Barren Splendor in the Himalayas – The Spiti Valley

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The landscape changed dramatically as we crossed Rohtang Pass and entered the rain shadow zone of Lahaul amd Spiti. This was not the conventionally alpine Himalayan highlands but a stark landscape devoid of vegetation, with a raw, uncluttered beauty.  Blissfully quiet, it was also a welcome relief from the din and traffic on the other side of the Rohtang Pass, where at 12,500 ft. we had a traffic jam with loads of day tourists from Manali.

The azure sky was crystal clear with corrugated ridges of mountains reaching high into the endless blue. As our spunky Innova negotiated the hairpin bends and started the ascent after the small town of Gramphu, we were astounded by the proximity of the glaciers and snow peaks around us. The old, blackish glacial slopes with gray moraines tumbled down in a frozen grace from the almost vertical rockfaces to the bank of the Chandra river gurgling its way on our left.

Just before crossing Kunzum Pass, the highest motorable pass of Himachal Pradesh, we fortified ourselves with piping hot noodle soup and mugs of black tea. We were well over 14,000 ft and the fluid intake was necessary to combat high-altitude sickness. Once we crossed Kunzum Pass, a vast field of ice with only some prayer flags to mark the road, the landscape turned surreal. The mountains were now multihued, ranging from a mottled green to yellowish copper, with occasional patches of violet and deep brown. There were subtle shifts in color as the afternoon sun glinted off the rugged contours of the barren cliffs. The interplay of light and shade was intensified by chunks of clouds scudding across a cobalt blue sky.

The first autumnal glow met our eyes at the small hamlet of Lossar. A grove of poplars, resplendent in yellow-orange leaves, was in stark contrast to the primal ruggedness around. In the mellow light, the yellow-orange trees emanated a magical glow. Sanjeev, our driver, said, “You are lucky. At this time of the year, in late September, Spiti’s autumn colors come at their fullest.”

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Kaza, the district headquarters, was a couple of hours drive away from Lossar. It looked like a picturesque town in the fading evening light but the morning after, we saw it from a different perspective. There were incongruous concrete buildings sprouting everywhere, out of sync with the vernacular architecture. Trying to cater to the growing influx of tourists, Kaza seemed to be losing its identity.

However, a few miles out of town and the blissful solitude was back. Just five miles out of Kaza, the honeycomb structure of the 12th-century Kee monastery, perched atop a hillock and overlooking the meandering Spiti river, was a breathtaking sight. From the rooftop the view was of an endless vista of schist, twisted and crinkled in myriad shapes, amid a deafening silence, punctuated only by the snapping of the prayer flags in the strong breeze. Our next pit stop was Kibber, a small settlement with a cluster of whitewashed houses that has the distinction of being the highest motorable village in the world. 

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We left Kaza early next morning and followed the Spiti river downstream for about 18 miles to reach Dhankar, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Spiti. We arrived in the main hall of the Dhankar monastery at prayer hour. It was a plunge into a Technicolor past: monks in long, crimson robes chanting Buddhist prayers beneath vibrant yellow hangings.

A wizened, old monk took us into the chapel, thick with the smell of centuries of melted yak butter, and where shafts of sunlight streamed in through skylights, picking out dusty thangkas. Ancient murals revealed a whole cosmology of Buddhas and demons and spirits. Down the dimly lit corridors, we went to the monastery kitchen, where we were greeted with hot butter tea, the staple drink in this part of the world.

As we stepped outside the millennium old monastery, we found that Dhankar is a geological wonder, with natural rock pillars abounding the landscape, a clear testimony of millions of years of wind erosion. Nestled in this ruggedness, the old, ruined citadel of Dhankar stood on a spur projecting into the main valley and which ending in a precipice. Lingshed, the young monk of Dhankar monastery who was showing us around, told us “the strategic location of the fort allowed the kings of Spiti to keep a vigil on the invaders, who often came marauding down the Tibetan plateau.” 

We stayed the night at Tabo, a small town on the Kaza-Kinnaur highway, about an hour’s drive from Dhankar. The medieval monastery with its magnificent murals that have earned Tabo the sobriquet ‘Himalayan Ajanta,’ after the famed caves in Maharastra, mesmerized us with the exquisite paintings and stucco images that adorn its walls.

In the Tabo monastery guesthouse we met Frank, a German doctor, who now spends four months each year in Spiti valley, working among the locals for sustainable development in this fragile ecosystem. On his advice, we took the hike to Lari, a small village three miles from Tabo. A post-harvest local festival was on and the villagers warmly welcomed us with rounds of butter tea and snacks. Homebrewed barley wine flowed freely and the spirit of bonhomie was palpable. 

A Chaam dance was scheduled in the afternoon in the Tabo monastery. As the Tibetan wind instruments filled the thin mountain air with an ancient rhythm, the monastery’s cobbled courtyard came alive. A trio of masked monks raised their feet up and down in a slow, colorful set of meditative movements, representing scenes from the life of Padmasambhava, the eighth-century saint who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet.

After immersing ourselves for a couple of hours into this visual extravaganza, it was time to leave. I looked up and into the vast openness that lay beyond the monastery compound. Darkness was gently descending upon the valley. I made a silent vow to return to this enchanted land – soon. 

All photographs taken by Sugato Mukherjee

This article appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine, check the rest of it out here!