Sightseeing in Lahaul-Spiti is all about visiting various monasteries, gompas and temples that are strewn all over the area.
Going along the ancient trade route of the Hindustan-Tibet road, travellers enter the trans-Himalayan region after crossing Kinnaur in south-eastern Himachal Pradesh. Entering the valley at Khabo, the road leads to the ancient settlement of Tabo spread out high on the banks of the Spiti River.
At first sight, the tiny village and monastery look like nothing much, with square flat-roofed houses, farms and the squat mud-walled temple complex. Inside however, lies one of the most ancient and important monasteries of this region that has a wealth of ancient Buddhist art and culture.
Tabo is about 46 kms from Kaza, the sub-divisional headquarters of Spiti. Established in 996 AD, the Tabo monastery complex or Chogskhar consists of eight temples and several chortens (memorials) with prayers inscribed on stone.
The exquisitely painted murals on the interior walls of the temples are one of the richest and best preserved art treasures having links with both the classical Ajanta paintings and later tantric Buddhist art. The exquisite craftsmanship of those ancient artists survives within India only in Tabo and in the Alchi monastery in Ladakh.
The most important and oldest temple in the complex is the Tsuglhakhang or academy. The temple is constructed on the pattern of a mandala with the cosmic design of the inner soul in relation to the universe.
It is dominated by the central figure of the ‘resplendent Buddha’ or Vairocana which is a magnificent 4-armed image facing the four cardinal points. On the walls are layers of vividly painted murals depicting stories from Buddha’s life and his previous incarnations. Lifelike and still looking fresh, the early paintings have close resemblance to the ancient Indian style. The figures have half-shut eyes depicting supreme bliss, and are surrounded by images of smaller deities.
The walls of the Ser Khang or golden temple were once coated with a layer of gold dust that formed the base for murals with large figures. The Chamba Chenpo La Khang has a towering 6-metre statue of the Maitreya Buddha.
Some of the later 17th century murals show an amalgamation of Indian and central Tibetan art forms. Across the main road to the north of the monastery are small natural caves tucked into the mountain face. Part of the monastery complex, these caves were used by monks in retreat. The few that survive have painted walls with Indian imagery and ancient rock carvings depicting animals, symbols like the yoni and swastika and human figures.
At the meeting point of the Spiti and Pin rivers is the hamlet and monastery of Dankar. Once erstwhile capital of Spiti; this 16th century settlement with its fort and monastery is perched at an altitude of 3,890 metres above the sea level.
Literally meaning a place in the mountains unreachable by strangers, the settlement is still not very easily accessible, a good 2 hours climb up steep slopes from the motorable road. Situated on top is a large pond at about 4,000 metres which with its crystal clear waters reflect the village houses. This monastery also has associations with Rinchen Zangpo.
The Lha Opa Gompa set on the high mountain was built originally in the 12th century AD. The red painted later Lhakang Gompa has inner walls painted with murals on the life of the Buddha. Some of the paintings have been damaged, though a lot of it survives and is worth a visit.
A two hour trek or 8 kms drive from Dankar leads to the Lalung Gompa, with richly carved wooden panels. Provisions are not available on the way, and visitors must carry enough drinking water since the trek is quite tiring.
Five kms from Dankar and about 10 kms from Kaza is the Pin Valley National Park. Known as the land of the ibex and snow leopard, this untouched nature reserve is bound by the Great Himalayan National Park, the Rupi Bhabha Sanctuary and the Bara Shingri glacier.
A 675 square kilometre core area and 1,150 square kilometre buffer zone form the national park, with altitudes ranging from 3,600 metres to 6,630 metres. The wildlife that you can sight in this area include the snow leopard, the rare ibex, red fox, weasels, Himalayan griffon, golden eagles, the Chakor partridge, Himalayan snow cock and rose finches.
The ibex are usually perched on bare rock faces, where the females keep their young safely out of reach of predators. Along the Pin Valley is the Kungri Gompa, an ancient monastery built in the 14th century. There are buses running from Kaza to the Pin Valley.
The Lingti valley is dominated by the Shilla peak (6,111 metres) and the Chau Chau Khang Nilda (6,303 metres) – one of the highest peaks in Himachal Pradesh. The valley runs 60 kms long and is famous for its pre-historic fossils. The road from the Lingti valley leads up to Kaza 13 kms along the course of the Spiti River.
Sub-divisional headquarters of Spiti and 210 kms, from Manali, Kaza is an important transit point and administrative centre of the region. Permits for visiting the Inner Line areas are issued here, and the town is a base for trekking routes. Provisions can be bought from the market, while buses connecting to Kinnaur and to the western part of Himachal Pradesh are available here.
From Kaza, a route leads 19 kms, up to the monastery and settlement of Kibber. At 4,205 metres, this is said to be the highest village in the world connected to a motorable road. At 4,270 metres the nearby village of Gette claims to be highest habitation in the world.
A cluster of about 100 houses, Kibber is the base for trails leading across the Parang La Pass into Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir. In summer the desolate landscape of this remote village transforms into lush barley fields. The locals continue to retain trade links with Leh, using ponies and yaks to transport their wares along the ancient route. From Kibber you can also take a tough, but eminently satisfying trek to the Tso Moriri Lake in Ladakh. Trek operators usually organise a 17-day trip that passes through splendid mountain passes and across high mountain passes.
The Kyi or Ki Monastery, connected to Kibber by a motorable track, is the largest monastery in Spiti with about 300 resident lamas. With a magnificent backdrop of snow-covered mountains, the white painted monastery grows out of the bare mountain walls. Built in the classical Tibetan style, this 16th century gompa has an excellent collection of old thangkas, weapons, manuscripts, and musical instruments.
Leading through dark passages and interconnected hallways you reach the prayer halls with richly painted walls and images of the Buddha. One room in the complex had been reserved for the Dalai Lama, who was scheduled to perform the Kalachakra ceremony at the monastery in 2001.
Around late June - early July the Kyi gompa hosts an unusual ceremony known as the ‘burning of the demon’. During the festival, monks perform the ritualistic chaam mask dance and march in a procession to the grounds in front of the monastery. A large butter sculpture representing the demon is set on fire while pilgrims prostrate on the ground in front of the lamas. Daily buses also connect the monastery during the festival season from Kaza, at a distance of 12 kms.
Losar, 55 kms from Kaza at 4,079 metres, is the last village in the Spiti sub-division. Comparatively green with fields growing cabbage, peas, and apple orchards, the village leads to the road across the Kunzum La, 18 kms away. At a height of 4,551 metres, the pass is locally known as ‘the meeting place for the ibex’ and is the gateway into Lahaul. From the pass, you get magnificent views of the Chandrabhaga peaks and the valley below.
Keylong, the headquarters of Lahaul and its largest settlement, is situated at a distance of 114 kms short of Manali. Surrounded by splendid mountain views and a base for treks into the Zanskar valley in Ladakh, Keylong is also the base for some Buddhist pilgrim sites.
The Rangcha Parikrama or circumambulation of the Rangcha Mountain (4,565 metres) is an important Buddhist ritual at the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga Rivers. A five km trek leads up to the Khardung Gompa rising 1,000 metres from the base of the valley across the Bhaga River after crossing some very difficult terrain. Built in the 12th century, the monastery has a valuable collection of ancient Tibetan manuscripts.
The Shasher Gompa about 3 kms from Keylong has a major festival in June – July with monks performing the chaam dance. The Tayul Gompa and the Gungshal Gompa are also at short hiking distance from Keylong.
About 4 kms from the village of Tandi is the Gurughantal Monastery on the right bank of the Chandra River. At a height of 3,020 metres, this is believed to be Lahaul’s oldest monastery. Built of wood with slanting roofs, the monastery has exquisite woodcarvings and images of Padmasambhava and Brajeshwari Devi. The Ghantal festival is celebrated on the full-moon night around mid-June by monks along with the Hindu Thakurs of the area.
Situated at a distance of 21 kms from the Rohtang Pass is the settlement of Koksar at 3,140 metres and reputed to be the coldest place in Lahaul. Darcha, 24 kms from Keylong on the road to Leh is the base for treks to Padem and Baralacha La. The meeting point of the Yotche and Zanskar nallahs with the Bhaga, there is camping facility available at Darcha.
The Baralacha Pass at 4,883 metres is about 73 kms from Keylong. Literally meaning the pass on the crossroads, it stands at the junction of routes from Ladakh, Lahaul -Spiti. The Chandra, Bhaga, and Yunam rivers originate at Baralacha La.
Sarchu, with its camping grounds, is the last settlement before the border with Ladakh. 116 Kms from Keylong, it is beyond the tree line and has tented accommodation available during summer.
The road to the northwest from Keylong along the Chenab River leads to the ancient Hindu shrine of Trilokinath. Four kms short of Udaipur, the Shaivite temple was visited by Padmasambhava whose influence can be seen in the 6-armed figure of Avalokiteshvara. Venerated by Hindus and Buddhists, the temple hosts the 3-day Pauri festival in August.
At confluence of the Chenab and Mayar Nallah is the small village of Udaipur, known in ancient times as Markul. The Markula Devi temple is worth visiting for its splendidly carved wooden ceiling. This lush green hamlet in the Chenab valley has a tourist rest house and small hotels and is a base for treks into the Zanskar region.
A 14 km trek south from Keylong across the Drilbu Pass leads to the village of Gondla and up to Rohtang Pass, the entrance for the green Kullu valley.