Before reaching our next destination Tabo, also referred to as the Ajanta of the Himalayas, we had a little bit of sightseeing to do along the way. The sun was still shining on us with blue skies but the temperature was lower than previous days with a few more clouds floating about. After reaching the village of Sumdo we were now officially in the enchanting and endearing Spiti Valley!
From this day onwards is where the landscape really started changing. The only way I can describe it is Lunar-like… It just doesn’t look like it belongs in India… and I’m positive if I showed people who didn’t know about Spiti pictures of the landscape their last guess would be India. It actually reminded me a little bit like Iceland but without the snow and vegetation. We were surrounded by zig-zag rocky roads, snowy peaks of the Trans-Himalayas and golden mountains along the silver Spiti River with very small patches of greenery and vegetation about. Our surroundings hardly changed for miles apart from the movement of the clouds shadows on the mountainsides and a few herds of goats with their shepherds. I should mention that I absolutely LOVE goats and also these shepherds are hard-core… they walk with their herds for days and months on end to get to their destination and the herds of goat or sheep follow and know every whistle and sound that the shepherds make. Quite fascinating really and for me it is a massive culture shock to hear that the shepherds sill walk SO far… Sanjay told us that one herd were heading to Shimla… imagine that, that is over 430km away! Here it is described as a cold desert as overnight temperatures can drop to -45°C in winter! Thankfully, it is the end of June/beginning of July and for us the weather conditions are perfect so far, even at night.
In the distance we spotted a beautiful bright coloured monastery, it was difficult for it not to stand out vividly against the indistinguishable backdrop. This is Gue village Monastery and apparently it is very new. It has been in construction for the past 5 years and it looked so majestic sitting on top of the village with great 360 degree views of the village and Trans-Himalayan mountains. I could not stop staring at the monastery… it’s so beautiful. It is painted in bright colours, reds, yellows, blues with such amazing detail to the carvings all around it, featuring lots of dragon heads. It is a fantastic photo opportunity against the blue cloudy skies! Something you would see straight out of National Geographic. Unfortunately, we did not get to go inside the monastery as work was still being done.
Situated just 10km from the border of Tibet, next door to the new Gue Monastery is home to the Mummy Lama. Now this is really something special… When you think of mummies or mummified objects, what do you imagine? Personally, I picture the well-known mummies of Ancient Egypt, embalmed with chemicals and wrapped tightly in many layers of linen cloth placed inside decorative coffins and sealed within their tombs. This isn’t that. The story of the mummified “meditating” monk might just blow your mind a little bit and I would highly recommend visiting! So in 1975 a big earthquake in Northern India managed to open up an old tomb/stupa containing the mummified body of a monk. The monk is believed to be called Sangha Tenzin, who died in a seated position, this is why people say that he is still alive and just meditating. The mummified body of Sangha Tenzin is believed to be over 550-600 years old (or more – no-one reaaalllyyy knows). It was excavated by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police in 2004 and is superbly preserved with no broken skin, all teeth intact as well as hair. A local guy told us that the hair and nails still grow to this day and that he looks after the village. The monk was found in this same position, one hand on his knee and his other hand holding rosary beads while in deep meditation. Wrapped around the monks neck and legs were rope or gomthak, which is practiced in Zogchen – the highest form of meditation.
So how is the monk mummified?… Well, locals claim that the village became severely infested with scorpions and so in hope of helping the village Tenzin began to meditate and asked his followers to mummify him. Unlike mummification with embalming and wrapping, natural self-mummification is considered to be very rare and is a lengthy process. It is a unique method of mummification, which is shared with Yamagata Buddhist monks in Northern Japan… less than 30 other mummified monks have been discovered around the world but mainly in the area of Honshu, Japan. This process was not seen as a way of death or suicide but was practiced as a ritual called Sokushinbutsu through the 11th to 19th century as a way to reach further enlightenment or as practice of the highest form of enlightenment. The self-mummification process begins when alive, the monk starts to starve himself and ceases to eat any food which would add fat to the body as fat putrefies the body quickly after death. It is believed that these monks would literally live off tree bark and poisonous plants which resulted in vomiting, to further aid the dehydration process.. The monk and his followers would then run candles along the skin to dry it out as well as cease to drink any liquids so that the body becomes dehydrated and internal organs could begin to shrink. The whole self mummification process can take anything between 3000 days and 10 years to complete… That’s dedication! After death, while still in seated meditation the monk is then placed underground for years so that followers can continue drying out the skin with candles. Villagers and locals believe that when Tenzin died, all scorpions disappeared and a rainbow appeared across the sky when his spirit left his body. To this day, apparently there have been no sight of scorpions again. How fascinating! Gue is a small isolated village in Spiti with less than 100 houses, each year waves of tourists come looking to see the Mummy Lama. If the Mummy was not here who knows if many people would even know that Gue village even exists?! I would also like to mention that it is free to visit the Mummy, however he sits with rupee notes surrounding him, so I would suggest showering him with your donations of small change as a sign of appreciation.
Where the Mummy Lama rests is usually locked up and someone has to come and let you in. Tucked behind the Monastery is the local guy that showed us around (I can’t remember his name – sorry!) but he is very friendly and by the sounds of it, is always around. Afterwards we sat with him and chatted whilst admiring the fine details and beauty of Gue Monastery, he made us some delicious potato and cheese momos, a bowl of maggi and some chai… it was his new business venture which had been running for just 3 days. He was telling us that everyday if tourists come to the monastery or to see Mummy Lama they would ask him where they can get food or chai… and there is nowhere close, so often he would take them to his own house! Fair play to him, he was doing a good job and he’s spotted a gap in the market. He was also telling us that he has hopes of opening up his home as a homestay in Gue. I wish the very best for him and I urge you to please help support his business when/if visiting.
Tummies full, we continued on to Tabo. I have to say that so far on our journey through Kinnaur and Spiti it is incredible to see how much work is going into maintaining the roads and re-surfacing them. Much of the Silk Road now has fresh tarmac and is in great condition considering the amount and severity of landslides that occur in these areas. Workers spend hours and hours in the middle of nowhere, with no shade or cold water… It’s incredible that people are doing this. We also witnessed many workers and their families living on the side of the roads underneath overhanging rocks just in little tents… So committed and dedicated to their jobs which I am unsure has many rewards but apparently pays very well. It’s a different world. Driving out of Gue we actually had a little bit of a strange experience… We drove past a group of mixed male and female workers and they were shouting something at us in unison while holding their hands out. We asked Sanjay what were they shouting at us because we were quite confused. “Chocolate” he said, “they want chocolate”. Well unfortunately we could not give them any chocolate but what a strange request! I suppose though, if I were out in that heat all day and lived off a basic Tibetan style diet then I would want chocolate too. Many Indian tourists come and hand out chocolate and sweets to the people and children, Sanjay explained that it is no good to give out chocolate to them. Why? I’m unsure, I will have to find out. I suppose perhaps by doing so you are encouraging them to always ask for it. As we were stuck in roadworks for a short while, we met these two adorable little ones… They were just the sweetest! I am assuming that their parents were roadworkers and they were just sat happily playing with the rocks and machinery… They were smiling away, waving at us and pulling silly faces… We showed them the Go Pro and our camera and then they started to pretend to take photos of us with their rocks! Adorable.
About an hour later we arrived to our accommodation. You can read more about it here in my accommodation review of Tashi Khangsar, Tabo. There aren’t very many guesthouses in Tabo and this one was only small with maybe 6 rooms in total but it was quaint and peaceful with a nice garden and great views of the peaks, especially at sunset. A great place to relax. Tabo sits on the banks of the Spiti River at an altitude of approximately 10,750ft, it has a population of a few hundred people and is famous for its monastery and Tabo Gompa dating back to 996 A.D. There is no phone signal here at all – but that’s fine. Enjoy not having signal and explore!
The next morning we walked to the village centre for supplies…well, water and cash. Please keep in mind that you are probably best to get cash out from Reckong Peo if you haven’t already got enough with you as the ATMS in Tabo and Kaza can run out of cash very quickly. We headed to Tabo Monastery, which was literally right around the corner from our guesthouse Tashi Khangsar. From the outside of the monastery you really would not believe what you are about to see next. Unfortunately photography is strictly prohibited so I won’t be able to show you any photos so you’ll just have to rely on my words and your imagination! Out of all the monasteries I have visited, Tabo Monastery is not to be missed! Even His Holiness, Dalai Lama believes that Tabo Monastery is one of the holiest monasteries in existence and has even expressed his want to retire in Tabo. It is regarded as the most important Gompa of the Tibetan-Buddhist world, preserving the Buddhist Legacy and many significant Buddhist history scholars have been hosted here. It is the oldest operating Buddhist institute in India. The exterior is just mud brick, infact you could easily walk straight past it but step inside and… WAW! There is a complex plethora of wonderful paintings and striking murals covering every inch of the walls and ceilings as well as nearly human-sized painted and decorative mud statues adorn to the walls. The monastery showcases architectural integrity and spiritual richness at every glance and the longer you spend there the more you discover. It is famous for its preserved illustrious heritage, traditions and beautiful Buddhist culture through centuries dating back to 996 A.D whilst withholding its sanctity. It is often referred to as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ as there are striking similarities with the rock paintings of the Ajanta Caves and many books have been written about these paintings and what they depict/represent. Like I said, photos of inside the monastery and temples are strictly forbidden BUT later on in our journey we went to another monastery and the monk there kindly let us take a couple of photos inside aslong as we didn’t take photos of anything with faces painted gold. You will be able to see these in my next blog post on the way to Dhankhar Monastery, so keep an eye out!
While we were wandering around outside we actually saw two guys handpainting a stupa, similar to the designs of Gue monastery – an incredible and talented skilled job indeed! The monastery actually holds 9 temples, 23 chortens, a monk’s chamber and an extension that houses the nun’s chamber. Visit here for more information. Here are a list of the Nine Temples with short descriptions:
(Yes, I know it is perhaps confusing as it is in so much depth and very complex but it is worth finding out about)
The Temple of the Enlightened Gods
This temple has a central figure is the four-fold figure of Vairocana. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is regarded as one of the five spiritual sons of Adibuddha- who was the self-created elemental Buddha. A larger than life idol about two meters above the floor is depicted in a posture turning the wheel of law. Beautiful Kashmiri paintings of Buddha’s life grace the interiors.
The Golden Temple
Once layered with gold, this temple was exhaustively renovated in the 16th century by Senge Namgyal, ruler of Ladakh. The walls and ceilings are covered with outstanding murals.
The Mystic Mandala Temple
This temple also goes by the name of Initiation Temple as the initiation to monkhood takes place here. A huge painting of Vairocana surrounded by eight Bodhisattvasare worshipped.
The Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple
An image Bodhisattva Maitreya that is over six meters high dominates the temple. The beautiful display of murals adoring the inner walls depicts the monastery of Tashi-Chunpo and Lhasa’s Potala palace.
The Temple of Dromton
Founded by Dromton (1008-1064 AD), an important disciple of Atisha, it is one of the earliest temples of Tabo. Intricate carvings and murals decorates every surface of the temple.
The Chamber of Picture Treasures
A kind of an ante room attached to the Enlightened Gods temple, The Chamber of Picture Treasures is covered with beautiful paintings of the Tibetan style.
The Large Temple of Dromton
The second largest temple in the complex, covering over 70 sq m, has the figure of Sakyamuni flanked by Sariputra and Maha Maugdalayana. The outer walls depict the revered eight Medicine Buddhas and Guardian Kings.
The Mahakala Vajra Bhairava Temple
Dedicated to the protective deity of the Galuk-pa sect, fierce deities fill the room. The temple also goes by the name of ‘temple of horror’ and can only be entered after protective meditation.
The White Temple
Beautiful murals and paintings decorate the walls of the temple. An ornate low dado is erected for the monks or nuns to lean against when mediating.
I believe that we were definitely in the right place at the right time whilst visiting Tabo Monastery. When we were visiting the monastery an English lady was there also with her torch and books observing all the paintings and statues in depth. Her knowledge was INSANE and very extensive! I think she actually taught the locals a thing or two as well. She was extremely wacky and very excitable but honestly, she was the best guide! We were in awe of her knowledge, she was telling us so much information about various paintings and sculptures and their depictions/representations. We spent the next hour or so with her trying to find certain paintings that she had wanted to find throughout the Nine Temples. It was amazing to see many stories of Buddha’s life painted across the walls with similar deities and images reoccurring throughout. Our new teacher had been fascinated with Mahayana Buddhism after reading a book about it and 25 years ago decided to study it. Funnily enough, we actually also learnt that she comes from not just the same area but the same street of Northampton as some of Zak’s family! What a small world!
Like I said, the Buddhist culture and traditions are incredibly in depth and complex. There is so much to learn but I am glad to have had a basic knowledge and understanding prior to learning even more whilst being here. In a separate post I will write about other things I have learnt, mainly in terms of respect for the culture and what to do/not to do when visiting these sacred places. It is SO important to follow the Buddhist ways when visiting as to not offend anyone.
After visiting the monastery we took a short walk up the mountain face to explore Tabo caves. As well as simple mud huts, these caves were and still are used by Buddhist monks as dwellings for meditation. The used caves are marked with flags and you are prohibited to enter these. Sanjay would go on to tell us that those in meditation would stay for months to years, eating just fruits and drinking water and meditating for up to (or even more) 15 hours a day, everyday. From the caves you have a fantastic view of the village and mountains – definitely worth the short hike up there.