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The Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries of the Spiti Valley



Kaza, District Headquarters, Spiti Valley, Indian Himalayas
photo: Himachal Pradesh Tourism

The Spiti River Valley

The entire Spiti River Valley is in the rain shadow of the Himalayas in Northern India, very close to the border with Tibet/China. Irrigated by snow melt that is channeled into ditches, a few crops can be grown between the heavy winter snows. Many villagers keep yaks or horses. The sky is amazingly blue during the summer months when people can visit this area. The stars are very bright.

Spiti is a cold desert which Rudyard Kipling in Kim called 'world within a world" and a "place where the gods live".

Spiti (locally pronounced 'Piti' or Sa Piti ) or the 'middle country', has its sub divisional headquarters at Kaza (3,660 meters or feet). The river Spiti originates at the base of the Kunzum range and flows eastward (to join the Sutlej river at Khab in Kinnaur). There are two ways into Spiti, during summer months only when the passes are open. By bus or private jeep from over Manali over the Rohtang Pass (3980 mts) and Kunzum Pass (4590 mts) the other way, which usually opens a month or so earlier in the year, is by way of the Sutleg River Valley ( Kinnaur), with lower elevations. You must get a permit to pass the checkpoint at Sumdo before the journey. This way is often blocked (near the entrance road to Nako) by landslides. Another alternative is to fly in to Tabo by helicopter from Simla ( 2,200 mts) but you would not have time to adjust to the high altitudes and it is very expensive.

There is a Book about the Spiti Monasteries.

In almost complete isolation from the outside world for centuries, Spiti has a culture centered around its monasteries- Dankhar, Ki, Tabo, Mud, Gungri, Lidang, Hikim, Sagnam, Mane Gogma and Giu to name a few. Spiti was loosely ruled for many centuries by a hereditary wazir, styled Nono. The majority of the people are Buddhists, followers of the Geluk-pa sect. Traditionally the eldest son inherits everything and the other sons enter the monastery, this is still somewhat true today.

The Monasteries of Rinchen Zanpo in Tibet and India

On display were 80 photographs taken by art historian-cum-photographer Benoy K. Behl, who travelled to Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur documenting what is left of the legendary 108 monasteries built by Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055).

For the first time, the original chain of monasteries that were established across Western Tibet, Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur will be comprehensively depicted in an exhibition. These monasteries are the foundation of Buddhism that survives in Tibet and the Indian trans-Himalayas till today.

Behl says that in the middle of barren stretches and vast bleak mountains, these monasteries were made on small and fertile patches of land, in the valleys of rivers that flow through trans-Himalayas. “Entering these structures, one comes into a world of painted splendour. The sculptures and paintings that were made in these monasteries are among the most sophisticated and finest of all times,” he adds.

These monasteries and the mandalas inside them were made on the basis of scriptures which their founder Rinchen Zangpo had studied in Kashmir. Zangpo became famous as the Lhotsava or the Great Translator of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts into Tibetan.

These legendary 108 monasteries had wall paintings and scriptures made inside them by Kashmiri artists. Tabo Gompa is an excellent example.


Dalai Lama consecrates ancient Buddhist monastery in Sangla . . "An obscure yet ancient Buddhist monastery was formally restored after His Holiness the Dalai Lama led a consecration ceremony there on June 8, 2006. The monastery - although protected under the list of rare historical monuments by the Indian government - has no record of written history that could specify details on the founder and the era in which it was founded. click on link and story is down the page.

The mantra "Om mani padme hum" (literally, 'Behold, the jewel is in the lotus') is commonly said. Spiti possesses a haunting beauty. The wildlife in the region includes the elusive snow leopard and ibex, found in the Pin valley.

The Re-Establishment of the Yak and Chinmurti Horse.

Sketch' of the Spiti River Valley adapted from Google Earth', a free download


Tabo Gompa (Monastery)

Majestic mountain tops surround a small widening of the Spiti River Valley in which lies the village of Tabo, home to about 350 people and a Buddhist Temple and Monastery, 10,000 feet above sea level. Visitors are welcome. The monks will show you the temples. There is a temple guest house you can stay at and other lodging in the village of Tabo. Tabo is famous for its exquisite murals and stucco sculptures which bear a striking resemblance with the paintings and sculpture in the Ajanta caves. According to His Holiness Dalai Lama, "The most important ( gompa) is Tabo, noted for its exquisite quality of paintings and stucco images that adorn its walls. These works of art delightfully express the vigour of the transmission of Buddhism from india to Tibet and the dynamic mingling of cultures"

Tabo monastery is one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries, regarded by a large number of followers as only next in importance to the Tholing gompa of Tibet. Tabo is the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India and the Himalayas with its original decoration and iconographies program intact.

The Tabo monastery (also referred to as Chogs-hkhor - 'doctrinal circle' or 'doctrinal enclave') is a complex that holds nine temples, 23 chortens, a monks' chamber and the extension houses a nuns' chamber. On the sides of the bare mountains above the enclave are a series of caves which were used as dwellings by the monks and includes an 'assembly hall'. Faint traces of the paintings that once embellished the rock face can be discerned.

Tabo Gompa is the largest monastic complex in Spiti. A re known artist from Kashmir was brought to paint the murals in 996 AD. The nine chapels, four decorated stupas, and cave shrines contain paintings datable to the 10-11th c. (Main Temple), 13th-14th c. (Stupas), and 15-20th c. (all other chapels). Except for the main Temple and the painted interior of the stupas, all other extant paintings are attributable to periods following the Gelugpa ascendancy.

A thousand years ago Tabo served as a meeting place between two cultures, which is graphically represented in the art. Indian pundits and Tibetan scholars came to Tabo to learn Tibetan and Indian Buddhist works respectively. This interaction germinated the seeds of a new art statement best defined as Indo-Tibetan. Tabo was a royal monastery, founded and renovated by two of the most famous royal lamas of the distinguished line of kings of Purang-Guge in Tibet. The Renovation Inscription of the monastery tells the temple was founded by the Bodhisattva (the royal Ye-she-O) and renovated 46 years later by his grandnephew. . . although tradition attributes Tabo's founding to the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo. According to an inscription on one of the walls, the monastery was founded in AD 996,

Inside Tabo Gompa, Spiti Valley, Indian Himalayas
photo: Himachal Pradesh Tourism

The temples of the complex

The monastery was originally built as a 'mandala' centering around the assembly hall of the temple of the Enlightened Gods. The assembly hall itself is a vivid representation of the "Vajradhatu Mandala", with the four-fold Vairacana in dharmachakra pravartana pose sitting at the far end and flanked by 33 vajrayana deities. The sanctum sanctorum houses Amitaprabha on a lion, with Ramapani on the right and Mahasthanaprata on the left. The change of mount from peacock to lion is significant and deliberate as it signified the elevation of Pratyeka Buddha to Bodhisattva by meditation on the Vajradhatu mandala.

The Temple of the Enlightened Gods (gTsug Lha-khang) , also known as the Assembly Hall (du-khang) forms the core of the complex. It houses a vestibule, an assembly hall and a sanctum. The central figure in the assembly hall is the four fold Vairocana. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is regarded as one of the five spiritual sons of the Adibuddha, who was the self-creative primordial Buddha. He is portrayed here in a posture "turning the wheel of law". On brackets arrayed along the walls and with stylized flaming circles around them, are life size stucco images of what are commonly known as the Vajradhatu Mandala. These images number thirty three in all, and are the other deities of the pantheon. With five Bodhisattvas of the Good Age placed within, the sanctum is immediately behind the assembly hall. The walls around the stuccoes are elaborately adorned with wall paintings that depict the life of the Buddha.

The Golden Temple (gSer -Khang) - Once believed to have been layered with gold, this shrine was exhaustively renovated in the 16th century by Senge Namgyal, ruler of Ladakh. The walls and ceiling are covered with murals.

The Mystic Mandala Temple or Initiation Temple (dKyil-hKhor-khang) - The wall facing the door is embellished by a massive painting of Vairocana, who is surrounded by the eight Bodhisattvas. Mystic mandalas cover the other areas. It is here, that the initiation to monkhood takes place.

The Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple (Byams-Pa Chen-po Lha-khang) - This shrine houses the image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya that is more than six meters high. The temple has a hall, vestibule and sanctum. The array of murals within, also depict the monastery of Tashi-Chunpo and Lhasa's Potala palace.

The Temple of Dromton (Brom-ston Lha-khang) - The temple lies on the northern edge of the complex and is said to have been founded by Dromton (1008-1064 AD), an important disciple of Atisha. The doorway is intricately carved and the inner walls are covered by murals.

The above shrines are said to be the earliest in the Tabo complex and the following are later additions.

The Chamber of Picture Treasures (Z'al-ma) - This is an ante room of sorts attached to 'the temple of enlightened gods'. It too is covered with paintings which are in the Tibetan style.

The Large Temple of Dromton (Brom-ston Lha-khang) - The second largest temple in the complex, this has a floor area of over seventy square meters, while the portico and niche add another forty two square meters. The front wall sports the figure of the Sakyamuni, flanked by Sariputra and Maha Maugdalayana. The other walls depict the eight Medicine Buddhas and Guardian Kings. The wooden planks of the ceiling are also painted.

The Mahakala Vajra-bhairava Temple (Gon-Khang) - This temple enshrines the protective deity of the Geluk-pa sect. Fierce deities people the room and it is only entered after protective meditation. Often it is also called known as 'the temple of horror'.

The White Temple (dKar-abyum Lha-khang) - The walls of this shrine are also intricately adorned leaving a low dado for the monks and nuns to lean against.

Much of the above information was excerpted from the Himachal Pradesh Government tourism website:

Dhankar Monastery

A little higher in elevation and above the main road, in one of the more dramatic settings in Spiti, is the village, fort ( in ruins) and Gompa of Dhankar. The temple interiors do not compare to Tabo, this is a much smaller complex and less well maintained; but the setting is so beautiful and dramatic that this Gompa should not be missed, there is a pretty lake about a 2.5 kms hike above Dhankar.

Dhankar gompa and village sits above the Spiti River in the Indian Himalayas

Dhankar Gompa and Village above the Spiti River. Photo: by Elena

DHANKAR information from the Himachal Pradesh website.

The location of this fort was strategic as Spiti suffered innumerable aggressions by its neighbors. The location allowed the Spitian to keep vigil on the approaches and to submit messages to surrounding inhabitations in case of danger. Whenever the Spitians were attacked, they built huge fires to signal meeting in the safe sanctuary of rocks, i.e., Dhankars. In the meeting all men and women decided the course of action to be taken against the aggressors.

The fort of Dhankar now lies in ruins, but still is a place worthy of visit. From the remnants of the fort one can see vast expanses of the Spiti valley.

Dhankar is also important for its hisorical art. Founded between 7th and the 9th centuries, Dhankar's old temple complex is known by the name of Lha-O-pa Gompa (monastery of the followers of Lha-O). The monastery consists of a number of multi-storeyed buildings perched together, giving a fortress like impression. There are five different halls including Kanjur, Lhakhang, and Dukhang where a life size silver statue of Vajradhara, the Diamond Being, is placed in a glass altar embellished with scarves and flowers.

Most interesting at the Lha-O-pa gompa is the small chapel on the uppermost peak above the main monastery - Lhakhang Gongma. The building is decorated with depictions of Shakyamuni, Tsongkhapa and Lama Chodrag on the central wall.

Above Dhankar is a fresh water lake about 2.5 km from the village at a height of 13500 ft. Set amidst lush green pastures, the lake offers a perfect idyllic camping site. ( if you can breathe!) Under the Desert Development Project of Spiti the common carp variety of fish has been introduced in this lake. No angling is allowed in the lake.

Dhankar is approachable by a motorable road, good for small vehicles only, that branches off for Dhankar from the main Kaza - Samdu road at a point around 24 kms from Kaza. The branch road is 8 kms in length upto Dhankar. There is no rest house in the village. If you plan to halt for the night, do carry tents, sleeping bags and other provisions, although rumor has it that the monks have built a guest house now, where foreignors can stay.

Ki • Kye • Kee Monastery

Ki Monastery dominates a small hill on the side of the valley beyond Kaza. Ki Monastery is very active, visitors are permitted to certain areas. Perhaps the rest of the world is spinning in time, but Ki is not. Ki has not changed to all appearances for over a thousand years.

Ki Gompa, Spiti Valley, Indian Himalayas
photo: Himachal Pradesh Tourism

Overlooking Kaza from a height of about 13,500 ft, the Kye monastery is the largest in the valley and holds a powerful sway over the most populous part of the valley around Kaza. The gompa is an irregular heap of low rooms and narrow corridors on a conical hill. The irregular prayer chambers are interconnected by dark passages, tortuous staircases and small doors.
Hundreds of lamas receive their religious training in the monastery. It is also known for its beautiful murals, thankas, rare manuscripts, stucco images and peculiar wind instruments that form part of the orchestra whenever Chham is enacted in the gompa in summer. Another interesting aspect of the gompa is its collection of weapons which may have been used to ward off marauders.

Thousands of devotees from all over the world attended the Kalachakra ceremony which was performed in August, 2000 by His Holiness Dalai Lama. Kalachakra initiation is a workshop on a grand scale to make an earnest effort by both the teacher and disciples to awaken their Buddha nature by the combined forces of teaching, prayer, blessing, devotion, mantra, yoga and meditation. It is an effort by every participant to try to discover the true and permanent peace for the sake of all others.

Spiti is an important plank of the monastic travel circuit of India-Kulu-Lahaul-Spiti-Kinnaur and Leh. The most important of them is the Key Monastery, the abode of Lochen Tulku. A reincarnate spiritual institution, the Lochen Tulku is held high in Spiti’s spiritual traditions.

Rev. T.K. Lochen Tulku Rinpoche, Member

A post graduate in Sutra, Tantra and Buddhist Philosophy from Institute of Buddhist Dialetics, Dharsala and other Monastic Universities, he is highly revered by Himalayan people as their spiritual teacher, guide and philosopher. He is the 19th incarnation of Latsawa Rinchen Zango who was instrumental in second diffusion of Buddhist in Tibet during 9/10 Century. He was born in Kinnaur, District of Himachal Pradesh. He is Spiritual Head & Director of Key Monastery, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh.

The gompa is approached by road from Kaza (only 12 km). However, it is only 8.5 kms trek from Kaza.

More information from this Tribune India article.

TNAGYUD GOMPA

Near Tangyut Comic village is the renowned Tangyud gompa. Built around the early decades of the 14th c, the gompa belongs to the Sa-kya-pa sect and is of historical importance. The lamas of this gompa are supposed to be proficient in tantra.

This gompa was earlier near Hilkkim village and was shifted to its present site after an earthquake. Some remains of the monastery can still be seen near Hilkkim.

Kaza to Langza by road is about 9 kms. From Langza one has to walk to Hikkim - Comic, which is another 8 kms. From Comic to Kaza is a trek of about 6 kms.

KIBBER

Kibber is located at a height of about 14,200 ft in a narrow valley on the summit of a limestone rock. It is only 16 kms from Kaza and a bus service plies between these two places in summer. Kibber is a rather pleasant village with plenty of cultivation. The moment you get down from the bus you are greeted by lush green fields which look strikingly refreshing against the arid backdrop of lofty hills.

The monastery in Kibber is named after Serkang Rimpochhe of Tabo. The lama breathed his last in Kibber in 1983 and when he was being cremated a water source erupted from that spot. Even today the source is being used by the villagers.

There are only 80 houses in the village. The remarkable feature about the architecture is the use of stone instead of mud or adobe brick used extensively in the valley. There are a civil dispensary, a high school, a post office, a telegraph office and a community TV set in the village.

There is a traditional trade route from Kibber to Ladakh over Parang La. The Spitians go to Ladakh to barter their horses for yaks or to sell for cash. The trek to Ladakh takes minimum 3 night halts. Permits are required for this trek.

KUNGRI GOMPA

Spiti's second oldest monastery is located in the Pin valley. Kungri provides unmistakable evidence of tantric cult as practised in Buddhism. Kungri gompa is the main centre of the Nyingma-pa sect in Spiti. The gompa consists of three detatched rectangular blocks facing east.

The Kungri gompa built around 1330 AD recently acquired public attention after it received large foreign donations for its renovation. The curious looking buzhens perform a sword dance and are perhaps the only branch of Buddhism in which use of weapons is practised. Some of the buzhens live in Mud village on the right bank of the Pin river. It is a chance encounter with buzhens as these lamas are wandering friars.

Kaza-Sagnam, By Bus. A very good Description of the Pin Valley can be found on this website.

Sagnam is situated on the right bank of river Pin. One has to experience a ride on a JHOOLA bridge to reach the village. This is a single wire suspension bridge which is crossed sitting in a sling and sliding on the wire with the help of an Ibex horn. World famous breed of horses called Chaumurti can be seen in this valley.

Sagnam-Mud, 11 kms On foot.

Mud is the last village in the valley. Trekkers will like to see Sword dance performed by wandering lamas called Buzhen.

Most of the Pin valley has been demarcated as the Pin Valley National Park which is the natural habitat of the snow leopard and Himalayan ibex.
There is a PWD rest house at Sagnam. Some more accommodation is also being added. Must carry own tents and camping gear. Tracks from this valley lead to Kullu over Pin Parbati pass and Kinnaur over Bhaba pass.

A little history of Tibetan Buddhism

When king Trison Detsen (Khri-Sron-Ide-bTsan, 755-797 AD) of Tibet embraced the teachings of the Buddha he sent to India for great masters like Santarakshta and the famous teacher and 'tantric', Padmasambhava.

Under Pdmasambhava's influence, Mahayana Buddhism, the 'Greater Vehicle' fanned over the world's highest plateaux. Known to the Tibetans as Guru or Orgian Rimpoche, the Precious Master, Padasambhava began the synthesis of Mahayana practices, 'yogic tantricism' , and the native Bon religion-retaining a large measure of its nature worship and demonolatry. The combination of ritual, faith and philosophy created what we recognize today as Vajrayana Buddhism, the "thunderbolt Vehicle".

The ninth century brought a break in the spread of Buddhist learning when the king, Lang Darma rejected it and began supporting the Bon faith. He was murdered by a Buddhist monk, Pal Dorje and the tenth and eleventh centuries witnessed the grand revival of Buddhist learning. It was an age of great teachers-Atisha Marpa, Rinchensang-po and Milarepa.

In 1357 AD, the reformer, Tsong, khapa began the religious renewal that emphasized Atisha's teachings and a purity of doctrine. He founded the Geluk-pa sect. the 'Yellow Hats' who grew to hold considerable sway-and from which the Dalai lamas were to come. (In 1578 AD, a descendent of Chengis-Ghengis-Khan and ruler of China, had given Sonam Gyatso the title of Ta-le, now written as Dalai- Which means the 'Master of the Ocean of Wisdom'.

When the kingdom of Guge rose in western Tibet after the assassination of Lang Daram, it encompassed the present day tracts of Spiti, Lahaul, Zanskar and upper Kinnaur. The strong cultural and religious identity of the region dates back to those years.

The history/mythology of the Kinnaur Valley, the 'Land of Cina'.

Some recent news stories about the area.

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