From its headwaters below the Kunzum La pass, the River Spiti runs 130km southeast to within the flick of a yak’s tail of the border with Tibet, where it meets the Sutlej. The valley itself, surrounded by huge peaks with an average altitude of 4500m, is one of the highest and most remote inhabited places on earth – a desolate, barren tract scattered with tiny mud-and-timber hamlets and lonely lamaseries. Until 1992, Spiti in its entirety lay off-limits to foreign tourists. Now, only its far southeastern corner falls within the Inner Line – which leaves upper Spiti, including the district headquarters Kaza, freely accessible from the northwest via Lahaul. If you are really keen to complete the loop through the restricted area to or from Kinnaur, you will need a permit. The last main stop before reaching the restricted zone is the famed Tabo gompa, which harbours some of the oldest and most exquisite Buddhist art in the world.
In summer, once the Rohtang La and Kunzum La (4550m) are clear of snow, two buses leave Manali for Spiti every morning. It is also possible to hire jeeps from Manali (through HPTDC or any other travel agency) and to trek in from the Kullu Valley or south from the Baralacha La. From Grampoo it’s a rough, 80km track to Losar but with the gorge, waterfalls, snowy peaks and not least, the white-knuckle ascent over Kunzum La, it’s also a mind-boggling entry into the Spiti. Soon after crossing Kunzum La the track reaches the sprawling village of LOSAR, (4113m) where a police checkpoint sits alongside a couple of basic guesthouses. From this point the track becomes a road for the last section to Kaza.
Kaza and around
Kaza and around
KAZA, the subdivisional headquarters of Spiti, lies 76km southeast of the Kunzum Pass, and 201km from Manali. Overlooking the north bank of the River Spiti, it’s Spiti’s least picturesque town, but as the region’s main market and roadhead it’s a good base from which to head off on two- or three-day treks to monasteries and remote villages such as Kibber. Rates for porters and ponymen are comparable to those in Kullu. It is also possible to trek to Dhankar (32km) and on to Tabo (43km). Those planning to continue on to Kinnaur can pick up a free Inner Line permit from the Additional Deputy Commissioner’s office in the new town. You will need two passport-sized photos and copies of the relevant pages in your passport, as well as a police stamp, obtainable from the police station down the hill from the DC office towards the river.
Set against a backdrop of snow-flecked mountains and clinging to the steep sides of a windswept conical hillock, Ki Gompa is a picture-book example of Tibetan architecture and one of Himachal’s most exotic spectacles. Founded in the sixteenth century, Ki is the largest monastery in the Spiti Valley, supporting a thriving community of lamas whose Rinpoche, Lo Chien Tulkhu from Shalkar near Sumdo, is said to be the current incarnation of the “Great Translator” Rinchen Zangpo. His glass-fronted quarters crown the top of the complex, reached via stone steps that wind between the lamas’ houses below. A labyrinth of dark passages and wooden staircases connects the prayer and assembly halls, home to collections of old thangkas, weapons, musical instruments, manuscripts and devotional images (no photography). Many of the rooms have seen extensive renovation since an earthquake struck in 1975; a new prayer hall, dedicated by the Dalai Lama, was also added in 2000. During the new moon towards late June or early July, Ki plays host to a large festival celebrating the “burning of the demon” when chaam dances are followed by a procession that winds its way down to the ritual ground below the monastery where a large butter sculpture is set on fire.
Ki village lies 12km northwest of Kaza on the road to Kibber, and Ki Gompa is a steep 1km walk up from the town. The most scenic approach is to take the 5.30pm bus from Kaza to Kibber; get off at Ki village and walk the last section to appreciate the full effect of the gompa’s dramatic southern aspect. Alternatively, the 8am bus from Kibber detours to the monastery on its way down to Kaza. Accommodation in Ki is scant.
One of the main reasons to brave the rough roads of Spiti is to get to Tabo Gompa, 43km east of Kaza. The mud and timber boxes that nestle on the steep north bank of the Spiti may look drab, but the multi-hued murals and stucco sculpture they contain are some of the world’s richest and most important ancient Buddhist art treasures – the link between the cave paintings of Ajanta and the more exuberant Tantric art that flourished in Tibet five centuries or so later. According to an inscription in its main assembly hall, the monastery was established in 996 AD, when Rinchen Zangpo was disseminating dharma across the northwestern Himalayas. In addition to the 158 Sanskrit Buddhist texts he personally transcribed, the “Great Translator” brought with him a retinue of Kashmiri artisans to decorate the temples. The only surviving examples of their exceptional work are here at Tabo, at Alchi in Ladakh, and Toling and Tsaparang gompas in Chinese-occupied western Tibet.
Enclosed within a mud-brick wall, Tabo’s Chogskhar, or “sacred enclave”, contains eight temples and 24 chortens (stupas). The largest and oldest structure in the group, the Sug La-khang, stands opposite the main entrance. Erected at the end of the tenth century, the “Hall of the Enlightened Gods” was conceived in the form of a three-dimensional mandala, whose structure and elaborately decorated interior functions as a mystical model of the universe complete with deities. There are three distinct bands of detail – the lower-level paintings depict episodes in the life of the Buddha and his previous incarnations; above are stucco gods and goddesses; and the top of the hall is covered with meditating Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Bring a torch to see the full detail of the murals.
The other temples date from the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Their contents illustrate the development of Buddhist iconography from its early Indian origins to the Chinese-influenced opulence of medieval Tibetan Tantricism that still, in a more lurid form, predominates in modern gompas. The new gompa, inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1983, houses nearly fifty lamas and a handful of chomos (nuns), some of whom receive training in traditional painting techniques under a geshe, or teacher from eastern Tibet. Visitors are welcome to attend daily 6.30am puja. It’s also worth exploring the caves across the main road, one of which houses more paintings, but you need to be let in by the gompa caretaker.