Monasteries in Spiti
Distance : 58 km from Losar
¤ Kaza - Major Transport
Centre of Eastern Himachal
Kaza is the major transport centre of eastern Himachal. It is also
the administrative centre of the subdistrict of Spiti.
Kaza can be divided into two parts. The old town is a maze of little
shops, hotels and houses. The new town is a collection of government
buildings, including the DMs office. There is an attractive oneday
circular trek from here to Hikim and Comic villages. Hikim gompa
(early 14th century) modelled on a Chinese castle was built under
Mongol patronage. Deeper along the valley, Kaza is noted for its
picturesque Kye monastery.
¤ Accommodation and Refreshment
Sakyas Abode is in the new town. It serves delicious Spitian
Lyul Café and Flax in the old town are famous for their momos
Milarepas Guest House.
Zambala Hotel & Restaurant is an upmarket type just next to the
Whispering Willows is a small rocky camping site in the old town with
a restaurant. PWD and Electricity Board Rest Houses.
Tourist Lodge run by Himachal Tourism.
Irrigation Bungalow at Rangrik (4 km).
Connected by bus services to Manali, Shimla, Kullu, Chandigarh,
Chango, Losar, Kibber and Mikkim in the Pin Valley.
¤ Kye Monastery
Distance :11 km from Kaza
Altitude : 4,160m
¤ The Oldest Repository of
The Kye gompa, built in the 14th century, presents a fascinating
sight to the trekker. Located on a hilltop overlooking Kaza, this
cluster of whiteroofed buildings is rather similar to a fort.
It is perhaps the largest and oldest repository of Buddhist learning
in the Western Himalayas. The gompa was built by Ringchen Zangpo who
belonged to the Gelugpa order. It came up on the remains of the
earlier Kahdampa establishments, which had been destroyed by the
The treasures that could be moved were then taken away and preserved
somewhere secure. This is the reason why the treasures of the gompa
have survived but not the extraordinary murals.
A P Harcourt visited Kye in 1869 and described it as "The Kee
monastery is the largest in Spiti, and is situated between Khiebur and
Kazeh, just over the small village of Kee, on the left bank of the
As seen from the Khiebur side, it presents the appearance of a hill
fort crowning an eminence, a vast wall of rock rising over it to the
east, and thus affording some shelter from the prevailing winds
in summer very few of the Lamas are in residence, the majority living
in their own villages till winter snows once more recall them within
the sacred walls.
Some 200 or 300 monks are in this monastery in winter, the cells,
over eighty in number, being then all filled.
There are many apartments for priests, and the storehouses are
filled to overflowing with supplies for the winter, and with the
dresses, musical instruments, masks and other necessities for
occasions of religious ceremony.
In refractory at the time of my visit I had an opportunity of seeing
monks prepare their food, which was simmering the large cauldrons over
a blazing fire, while one of the neophytes churned the tea in a long
wooden barrel bound round with several brass rings."
Rich and Prosperous Gompa
The Kye Gompa might have been quite a rich and prosperous gompa for
the Ladakhis, Dogras and Sikhs to invade it thrice in the 17th
century. In the middle of the 17th century the Segpo (the Mongols) and
the Ladakhis pillaged the area causing the maximum damage to the Kye
This was done under the instruction of the Fifth Grand Lama to
establish his spiritual and temporal hold over the Tibetan world, the
monastery then came under the Gelugpa order.
The new occupants then started fortifying the gompa that overlooked
the whole of the valley. The gompa was used more as a defensive
structure rather than as a centre for religious studies.
It has therefore more weapons amongst its treasures than other
religious relics. In 1820 the war between the Kullu and Ladakh
kingdoms ransacked the whole gompa into pieces. Again in 1840 Gulam
Khan and Rahim Khan of the Dogra army invaded it and in the same year
the gompa saw an attack from the Sikhs. Subsequent destructions and
reconstructions have had a haphazard growth of box like structures
built one over the other.
Once it was destroyed by fire and in 1975 was partially damaged by an
earthquake. It houses upto 200 lamas at a time who spend their time
painting, training or playing music.
¤ The Inner Layout
Kye Gompa has a narrow passage and a winding flight of steps that
leads to the topmost building around an open courtyard. There at the
top on a raised plinth is the zimchung, the chamber where the
incarnate of the lama resides.
From the zimchung you can reach the upper chambers thatll give
you an extraordinary view of the Spiti village spread out below you.
The gompa is a three storeyed structure one of which is literally a
basement. The basement is used as the store where the treasures of the
monastery old weapons and other artefacts.
The gompa has a valuable collection of ancient Buddhist texts called
Kangyur. They are also kept in the basement area in a separate square
vault with walls having beautiful murals religious in theme.
The ground floor of the gompa has an oblong room used as the du
khang. The walls of this room are also highly painted with marvellous
murals with themes from the jataka and other popular lore. To the
right side of the du khang is the gonkhang, a refectory and other
The cells of the monks are boxlike chambers all around at the
lower levels. The gompa is also well known for its priceless
collection of ancient thangkas, which are upto 800 years old.
Photography here is a strict no no.
¤ Tabo Monastery
Distance : 25 km from
¤ Oldest Buddhist Monasteries In Spiti Valley
Overlooking the steep banks of the Spiti River and lying between high
brown hills at the crossroads of two ancient trade routes is Tabo. It
is referred to as the Tabo Chos hKhor the doctrinal
circle or doctrinal enclave.
Tabo is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the Spiti valley.
It is also one of the most important Gompa in the entire Tibetan
Buddhist world. This is the place where the present Dalai Lama will
retire to from his duties.
High mountains surround the gompa. It was found by the Great
Translator, the legendary Rinchen Tsangpo in 996AD. He brought in
Kashmiri artists to decorate the gompa.
The gompa is second in merit only to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet. It
is popularly known as the Gem of the Himalayas and has a preserve of
ancient Buddhist legacy and houses some of the most sacred centres of
Among its treasures are historical murals depicting tales from the
Buddhist pantheon. It has priceless collection of manuscripts and
thangkas. The gompa is well known for its beautiful murals and stuccos
and is called Ajanta of the Himalayas.
The Artistic Splendor
The gompa is the largest monastic complex in Spiti. It is designed in
a western Tibetan style. The old section has 9 temples, 23 chortens, a
chamber for monks and another for nuns.
These are bounded by an earthen wall and enclose an area of 6,300sqm.
There are several caves and contemporary structures too.
Five halls arranged in a row are enclosed within the gompa walls.
Entrance to each hall is from the east through an open portico.
Timber columns support flat roofs within the gompa and the woodwork
is elaborately carved. Wall paintings depict deities of the Mahayana
sect. There are eight temples in the complex, some dating back to the
10th century. The Dalai Lama has inaugurated a new painting school
¤ The Cave Attractions
Opposite the village, some caves are locally known as Duwang, with
some famous ancient murals. Pho Gompa the only surviving has early
murals showing pure Indian influence.
The caves are being gradually restored after being damaged over the
years. The main reason for which photography using flash is strictly
The 1000year anniversary of Tabo was held in June 1996 amidst
great fanfare. A mummified body of a monk was discovered a few years
back in Spiti. Now enshrined in glass it is a highly frequented place.
¤ Earliest Temples of The Complex
Gtsug LhaKhang - The
Temple of The Enlightened One
Built in the 11th century this assembly hall or Dukhang
is the most interesting building of the Tabo group in its layout,
sculptural manifestation and painted ornamentation. At the western end
of the hall is a sanctuary lit only by the opening in the roof.
It houses seated images of Amitabha (the celestial Buddha),
accompanied by lesser deities. A large sculpture of a seated fourarmed
Vairochana in front of the sanctuary faces the entrance.
It is partly hidden by a wooden altar. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is
regarded as one of the five sons of the Adibuddha or the selfcreative
From the sidewalls jut out seated stucco figures of patron deities,
goddesses, Tathagatas and Bodhisattvas, which have been restored
recently. Beneath them are paintings with influences from Kashmir and
Eastern India. These paintings illustrate episodes from the life of
the Bodhisattva King Navsang and of Sakyamuni.
GSerkhang or The Golden Temple
of the other temples at Tabo, this southernmost building built in the
16th century has the most important murals.
The walls are said to have been coated with a layer of gold dust as
thick as a yaks skin for painting larger than life figures. The
walls are covered with paintings illustrating triple sets of Buddhist
Especially noteworthy are the murals of green Tara and goddess
Usnishvijaya on the north wall. Skirting the entrance (east) wall are
patrons in their wrathful expressions. Senge Namgyal, the ruler of
Ladakh extensively renovated it in the 16th century.
DkyilhKhorKhang or The Mystic Mandala Temple
The wall facing the door has a huge painting of Vairochana who is
surrounded by the eight Bodhisattvas. Mystic mandalas cover the other
areas. The initiation to monkhood takes place here.
ByamsPaChenpoLhakhang or the Bodhisattva
This has an image of Bodhisattva Maitreya that is over six metres
high. The temple has hall and sanctum. The murals within depict the
TashiChunpo gompa and Lhasaa Potala Palace.
DromstonLhakhang or the Temple of Dromton
It is regarded to have been founded by Dromton (10081064AD), an
important disciple of Atisha. The doorway is intricately carved and
the inner walls are covered with murals. A small portico and a long
passage leads to its hall. It lies on the northern edge of the
Zalma or the Chamber of Picture Treasures
This is an anteroom of sorts attached to the Temple of the
Enlightened Gods. It is covered with paintings of the Buddha, his
disciples and Tara in the pure Tibetan style.
DromstonLhakhang Chen Po or the Large
Temple of Dromton
The second largest temple in the complex, it covers an area of about
112sqm. The front wall has the figure of the Sakyamuni flanked by
Sariputra and Maha Maugdalayana. The other walls depict the eight
Medicine Buddhas and Guardian Kings.
GonKhang or the Mahakala Vajrabhairava Temple
This enshrines the protective deity of the Gelugpa sect. The
room is filled with fierce deities and is closed to visitors; even the
lamas only enter it after protective meditation. It is also called the
Temple of Horror. Masks, weapons and ritual costumes are stored here.
KarabyumLhakhang or the White Temple
The walls of this temple are adorned, leaving a low dado for the
monks or nuns to lean against.
of the remaining temples, the Chamba Chenpo La Khang is dedicated to
the Maitreya (Future) Buddha. It has a sixmetrehigh seated
Buddha. The 1617th century murals fuse Indian and High Central
Tibetan styles. The villagers hold a large Mala (sacrificial wood)
tree at the northwest corner of the complex to be sacred. It is the
only one of four to survive. The monastery courtyard has Ganday trees
that bear yellow, sweetly scented flowers in the spring.
Technique of Colouring
The colourful murals of Tabo come very close to the pure Indian style
identified with the rockcut Ajanta and Ellora caves.
The technique required the surface to be coated with several thin
layers of lime and yak skin glue. It was then burnished vigorously to
provide the ground. Next it was smoothed and freshened with animal fat
Natural vegetable dyes and powdered stone colours were mixed with dzo
milk and yak urine for painting.
The early Indian style murals used a combination of reds and yellows
with little stress on landscaping. The area around the principal
figures was filled with smaller divinities. In contrast, the images of
Tabo wear a seraphic smile and halfshut dreamy eyes showing
Forest and PWD Rest Houses and a couple of small hotels are available
in the village. A few rooms are also there at the gompa.
Banjara Camp has 11 deluxe 2bed tents to offer. For reservation
contact 17 Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi 110016, Tel no:- 011696
Tanzin is a familyrun place serving good Tibetan food.
Tabo is a twohour bus ride from Kaza. The bus to Tabo leaves
Kaza at six in the morning. There is also a bus to Chandigarh via