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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

 

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.

DSCN0282

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.

400

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

IMG_5459IMG_5457

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……..

DSC00286

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

IMG_5315IMG_5318

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

Dragon Tales-The Bridge on the River Po

As I   was coming out of the Punakha dzong  I  could see a long bridge in the distance  and wanted to  have a closer look.After  a short   trek through a dirt path  I am standing on the bridge and as expected this was another  magnificent structure.It is  the second  longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and  stretches over the Po Chhu.  I knew it would take considerable time to cross the bridge  but it was too good to pass up .I associate bridges with romance and pathos and this bridge  was exceptional  all the way.

unnamed (1)

The mighty bridge spanning 350 m

unnamed (2)

A long way to go

The bridge is sturdier and less  bouncy  compared to the one in  Paro  and  offers  stunning views of the  mountains and villages.I saw a variety of people on the bridge-school children,villagers, monks and  a quadruped.
IMG_4217

The lone monk pc:Dr Bruno

unnamed (3)

Back from the school

unnamed

In meditation

Colorful prayer flags seemed to be telling me something and I wished I could read what is written on them.It started swaying  gently as I reached the centre.I think this bridge would make an ideal location for movies.But it is not very easy  getting permits for movie shooting.  Bhutan has strict regulations and hefty royalty fees . Bhutan April 2016 395IMG_0767

unnamed (4)

Gently flows the River Po

 

Now I am at the other end and a prayer wheel welcomes you to the village.A two storey building   and rice fields  are the main sights.d2d1

unnamed (7)

Is this a museum ? office ? residence ? This is a general store.

An old lady was seen turning the prayer wheel and  three kids were playing in the court yard.They  were very friendly and curious  and asked  a lot of questions.  I can’t remember the last time  a child wanted to know my name ! The youngest kid was the centre of attention and she entertained us with her antics.Even the dogs were in awe of her.

unnamed (9)

Playtime

unnamed (13)

Little Miss Sunshine

 

unnamed (12)

The boss with her loyal guards

The girls   insisted on accompanying me  to the other end.They cross the bridge  every day to go  to the school and dzong.I had to coax them to go back after we reached half way and made a promise to visit them before they start going to college.I looked on as they waltzed their way back.

Today was  a day of serendipitous moments and I  wish I  could stay.

unnamed (8)

Goodbye

Turtles can fly ?

P6040047

 

On a serious note,Turtles can fly  is a 2004 Kurdish movie directed by  Bahman Gobadi.This is one movie I wish everyone watches at least once to see the horrors of mindless war through the eyes of innocent children.

I had seen this movie many years ago  but  still feel   connected to it.

Haunting and lyrical.That is the power of  cinema and children.

 

Kindertransport-A mission of hope and glory.

Have you heard of Kindertransport?I never knew.Movies have opened my eyes to many wonders and yesterday a  documentary made me see the horrors of the holocaust through the eyes of children.

 

Into the arms of strangers-stories of the Kindertransport is an academy award_ winning documentary. It is a heartwrenching account of those dark days and a  rescue mission which saw thousands of Jewish children between the age of  5 and 17 from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia leaving their parents to go to foster homes Britain-the only country which agreed to accept them.Between December 1938 and August 1939 more than 10,000 children were brought to Britain and this is their story narrated by the survivors in their 60s and 70s.

They recall their idyllic carefree life with parents, the preparations for the trip, final goodbyes, the journey, discovery of a new country and learning to live with foster parents.They speak from the heart and tell you their struggles to adjust to the new family and surroundings and living with the hopes of reuniting with their families.They come to know of their parents and siblings perishing in the concentration camps and a few fortunate ones are reunited with their families.What I find most refreshing is that they narrate their stories with candor.They also acknowledge the foster parents and their limitations.They are all survivors and show immense dignity and grace.Many have settled down in UK and USA and are shown leading meaningful lives with children and grandchildren.

There are some movies which have to be seen by all and this is one of them.Yes, there are many popular movies like Schindler’s List, The boy in the striped pyjamas, The pianist,  etc.I find this more intense and moving.Even if you are not a fan of cinema, please find time to watch this.

Four statues were erected to commemorate this epic rescue mission in UK, Poland, Germany, and Holland.Frank Meisler, the sculptor had been on kindertransport.What an irony of fate.

Kindertransport Kindertransport_holand1

Kindertransport-Meisler

Courtesy google images

 

“I ceased to be a child when I boarded the train in Prague.It is strange that it’s only six years out of a long life and those six years will affect the rest of your life” -this is how Eva Hayman,  a survivor recalls.

I salute all those kind souls who made the mission possible and those foster parents who gave them a home and life.

Going Kutch-Meet the Bella Donnas

Kavita is 12 years old and Uma is 10 years .These two cousins would come to our village stay early in the morning  with a huge sack and spread out the wares like experts.They  won over us with their charming ways.We chatted with them and came to know that they are staying in a joint family and the stuff they have displayed is made by the family members.These girls have never been to school.They are learning embroidery at home.I found them very cheerful  and smart.They are quite used to tourists and have even picked up a few english words.One of them told me that she had been featured in a “foreign” magazine.The harsh living conditions  have not dampened their spirits and it was heartening to see these impish duo conducting their sale like veterans.All of us bought  something from them.

I wish I could do something more.I wish they get a chance to have some form of formal education and relish all the joys of childhood.

BELLADONNAS

BELLADONNAS

image (8)