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-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.