Adventure · Himalaya · India · Photography · Travel Writing

Key Monastery

(The previous post about this trip is here)

About three pm was when we all finished lunch and I was browsing through the eclectic book rack at the Deyzor hotel in Kaza when K – the hotel’s manager- declared that due to election duty there were no taxis available for hire. So we made the widest eyed puppy faces that we could, and stared at him till he said –

“Ok guys, I’ll …. I’ll just drive you to Key.”
“Oh no, you really don’t have to do that. “ – I said in mock sympathy, trying my best to hide a Cheshire cat grin.
“Yeah man, whatever. You are the first guest of the season, so I’ll drive you.”

So, we were to Key in his Toyota Qualis (it’s the predecessor of the Innova and handy on hill roads. It was the most comfortable car on the trip so far and I was thankful for that as I was increasingly getting exhausted as the days progressed).

Throughout the way, he spoke of his own passion about traveling – he had done some interesting things in his life – lived in Brazil for a few months (volunteering) and in Norway. He has a journalism background and had written copy for a living but eventually turned to running this place after meeting Skalzang. His favorite book on the shelf was ‘Long Way Around’ – written by the actor Evan Mcgregor and Charley Boorman (it was also a TV documentary).

The scenery outside was as spectacular as before Kaza but the mountains appeared taller. Note how the village is dwarfed by the mountain and perhaps also protected by it – like a sentinel.

Along the way, on the river bed were scrubs that we were told were Sea buckthorn bushes. The seabuckthorn grows naturally in these parts (as it does in Ladakh). The berries, not easy to harvest, are processed into a juice (and other products), that is very nutritious – a superfood. A decade back, the defense research organization of India had figured out a way to make these into a juice that wouldn’t freeze at sub-zero temperatures and could be used by the soldiers guarding the Himalayas. I remember seeing shelves in supermarkets down in the plains (in 2003) with Leh-Berry juice. I wonder what happened to that brand.

Key is quite close to Kaza, seven kilometers I think. The car was climbing along switchbacks now and came upon some very pretty fields. Our guide cum driver cum friend mentioned that the locals here plant a kind of kidney bean, it’s much darker than what we get in the plains and that is also very nutritious. I could sense from his words that he was as fascinated by the place, despite having spent two seasons here, as we were and in some ways – he was still discovering it himself!

Here a very strange contrast appeared – on the left were fields of very dark, black soil while on the right were ones with nearly red (brown) soil. I completely forgot, in my excitement to ask what caused the difference.

We were at a bend that would take us straight to Key monastery and from there I got this view that I had seen on many calendars – it handsomely beat all the photos I had seen of the place.

Shortly afterwards, we entered the main door of the key monastery. I first went up to the roof. At this time, we were at 4100 meters altitude, and I could sense the dearth of oxygen here. It was very windy and cold up there. The roof turned out to be a great place to capture some shots of the nearby river valley and the mountains. Among-st other decorations were a kapala (skull) decoration too. Skulls are venerated in Vajrayana buddhism as a relic –

For a moment, up there I was confused as to why these crows there didn’t caw and were in fact a lot prettier than the ones we found in the plains. They flitted about in a Playful manner and the sudden gusts veered them off course their flight. K was to the rescue again. He mentioned – these are a Himalayan Blackbirds. Related to the Eurasian blacbirds, they’re larger and are found only above 2000 meters altitude and all the way upto 4800 meters! No wonder.

I stood there a few minutes to soak in the environs and as the realization sank in that this was a very special place indeed. It was beautifully lit in one direction  – the houses below are of the village and should give you some idea how high above the monastery is from it and from the Spiti river –

In the other direction, it was darker, much darker and I was reminded of Lord of the Rings trilogy. Perhaps some scene on the southern alps, when the beacons were lit as the clouds closed in, and somewhere, a long way off the Rohirrim would come riding and further beyond the mountains just perhaps, Frodo and Bilbo were still trudging.

The wind picked up even more – this video should tell you how much –

My nose was numb by the time I went downstairs

. A, R and K were all in a room that was the kitchen of the lamas. As all of us were feeling the effects of the cold, we dropped plans to see much of the monastery and settled for hot, fresh tea instead. Ki (or Key) is the most important monastery in the region and has a great room of murals – but most of the lamas were not there that day, hence a bit of the monastery was locked and we didnt want to impose on the lone lama who was so generously making us tea with fresh ginger.

As I appreciatively looked at the prayer lamps awaiting being lit (with their ghee frozen solid), a family from Mumbai also came in at that time and we chatted with them briefly – apparently they had come much less prepared than us and had bought cold weather gear in Shimla. Theirs was inadequate and they were planning to head back to Tabo the next day. We had second helpings of the tea and went around for a quick look.

The monastery itself is superb though mostly restored after an earthquake mostly destroyed it. Hence many of the wall paintings for example are not old – these are the guardians of the four cardinal directions.

Spitians value their traditions and go to great lengths to preserve it. It is reflected in their arts, cuisine and customs. A striking example are these spectacular door handles . They look antique and the most intricate I saw on this entire trip – I’ve taken five photos of this one alone from various angles – posting just one here.


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