If you want to explore the high altitude cold desert region of Spiti valley, Kaza will be your base for much of it. At about 3800 metres (12,500 feet) Kaza is surrounded by a treasure trove of natural beauty, history, culture and religion.
All you need to do is drive around to be left awestruck. Natural rock formations, the wide expanses formed by the Spiti river bed, snow-capped peaks waiting to be summited, deep gorges, traditional Spitian villages, ancient Buddhist monasteries and their festivals, trekking routes – you cannot go wrong here. It is truly a wonder on this planet. Here are some not to be missed highlights:
The Key monastery (also spelled Key, Ki and Kee) is the most important and biggest amongst all in Spiti and has always been run by the Gelugpa sect or the ‘sect of the yellow hats.’ Located on a high barren hill like a vulture’s nest at 4,116 metres (13,504 feet), it overlooks the valley where the Spiti river flows. This hill is said to be the palace of the Tantric deity Chakrasamvara; three rocky spurs projecting on a mountain behind the monastery are said to be the abodes of the protective deities Chamsing, Lhamo and Neser. The temples are located on the top of the hill, all opening into a courtyard. Quarters for lamas are located at a lower level.
There is no clear date of its establishment, earliest going back to the 11th century. The monastery is believed to have been damaged or destroyed many times over by natural calamities or by invading armies. However, it still manages to look spectacular, and is an oasis of peace – but so is much of Spiti. Go there and you will be well received by resident lamas who will take you around and even offer you butter tea – in a kitchen blackened by centuries of cooking filled with gleaming utensils.
A must visit when in Kaza, 7 kms (5 miles) away.
Komic Monastery: Nothing Funny About It
The Komic Monastery and its annual festival are a hidden gem no one will tell you about.
Located at 4,587 metres (15,049 feet), the small monastery is one of the highest in the world. The setting itself is highly picturesque, with snow capped peaks around and skies with hues of blue no artist can replicate. Living conditions are very harsh here, but the surrounding village (at 4,513 metres) still has about 114 residents who are happy to be here.
An annual festival usually takes place in October every year, but the date keeps changing. Attendees are mostly Spitians – some come from far off villages in hired taxis – and a handful of travellers like me. The atmosphere is festive from the word go – all visitors are received with a welcome tea and a fried snack that looks like a puffed pancake. Travelling salesmen come from faraway plains to set up stalls selling blankets, clothes, spectacles, toys, decorations and gifts – talk about being enterprising. For locals, it is also a rare opportunity to access these goods – they live in some of the remotest human settlements on the planet. Customers also include young Buddhist monks – mostly boys under 10 who live in the monastery. Where do they get the money from? From visitors who offer money to them like offerings to the Gods. Even though the boys are being trained to lead lives of no material attachments, they are still children – buying a few toys surely cannot upset their divine Masters.
The festival is also a time for some games including Volleyball and Musical Chairs. Bollywood numbers play to pep up the mood. And there is such a thing as a free lunch here before the masked dances start.
Lamas pray from early morning till the afternoon. The dancers change into their dresses and masks after that. When I tried to ‘gently barge’ my way into the changing room, I was ‘scolded’ and shooed away by a stick waving boy monk in a yellow mask with an angry expression.
This Buddhist festival may be modest in scale compared to some of the more famous ones, but it is no less charming and enjoyable. The dancers move to the chants for about an hour in the monastery’s courtyard before moving out to dance in the open against the peaks. When they head back, all the devotees lie prostrate on the path as a mark of respect – the monks have to step over them as they make their way back.
As the sun goes down it is time to head back, having witnessed something few people in the world will ever do.
Kaza to Komic via Hikkim
Kaza to Y-Junction (Left for Langza, Right for Hikkim – take Right): 6 kms / 0:25 hrs
Y-Junction to Hikkim: 10 kms / 0:40 hrs
Hikkim to Komic: 3 kms / 0:15 hrs
Total Distance / Time: 19 kms / 1:20 hrs
Driving Guide: Komic – Kaza via Langza
Komic to Langza: 10 kms / 0:40 hrs
Langza to Y-Junction: 9 kms / 0:26 hrs
Y-Junction to Kaza: 6 kms / 0:25 hrs
Total Distance / Time: 25 kms / 1:31 hrs
Note: All timings are approximate and do not include stops. May vary with road conditions.
Kibber: The Highest Village in the World?
What do you do when more than one village claims to be the highest? First agree on highest in what – Asia or the World? And who are the contenders? For long it has been Kibber at 4,205 metres (13,796 feet) located 18 kms (11 miles) from Kaza. But Komic is higher at 4,513 metres but it rarely gets mentioned. The correct answer is obvious but one still needs to figure out if the honours are within the continent or global.
Nevertheless, a drive to Kibber takes you through some stunning landscapes with towering peaks above and deep gorges below. The village architecture retains much of its traditional look – you can check into one of the many guest houses and homestays if you like. One can even go beyond and drive to Chicham 5 kms (3 miles) away – but the road is only partially complete. The rest of the way can be trekked though.
What do villagers do here? Tend to their livestock and eke out a living from agriculture not made easy with harsh climatic conditions. But they are all a happy lot – cut off from the world, knowing only an innocent way of life.