Get ready to visit
AS we drove up along the Spiti Valley in eastern Himachal Pradesh, gaining height with every mile, the snow streaks broadened, the icy patches swelled. After Kaza (11,970 ft), the ragtag district town of 1,500 souls where we had a noodle lunch, one colour came to predominate: white. More and more, the snow-cover seemed all-enveloping — the labyrinth was dilating into a snowy sheet. Presently, as we digressed along a branch road that climbed rapidly towards Kyi Monastery and Kibber, reputedly the world’s highest village (13,800 ft), our vehicle got stuck in the snow, its tyres skidding. As we stepped out, a bone-chilling wind assaulted us. Close by, a hairy yak, knee-deep in snow, eyed us benignly.
Spiti Valley is a
marvel that’s hard to experience anywhere else in India. True, Ladakh
and Zanskar have mountainscapes no different from barren, rugged Spiti,
but those are regions that cannot be accessed before summer, by which
time, of course, the snow has mostly thawed. It is only in Spiti that
travellers can catch the mountain desert’s stark beauty as enhanced by
a latticework of melting snow.
Our journey to Spiti began in Shimla: after traversing some 250 km mostly along the banks of the Sutlej river that sometimes narrowed into deep gorges, we were on the ‘other side’ of the Himalayas — the rain-shadow zone beyond the tallest ranges where monsoon clouds cannot reach. The hill slopes here in Himachal’s Kinnaur district had little green cover, baring their rocky, craggy surfaces. It was bleak, windy, barren and desolate. The villages were few and far between, little settlements of a few houses with names that often didn’t extend beyond a single syllable: Ka, Kyi, Pooh.
At Khabo, the muddy-brown Sutlej was joined by the green Spiti river, the two colours clearly delineated at the confluence. We crossed a bridge and drove along a deep cavernous gorge cut by the Spiti, leaving the Sutlej as it veered towards Tibet. The road climbed rapidly through a series of hairpin bends and soon Spiti seemed like a tiny green stream far below, snaking its way through the mountains even as the snow glinted on the summits. We were over 10,000 ft above sea level and the views were breathtaking.
But our driver was
tense. Earlier in the journey, he had made it through two snow
blockades — created by minor avalanches — with great difficulty,
the vehicle skidding and stalling in the puddle-and-ice road cut
through the "snowslides" by BRO (Border Roads Organisation)
bulldozers. But now he was palpably anxious, far beyond lay the
treacherous stretch of Malling, where landslides and shooting stones
are daily affairs. He enquired of every passing vehicle for the latest
on Malling: Was there a blockade, can small vehicles pass? Things
change there by the hour, he explained.
There was a small traffic jam when we finally reached Malling; buses and lorries were stranded and essential commodities were being transported by a ropeway to the other end of the stretch and loaded into smaller trucks waiting there. Our driver, instructing his helper to run ahead and remove newly fallen stones, decided to take his chance, his heart in his mouth. And he made it! (We weren’t that lucky on our return journey, though; one of the BRO bulldozers permanently stationed there had to tow our vehicle out.)
Beyond Malling, while the scenery changed little, the people did. There was now in the sparse population an increasing predominance of Buddhists of Tibetan stock; chortens (stupas or reliquary mounds) and roadside mani walls (built with votive stones) began to appear as did prayer flags and pennants, and the village houses seemed mostly built in the Tibetan style, flat roofed with small decorated rectangular windows. By late afternoon, we were in Tabo (10,000 ft), famous for its ancient Buddhist monastery, which we decided to visit next morning.
It was frightfully cold at night and even colder in the morning as a fierce wind raged. After breakfast, as we walked down Tabo’s main street towards the 1,000-year-old monastery, the gompa complex looked very unimpressive: squat, flat-roofed, mud brown, crumbling structures, enclosed by a mud-wall. But it sure did reek of antiquity. A young lama from the nearby monastic school fetched the keys to let us into the temples, six in all, famed for their paintings and sculpture.
The Temple of Enlightened Gods (also called Du-khang) is the largest of the six: it has a big assembly hall dominated by a four-faced image of Vairocana, one of the five eternal "self-born" Buddhas believed to exist since the beginning of time. As in all Tibetan temples, a throne with a picture of the Dalai Lama stands at the head of the central aisle, on either side of which are rows of low benches where the monks chant their liturgy.
But the Du-khang’s real attractions are the 32 clay life-size stucco images of Tibetan-Buddhist deities arrayed on the walls, supported by brackets and ringed by haloes. Paintings depicting the life of the Buddha fill the rest of the walls. There are rich wall paintings and sculptures in the other chapels too: in the Golden Temple (Ser-khang), for instance, the exquisite murals were, as the name implies, once gilded, while a towering 18-ft-high image of the Boddhisattava Maitreya (the future Buddha who, it is believed, will one day preach the dharma anew) adorns another chapel, its walls depicting Lhasa’s Potala Palace.
So beautiful are the paintings on the chapel walls that Tabo has been described as the Ajanta of the Himalayas. One of the oldest extant Tibetan Buddhist gompas, the monastery was among the first erected during a great temple building movement initiated by Rinchen Zangpo in the 10th century. Zangpo, better known for translating many Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan, was at the forefront of what historians call the Second Diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet, a resurgence of the faith after its decline there in the 9th century. The diffusion was spearheaded by Ye-she-od, the lama king of Gu-ge or Western Tibet, whose rule extended as far as Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti.
But the Gu-ge empire did not last long and for much of the next 800 years, Spiti along with nearby Lahaul remained under the nominal suzerainty of Ladakh. In the 1840s, however, the region was invaded first by the Dogras of Jammu, then the Sikhs, then again the Dogras, before it finally became part of British India. While the unassuming mud-brown chapels of Tabo escaped notice of the invading hordes, the famous Kyi monastery near Kibber was pillaged by the Sikhs and Dogras.
And little wonder, for the monastery is dramatically situated: perched on a hill on the left bank of the broad Spiti valley, it looks more like a fortress than a gompa. Indeed, Kyi gompa was always more a defensive stronghold than a religious centre with various Tibetan religious sects fighting for its control. It was probably founded in the 11th century by Dromton, a disciple of Atisha, the brilliant teacher from Nalanda invited to Tibet by the Gu-ge kings to aid the Second Diffusion. (Dromton also built two of Tabo’s chapels.) Kyi monastery’s treasures include a collection of thankas (religious paintings on cloth) and two three-metre-long trumpets.
When the trumpets are sounded, the drone must resound all across the Spiti Valley that Kyi overlooks. Despite the freezing cold, we spent a long time atop the roof of the monastery, spellbound by the haunting beauty of the valley below — the many meandering channels on the river bed, the icy latticework, the snowy mountain range on the right bank, the distant hamlets on little plateaus above the riverbed. In summer, the chief Lama told us, patches of green ring the hamlets, contrasting with the grey-brown of the mountains lining the valley.
The valley really opens up near the village of Sichiling, some 20 km from Tabo. We had got our first glimpse of it earlier in the day when our vehicle turned a corner as we drove down from Tabo, and what a sight it was! Kaza, the district capital, was some 30 km from that spot, 30 km of mind-blowing scenery that our eyes feasted on. But it was from the heights of Kyi, 12 km from Kaza, that we got the best view as we looked down from the monastery terrace.
From Kyi we proceeded to Kibber,
managing to reach the world’s highest permanently inhabited village
after workmen cleared the snow that had blocked the road. Temperatures
here drop to -35°C in winter; even in April, it had snowed heavily.
For the 350-odd people here, grazing yaks is the chief occupation; the
village boasts a government school and a dispensary. Life, said an old
villager, is much easier now; when he was young, the nearest doctor
was several days walk away. And it snowed much more heavily then, he
added. Waist deep even in spring!