It is a hot day in Spiti. As we make our way uphill to the labyrinthine caves of Tabo, the desert mountain offers neither shade, nor respite from the unrelenting climb. Below us is the Tabo monastery, considered to be the oldest functioning monastery in the Himalayas. Its monks use the caves above Tabo to meditate, our guide tells us. As I walk into a cool, quiet cave, I get the strangest feeling that if I reach out, I can actually touch the 1,000-odd years of prayer it has seen. I can’t think of a better place to start my journey tracing the path of Buddhism in Spiti.
Closer both geographically and culturally to Tibet than the rest of India, Spiti has played a significant role in the spread of Buddhism across the world historically. One of its earliest spiritual visitors was Padmasambhava, who brought the message of Buddhism to Spiti in 8th century AD. Padmasambhava synthesised Mahayana practices, yogic tantricism and the local Spitian Bon religion into Vajrayana Buddhism, or the “thunderbolt vehicle”. Over the centuries, maybe because of the intense hardship and isolation that its people face (the high altitude desert remains snowed in and impenetrable for at least six months in a year), Buddhism has grown to encompass every aspect of life in Spiti.
Spiti is best accessed from Shimla or Manali (easily reached by road, air and partly by rail). Tabo is 365 km from Shimla and about 260 km from Manali (via Rohtang). Both arduous but spectacular road trips, best done in a locally rented four-wheel drive. Dhankar is 23 km from Tabo