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……..

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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

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

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Spiti Tales- Mountains, valleys, lakes, and bridges.

After bidding farewell to the divine Kinnaur Kailash, we set out for  Tabo. This route is known for landslides and we knew the photo stops would be considerably reduced. We passed through Akpa, Morang, Spello and Pooh.The road conditions varied from smooth tarmac to narrow mud tracks.  On the way, there are some lovely bridges and waterfalls. This stretch has some of the finest bridges  I have ever seen, ranging from Bailey, suspension to massive modern ones.

The good roads

Mud roads.Don’t miss the Mummy rock. Pc: Ajay

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The Border Road Organisation (BRO) is responsible for the maintenance of these mountain roads and frequently we came across people engaged in clearing the rock_  strewn paths. They have put up a number of quirky sign boards all along the route doling out safety precautions. ‘If married, divorce speed’, ‘ Be gentle on my curves’,  ‘Mind your brakes or break your mind’ and ‘Be Mr.Late than late Mr.’  are a few I remember now.

Our first halt was at Khab. This is where the mighty Sutlej which originates from Tibet meets Spiti river coming from the Spiti valley. The landscape is barren, arid and vast. The greenery has almost vanished. Mighty mountains lead us to a narrow tunnel with overhanging rocks.  Though technically we are still in Kinnaur I  feel we have entered the surreal land of Spiti.

The gateway to Spiti

Khab Bridge adorned with prayer flags.

The confluence of Satluj and Spiti rivers. Satluj is muddy brown and Spiti river is ash gray.

The rocks show a range of colors and some of them have striations. Wish we had a geologist in our group!

This rock reminded me of a gargoyle with cold, evil eyes.

Rock art Pc: Ajay

Boulders perched precariously

Our convoy.

 

Khab has another significance. Shipki La-the high mountain pass and border post on the India-China border is about 40 km from here. You require special permits to go there.

A slice of the sky Pc: Mangesh

Face off! Mr.Snub nose and Ms.Sharp nose.

From Khab to Hangrung valley

From Khab, the road ascended through a series of switchbacks. There were no other vehicles in sight. It was like going into an alien, remote land. All we could see were the mountains in different colors and dimensions. The landscape is like Ladakh except that Ladakh is always bursting with tourists.

Ka loops

A patch of green.

The next stop was Nako -a beautiful village and often a night stop for the travelers. Nako is an important center of Buddhism. There are two main monasteries (gompas) and many temples in the Nako village. Guru Rinpoche is believed to have meditated in the caves seen up in the mountains.We could not go inside the monasteries as they were closed to the public.

Old Nako Gompa

After a quick lunch, we went over to Nako Lake. After the rocky, dusty, barren terrains, the shimmering lake was like an oasis. It looks more like a  large pond.

Enchanting Nako Lake

Nako lake is a natural lake and remains frozen during winter. The water was crystal clear and green reflecting the trees around the periphery.  The tranquility and silence all around was overpowering.  Though Nako has become quite popular on the travel circuit, there were not many people around.  I can imagine how this place would look with a bunch of noisy, selfie_ obsessed tourists.

Circumambulating the lake

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The walkway around the lake leads to the Nako village and its cluster of houses made of earth and stone. Fodder and firewood are piled on the wooden roofs and most houses have a pen for their cattle.   Prayer wheels, colorful prayer flags, and cairns with inscribed mantras seen among the winding lanes reflect the age-old Buddhist traditions.

Nako Village homes

A pen with no inmates

All peace and quiet here.

Where are the people?

I wanted to peek inside.

Mani stones

Prayer wheels and Mani stones

The premises are kept very clean. But where are the people?   Most people-both men and women work in the fields.Their main crops are peas, potato, wheat, and barley. The Himachal government has provided many houses with solar panels and they also have a helipad to transport people in case of an emergency. New concrete buildings are coming up beside the traditional homestays and small guesthouses. I did not see a school or a hospital.

Two sisters were seen out there enjoying the sun.IMG_5245IMG_5246

I had not even heard of Nako before coming here and now I am leaving with pleasant memories of a small, peaceful village.

 

 

Spiti Tales- A glimpse of Heaven

Warning – This post is image heavy.

Duly fortified after lunch,  we went out to explore the orchards around the hotel at Kalpa, Kinnaur.  This region is known for its apples, apricot, almonds, and chilgoza. Wherever we turned, there was something fresh to eat.  It was a pleasure to have the fruits without stickers.1

 

There were a lot of tourists and bikers staying at the hotel. The tourist season starts from March and in winter most of the hotels in the area remain closed as the temperature can drop to -15  degrees.  There are a couple of hamlets,  temples, and monasteries in Kalpa which are worth a visit but today  I want to do nothing but commune with nature.

Kinnaur Kailash Range Pc: Ajay

 

Kalpa is at a height of 2960 meters and I am gazing at mountains at 6000 meters. The majestic Kinnaur Kailash Range has  Raldang, Jorkanden, Kinner Kailash and a  17m rock pillar Shivling peaks. I couldn’t make out which is which.  All the peaks are enveloped in the clouds.  The glaciers stood out like thin white lines.

In mythology,  Kailash is the winter abode of Lord Shiva. In the month of August,  devotees take up a difficult trek to circumambulate the sacred mountain.

It was 18:30 and dark clouds were still hiding the peaks. I was content gazing at the vastness of the sky and the mountains. And then the clouds lifted and we could see a golden peak glowing with dazzling rays.

Glowing peaks and dark clouds

The next moments went by in a flash.I watched spellbound. The celestial light seemed to glow brighter each moment. It was a divine experience and words fail me.

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The ethereal display lasted for about 5 minutes and the clouds reclaimed their spot.

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All of us were in a euphoric daze. My friend was in tears. Someone said they could see Lord Shiva atop the summit. There must be an explanation for the sun rays lighting up that peak but today I am going to believe in miracles and don’t want to be rigidly scientific.  I don’t think my pictures do it full justice. The following images are from Ajay.

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After this soul stirring experience, I could see a change in the group.  Yes, the mountain has cast a spell on us.We became more open and friendly. What a special day this has been!

The next day we were up early and lined up in the balcony hoping to see the sunrise. Alas, the mountain was unwilling to take off the fluffy cloud caps.  I guess they were playing peekaboo.

Morning hues

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Hide and seek

I wish we had more time to stay and watch the clouds play.  Unfortunately,  we weren’t able to spend as much time here as I would have liked.  By 9:00, we were ready to hit the road.  Spiti is getting closer.

Leaving the blessed land of Kinnaur

 

 

Spiti Tales__ The Mountain Gods and Roads.

After enjoying the peace and solitude of the Goddess Temple, I went back to the hotel.On the way found this charming little cottage.

Ideal for a retreat

Exchanged pleasantries with a friendly village lady.  People in the small towns always impress me with their simplicity and kindness.

Always ready for a chat and a cup of tea.

A few backpackers and village folks were seen at the bus stop. The local men and women sport the traditional green cap known as “Thapang”.

The sullen looks could be due to the long wait for the bus Pc: Ajay

Today we are going to Kinnaur_ the winter home of Lord Shiva. Himachal Pradesh is also known as the ‘Abode of Gods”. There are more than 2000 temples and small shrines here. Each village has its own deity and festivals.

From Sarahan it takes 5 hours to reach Kinnaur and the drive is through the National Highway 22. Inspiring vistas unfolded and lively chats resumed.vista2

 

Our first stop was  Taranda Devi temple. She is the guardian deity of the mountain roads and this temple is maintained by the Indian Army. No vehicle passes by without stopping to take blessings from the Goddess. The views changed dramatically from this point.

Taranda Devi Temple. The brass bells are offerings from the devotees.

Taranda Dhank

Now we are going through one of the deadliest roads featured on the History Channel. Taranda Dhank is notorious for landslides, shooting stones and fatal accidents. The road is carved out of the massive rocks.

A cliff-hanging ride

The tension and excitement were palpable. But Deepak, our driver was cool. This young man was focussed on the road and negotiated the deadly curves and hairpin bends with remarkable ease. He wouldn’t talk much but could be quite stern if we tend to stay long for photo stops.

The iconic rock tunnel on NH22-Gateway to Kinnaur Pc: Ajay

Narrow roads, sharp turns, towering rocks, deep gorges Pc: Ajay

Rock art__ sculpted monkey. Pc: Ajay

 

Living on/off the edge Pc: Mangesh

Heart stopping moment

The rock umbrella

Driving on these roads is like being on a car rally minus the frills. One misstep could be fatal. Our drivers showed amazing skills, concentration, and attitude. They were always looking out for one another and also ready to help other drivers.  Road rage and risky stunts don’t exist in their rule book.  Deepak told us that the state road transport corporation has very strict criteria for selecting the drivers and rightly so. I can’t stop admiring our drivers and that tenacious bus and truck drivers who ply on this treacherous route every day.

Passed by the major hydroelectric project in Karcham and reached Reckong Peo__ the district headquarters of Kinnaur. Popularly called Peo, it is a bustling small town. The rocky terrains changed to lush green mountains with dense pine forests and orchards.

The Hydel plant on the Satluj Pc:Ajay

Reckong Peo town

From here the winding road climbed up and we reached the  Hotel Kinner Villa. After the hair-raising adrenalin packed drive,  it was like entering a magical world. The majestic Kinnaur Kailash was standing there in all its glory with the peaks hidden by the clouds.

The sacred mountain Kinnaur Kailash

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Light and shadow play

My room was on the second floor and from the balcony, I felt I could stretch out and touch the mountain.  I am going to put my camera away and soak in the views.

 

This post is dedicated to Deepak and his friends__ the unsung heroes of this odyssey.

May God be on your road every way you go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiti Tales, Bhimakali Temple- The Jewel in the Crown

I woke up to the sound of temple bells and devotional songs. The time was 5:30.  I went up to the roof of the hotel hoping to see the sun coming up the mountains but was greeted by the mist rising from the valley.

Good morning, Sarahan.

On a clear day, we can see the Shrikhand peak of the Himalayas. There was no point in waiting. So I  decided to go to the temple before the devotees start coming for the morning puja. There is a short path lined with apple orchards leading to the temple gate.

The Bhimakali temple is over 800 years old and is one of the 51 shakti peeths. It is dedicated to Goddess Bhimakali, the presiding deity of the erstwhile rulers of Sarahan.  The majestic temple complex is made in the traditional kath-kuni style using stone and wood which is suitable for the climatic conditions.

Bhimakali Temple

From the main gate, you enter a  large courtyard and the temple complex comes into view. It looked more like a castle. The heavily carved building in the front used to be the old palace of the ruling Bushahr family.  The temple resthouse, canteen, and administrative office are in this courtyard. It was slightly unnerving to see a gun- toting guard in this pristine environs and a grim reminder of the times we live.

The temple guest house and canteen

Exquisite wood carvings

The premises are kept very clean and one can feel a sense of peace and serenity all around unlike most of the temples which are always crowded and noisy. The present chief minister of Himachal Pradesh is also the king of the Bushahr dynasty.The signs of royal patronage are quite evident.

From the first courtyard, an ornate silver door opens to the smaller second courtyard.unnamed (11)unnamed (6)

Embellished with deities

The doorknob is a knockout!

A short flight of steps flanked by two tigers takes you to the main temple towers.

The old and new temple towers

The tower on the right is the old temple which was damaged in an earthquake and was deemed unsafe for regular worship. The new tower was made in 1943. Photography is not permitted inside the temple. The Goddess is enshrined in the top floor of the functioning temple.  From the windows on the top floor, I  could see the spectacular mountain range still covered in the mist.

There are three other temples in the complex dedicated to Lord Raghunath, Narasimha and Lanka Veer. Legends and mythological tales abound in the Bhimakali temple. It was surprising to know that human sacrifices used to be held here until the 18th century.

The Lord Narasimha temple

There is a  mini museum showcasing old utensils, weapons, musical instruments, and relics. Staff quarters of the temple priests are seen near the old tower. Each structure seems to blend with the surrounding mountains.

The slanting roof made of slate stones protect the structures from strong winds

Majestic snow-capped mountains, lush green meadows, orchards, and a temple with stunning architecture makes Sarahan the quintessential Himalayan town. The Goddess Bhimakali could not have chosen a better place to reside and watch over her devotees.

Spiti Tales-The Caravan starts

Soon after the Bhutan trip I started getting the  familiar  symptoms of  Wanderitis and began  searching for the next  get away. I didn’t have to wait too long.  Friends from Mumbai sent me the details of a group tour to Lahaul & Spiti and I signed up .

Spiti is  a least populated cold desert mountain valley   with surreal landscapes , high mountain passes, enchanting lakes and picture postcard hamlets  is cut off from the rest of the country  for almost eight months  during winter and is open from late July till October.Spiti means The Middle Land-the land between Tibet and India and is in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This terrain is noted for the most  scenic and the most treacherous roads and is prone for landslides.

The trip started from Chandigarh   where I   met the  fellow travellers coming from Mumbai. I was excited to meet my  four friends after almost two years . Six couples and  a family with their daughter and grandson(the youngest member )   completed the group .  There was no time for formal introductions . No worries,  I would be getting to know them in the coming days.  After a  quick lunch at a local hotel  we started for Shimla-our halt for the night.We were staying in a  hotel at Taradevi away from the  hustle and bustle of the city.

I am an insomniac  during travel and was waiting for the dawn to get out of the room.

Misty morning

By this time my roommate   joined me and we went  to   a small temple nearby.Two friendly mountain dogs kept us company.From the temple  we  spotted a quaint railway station.It was exciting to see the Kalka-Shimla  Railway-the narrow gauge railway  passing through 102 tunnels and 864 bridges   and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We waited for sometime but no train was in sight.

Taradevi Railway Station

I would love to ride a toy train

By 10 we were ready to to leave  and after a customary group photo  set off for the next  destination Sarahan.This is another thing I like about Himachal Pradesh. It  has such sweet sounding   districts and towns-Chamba,Kullu,Kinoo, Jipsa,Solan, Seoni,Tapri,Chitkul, Una and more.

The roads are pretty good and there was not much traffic.Breathtaking views, pleasant weather and  friends-I couldn’t have asked for more.

Leaving Shimla

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A special feature of this tour was   the  travelling kitchen . Arjun and his dedicated team   pampered   us with simple, wholesome , fresh and yummy food. It was  nice having the meals on the roadside and it reminded me of school picnics.

Food on the highway

Soon  Sutlej  river came into view and  the landscape  started to look different. Over the next two days  we saw different shades of Sutlej-the most sacred river of Himachal Pradesh.  We are now  in Rampur . From here onward one can see a lot of hydropower plants.

Roaring Sutlej

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Rampur town in Sutlej Valley

From Rampur  it  was 34 km to Sarahan. Pine and cedar forests gave way to lush apple orchards  and traditional houses made of wood and stone .  I was excited to see  the  fruit laden tress and  had a wild impulse to  pluck some.Himachal apples have a  fascinating history. They were introduced in the state in  1916 by an American missionary Samuel Evans Stokes  and  since then they have become the most important cash crop of the region.  Royal delicious,Red delicious and Golden delicious are the most common  types  grown here.  All of us feasted on the fresh and juicy apples and wanted to buy more. This would make an ideal gift from here.

Never seen so many apples on a tree

Red Delicious pc-M Kulkarni

Wish I could take it all  !

Sarahan is the gateway to Kinnaur_our next destination, and is at a height of 7850 ft.This was the summer capital of the  erstwhile Bushahr kingdom and is  steeped in mythology. The Bhimkali Temple   dominates the little town.

Sarahan and Bhimkali Temple

There are a couple of small shops and guest houses around the temple.By the time we reached the temple was closed.

Our hotel was a modest  one right in the centre of the  town and very close to the Bhimkali temple .It was a long day and tomorrow is going to be another long one.Time to hit the bed.