Tabo and Dankar Gompas: We visit the 1000-year-old Tabo Monastery
We had not bathed since arriving in Kaza. It was unthinkable to remove warm clothing and undress even inside our rooms. The water did not flow through the pipes in the morning as it was frozen. However, when I discovered that our lodge caretaker had obtained water that he could heat by fire, I opted for it. Undressing and bathing was an adventure in itself!
We were soon on our way to the Tabo monastery. The 10th century Tabo monastery houses more than 60 Lamas, large number of scriptures and art treasure like stucco wall paintings. Built in the year 996 AD, Tabo monastery is the oldest and archeologically most important monastery of Spiti. The wall-frescoes of the monastery are said to be comparable in their antiquity and quality to those of Ajanta Caves. Hence, Tabo is known as the Ajanta of the Himalayas.
The monastery was a big complex containing 9 temples of different sizes. Photography inside the monastery was not permitted. The millennium celebrations had taken place in mid-1996, when the Dalai Lama conducted the rare Kalachakra Ceremony. All of us were speechless as we wandered around the complex and inside the temples. There was solemnity pervading all around that imbibed our spirits.
There were ancient carved stones at several places. The carvings were intricate figures of gods and complex geometrical designs. Inside the temples, there were huge statues and figures of the Buddha in various mudras — postures. I observed that the light arrangement was such that the head of the Buddha was hardly visible, compared to the rest. I learnt that in all monasteries, they designed it that way because one is not supposed to look directly at the Buddha.
At some distance from us, in the middle of a mountainside, there was a string of caves. The monks used those caves for meditation. The Archeological department now preserves them.
Snow covers the entire Spiti valley, all the region that we were visiting, in winter every year. Man-made roads and bridges cannot weather the harsh forces of nature in this part of the world. After seeing mutilated bridges and traveling on a road that needs to be redeveloped every year by the Indian military, I had not the faintest idea how a monastery could survive 1000 years of severe weather, landslides, snow, glaciers, and storms. It was simply miraculous.
The red figure on the left is our driver!
Our final monastery visit was to the Dankar Gompa, located on top of a hill on the way back to Kaza. On our way, we passed the junction of the Pin and Spiti rivers. The confluence of two rivers, with pure green-blue water was a magnificent sight.
With no special guide or person knowledgeable about monastery culture, it was rather mundane to visit yet another monastery with similar statues and paintings. I wished we had somebody with greater knowledge of the Buddhist culture, so that we could have appreciated the culture and art better.
One marvel I observed in this region was the purity of light and shadow. At this high altitude, because the air is thin, there is hardly any diffusion of light. I had never seen so sharp shadows before. Often shadows were in total darkness while there was ample light around. Another marvel was the color of the sky. Only our photographs can describe the purity of the sky; I cannot attempt it in words.
Finally, it was night and we were back at the lodge. The drivers never slept outside the vehicles, because they had to start the vehicles multiple times in the night. If the vehicles were not started every couple of hours in the night, they would not start at all in the morning! This was to be our last night at Kaza and in the evening, we stared and stared at all the grandeur around us, as if to etch the images in our mind permanently, before we returned to our part of the world.