Once upon a time, there was a small Himalayan village located 3,050 metres above sea level. In the Lahaul-Spiti valley, mostly a cold desert region. Populated by only a few ‘souls’, their homes being caves found on a mountain face of the village. Living at close quarters were some Lamas practicing their faith in what is the oldest continually functioning Buddhist establishment in India. Going back to as far back as 996 A.D.
And all of them have been living happily thereafter. In a time capsule, with their society and culture virtually untouched, before development came knocking on the caves. But the village of Tabo continues on its date with its own karma in the midst of cafes claiming to serve the world’s highest cappuccino or food with positive vibration!
Click here to see the full set of photos taken at Tabo.
Located on what is referred to as the Buddhist circuit, Tabo is located on one side of the Great Himalaya range separating India and Tibet. The central attraction is the ten centuries old Tabo Gompa, or monastery, with distinct modern and ancient compounds. The adjoining helipad does little to take away anything from this structure.
Patronised by the ancient Tibetan royal dynasty of Purang-Guge, the Gompa at Tabo was one of the 108 constructed between the tenth to twelfth centuries AD, when the second diffusion of Buddhism was supposed to have taken place. These were spread across the Lahaul-Spiti valley, Kinnaur region and Ladakh, all a part of present day India, as well as what is now Western Tibet. This involved heavy financial investments, its justification going beyond religious considerations; these monasteries were established along the trade routes of the time to secure lives and possessions. Traders would use these to make night halts as bandits would usually attack in the dark.
Situated in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the quickest one can get to Tabo from the plains is after a two-day drive. Or longer if one happens to be on a motorcycle or a bicycle as some adventure-seeking tourists, especially from the west, choose to. Unless, of course, you can hitch an unlikely ride with a government or army helicopter on one of their sorties. A piece of advice: the beauty of Tabo lies no less in the journey as in the destination. Take the road like most do, coming from the town of Manali, some 150 miles away. There is an alternate approach from the state capital Simla, but the former is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Its description can be a feature subject in itself.
A town of Buddhists, advertising its identity with religious flags fluttering atop all houses and other structures, accommodation options are modest at best in Tabo. At the upper end is Banjara Retreats with its 70-dollar clean, smart rooms including all meals and hot showers, going down to the very basic of guest houses. The monastery offers rooms at an average of 5-8 dollars a night. A government guest house can take walk-ins, with instant eviction should someone come in with a reservation from a higher office. If one can strike up a rapport, or get a personal reference, a spare bed in a local house can be an option too. The enterprising just camp in the caves. Yes, they do. And even leave their beddings behind when off on a trek, and make fires to stay warm and cook. Who says the cavemen in this village went out forty years back?
The caves are actually a part of the village, located on a mountain face across the road from the man-made structures. Some of these were, and still are, used as places of worship for Buddhists and are under the protection of the archaeological department. The nostalgic ones have even put up doors on a few caves, marking it as their territory as these were homes to their forefathers till as recently as 30-40 years back. Fortunately, there are no known cases of rival claims to these caves informed the manager of my hotel.
The town itself is an island of peace, literally. Other than the passing of an odd vehicle on the state highway on which the town is located, the highest decibels was being emanated from a cow, a species half evolved into a yak and living next to my hotel, who could not stop mooing all day. Or a pack dogs who took it upon themselves to perform a gig with their all-night barking.
The only other loud creatures were a group of tourists from a neighbouring state, all of three generations of a family. And of all the places, they chose the temples within the ancient monastery to make themselves heard loud and clear as resident Lama Sonam took them around!
To use the term loosely, Sonam is a guide Lama taking any tourists around the monastery – as others like him at other monasteries in the valley – without being judgmental in who they show around. Answering all questions patiently, Sonam says he is one of the 45 Lamas living in the monastery; of these, 30 are very young ones. With the exception of the head Lama who is from Tibet, all others are from within the state itself. Tibetan Lamas are mostly to be found in the larger monasteries in the southern part of India.
A wall divides the modern and ancient compounds of the monastery, the latter called Chos-hkhor as signposted at the entrance. This part houses nine temples built between the 10th and the 17th centuries. The main temple, or the gtsug-lag-khang, has served as a true custodian, in every sense of the word, of the history, culture and art of its time. The abundance of primary documents and diligent preservation efforts have ensured the paintings, sculptures, inscriptions and wall texts have stayed largely intact over the centuries.
Within the monastery complex is a stall selling trinkets, reminding me of a similar one I visited at the Ki monastery near Kaza, another town 30 miles from Tabo on the way to Manali. Only this vendor looked a little less trustworthy than the one at Ki. He did not take long to confirm my fears. The headgear of what was claimed to be an ancient armour was being quoted at $1,200 dollars. I wonder how the seller would have reacted if I tried bargaining, starting at fifty dollars! A yak bell I picked up at Ki for just under four dollars was going for 12. And the quality and designs certainly did not match up either. It’s true, no sour grapes here.
Step out of the monastery, and one is spoilt for choice when it comes to cafes. Not necessarily for their offerings, but definitely for their seductive ways. The Third Eye Café promises ‘the world meets here.’ At least its cuisines do; menu covers Indian, Italian, Israeli, Chinese and Continental fares. The Café Kunzom Top, with both open and indoor seating, offered all this and local Spitian dishes too. While I did not try what they claimed was the world’s highest cappuccino and espresso, my partner did commend the herbal tea made patiently over 20 minutes.
Not feeling the need for any alternative to Red Bull, I skipped the Zion Café claiming to be a ‘Full Power Restaurant’ serving ‘all types of food and positive vibration.’ And how did they conjure up such magic potions? Tough to say, as a sign outside their kitchen ‘respectfully’ requested guests to stay out. I did try out a chocolate cake and black coffee at the German Bakery, a namesake of the more famous one at Manali. When I asked the owner Raju, a native of Nepal but settled in Manali, if his bakery was linked to the more popular one, I was not surprised when he claimed it to be owned by his cousins. I would take that with a pinch of coffee, as one gets related to one another rather conveniently in these parts. Add another pinch to that as my snack left much to be desired. Will try Raju’s ‘cousins’ next time.
Tabo is ideally suited to those wishing to ruminate all day like the next-door chooru cow, as it is called, or seeking some high adrenalin adventure. The village is a gateway to treks taking you through mountainscapes emulated by only a few other locations in the world. Mountain biking, mobike trips, white-water rafting, rappling, mountain climbing are possible around Tabo – on your own steam or assisted through specialist agencies. I took the middle path, limiting my excursions to exploring the town and the fields. A day should be enough to get a good look and feel of the town; you may extend your trip depending on how many layers of its history and art you want to explore.
Closer linkages to the rest of the world and governmental intervention has had some positive effects on the local economy. For one, it is striking to see Tabo as a green oasis in what is otherwise a brown, rocky and dusty cold desert region. Being in the rain shadow belt, the full bodied Spiti river running along this town and through the rest of the valley has not been of much value over the centuries. Reason? Level ground being much higher than the river, there was no way to bring this water into the irrigation system until now, and that too in a limited manner. The monastery has been pro-active too, although more out of necessity. The Lamas have resorted to planting their own apple orchards for supplementing their income, adding to the greening of the place. Times have changed since the kings of Purang-Guge provided for the needs of these monasteries.
Besides apples, the other cash crop of the region is a variety of peas, positioned amongst the premium varieties. According to manager of my hotel, almost every home in the village has at least one government employee providing the much-needed financial support. Besides, the government is quite charitable in this region with aid and grants from time to time, for political reasons of course.
If you hang around long enough in Tabo, you may see the present Dalai Lama, 14th in the lineage, coming to spend the rest of his years in retirement in this town. Or that is what some tourist guides will have you believe. Sonam and some of the other Lamas and locals I spoke to have not heard of any such plans though. Whatever the Dalai Lama’s travel plans may be, make sure you have yours in place. With Tabo featuring at the top.
Getting to Tabo
The only means to get to Tabo is by road. Coming from the plains via the city of Chandigarh, one could come via Simla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, or Manali. The latter is recommended any day, and I can vouch for it. The drive up to Manali is on a smooth national highway, but get ready for some excitement after that. The 150 miles from Manali to Tabo takes you through Rohtang Pass, and then the even higher Kunzum La, or pass, located at 4551 metres above sea level. (That’s almost as high as Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps at 4810 metres!!). Much of the journey is on what would barely pass as a road, with glacial diversions sending the car on the dry parts of the beds of the Chandra-Bhaga river. This, and the Spiti river later on the route, will keep you company through much of the journey. The landscape gets progressively browner from the evergreen Manali, but no less beautiful and majestic. It’s Vancouver, the Grand Canyon, the Alps and more all thrown into one. A full description of this journey can be a travelogue in itself.
The drive can take around 12 hours, so early departure from Manali is advised. But trust me on my word: you will not have enough even in this long drive, and will only end up desiring for more. I drove, but tourists from outside the country may prefer hiring a SUV cab with an experienced driver. Do be prepared for a bumpy ride though.
You may want to break journey for a day or two at Kaza, 30 miles before Tabo. Kaza is also the last point to re-fuel for nearly 120 miles in either direction.
Being close to the Tibetan borders, foreigners require interline permits issued at check-posts on the way. This can take from a few minutes to even a day. Food options are limited on this route, so a packed canteen is advised.
Accommodation in Tabo
No Ritz-Carlton here, but you do not have to rough it out either with the options available. May and June are the toughest to get rooms due to school holidays. Try these:
- Banjara Retreats: Relatively top-of-the-line, serving excellent food. Rooms are basic, but clean with bed-linen giving a fresh feeling. Hot showers in the bath. A group of American School students were staying at another guest house while I was there, but chose to have their meals here instead. Rooms are about US$ 70 a night, all meals included. Call +91.11.26861397/26855152, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.banjaracamps.com
- Tabo Monastery: Has rooms, starting at four dollars a night, meals extra. Contact: Tabo Ancient Monastery, Village & P.O. TABO, District Lahaul & Spiti, Himachal Pradesh 172113, India. Tel: +91.1906.223333/ 223315 Fax: +91.1906.223403
- Government Guest House: Usually reserved for government officials and their families, including their distant kin and kith, rooms can be given to tourists if vacant. To make sure you sleep the complete night, pick up a confirmed booking voucher from their office at Kaza on the way if coming from Manali. They may still give you the room, but reserve the right to ask you to leave if someone comes with a confirmed booking. No telephonic or web bookings. Rates vary from four to ten dollars, meals extra.
- The Caves: Yours for the taking, cannot confirm if safe to leave your belongings unattended when out. Stay clear of caves marked as personal territory. Anyway, there are enough vacant ones going around.
- Myriad guest houses, best booked when you are there after checking quality. If your mode of transport allows, pack in some bed sheets and towels if you care for that clean feeling.
When to go
May to October is best. Most places to stay are closed from November to February due to heavy snow when access to Tabo is virtually impossible. Will need to provision for delays if going in July and August as the monsoons (rainy season) can cause road blockages and slow traffic on the way. Tabo itself, like the rest of the Spiti valley, gets very little rain though.
The town had only one working pay phone, which would end up being an impatient wait when some American School girls would chat endlessly with their parents and boyfriends. But then again, you don’t go to Tabo with hurry on your mind. An internet café exists, only to be out of order for a couple of months. Mobiles do not work, except maybe the state run BSNL ones. A tour operator was seen with a satellite phone, unlikely to be a feasible option for most.
Hey, you have travelled to nearly the top of planet to have an another-world experience. Do not worry about contacting Earthlings left behind.