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.
We leave the cool confines of the caves to descend to the monastic complex in Tabo. This is Spiti’s spiritual centre and as I walk around the weathered mud stupas that look like giant anthills, I can see why. Tabo monastery was built 1,000 years ago and every step I take seems to be through the pages of history. Inside the stupas, every nook and cranny (even the wood beams on the ceiling) is painted with extraordinary examples of early Indo-Tibetan art, many of which date back to when it was originally constructed. The frescos of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are extraordinarily beautiful, undimmed by time. A novice monk is meditating quietly in a dark apse. We start talking and he says, “It is my good fortune that I’m here. Tabo is the holiest of our holy places. Even the Dalai Lama wants to settle here after he retires.” He and his younger brother are both studying to become monks. “In our society, the younger sons are always sent to the monastery, while the eldest inherits the family land,” he tells me. “My elder brother tends our lands, while we, the two younger brothers, call Tabo our home.” Because of this custom, Spiti’s population has actually declined in the last decade!
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
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