Himachal Pradesh

Spiti beckons

Print edition : December 25, 2015

The stark trans-Himalayan landscape, shortly after the Sutlej enters India from Tibet at Shipki La in Himachal Pradesh. As one drives along the Sutlej, after Nako one enters the realm of the Spiti river, and at Sumdo, Spiti itself. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

The Spiti river as it winds down from the valley, before its confluence with the Sutlej. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Dhankar village and monastery overlooking the confluence of the Pin and the Spiti. Not long ago the village was the seat of the ruler of Spiti. Dhankar was a seat of learning and home to precious relics and was, along with other monasteries in the region, subjected to depredations even as late as the 19th century. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Rocky outcrops silhouetted against the quiet autumn flow of the Spiti. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Spiti is a treasure trove for geologists. The layered rock faces carry the memory of millions of years since they were raised from the depths of the Tethys sea (Mesozoic era) and record "every geological age from the Precambrian to the present in pristine formations". Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Between Tabo and Kaza, the Pin (left) joins the Spiti, now in a wide valley. The track along the Pin leads to the Pin-Parbati Pass—and to Kullu on the Beas. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

The Tabo monastery in Spiti is among the most revered in the Buddhist world. Built in the 10th century when Spiti was a part of the kingdom of Guge in Tibet, Tabo was a great centre of learning. Described as Spiti's pride, Tabo has one of the most significant art treasures in the Buddhist world, its vibrant frescoes likened to those in Ajanta. The Dalai Lama has performed the Kalachakra ceremony twice at Tabo. Here, a view of the original monastery built of mud. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Monks in front of the chorten in the newly built monastery in Tabo. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Kibber village at over 14,000 feet (4,267 metres) had the distinction of having the highest post office in the world until recently when it was overtaken by a neighbouring village. Kibber has a variety of wildlife and is on the difficult trekking route to Ladakh, leading to Tso Muriri. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

A time for meditation at Key, a monastery where the Dalai Lama has performed the Kalachakra ceremony. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

At Langja, over 14,000 feet (4,267 m) and among the highest villages anywhere, a rooftop stocked with fodder for cattle for the winter and spring. Langja, situated high over the left bank of the Spiti, has a population of just over 100 and a variety of wildlife, including the Himalayan ibex and the snow leopard. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

The Gutor festival in autumn is the year’s highlight in the life of the monastery and nearby villages. Celebrated with great pageantry, the day-long festivities aim at casting away evil spirits. Women from Tabo and nearby villages join in a dance. The festival is not confined to monks and there are traditional group dances by men, women and children. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

When monks emerge from their prayer at the main temple after the morning festivities and proceed for the final act, the burning of the effigy of evil, devotees bow and seek benediction. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Monks perform the traditional Cham dance in front of the Tabo monastery during the festival. Photo: DEB MUKHARJI

Key (Ki) monastery with its impressive background is the most widely known image of Spiti. Built in the 11th century, Key, a repository of murals and statues, has also had its share of depredations.

A massive statue of the Buddha keeps watch over Langja.

Prayer flags and "katas" tied to the chorten marks Kunzum la on a grey autumn morning. Kunzum marks the boundary between Spiti and Lahaul. Photo: deb mukharji

A novice offers tea to visitors at Key monastery. Photo: deb mukharji

A LONG time ago, in 1961, I had meticulously planned a trek to Spiti. The planning was difficult, as Spiti, in Himachal Pradesh, was then a virtually unknown territory, rarely visited except by officials, with only an occasional pony trail or routes that existed largely on the map and translated on the ground as ice and snow, glaciers and boulders.

The only “guide” at that time was Justice G.D. Khosla’s Himalayan Circuit: A Journey in Inner Himalaya, based on his visit a few years earlier. Owing to family reasons I had to stay back, but my friends were able to use my research to cross into Spiti over the formidable Pin-Parbati Pass and return to Manali over the Kunzum and Rohtang passes. My long-awaited visit finally came about this autumn.

There are two approaches to Spiti by road. One is to drive from Manali to Kaza over the Rohtang and Kunzum passes, a distance of some 200 kilometres. The Internet can be misleading with regard to the time required, and travellers are best advised to add 25 per cent to what others may claim. We took nearly 11 hours on the journey (in the opposite direction).

The other approach is from Shimla: Shimla-Kalpa (240 km), Kalpa-Kaza (200 km). This is doable in two full days of driving. Of course, Tabo, 48 km short of Kaza, is a must stop for at least two days. In 1963, I had driven along the under-construction Hindustan-Tibet road some distance beyond Kalpa. More than half a century later, fair stretches of the road remain under repair and a challenge to vehicles and their passengers alike, as they had been earlier. This situation is presumably unavoidable because of falling rocks and the snow during winter.

As one drives along the Sutlej, lush green Kalpa with its range upon range of apple orchards and pine forests gives way soon to the starkness of the trans-Himalayas. The Sutlej can be disturbingly close at times, and at others far below at the bottom of the gorge. After Nako one enters the realm of the Spiti river and at Sumdo, Spiti itself.

The border check post at Sumdo is a stark reminder of continued restrictions on foreigners entering Spiti. They can do so only in pairs or multiples. This defies reason. If the concern is for national security, then less, surely, the better. If, as is more likely, it is for the security of the visitor, then it would make more sense to require that the foreign guest is accompanied by another person, either foreigner or Indian. Other formulations can be considered to meet legitimate concerns. Permits need to be obtained at Rekong Peo (below Kalpa), the district headquarters, and it was sad to see a young and enthusiastic Australian girl, keen to visit Spiti after many weeks in Kinnaur, being denied entry.

Spiti’s association with the rest of India is said to go back to the Mauryan empire, followed by the Kushans and the occasional overlordship of Ladakh and Kashmir. The period of its association with the Guge kingdom in western Tibet a millennium ago has left a lasting imprint on it. But through it all, Spiti and its people have retained their individuality.

Next door, Ladakh has a sweep and grandeur that overwhelms. The vast spaces of Ladakh, the Changtang, have a quality almost of merging with infinity. Spiti is more intimate, more beautiful in detail, with a personal aura that invites the visitor to return.

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