Friday, December 30, 2011

Enchanting Himachal – traversing through Spiti

Enchanting Himachal – traversing through Spiti
(Giu, Tabo & Dhankar)
Sculpted by thin air over eons
We started from Nako for Kaza early in the morning, despite the fact that we had to traverse only 109 odd kms., as there were a plethora of tourist spots that we intended to visit en-route. Just after having commenced our journey towards Kaza from Nako, we hit upon the notorious Malling Nallah, which is a veritable spot that is prone to frequent landslides, thereby blocking the road and at times in the past, the road itself would totally slide down in huge chunks. However, now a new road has now been constructed at a much higher elevation, which has resulted in extending the road distance between Nako & Chango by over 2 kms. Despite, all the precautions being undertaken by the road maintenance authorities, this stretch of about 500 odd meters or so continues to be a source for cause of major headache for them. We too had to stop at the spot for some time, as some loose boulders that had sliden on to the road, were being cleared. The road ahead of Malling Nullah was a steep downhill ride, that would un-nerve any person suffering with vertigo, but the scenic beauty was astounding.
The way to Chango village
Making entry at Chango - leaving Kinnaur behind
Chango (3058 m) is the last village in Kinnaur district bordering Spiti and about 14 odd Kms. from Nako. Surrounded by high hills, Chango is famous for the quality of its apples that grow in its arid climate and low temperatures. Chango has three temples, first in lower Chango, where the red walls of Rinchen Zangpo temple stand out atop a little outcrop but has nothing noteworthy to see. Nearby, the village temple, is a place of more regular use as a place of worship, it has a large prayer wheel, clay idols and contemporary wall paintings. A large image of Avalokiteshwara, crudely carved in stone, lies on the path between these two shrines. The temple in upper Chango is the best kept but of relatively recent vintage. Close by, a new prayer hall, library and guest rooms have been built and some renovation & maintenance work is going on. Across the Chango stream, perched above yellow, alkaline cliffs, is an older collection of religious buildings. As we had started early in the morning we had out breakfast of Paranthas (partaken by the Driver) & Chowmein (local hand made) from a small eating joint run by a lady just on the road. The food was fresh and very tasty.
Sumdoh confluence - here Pare Chu river from Tibet meets Spiti river

Entering Spiti - entries being made at Sumdoh check point

After having made the requisite entries at Chango, we headed towards Sumdohthat lies about 13 kms. away from Chango and the road runs through a very desolate and rugged stretch, coupled with this, the road is in a total state of disrepair for major portion, except for a short stretch, wherefrom the road leads uphill towards Shilkaro village (6 kms. from Chango). Sumdoh (3018 m) is the entry point into the Spiti Valley and the entry permits of all foreigners are checked here again. Due to heightened incursions from the Tibet(now China) side, the security has been considerably beefed up here. Here the Spiti river merges with the Pare Chu river coming from Tibet (China) at this point, which is also referred to as the Peno khud.

The road leading to Giu
The living mummy in Giu/Gue
Having entered Spiti through Sumdoh, the first destination we visited was the villageof Giu/Gue (3050 m). The road to Giu diverts from the main road, about 2 Kms. past Sumdoh and the village is situated further about a good 8 kms. from the road head and runs along the black Giu river, through a narrow strip of road. Giu has become famous because of the mummy found in the region in 1970’s and as per the version of the villagers, the Indo Tibetan border police were digging the area for construction of some defense related project, when they found this mummy in Giu village. It is said that during this digging work, as the village workers hit upon the skull of the mummy, blood oozed out of the mummy and his hairs were visible too. The villagers ran away in panic and later it became a pilgrimage point for the locals and is now a tourist spot. The mummy is remarkably well preserved for its age, which is said to be at-least 500 years old. Its skin is unbroken. It is also said that some holy beads and some holy books were also found with the mummy. The villagers in Gue have made a temple and worship there everyday. The mummy has been identified to be as that of monk Sangha Tenzin, who is still in a meditating position draped with shawl. The holy beads are in his hand and his head bowed towards the holy books kept in front of him. It is a beautiful experience to visit this place. Some experts believe that this Lama met death as a part of the meditation rituals that ancient high monks practiced. Slow starvation in the last few months reduced the body fat and shrunk parts of the body leading to death and mummification in this cold desert.
The famed Tabo Monastery

All mud structures

The entry epitaph of 'The Golden Temple'
Scanned image of the picture-post card sold in Tabo

Another scanned image of picture post-card (photography not permitted inside)
After retracing our way back to the main road i.e. NH-22, we headed towards Tabo(3280 m) that lies 25 Kms. from Sumdoh. Having gone past the villages of Hurling & Lari, both being big villages and the latter also houses the Craft Centre run by Spiti Women’s Federation, we reached the ancient village of Tabo, situated on the left bank of river Spiti. Flanked on either side by hills, it houses of the most important Buddhist monasteries and is regarded by many as only next to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet. Tabo is the largest monastic complex of Spiti which has since been declared a protected monument under the aegis of Archaeological Survey of India. At first glance, Tabo seems nothing more than a cluster of large mud huts. But inside, a series of amazing galleries of and stucco statues emerge, Tabo Monastery is adorned with a number of exquisite ancient murals, some of them dating back to the 11th century. Founded in 996 AD, it is often called the 'Ajanta of the Himalaya', but photography inside the complex is banned, therefore, I purchased a set of ‘picture postcards’ and scanned the same for the viewers to have a first hand experience of the sublime world inside Tabo. In terms of area, this is the largest monastic complex in Spiti and the old section has nine temples, 23 chortens, a monks chamber and a nuns chamber. There are several caves and contemporary structures that form a part of the Tabo complex. In Trans Himalayan Buddhism, Tabo’s sanctity is next only to Tibet’s Tholing monastery. It has been declared as the World Heritage site by UNESCO. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has expressed his desire to retire to Tabo, as he maintains that the Tabo Monastery is one of the holiest. This monastery was founded by the great scholar, Richen Zangpo, in the year 960 AD. The entire complex of the monastery consists of nine structures, out of which the most popular one is the Duwang Lakhang. The huge Chaitya Hall boasts of magnificent architecture as well as a few splendid Buddhist sculptures. Apart from these, there is the four-faced magnificent idol of Lord Buddha, the Amitay Buddha (in seated position), a stucco idol of Bodhisattva Maitreya etc. The main shrine inside the monastery is that of Tsug Lhakang and it is situated at the heart of the complex. Tabo Monastery also has a rich collection of clay statues of the Buddha, painted in the Kashmiri style. There are Nine Temples within the complex, but due to paucity of time, I could not explore them all. One needs to stay on in Tabo, which offers clean rooms in the Monastery itself, to explore and imbue the spirit of Tabo, over a period of few days at least.
Stark landscape - National Highway or is it a dirt track?
The Spiti River after Tabo
As it was almost past lunch time and as there was no eateries available en-route, we purchased some delectable Croissants from the ‘German Bakery’ at Tabo and munched down the same with some hot tea. Thereafter, having traversed a distance of 4 kms., we went past Kurith and after a further drive of about 22 kms., where the road was running as straight as an arrow, we reached Schilling. Having negotiated past the village of Schilling, the road deviates uphill towards Dhankar (3370m), about a few kms. towards Kaza. Dhankar Monastery stands at an altitude of 12,774 feet. The Dhankar monastery is one of the most beautiful monuments of Spiti valley. In local par lance, a 'dhankar' is a fort – Dhankar means "A place in the mountains unreachable for strangers" and is which is home to few monasteries associated with the Great Translator, Rinchen Zanggpo. Perched high over the valley, this is a superb example of Spiti’s traditional architectural skills. This was once the castle of the ruler of Spiti, the Nano, but today Dhankar is a repository of Buddhist scriptures in the Bhoti script. Dhankar monastery complex comprises a number of multi-storeyed buildings perched together. This old complex, also known as the Lha-O-pa Gompa has five different halls including Kanjur, Lhakhang, and Dukhang. A huge life size silver image of Vajradhara, the Diamond Being, is kept in a glass altar adorned with scarves and flowers. A must visit in this monastery is the Lhakhang Gompa, a small chapel, situated on the uppermost peak above the main monastery. This chapel is beautified with depictions of Shakyamuni, Tsongkhapa and Lama Chodrag on the central wall. The monastery is associated with Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism and has around 150 lamas residing in it. The highlight of the monastery is the statue of Vairochana or Dhayan Buddha with 4 figures seated back to back. Apart from this, the monastery also houses Buddhist scriptures in Bhoti language, murals of Medicine Buddha, protector deities and Buddhist thangkas. The temples at Dhankar seem to be precariously dangling on a precipice, as if placed between the Sky & the earth. Dhankar monastery offers basic facilities for tourists and one can easily spend a few days here and to explore one can also clamber upto the Dhankar Lake above, which as per some visitors & blogs reports appears to have a surreal environ. As I was only passing by, I had only a cursory look at the place.
Dhankar Monastery - as seen from the National Highway
The Dhankar Monastery - panoramic view

Dhankar Monastery - close-up
The confluence of Pin River with Spiti River - as seen from road leading to Dhankar
From Dhankar we retraced our steps back to NH-22 for about 17 Kms. and thereafter having traveled for a distance of about 9 odd kms. reached Lingti. At this juncture, the Ligti river coming in through a narrow gorge, meets Spiti River and in order to reach the Lingti village, one has to take on the side road leading uphill towards Lingti. The valley offers some strenuous treks. Lingti Valley is a living geological museum and is the longest (60km) and largest side valley of Spiti. It is famous for shales and fossils in a geological history dating back 250 million years. After traversing a further distance of about 2 kms. or so one comes across the bridge that leads towards Attargo. Across this bridge lies the famed ‘Pin Valley National Park’, a valley formed by the Pin River, a tributary of the Spiti and situated at altitude of 12,000ft. The Valley lies below the Kungri glacier and has several monasteries – the most important one is at Gungri, and has three blocks; it houses old relics and paintings. The Pin Valley offers a plethora of good treks – the main route connects the Kullu valley over the Pin Parbati pass while another leads to Kinnaur through the Bhaba Valley. The Pin valley is a National Park and has a core area of 675 square kilometers and a buffer zone of another 1,150 Kilometers. This is home to over twenty species of animals and birds. The highly endangered snow leopard is one among them along with the woolly hare, Tibetan gazelle. The other species include the lbex, Bharal, Red Fox, Marten, Weasel, Snow Cock, Bearded Vulture, Chukor, Golden Eagle, Griffon and Himalayan Chough. The entire area is a cold desert, interspersed with a few alpine meadows. I could not visit the Pin Valley, as I was not sure as to whether my Maruti Ritz would be able to negotiate the rough muddy roads there. Further ahead we moved past the villages of Lidang (4 Kms. from Attargo) & Shindo (further 2 kms. ahead) and reached Kaza, that was further 10 kms. ahead, late in the evening. Being almost famished we checked into the room in the Hotel Spiti and ordered some snacks & coffee and as it was very cold and windy outside, we preferred to call it a day.


  1. Nice travelogue. Can I have your contact details? We have a spiti valley trek plan from Kaza-Komic-Demul-Lhalung-Dhankar.... wanted to inquire about homestays.

    Thanks !

  2. You can give me your contact details at

    Thanks !! :-)