Adventure · Himalaya · Photography · Travel Writing

Journey to Tabo


(continued from the last post here)

We must have been stuck – on top of the world, on the edge of this bluff with Depth of over a kilometer – for at-least a half hour. I captured a shot of the farmer (who was sitting on my left) talking to the bus driver (first below).

Another one, of the massive clouds that cast humongous shadows on the gigantic mountains (three superlatives in one sentence, what other place but the Himalayas can inspire you to do that?). In the same place, the apple trees appear nearly horizontal.

After this, again via some turns, we descended a bit, and stopped at a three way junction for the village of Mulling – the altitude here was 3642 meters and we were still far from Tabo, 61 kms and farther still from Kaza – 105 Kms.

Another half hour later, we passed through Nako, and I noticed apple plantations. The farmer helpfully explained that apple farming here has gained ground in the past decade or so with improved irrigation and water management techniques. The soil of spiti is very fertile, its only water that was lacking.

At some distance I also noticed what, at 3600 meters, must rank amongst the world’s highest cricket grounds (Michael Palin, in his book, Himalaya, describes a cricket match in Gilgit area, Hunza valley, Pakistan – but google tells me its only 1500 meters). The bus was moving fast enabling only this, fuzzy shot. Still, the joie de vivre of people of the hills is infectious.

The sun was no longer overhead, and the peaks opposite were shining bright, reflecting all that came there way. The road was very dusty though and we were running towards Sumdo.

The bus slowed down considerably on many turns that were narrow enough to barely let it pass through, the driver exercising extreme caution to negotiate such bends and honking many times. The effects of the rough roads, dust coming in through the windows and the general heart-in-my-mouth scare induced by roads such as below were all getting accumulated.

This area that we were passing through now was very prone to landslides, being extremely dry as I captured in this photograph when I looked back.

I felt a little worse for the wear, and snoozed perhaps no more than ten minutes. When I woke up, on my left, was a sight most spectacular – like gigantic chocolate cakes topped with vanilla and a bit of mist created by molecular gastronomy – except that these were not. They were the harsh side of himalayas, with the spiti river now an insignificant streak – dull and weak – perhaps a kilometer below.

We came upon another set of switchbacks and commenced descent towards the spiti river. The farmer pointed out that the lighter colored soil shown in the photo below is loam and used by spitians for constructing houses. He could identify it visually while, I, ignoramus supreme, was thinking – it looks like something a giant celestial cat clawed out of the hill side. Evidently, it wasn’t that – so much for the invisible big meow.

Facepalm.

At a half past two we had descended considerably and were only a few hundred feet above the river’s surface. At a bend, I noticed it was quite green and we were coming to a slow stop. The village of Hurling was a rest stop but I didn’t find any vegetarian food in the lone Tibetan stall that had people in it. The bend in the river was beautiful though.

The village didn’t seem to have much going for it – except maybe three pretty donkeys that walked past our bus.

The light and the scenery changed yet again, it was a tad greener – though here in this high altitude desert – a patch of wild grass amidst the brown and grey surroundings is also to be considered green – so pretty is the contrast.
And then, in an hour, the fields by the side of the river turned spectacularly green and my neighbor pointed – this is Tabo.

It was half past four when I got down at the bus stand of Tabo and my sheer surprise as to how deserted it was, inspired me to do this video –

Finding a room was no problem as I got lucky – with no peek possible on the net (phone stopped working sometime in upper kinnaur as only BSNL covers this remote district), and no one to ask around either, I had stumbled into what is possibly the most reputed accommodation in Tabo – the Kesang home stay. Ran by Mr Bodh, who is ever so helpful – what a contrast from last evening’s hovel it was. A spotless room, with a working geyser was mine for just Rs 400/- (later season rates are double that).

I was at the complex when it was about to close down for the evening and in my hurry to find the sole lama who mans the complex in the start of the season, I missed the new assembly hall. I remembered to photograph the new stupa, painted and plated with stunning gold, outside.

I walked to the main hall of the gompa – known as the Tsug Lakhang – there is a recess from the step where shoes need be taken off – which I did and walked forward.

Photography is prohibited inside, and the lamaji was quite strict about it, hence I give below what I remember from that day, though it’s been a year and a month now. As I entered through the red, fading door, my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I became aware that the ceiling was lower than what I am used to in an average sized room. On my right was a table with some papers, posters and other material. Light filtered in from at-least two windows on the right side (behind the table) and thick wooden poles seemed to hold up the ceiling. What took a minute longer to register was that every square inch of the walls was painted with murals – depicting the life of the bodhisattava.

There was another door – diametrically opposite the table and I could see through it that there was a hall, much bigger than the room I was in. I could hear someone talking and I walked inside, there were two girls, tourists apparently from their clothing, who had engaged the lama in a never ending conversation about what was painted on the walls (it is impossible to describe the artistry or its meaning in a few words).

I walked inside this main hall that had in its centre, sunlight filtering in through a ventilator in the ceiling. The walls, of double height of the previous room, were painted from the floor to the ceiling with stories from the lives of the bodhisattvas. Parallel to all the walls on the floor ran a runner topped with mattresses – no doubt for seating the monks for prayer – and in front of that was a low table, also running parallel. What was striking though was that at chest height from the ground or perhaps a bit higher were life-life figures of the gods of Vajrayana Buddhism – I saw Ocher Manjusri, green and white taras, Blue akshobhyas, white Vairocanas and many more. All these figures are made of clay and then painted over and in that dim light looked like their creator had gone out recently, perhaps to get a drink of water, and not a millennium ago, in 996 AD.

Further down the hall at the end of its nave, the opposite wall, didn’t close completely but rather it gave way to two doors – each leading to a long transept that is recessed. As I entered this area, on either side flush with the walls, were very tall, life like statues of more bodhisattvas – I remember the brick red Vajraratna the best.

I exited from the other door back into the main hall. Here, I came to face (again on my right), thus at the end of the hall, with a fourfould figure, all white, of Vairochanas in the dhamma cakra pavattana mudra – each facing one cardinal direction. It was all absolutely stunning work – a wonderland of Buddhist art.

Prior to my visit, I had heard a bit about the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ – which is how the monastery at Tabo is referred to. However, it wasn’t enough to describe it. This place, in some respects surpasses the Ajanta caves – in other ways, it’s probably not a fair comparison. I stepped outside and captured the monastery’s courtyard, with a note to myself that I’ll look at it again the next morning – remembering the inscription inside the Tsug Lakhang of the Tabo Choskhor that rang so true –

“For those who are tired from the long journey; and for all beings,
witnesses of misery
that have been abandoned by friends and relatives;
this beautiful temple has been constructed.”

My next stop were a few caves, which are located about a half kilometre from the monastery, up a hillside – these were used by monks in medieval times to meditate. The local population, being very religious in nature, still pays their respects to their monks by tying small prayer flags (which carry their prayers to the heavens as they flutter in the wind) inside these caves.

From here, I also got a good view over Tabo and of the surrounding mountains.

On my way back, with limited availability of places to eat, I stepped into an eatery manned by two Tibetan migrant girls. They were very quick with their work. One of them chopped onions with a fat cleaver and talked to me about how economic opportunity in spiti valley makes them leave dharamsala at the start of every tourist season, while the other showed me how their pasta making machine worked.

It was dark by the time my perambulations and gustatory adventures were completed. I then retired to my room, rolled over and effortlessly died.

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