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.