Travel to Himachal Pradesh - 4


Tibetan traditional style houses, Kibber


VILLAGES above an ALTITUDE of 4,000M

Leaving Keylang in the Lahul region, our jeep ran on the rough national highway to the east and crossed over the Kunzum Pass at an altitude of as high as 4,550m. The scenery around the pass was extremely desolate without a single tree or blade of grass as if it were a lunar world. And then we entered the Spiti region.

The two regions Lahul and Spiti are, for some reason, administratively combined into one, the Lahul & Spiti distict, despite being distinct cultural areas since ancient times. The area along the Spiti River is an entirely Tibetan cultural zone. This remote area’s landscape with surrounding rugged high mountains and sporadic villages, without green except in the river basin, is akin to that of the Ladakh region in the far north. It was only twenty or so years ago that this region became open to foreign tourists.

I reached Kaza, the central town in this region, at night and stayed overnight. When waking up the next morning, I suffered headache and unsteadiness when walking from altitude sickness, but I enjoyed the very picturesque scenery of the valley spreading out in fresh and limpid air.
Since Hinduism is not practiced here and people of Tibetan origin live as followers of Buddhism, buildings are generally of Tibetan style, and what to see in Spiti region are mostly villages and Gompas (Buddhist monasteries).

Kii Gompa on the mountain

It is the Kii Gompa that is said to be the oldest and largest in Spiti. Seen from a distance, in which monks’ cells and chapels are stacked on the mountain, recalls Italian hill towns. However, the Gompa was destroyed several times in the course of various wars so that ancient shrines have scarcely survived. The current central Dukhang (prayer hall) is a new building constructed with donations from Americans two years before my visit, commemorating the Dalai Lama’s Kala-Chakla (time-wheel) ceremony carried out here.

Driving northwest about 6km from Key in barren mountainous land, one arrives at the most picturesque village in the Spiti region, Kibber village. The view of the whitewashed houses built on tiers of ocher colored earth, with the azure sky as its backdrop, is exquisite.

On the top of the village is a Gompa, in the frontyard of which a man was making sun-dried bricks (the method was too simple to call him a craftsman). He poured mud into a timber frame and leveled its top with a trowel. He pulled up the frame too soon, before the lump of mud had hardened, making it somewhat out of shape, but he did not pay any attention. A single brick measured approximately 15 ×15 ×38 cm, larger than a usual burnt brick, rather nearer to a concrete block in size.

Making sun-dried bricks, Kibber

As houses are built by piling such sun-dried bricks in horizontal strata with ‘breaking joints’ (i.e. without straight vertical joint lines), there remain horizontal lines at intervals of 15cm on the walls, in spite of being covered with white mud plaster.
Their roofs are flat, twigs of tamarix are stacked on the parapets of roofs, and the areas around windows are painted black; this characteristic style is common to that in Tibet and Ladakh.

However, although houses may look traditional, a recent house might be found to have a steel beam over concrete columns inside, when observed carefully. Even in this quite remote region, the waves of ‘modernization’ are advancing.


Buddhism flourished in western Tibet, such as in Ladakh and Spiti, after the end of the 10th century when priests of the Guge Kingdom were sent to Kashmir to study the Mahayana Buddhism (Esoteric Buddhism) of that time. The leading priest of that movement was Rin Chen Bzang Po(958-1055)who translated a great number of Buddhist Scriptures from Sanskrit to Tibetan, hence called the Great Translator.
It is said that he constructed 108 temples in western Tibet, among which the most important from an artistic viewpoint is the Alchi Gompa in Ladakh and the Tabo Gompa, here in Spiti. Neither are on mountains like the aforementioned Key Gompa, but on flat areas as in ancient types, and the inside of every shrine is filled with wall paintings dating from the 11th century and Buddha statues, forming a treasure house of Buddhist art.

Byams-pa'i Lha-khan and Brom-ston Lha-khan, Tabo

As the largest shrine in the Tabo Gompa, the Tsug-Lhakhang, was erected in 996, the millennium anniversary was celebrated in 1996, on which occasion the Dalai Lama came here to perform the Kala-Chakla (time-wheel) ceremony. However, the architectural interest is inferior to the Alchi Gompa. Its outer walls are entirely made of thickly plastered sun-dried brick, becoming a huge lump of mud without any ornamentation, looking like a primitive Kasbah in Morocco. Even though that appearance has a kind of power, its timber structure cannot be seen until entering the shrine.

Unfortunately, the Gompa was put under the administration of the Archaeological Survey of India a few years before my journey, who had prohibited photography of the interiors; I happened to lose the use of my films that I had amply provided for this Gompa.

Plan of the Tabo Chos-'Kor Gompa
(From "Buddhist Monasteries in the Western Himalaya" by Romi Khosla, 1979)

What I was most surprised by in the Tabo Gompa were the capitals on two wooden columns standing in the Kyil-Khang (Mandala Shrine). I found them almost completely the same as those that I had looked at in mosques in the Upper Swat valley in Pakistan the previous year. The capitals had three swirls carved on both sides protruding like a bracket. This shape can be considered the ‘leitmotif’ of wooden architecture in that region.
This fact can be explained like this: the capital shape, influenced by the Greek Ionic order in ancient Gandhara (now in northern Pakistan), was brought to Ladakh by way of Kashmir, finally up to here, Spiti, and later flew backward up to the wooden mosques in the Islamized Upper Swat Valley (north of Gandhara); what a long lasting relay!

The Gompa at tiny Lhalung village located upstream of the Lingti River, a tributary of the Spiti River, shows a smaller version of the splendid interior spaces of the Tabo Gompa. This is also said to have been first built by Rin Chen Bzang Po, but most of the original nine shrines have been demolished. The sole surviving building, Ser-khang, originally had a flat roof, but in order to protect its wall paintings from leaking rain it was recently covered with a sloping roof of galvanized sheets.

Lalung Gompa and interior of Ser-khan

Guided by a young monk, I entered through the portal in to a dark and narrow corridor, which ended at a curtain lit from above. When stepping into the room through a doorway at the rear of the curtain, I had my breath taken away. Inside the room with this dramatic effect, a triad of Buddhist statues was enshrined in the center, and the surrounding walls were covered in every nook and corner with small Buddha sculptures with aureoles, solemnly decorated with gold and full colors.
It was dark in the room due to only a single small window above the entrance door, so the Buddha statues emerged illusorily from darkness. It was not felt as an excessively decorated Baroque space but rather something unusual as if an ethereal atmosphere was evoked.

THE WAY to the END of the WORLD

When the jeep arrived at Tabo at 8 o’clock at night, the village was in dead darkness owing to a power breakdown. I barely managed to get a room in a guesthouse with the aid of a flashlight and after taking a meal by candlelight at a shabby restaurant in the rear, I went to bed quickly with nothing to do in the dark. However, unbeknown to me, just at that time, all the world and his wife were riveted in front of televisions, since the 11 September Attacks had just occurred in New York.

It was when I arrived at a hotel at Rohru two days later that I came to know of those events. Watching the image on a TV screen at the recption desk, I recalled the last chapter of Anatole France’s novel that I had read a long time ago. In the novel entitled "The Island of Penguins," written about 100 years ago, ‘dynamiters’ emerge in the island of penguins, where its civilization has become overripe and the state has reached a terminal stage, blasting high-rise buildings one after another, and the world rushes to self-destruction.

Anatole France "The Island of Penguins"

Like this novel of prediction, has this real world, which is full of deception, finally undergone the last judgment? Or is this idea needless worry for the future?


© Takeo Kamiya
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