. You can dream that dream with your eyes wide open. Explore Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India
Spiti is an intensely spiritual experience. This high altitude desert is best approached via road from Delhi. There are two routes you can take to reach Spiti 1) Delhi- Manali -Rohatang Pass -Chandra Valley 2) Delhi- Shimla- Reckong Peo - Kaza. I decided to take Route 2 - all weather route and come back by route 1 which is only open May - October due to snow at the high altitude passes.
Lahual and Spiti region in Himachal Pradesh is a spread over 13,830 Square KMs; hence any trip to Spiti has to be well planned. I decided to see the 5 Major Monasteries located along the length and breadth of the Spiti as my research suggested that would be the best way to explore, experience the local culture, enjoy the food and take in the landscapes. Landscape in Spiti is absolutely breathtaking and magical, it will transport you to a world you have not heard, dreamt or experienced before. On the other hand interaction with local people and their hospitality will make this trip a trip of a life time. Spiti should be on the bucket list of every intrepid traveller. There can be no better show case for India than Spiti.
As a photographer I have developed this unscientific law 'the harder it is to get to a place the more rewarding it will be'. This was certainly true for Spiti. Drive to Spiti is grueling and some time driving behind heavy earth mover equipment is the only way to tread further. Fortunately unsurpassed natural beauty gives you company all the way. When the green of the mountain gives away to the brown of the dessert you know you have reached Spiti.
The Town of Tabo is the gatekeeper of Spiti Valley.
After three days of hard drive on the Hinsdustan-Tibet road from Delhi I reached Tabo Monastery . Formally known as Tabo Chos Khor Monastery, its one of the oldest continuously functioning monastery in India and the Himalayas. This 1116 (founded in 996 AD) year old Monastery was built by the then king of western Himalayas. Tabo monasteries is considered to be one of the Holiest buddhist monasteries by the Dalai Lama. Tabo Monastery is of singular importance amongst the five key monasteries in Spiti; with the complete original iconographic program of decoration and artifacts intact. The Temple of Enlightened gods or gTug-Lha-khang(photography not allowed inside the temple) house stunning imagery, art and houses wealth of documentation of the history and culture of that period. A few scholars of Buddhism have done doctoral thesis on this monastery
Looking at this fort monastery its hard to imagine that it had been attached and sacked several times since it was founded in the 11th Century. In 1975 Key monastery was quite severally damaged by earthquake and was restored with the help of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) . its located in the town of Key, on top of a hill and is a sight to behold. Key Monastery is surrounded by high mountains on three sides and by flood planes of the river Spiti on the fourth. Fields of Barley and peas surrounding the Monastery adds color to the otherwise monchrome landscape. Key Monastery is best viewed from the village of Gaite, 11 KM of absolutely stunning drive away from the town of Key. A Point from Gaite provides the most spectacular view of not only Key Monastery but also the town of Key and surrounding village from a height of 2000 feet.
At Key Monastery every morning at 7 O clock there is full prayer ceremony that takes places - members of the public can sit through the ceremony and be a part of an other worldly experience of listening to the chants of Buddhist monks accompanied by the Tibetan horns and drums. Prayer ceremony can last up to three hours, monks also break their fast during the prayer. Tsampa or Roasted Barley Powder with Jasmine tea or milk is the staple breakfast of monks
My favorite moment at Key Monastery was in the Kitchen of the monastery where a monk made and served me hot chai and taught me how to make Lamps from clarified butter.
Endless dry barren mountain is the view one gets from the main entrance of the Kungri Monastery. Kungri Monastery although the second oldest monastery in Spiti is a very modern building due to the recent renovations facilitated by the international funding. Kungri monastery is located in the Picturesque Pin valley National park, the park is home to many endangered species including the Snow Leopard. Kungri Monastery is well know for the sword dance by the Buzhens . Buzhen are a tantrik cult on the verge of extinction, with only 25 Buzhens surviving in the village of Mud a few kilometers away from Kungri Monastery. Buzhen tradition is already extinct in Ladhak and Tibet.
The fort monastery of Dhankar is dying. Built on a high cliff overlooking the confluence of Spiti and Pin river the monastery is literally breaking apart by the effect of time. This old building is no longer used as the monastery. Monks have moved to a newly constructed building a K.M. away from the old building. Two lamas are deputed for a period of six months at stretch to look after the old monastery building. These Lamas are more than happy to show you the secret passages within Dhankar monastery and tell you really interesting tales about Buddhist life in general and Dhankar monastery in particular. if you are visiting Dhankar monastery please do make a contribution to ‘Save Dhankar Monastery Fund’.
Spiti river can easily be called the lifeline of Spiti. Due to the Geography and elevation Spiti rivers entire water supply comes from the high mountain glaciers. Locals rely on the water from Spiti river in the dry summer months. Water level in Spiti is highest during the summer due to the melting snow. Along the Spiti River you will come across some of the most stunning sun set views
Budhism and Local life - a Symbiosis
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Spiti. A monks life revolves around the life of locals. They are dependent on the locals to provide them food, monasteries survive on donation received from the locals and tourists. During the summer every one in Spiti spends their time preparing for the harsh winters. Most places in Spiti is cut off from the rest of India so the local populace have to be self realiant in terms of food and fuel. Adults spend most of their time growing food in the fields kids walk to school. Walking is the predominant mode of transportation used. Locals walk across the mountains to buy things, on rare occasion to visit a doctor and to meet friends and extended family.
The ancient tradition of making the second child of the house a lama (monk) still continues (albeit at a decreasing rate). Kids who become a lama lives in the monastery, they are educated in the Buddhist way of live and are given formal education as well. A selected few Lamas get higher education in Dharamsala and if it required in some of the best education institutes in the world including Harvard.
The way Back
The drive back to Delhi via Kunzum is an unsurpassed joy, the drive through the dangerous narrow roads of Kunzum gives you a sense of solitude and oneness with nature like no other place. Its a photographers paradise every where you look there is play of light on the barren mountains and the massive flood plains of the Spiti river. Kunzum pass ends where the Chandra valley begins; a small detour from the Chandra Valley will take you to Chandra Tal - probably the only lake thats a source of a river. Chandratal or Moon lake is named such because of its crescent shape. The only sign of civilization you see around chandra tal are bright colored several two people tents that serious trekkers use to spend the night in. There is a lake, snow covered peaks and chandra river for company.