Through the Valley of Spiti

There are some roads which are so wonderful that you do not want the journey to end. We love to travel, and the travel bit is always as exciting as the destination. Of course, there are different kinds of excitement – some come with a decent dollop of danger (as in our flight home from Delhi or the muleback descent from Rudranath), then some offer beauty at its truest. Even the most mundane ones can become moments of meaningful memory. For those who are at home on the road, the journey itself is as significant as the end. All journeys, like life, end. Therefore, it is a good thing to pay attention to the journey. Some ends are too final.

The journey that I will describe today was the one that took us to Nako from Kaza. This was as spectacular as the Keylong-Kaza drive, but as it was significantly less anxious – with villages and settlements and mostly proper roads – we had a more relaxed kind of enjoyment.

This road was picture-perfect, and it also provided a variety that is rare on any single journey. The gentle path took us down to the tree-line and apple-orchards appeared quite soon after we had left the village of Dhankar; and greenery, ever so slowly, recaptured the landscape. After the stark aridity of the Kunzum-Kaza-Dhankar area, the eye soon found comfort in soothing greenness. By the time we reached Tabo, the entire road presented us with glimpses a serene loveliness that defines the neighbouring Kinnaur region. The road offered us twp of the three most interesting monasteries (including Key of course) I have seen along the mighty Spiti river. The three monasteries had three completely different characters. The first was in Dhankar, a village that was once the capital of Spiti. Like Key, the monastery finds itself perched on the side a hillock. The terrain is even wilder here. There is a palace belonging to the queen of Kaza. (Don’t expect Mughal grandeur here, in this parched region, palaces are more like well placed stone houses).

We were terribly disappointed when our car took the road that was not leading to the palace. Kishore-ji told us, much to our dismay, tourists are not allowed in the palace. The place itself is magnificent even from a distant and more so as it has magnificent views of the river and peaks on all sides. Dhankar Monastery is on the other face of the hillock.

The plaque outside the monastery claims, “As per old beliefs Dhankar village geographically speaking is situated in the form of a lotus flower whose petals are formed by eight mountains these surround it from different sides”. Obviously we needed a bird’s eye view to see that, and not being birds, we believed the claim in good faith. (Google map did not help!)

This is how the place looks at this moment

But looking at the cluster of peaks that was right in front, we could comprehend how the flower-image was envisioned by the old visionaries.

The plaque further claimed that there are records of the monastery being repaired in 11th century. Therefore, it must have its origin in far older times.

This monastery does not have an adjoining new structure; the new one is being built a few minutes away. Climbing inside the monastery is something of an adventure as the window-sized doors and steep stone steps demand great care.

The lack of light does not help. We were charged 25/- each, and we paid gladly. These are functioning monasteries; and as we all know, tourists often create a lot of turbulence. Many fail to distinguish between respectful worship of beauty and loud lewdness. The fact that the monks must appoint either someone from the order or appoint a guard to safeguard sacred rooms, tells a lot about the cavalier behaviour of visitors.

Dhankar also gives you a brilliant view of the river and the peaks. The confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers is quite a sight.

The confluence from the monastery
The confluence from the road just below, the river that comes through the deep ravines is Pin

The stone rooms, mostly from the 11th century, give a feeling of history and heritage and the relics – old parchments, statues and engravings – create an ambience of mystery. 

Tabo, situated in the valley with apple orchards all around, is a very different experience. Among the oldest functioning Gompas in India – established in 996 A.D. – it has mud, brick and stone structures spread over a considerable space.

There are several temples here, each with fascinating murals. These are, just as in Ajanta and Ellora, slowly fading away. In fact, this monastery is often called the Ajanta and Ellora of the Himalayas. Quite rightly, photography is disallowed here, as are mobile phone torches. There is always someone to see to that no one flouts the rules – for as you know, flouting the rules is the most popular Indian adventure sport. There are many wooden and other statues and statuettes and they speak of tradition and heritage of the Buddhist culture. Exploring Tabo Monastery takes time. They have things to sell (if you can find the official in charge). I managed to buy a set of postcards on my second attempt. Here are a few of examples of the murals and statues reproduced from the postcards.

One can safely avoid the new monastery. It is new, quite handsome, but completely lacks the historical feel.

Tabo said goodbye to us in the form of a large Buddha statue that is being built.

Giu (or Gue according to Google) is popular for a very different reason altogether. The Monastery is being rebuilt now. You have to travel about ten kilometres from the ITBP Mata Mandir situated near the Spiti river, towards the border. The road takes you along a lovely but vociferous stream. The old monastery was completely destroyed, a new stylish structure is coming up.

The journey to Giu is special as it takes you to a place which is bang on the Indo-Tibetan border. Tibet is literally one mountain away. We had a bit of a dialogue with the Indo Tibetan Border Police, as our cameras and attire seemed to have aroused some interest. And for some reason Jaya was thought to be a foreigner. Apparently foreigners are not allowed in this region! The officer who spoke to me was good-humoured and we spoke fondly of Calcutta.

People throng to Giu to look at the Mummy. This naturally preserved body of a Lama has become a crowd-puller (and a crowd-pleaser). Legend (recorded on the wall of the room) says that the mummy was found about 40 years back by the ITBP and around 20 years back a team from Oxford University of California came and through carbon dating announced that the mummy has been there in that pose since 1430.

Like all the places in Spiti Valley, this region is just amazing. 

Nako did seem a bit underwhelming with the small lake being the primary attraction.

But we had crossed the Glacier Point which was the major worry as this small stretch is often washed away making the entire Kaza-Kalpa route disconnected.

Much to our surprise, and thanks to a friend we stumbled upon in the hotel, we found the lovely Nako Monastery. It is as old as Tabo and with similar architecture. Don’t get fooled by the new ones.

The old ones are hidden at the back. They were locked when we reached the place, but a cricket-playing young Lama came (after he was clean bowled by a kid) and opened the temples. They were was smaller in scale, but with the same style of murals and statues.

These buildings need better preservation. And it was quite irritating to find that breed of tourists who come to these places and do not enter because the idea of taking off shoes is far too inconvenient. This family of travellers were so pleased getting free roti and chai, that they ignored the Gompa entirely. The young Lama made a gently contemptuous remark about their sense of propriety and their curious love for history or spirituality. I could not disagree.

Earlier Posts:

1. Old Lucknow   2. Colonial Lucknow   3. Going Downhill - Versey to Dentam
4. Going to Garhwal  5. The Walkers  6. Palamau  7. Rishikesh
8. Kolkata Kolkata  9. The Roar of the Clouds - Santiniketan 
10. Of Pests and Men - Uttarey  11. Where Hikers Fear to Tread - Rudranath
12. Old Times  13. History in Ruins - Pushpagiri
14. Once There was a Heaven  15. Serenity  
16. Pilgrim's Progress - Kedarnath 17. Unfinished - Gaumukh 18. Ghatshila 
19. Nothing Important  20. Manu's Alaya - Manali  21. Santiniketan  
22. Little Lhasa - Dharamshala  23. From Varuna to Assi - Varanasi  
24. Tunganath  25. Transitory Blues  26. Gurudongmar  27. The Beginning  
28. Yumesamdong  29. Bangali in Bangkok  30. Mukutmanipur  
31. Rasvanti  32. The Old Town and the Sea   33. Budapest 
34. The Last Post of 2019 35. Travel Travails 36. Cluj-Napoça 
37. Presenting the Past  38. Far From the Urban Crowd
39. Silent Night Sleepless Night 40. Norwich 41. Photo Essay - The Road
42. Photo Story - The Days of the Goddess 43. Badrinath 44. Monumental Mistakes
45. Odyssey Now 46. To the Mountains 47. Keylong 48. Where Moon River is Born 49. Kaza

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