The Memory keepers

After the mansion hopping, we drove down to Athangudi village. One of the striking features of Chettiyar mansions is floors made of tiles in bright colors and patterns. In the olden days, the tiles were imported. When they found it difficult to replace the damaged tiles, the enterprising Chettiyars set up a cottage industry with local artisans to make tiles with traditional designs. It was noted that the soil from Athangudi was most suited for the process and this small village has become the centre of a thriving cottage industry.

We got down in front of a house and met a lady who took us to the backyard. There was a small shed with three people and we observed the meticulous process of tile making. Every single tile is handmade and the raw materials are sand, cement, and colors.

A mould is placed on a glass piece fitted with a metal frame and is filled up with a mixture of sand, cement, and color. After the color sets, the mould is taken off and the frame is sealed with cement. It is then left to dry in the sun and cured in a water bath for about 8-10 days.

The friendly artisans floored us with their skills and speed; one of them shyly mentioned he is on YouTube. Students of Architecture, designers, heritage enthusiasts, and of course tourists like us visit them often. It was interesting to know that the tiles acquire more sheen as they age and don’t require much maintenance.

From the tiles unit, we moved to Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centre. Kandangi sarees is yet another legacy of the Chettiyars. They had set up a weavers colony to promote traditional weaving. What started off as a home-based cottage industry is now run by cooperative societies.

Two ladies were working on the loom. For someone who had not given much thought to the making of sarees, the synchronized movements of the weavers was fascinating. This is skilful, laborious work; one misstep would mean repeating the entire process. The bright coloured sarees with checks and stripes are known for their durability.

Next to the work shed is the showroom. Posters with film stars and politicians draped in kandangi sarees are on the wall. The salesman pointed out the Geographical Indication (GI) tag on the sarees; this has helped to limit the production of cheap duplicates from the power loom sector; it is also difficult to find skilled weavers as youngsters from traditional weaving families are keen on lucrative alternate professions. For me, the weavers are the best brand ambassadors and we have to do our bit to support them. All of us took home a piece of handloom.

At the hotel, someone had mentioned an antique market and we were keen to check it out. Many of the Chettiyar mansions were demolished and the fittings and artifacts found their way into the antique shops. It was Sunday so most of the shops were closed. We got inside one tiny shop which was filled to the rafters with stuff in all shapes and sizes.

The shopkeeper told us they have a warehouse where they keep the heavy stuff like pillars, doors, cast iron vessels, etc. Every piece has a story. I can picture an old lady here browsing, touching the knick-knacks, and weeping like a child when she sees her late mother’s key. Wonder why are they not in a museum.

On the way back we saw an old mansion. There was an elderly man in the foyer and seeing our group he invited us in. The patriarch introduced his family members who took us around the hundred- year -old house. After seeing the museum like vacant mansions and the abandoned crumbling houses, it was a pleasure to be in the grand old house full of people.

Randomness, serendipity, nostalgia, and old world charm: spending time with the Chettiyar family was the best part of our trip.

Once Upon a Time in Chettinad

”  Which Indian town has hundreds of mansions with  Burmese teak pillars,  Belgian mirrors, chandeliers, Italian marble, Japanese tiles, and Venetian glass?, “  I asked my friend.

” Delusions of grandeur!   Are you coming from a movie set?”   the friend was not convinced until I showed her the photos of Chettinad (land of Chettiyar).

Chettiyars, one of the richest communities in South India made their fortunes from banking and trading during the British Raj. They also established flourishing business ventures in South East Asian countries. In their heydays, they made palatial houses across  75 villages near Madhurai, Tamil Nadu.   This region came to be known as Chettinad. After independence,  declining economy forced many of them to move to the cities and other countries leaving their ancestral homes in the custody of caretakers. Many of the grand old mansions are now in a depressing state of disrepair; some are stripped off the valuables and demolished;  a couple of them are converted into heritage hotels.  Some houses are open to the public.

Our heritage trail started from  Karaikudi-the main town. The local driver Anand was an enthusiastic and enterprising guide. After a short visit to a temple, (there are a lot of temples around)   he brought us to Periya Veedu(Big House).

Periya Veedu

An old caretaker let us in for a nominal charge.   We stood at the foyer and took in the  visual feast.    Chettiyar houses follow a typical pattern: imposing entrance with arches,   huge courtyards,  granite and wood pillars, high ceilings, and they are aligned in such a way that from the entrance one can see right up to the back door. Some houses stretch along an entire street. The size and scale of ornamentation reflect their wealth and prestige.


The reception area mugappu has raised platform thinnai on either side ; this part was used for the male guests. There was a clear demarcation between the public and private zones. With men away on business for long periods,  women were in charge of running the house. I wonder if the dynamics changed after they returned home for good!

The grand reception area

The ornate teak doors open to the main hall. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope and finding colorful surprises at every turn.


The Main Hall

The influence of different lands and cultures is visible all around: Belgian mirrors(kept covered), Italian marble, Burmese teak pillars blend beautifully with the locally made Athangudi tiles.   Anand informed that this hall can accommodate thousands of people and was used for banquets, weddings, and festivals. It was interesting to know local masons were the chief architects for these “hybrid” homes.

Lord Krishna on the ceiling

Indian mythological figures and fairies

The windows and doors have a special charm:

Sparkling floor and grand pillars


From the main hall, we moved to an open courtyard with large verandas and several rooms :

The Ladies Wing

The ladies’domain does not have the lavish ornamentation of the main hall but is more bright, airy, and personal. Many South Indian movies are shot in this house. Anand reeled off the names and I made a note to watch it on YouTube.

Next comes the dining hall which looks like the interior of a church:


Only three sections of the house are open to visitors.  All the other rooms (40-50) are locked up. The family members come only for a wedding or other festivals. It must cost a fortune to maintain such a house! Out of the 50-60,000 houses, there are now only 10-15,000 (estimates vary widely) and they are scattered around Karaikudi, Kanadukathan , and Puthukottai. It seems the Chettiyars vied with one another in making bigger and grander homes.

We ambled down the deserted road marveling at the architectural splendours:


Majestic Raja’s Palace was not open to visitors


Stucco figure of Goddess Lakshmi,goddess of wealth and prosperity is seen in many houses.

Central courtyard in a mansion-this is my favourite spot.

Open to the elements


Many are crumbling: IMG_9854

Frozen in a time warp


Another repository of memories


After the heavy dose of history and art (I was getting a bit disoriented), it was time to visit the local market. The lively place was full of people and produce: fresh and seasonal. It was fun watching the buyers, sellers, and the range of items on display.IMG_0001

We went around buying as much as we could eat and returned to the hotel.

Kolkata- Of Saints and Men

In Kolkata, everyone knows Mother so getting to her home was easy. The noise and chaos of the city vanish once you are in the alley leading to Mother House as the headquarters of Missionaries of Charity is popularly known.

Mother is IN

There is nothing to indicate that this place is a major pilgrimage center and tourist attraction.

The door leads to a small courtyard; there was no one around except for the lifelike statues of Mother Mary and Mother Teresa.  After some time an elderly nun came and directed me to the main hall which has the tomb of Mother and a small chapel.

No somber air about the tomb. This is a bright, cheery place.

The tomb is adorned with candles and flowers.  The altar is at the other end. The final resting place of the Mother stands out for its simplicity.

I see a group of novice nuns writing on pieces of paper and depositing it reverentially in a box.  These are prayer requests which are offered at the altar during the weekly mass.

Right next to the main hall is a small museum showcasing the remarkable journey of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu from Macedonia to Saint Teresa.   The trademarked blue-bordered white saree,  rosary, and sandals are some of her personal items on display.

 Then I took a flight of stairs to see the room of Mother. The tiny spartan room has been preserved with her cot, desk and a bench. Everything is austere and utilitarian.

Back in the courtyard, I stand before the statue:

Her knobby feet caught my attention; I vaguely remember reading  Mother acquired this deformity from constantly wearing ill-fitting shoes.

Critics have questioned the functioning of the various centers under the Missionaries of Charity citing pathetic living conditions, inadequate medical facilities, staff, etc. They also have issues with her sainthood.  Hey, who are we to judge?

Nuns, volunteers, and visitors are coming in. I wanted to talk to a volunteer, but they all look very busy.  Another day begins at Mother House.


Kolkata- Of Gods and Men

Leaving the hustle and bustle of the Flower Market, we took a ferry to go to Bagbazar, North Kolkata. It was exciting to drift through the mighty Hooghly River.   Ferry ride is a good way to beat the morning traffic.IMG_5413

This part of the city was like the sets of a vintage Bengali movie:  crumbling old mansions, trams, and hand-pulled rickshaws. One of the houses is even rumored to be haunted!

Putul Bari (House of Dolls)


I like this cozy balcony with its intricate grill

Crying for repair and restoration


Hand-pulled rickshaw and the yellow taxi-iconic symbols of Kolkata


Tram tracks- Kolkata is the only Indian city with tram service and it is the oldest in Asia

Finally, we reached a warren of narrow streets lined with workshops.  This is Kumartuli- the Potters’ Colony: the place of birth of Gods and Goddesses of Hindu pantheon.

Navpreet gave a brief introduction into the history and led us to explore.

Kumartuli- where Gods are made

The tradition of idol making dates back to the 16th century when rich landlords had grand puja celebrations at their residences.  The idol makers used to come from the neighboring villages.  Later as pujas became a community affair there was more demand for the idols and the potters set up a permanent workshop/residence near the banks of Hooghly River.   Kumartuli( In Bengali kumor is potter and tuli means locality) has since grown into a lively art community.

Bengalis celebrate many festivals all year round;  Durga Puja, invoking Goddess Durga is the most popular. It celebrates the victory of the Goddess over the demon Mahishasura.  During the 10- day- long festival, idols of Goddess is worshipped in thousands of marquees (pandal) all over the city.  The festival is in September-October, though preparations start early.

Idol making is a long, elaborate process.  Meticulous preparations start from the month of  March and continue until the idols are despatched to various parts of the country and overseas.

We are here in April and today seem like any other working day for the artists. I watch the activities with awe. The artisans work silently with total concentration. The workshops are filled with statues in various stages of completion. They are carrying on an age-old craft passed from generation to generation.   Everything is handmade; the raw materials used are bamboo, hay, clay, and jute.




It starts by making a framework out of bamboo and hay.   The skeletal frames are plastered with layers of clay and the structure is kept in the sun to dry.

The straw dummy of the Goddess Durga with ten arms. Amazing symmetry and proportion!

Lord Ganesha waiting for the clay coating.

The torso and limbs are sculpted first;  face, fingers, and toes are moulded later.

The tiny workshop

Many faces of the Goddess

Goddess Kali

All set for the painting and varnishing

Next step is painting and varnishing. The painted models are dressed in dazzling clothes and adorned with jewelry.  Thus a team of artists and ancillary workers transforms the shapeless mass of clay into a divine figure. The end product looks like this:

Goddess Durga with her children and the vanquished demon at her feet.

Navpreet regaled us with fascinating rites and rituals associated with idol making.  The eyes of the Goddess is drawn on an auspicious day.  Known as Chokku dan, the Goddess is supposed to descend to earth from her heavenly abode this day. I wish I can come back and see all the stages of idol making someday. It was heartening to learn that a few women are also in this predominantly male- dominated field.

From the studios, the idols are shifted to the pandals and celebrations begin.  Prayers, dance, music, feasts continue until the 10th day.  On the last day, the idols are taken on a grand procession and immersed in the river. Even Gods have a short lifespan!

After bidding farewell to Goddess Durga, the artists get busy with other festivals.   There is a popular Bengali saying that there are 13 festivals in 12 months so the artists are making idols all year round.  Their expertise is not limited to deities;  philosophers, freedom fighters, political leaders, and writers are also made here.

Vivekananda and Tagore

Apart from the workshops, there are many small stores with puja paraphernalia.

We chatted with this gracious artist; he is specialised in miniature idols.

The young man was totally immersed in the art using chiyari– a sculpting tool made from bamboo.

Goddess with celebrities

There is more. I see some idols dumped on the road:

Forlorn idols on the banks of Hooghly River

Languishing festal remnants. Wake up, Kolkata Municipality.

There is never a dull moment here in Kumartuli. It was a privilege to walk through this historic quarter and see the artists at work. One can’t help but notice their skills, simplicity, and the humble working conditions. I am so full of admiration and respect for the clay masters.







City of Joy- Flower Power

The day started well with a sight like this:

Howrah Bridge

I am in Kolkata gaping at the iconic Howrah Bridge. The gleaming bridge stretches across the Hooghly river connecting the twin cities Howrah and Kolkata. It looks like a giant mythical creature with tiny humans and vehicles in its belly.

Two days is ridiculously inadequate to see the old capital of India but I am very excited.   My host, a dear friend who is a  long-term resident of Kolkata, suggested a heritage walk and here we are at the Jagannath ghat waiting for the guide.   Expecting a large group of tourists I was pleasantly surprised to find just the two of us with Navpreet, the vivacious host of FunOnStreets. After the brief introduction, she led us down the ghat which was already a hub of activities at 7 a.m:  morning ablutions, prayers,   wrestling practice, and photo shoots.


From the ghat we walked to the Flower Market, supposed to be the largest wholesale market of its kind in India.

Mullick Ghat Flower Market

The first sight of the narrow lanes filled with flowers and people is overwhelming. The bustling market has been operating for the last 125 years. Truckloads of flowers start coming as early as 4 a.m from all over West Bengal and the frenetic activities go on till late. The whole atmosphere is colorful and chaotic. We picked our way through the petal strewn path, careful not to collide with the milling crowd.

Flowers have always been an integral part of Indian festivals, weddings, and temple rituals. Here you can see a staggering variety of flowers and leaves of different colors, textures, and designs. Some are exclusively reserved for the temples; I didn’t know that Gods also have their favourite flowers!

Goodmorning Sunshine

Pristine white and deliciously fragrant jasmine

Fiery cockscomb

Aparajita flower

Akundo flowers for Lord Shiva

Lotus buds for Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi

Floral offerings for the temples

Special leaves for the temple rituals

Exotic roses for export

Over 250 stalls line the alleyway. Despite the shabby exterior, they make a decent income which goes up considerably during festival and wedding seasons. Navpreet kept us engaged with interesting trivia.

There are people everywhere: vendors, buyers, porters, and tourists. You just got to go with the flow and take in as much as you can.

Deftly weaving garlands

Pitching sales

Red hibiscus garlands for Goddess Kali

Where are the buyers today?

We need a break.

Men outnumber women; they lug their colorful, fragrant merchandise with ease and grace.

I like the way he is holding the garlands

Wonder why none of the ladies have worn flowers in their hair.

Vendors are quite used to the awestruck tourists; photo permits sought and granted in the most eloquent silent language

Spilling over to the footpath

Marigold flowers are the most in demand. The bright yellow and orange blooms are visible all over the place:


Heavy load!


In bundles

Floral cascade


I see a giant floral dump; some flowers look too fresh to be discarded.IMG_5652


Temples and religious rituals require a fresh batch of flowers every day so all the unsold wares end up in the dump. I wish the authorities do something about it. There is a Kanpur based startup ‘HelpUsGreen’ which recycle floral waste into incense sticks and vermicompost.  Anybody listening?

It will be exciting to spend an entire day in this market but we have to catch a ferry, so let me stop and smell the roses/ marigolds.



Delhi- Walls Tell The Best Stories

I resumed the mural hunt after brunch. 

The simple logo carries a powerful message. The central government initiated the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014 with the objective of a Clean India by 2019  and who else but Gandhi can be its inspiration. Apart from Ahimsa and Satyagraha, Gandhi was also a crusader for cleanliness and effective sanitation. His teachings and principles are more relevant in these times.

Father of the Nation, Artist: Kafeel, India


Now, what is over there?  There are birds everywhere. For a moment I thought I was seeing a poster of the classic Hitchcock movie  The Birds.

Order in Chaos:  DALeast, China

Are they flying in or out? Frenzy-Vertigo-The Birds


DALeast is well-known in the graffiti world.  The Lodhi Colony mural was inspired by his travels in India: There’s a chaos but inside it, there is an order. Those birds are the same as us, moving around all the time; if they stop they will crash… I’m one of the birds. 

Leaving the birds I walked into a tropical garden:  birds, butterflies, flowers, and plants enliven the empty street.

Mother: Blaise Joseph, India

The lady with the halo of flowers is the mother of the artist. A touching tribute!

The massive mural, inspired from the epic  Mahabharat, depicts the omniform of Lord Krishna.  Some of the human and animal forms look menacing!


Viswaroopa: Inkbrushnme, India

Two women are talking, their faces etched with hope and strength:

From your strength, I weave beauty: Shilo Shiv Suleman, India

The artist Shilo Shiv Suleman leads the Fearless Collective which addresses gender-based issues. This collaborative artwork with Sewing New Futures shows two women from the marginalized section of the society. The older woman says, “Despite my hardships, I am blistering gold; this fog can no longer hold me back,”  “From your unfulfilled dreams, I  will weave a new world,” says the young girl.

The next wall shows a blue elephant with tusks growing into branches. Brilliant work!

Fusion Art: Rakesh Kumar Memrot, India


The vibrant artwork is a tribute to the Gond tribal art practiced by the Gonds- the largest tribal community of central India. They decorate their houses with colorful paintings of flora, fauna, scenes from mythology, and everyday lives.


Sparkling house sparrows- The State bird of Delhi

I like the bright colors and the way the artist has integrated the birds; they look almost lifelike.   Rakesh Kumar and his team of volunteers took three weeks to complete this stunning mural.

Two Kathakali dancers with their characteristic, colorful headgear are staring at you. Kathakali is the traditional dance form of Kerala; the artists in elaborate costumes convey stories through gestures and facial expressions.

Katha-Crazy Twins: Chiller Champa and Boom Bhaijaan: Harsh Raman, India

The wacky twins have many fans in the locality; they are favored for photo shoots also(Source: Three school kids at Lodhi Colony). The lively murals would be a great help for those who struggle to remember street /block numbers.   Block Kathakali, Crows, Elephant, Astronaut, Big Bird, Pink, etc sound cool and catchy.

From a distance, this wall looks the facade of a palace:


As you get near, the bright indigo blue lights up the entire wall.

Shekhawati painting: Mahendra Pawar, India


The unique style of painting originated in the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan.  The St+art India Foundation has provided the right platform for the traditional artists to exhibit indigenous art forms.

The adjacent block walls look drab.  I  picture the artists creating colorful murals and disappearing. Like the birds.

Wandering the streets couldn’t have been more graffitifying!





Delhi- Different Streets, Different Strokes

“How far is it?”

” You are almost there, walk straight ahead; you can’t miss it.” The autorickshaw driver pointed towards a tree-lined street flanked by blocks of buildings.

It is a bright sunny day in Delhi and I am going to see India’s first public art district at the Lodhi Colony. This ambitious project by the  St+art India Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works on art projects in public spaces kicked off in December 2015. The two- month long art festival had local and international street artists putting up murals and installations to popularise the concept of ‘Art for All.’   I came to know about it through a colleague who also suggested a curated walking tour. It would be interesting to have someone point out the nuances of the art to an ignoramus like me but I would rather wander on my own and explore.

Lodhi Colony is a government residential colony.  It is centrally located and the buildings present a wonderful facade.   Most of the artwork is seen over the walls between Khanna Market and Meherchand Market. There are no signposts;  one can walk around and spot the murals leisurely.

This wall with the bright colored birds by the Mexican artist Senkoe was dazzling.  Feathered friends seem to be a favorite subject for many street artists.  Having seen some of his other works I can now make out his signature style:

Title: Colors of the soul Artist: Senkoe, Mexico

Bursting with color and life

What does the purple heart say?

Right across is the mural by artist Suiko titled The Lotus.  I like the way the artists have made use of the archways and windows of the building.

Title: The Lotus Artist: Suiko, Japan

The next block has a lady on the wall:

Title: Don’t let this symbolism kill your heart    Artist: Nafir, Iran

Now I am looking up and see an astronaut sitting on top of a meteorite. The astronaut represents someone who can see the larger picture or look at things from a different perspective. Interesting!

Title: See through    Artists: Christian Rebecchi & Pablo Togni NEVERCREW,  Switzerland

Here is the  calligraffiti by the Dutch artist Neils Shoe Meulman:

Sans serifs no letters

and no words to read

sans words no signs

no names in the streets

just rows of buildings

and gardens sans weeds.

Untitled     Artist: Neil Shoe Meulman

From the painted poem  I walked over to the next wall which reminded of a classroom: happy children, birds, flowers, and fish.


Moving further I see more blues and fish:

Untitled    Artists: Ishan, Tanya, Nandini, Sharmeen, Pranav, Nikunj, Deepak, and Sid.

Captivating art and a curious onlooker.

The sight of the blazing pink walls stopped me in my tracks.


Title: Pink    Artists: Karolina Zajaczkowska&Stawek Zbiok Czajkowski DWA ZETA


I could not understand the abstract art. The St+art site informs that the duo chose the colour to figuratively mark the feminine element in a public space. Empowering art!

Midway through the ‘art therapy’ hunger pangs forced me to take a break.




Spiti Tales- Fifty shades of blue

After two days in the idyllic villages, we are back on the road.  Today we are going to cross Kunzum La and this was going to be the most challenging route of the entire trip.

Kunzum Pass is the high mountain pass which connects Lahaul with Spiti valley. It remains inaccessible for eight months due to heavy snow and opens only from mid- June to  September.  A favorite with the adventure seekers, reaching the pass is considered a high point in every sense.

Starting off early to avoid the rush hour, all of us were in fine form. The group had bonded well over the trip. Some were already making plans to come back here for the winter.

From Kaza, it is 75 km to Kunzum Pass.  Spiti valley continued to charm us with its mesmerizing landscapes. At many places, there are no tarmacked roads.  The drivers depend on one another to keep tabs on the latest road conditions. We had to brave our way through deep gorges, massive boulders, and raging streams. It was exciting as well as scary to wade through ice cold waters.

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There was a dramatic change in the landscape near the Kunzum pass. Vast green pastures took over from the rugged barren mountains.

Near Kunzum Pass

A flock of sheep was grazing under the watchful eyes of the shepherd.




A detour from the main road leads to the famed Kunzum Pass.

Kunzum Pass

At the top, there is a small temple for the local deity Kunzum Mata. It is customary for travelers to stop here to pay obeisance to the  Kunzum Mata. Beside the temple are stupas and hundreds of prayer flags making it look more like a Buddhist monastery.  I did not want to take my shoes off to enter the temple.  So I went on to do a parikrama (clockwise circumambulation) of the temple and bowed to the spectacular vistas.

Kunzum Mata Temple

The temple, gompas, prayer flags and the mountains invoke a sense of calm

The majestic Chandrabhaga mountain range overlooks the pass.  There is something special and divine about the mountain passes that makes us want to linger.  But our vigilant drivers are ready to move.

Leaving Kunzum Pass

The road progressively deteriorated and now it was just a winding gravel path.IMG_5551

Further ahead was the camping site. After that bumpy ride, it was a relief to see the cozy tents and the picturesque surroundings.   Chandratal is about 2 km from the camp and we got ready for the next adventure.  Visiting Chandratal has been one of my fondest dreams and I couldn’t believe that I was finally going to be there.

The vehicles left us in the parking area and we started the hike.  As expected it was very cold and windy. But nothing could dampen our excitement. The fairly easy trek takes you through rolling hills, meadows and couple of streams.

Still a long way to go

Snow clad mountains and meadows

Though Chandratal has been a popular tourist destination we were fortunate to have the place to ourselves.  I was getting slightly impatient as there was still no sight of the lake.


And then the first glimpse of the magical lake …..

The sliver of blue was electrifying. I quickened my pace and completed the last part of the hike in a daze.


The magical Chandratal

The water shows the most amazing colors which keep changing. The mountain ranges have a beautiful shade of pink which I have never seen elsewhere.  The lake and the mountains captivate you and no pictures can capture its beauty.

Chandratal literally means Moon Lake. The name comes from its crescent shape. The high altitude (4300 meters) lake is a protected wetland and remains frozen in winter. The local people consider it sacred.  The ravishing lake has its share of folktales and lore which add to its allure.  I am not surprised! Beautiful maidens,  fairies, and star- crossed lovers are always attracted to lakes.

I walked around the lake and took in more of the stunning views around.  The water was freezing cold yet energizing. The silence and serenity calm the mind. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on earth.

Cairns on the banks

Different hues


The shape of water


There is a trail along the lake and you can do a parikrama. Though we wanted to, decreasing light and howling cold winds discouraged us.  As I was walking back I couldn’t help but wonder how long this place will retain its sanctity.  I pray …….

Unfortunately, the best of times have to come to an end. Today is our last day in Spiti and tomorrow we are going back to Chandigarh. It has been an incredible journey. Apart from the stunning visual diversity what made it special was my fellow travelers and the people of Spiti. I am lucky to have had such wonderful folks to share the adventures. It is hard to say goodbye, even harder to leave this remote haven.

Enchanting Spiti- God’s own!


Spiti Tales- High altitude Villages

Finally, we are in Kaza- the district headquarter of Spiti.  We ended up spending two days here and explored the nearby villages. Kaza is the biggest town and commercial center in Spiti.  It has the only fuel station in the entire Spiti valley,  a cyber cafe, and erratic mobile network. After spending days in the remote, serene Himalayas it was like coming back to the chaotic city life.

We started early and went on the now familiar road.  Spiti river, our delightful companion also joined and took us through the valley to the villages.

Spiti Valley and Spiti River


Spiti River – shimmering and tinkling like a silver anklet

Along the way, there are interesting artworks curated by nature.

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Our first stop was Dhankar village which was the erstwhile capital of Spiti. The main attraction here is the magnificent Dhankar Gompa perched high on top of a hill. At a staggering height of 3,894 meters,  Dhankar gompa is awe inspiring. From a distance, the entire complex looks fragile and in fact, this is one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world.


Is this for real?

Dhankar Fort is the tallest structure and Dhankar Gompa is seen below

Dhankar Fort


Dhankar means fort on a cliff and this monastery is more than 1000 years old. I can’t imagine how they managed to build such a  gravity_defying structure in that period. You have to leave the vehicle and walk up to the monastery.

That day it was closed for repairs. So we missed the trek and the dizzying views from the top.   Why is it that most revered places of worship are at such heights and terrains?

After a long stretch of barren mountains, we came upon green patches and a cluster of houses.

Desolate and remote

Compact houses and farmlands

The Spitian villages are sparsely populated.( The 2011 census says  33,224  is the total population).  They all have a monastery, traditional mud houses, and farmlands.   Agriculture, livestock, and tourism are their main source of income. Barley, potato, and peas are the main cash crops.  Summer months are for farming and preparing food and fodder for the harsh winter. In winter everything comes to a standstill and people are confined to their homes.  It is hard to imagine how they are coping with their limited resources.   Apart from the motorable roads, there is hardly any signs of development.

Whitewashed mud houses with prayer flags

Traditional houses and new concrete buildings in Kibber Village.  Some have converted to Homestays where you can stay with a local family.


Langza is another picturesque village.  It is known for the fossils of marine animals and plants.   We saw two young girls trying to sell the fossils they have collected. Though it is illegal, there are no stringent laws to regulate this.  A huge statue of Buddha is seen overlooking the valley.  Ideal spot for the obligatory group photo!

Buddha at Langza Village

From Langza the road climbed higher and now we are in Komic Village.

I don’t dispute the altitude!


Komic Monastery is relatively small.  A few monks were in the prayer hall chanting.


Komic Monastery

The post office in Hikkim is claimed to be the highest post office in the world. Having read about it in travel journals, I was keen to go there.   A steep trek through loose gravel takes you to a nondescript house.  Nobody was seen outside. We took some photos and went in.  The small dark room was teeming with tourists.  Mr. Rinchen Cherring,  the branch postmaster was at the center of the melee handing out postcards, stamps, envelopes and patiently answering queries.  I also bought postcards and deposited them with reverence. One was addressed to myself and I  received it after one month.What an exciting journey for a postcard!

Mr.Rinchen Cherring and his charming post office. It remains closed for 6 months in winter.


On the way back from the successful Mission Postcard, I met a group of children.  Their school was closed and they were out to play.   It was refreshing to see them making do with what they have.They don’t have fancy toys or the latest gizmos.  We bartered smiles. I like children who don’t live in a fantasy world with superheroes.

Pick up the sticks.


Kee Monastery was the last stop.  Imposing structure and spectacular setting but I decided to skip it.

Kee Monastery- The biggest monastery in Spiti

A school was seen nearby.  After the morning dose of extreme solitude, the school seemed the perfect getaway. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a riot of colors and laughter out there.

The School near Kee Monastery.

Running amok


Zen and the motorcycle.

That night I dreamt of a boy zooming down the mountain on a motorbike with his red robes billowing around.



Spiti Tales- Tabo Monastery and The Mummy Lama.

After leaving Nako we took a detour to go to  Gui- a small village near the Chinese border. Gui gained fame in 1975 when the Indo Tibet Border Police discovered a mummy which was later found to be a Lama. Carbon dating has estimated it to be 550 years old. Since then the Mummy Lama has become a revered local deity and this place has become a regular stop for the tourists.  Each day in Spiti is turning to be different and exciting but a Himalayan Mummy was the last thing we expected to find here.

The winding road takes you to the top of a hill. The place looks isolated and barring our group, not a soul was in sight.  The grand colorful monastery looks striking against the brown mountains.

The new monastery

This is going to be the new shrine for the mummy. Presently he is housed in the adjacent yellow roofed room. With mounting excitement, we walked in and came face to face with the Mummy Lama.   I was expecting to see a supine figure swathed in white clothes in a tomb similar to the mummies I had seen in the Cairo Museum. The Mummy Lama is seen in the sitting posture with his chin resting on the knee in a glass case.

The Mummy Lama Sangha Tenzin

On closer look, I could make out an intact set of teeth and brittle, brownish nails. Few strands of hair are visible on the scalp. His skin looks remarkably intact. The eye sockets are empty.

No chemicals are used for the preservation and it is believed that he achieved self- mummification through deep meditation and voluntary starvation.The Buddhist ritual of self- mummification is known as Sokushinbutsu and was practiced by the monks in Japan, Thailand, and Mongolia between the 11th and 19th century.  Those who achieved the difficult task are considered Living Buddhas.

One can’t help feeling awed by the ascetic monk who took this route for the ultimate salvation. They say Gui Mummy was around 45 years old. I wonder why he chose to leave the world this way. Can he look into our souls?

The new monastery is an exquisite piece of art. Wherever he is, the mystique of Mummy  Lama will endure.

Other than the monastery and the mountains there is nothing much to see in the Giu village and we left for Tabo.  Situated at a height of 3050m,  Tabo is a major Buddhist center.  We were exhausted and some of us were getting breathless and dizzy.   Acute Mountain Sickness!  A good sleep and Diamox was what we needed.

I woke up refreshed and set out to get a feel of the place. AMS seems to have settled.   The pure cold mountain air and the pristine surroundings are highly salubrious. I will take it easy today.

Like most of the Himalayan villages, Tabo has a welcome arch,  a couple of homestays, guesthouses,  helipad, and friendly dogs.

Let sleeping dogs lie

The Helipad

The Tabo Monastery could be seen from far with its gleaming golden stupa and colorful flags.

Tabo Monastery- a national historic treasure

Buddhist mantra on the mountain



Once inside I felt I was in a different era. Founded in 996AD the sprawling complex is one of the oldest functioning  Himalayan monasteries and is maintained by the Archeological Survey Of India.   The misty mountains encircle a series of mud stupas.  Buddhist chants could be heard from the main prayer hall. A monk who was hurrying for the prayers told me to come back at 8:00 when the complex will open to the public. I was in no hurry and walked around the place soaking in the overwhelming serenity and silence. Time seems to stand still……..


Tabo monastery is one of the most important Buddhist centers in India.  It has a wealth of ancient scriptures, murals, frescoes, and statues.  There are 9 temples,  many stupas, and monk’s quarters within the complex.  The main prayer hall is richly decorated from the floor to the ceiling with murals depicting the life of Buddha.  We had to use a torchlight to see some of the paintings. Even a layman could make out that the rich artwork is different from what we see in the other Buddhist centers.  Photography is not permitted inside to protect the precious artifacts.

Unlike most of the Himalayan monasteries which are at impossible heights atop the mountains, Tabo monastery is on flat ground ( most encouraging for the vertically challenged folks like me).  Another special feature I noticed is that the mud stupas are unadorned. As I was discussing these points with my friends, the tour in charge informed that there are some caves in the mountains above the monastery.   There is a well- defined trail which did not look daunting. I inhaled deeply and went up the path.

In search of the caves

In the olden days, the monks used these caves for meditation.  DSCN0143

Tabo seen from the hilltop.

From lofty spiritual heights, I was brought back to the present by a group of boisterous nursery kids. They were making the most of the midday break.  I was delighted to see Smt.Angmo Memorial Little Star School in this remote area. So what if the classroom is small, they do have midday meals, a small play area and the kids look happy.

Adore their uniform and attitude Pc: Mangesh


The barren mountains, chilly winds,  holy Tabo monastery, meditative  Mummy Lama, solitary caves, and a bunch of bright kids- bliss!