Tabo, the Village of Cavemen and Lamas | Himachal Pradesh, India

A Buddhist monk at the Tabo monastery
A Buddhist monk at the Tabo monastery

Don’t honk when driving into Tabo. You might disturb people sleeping in caves.

Tabo is a small Buddhist village of a few hundred, located 3050 m (10,006 feet) above sea level in the cold desert region of the Lahaul-Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. It has a beautiful monastery, or gompa, with the ancient compound dating back to 996 A.D. – making it the oldest continually functioning Buddhist establishment in India.

According to some texts I purchased at the monastery’s book shop, the Tabo gompa came up under the patronage of the ancient Tibetan royal dynasty of Purang-Guge; it 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. These were located along the trade routes of the time and involved heavy financial outlays; traders could take night halts here securing their lives and possessions from bandits. The monastery is currently home to about 50 lamas or monks, many still very young.

The Tabo Monastery
The Tabo Monastery

A wall divides the modern and ancient compounds of the monastery, the latter signposted Chos-hkhor. 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. Amazingly, the ancient structures made of mud have managed to survive over a thousand years with minimal repairs; this feat could be attributed in part to the dry conditions of the region.

Back to the caves, located on a mountain face running along the town. As recently as 30-40 years ago, these were the natural habitat of locals before they all moved to man-made structures. But no bears – if they can survive the harsh conditions of the region – have moved in to take their place; instead, you have backpackers who use these to camp overnight. I could spot the belongings of some, as well as ashes from cooking and heating fires. Some locals still treat these as their property, having secured their ancestral homes with wooden doors. There are no property disputes yet for these. Some caves serve as places of worship, marked by Buddhist flags.

The caves in Tabo
The caves in Tabo
Some people still keep caves under lock and key in Tabo
Some people still keep caves under lock and key in Tabo

While their fare may not be memorable, the names of cafes in Tabo certainly are. You have the Third Eye Café, claiming ‘the world meets here,’ with a menu serving Indian, Italian, Israeli, Chinese and Continental cuisines. The Café Kunzom Top, with both open and indoor seating, offered all this and local Spitian dishes too. It also claimed to be serving the ‘world’s highest cappuccino and espresso’ – I was disappointed when these turned out to be nothing more than Nescafe instant coffee. For a greater kick, one could always try the Zion Café, a ‘Full Power Restaurant’ serving ‘all types of food and positive vibration.’ How do they do it? A sign outside their kitchen ‘respectfully’ requesting guests to stay out made it impossible to know.

Locals were living in a time warp for centuries until development came knocking on the caves a few decades back. Modern irrigation and exposure to the world may have brought about changes, but you still feel not much has really changed. Financially, there was dependency on rulers earlier and now the Government. Most households have at least one member holding a secure Government job and providing for the whole family.

Will the Dalai Lama settle here after retirement as some say? Locals certainly believe so even if the lamas don’t.

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Tabo’s Apples: The Best in the World?

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Especially if you have the ones in Tabo.

Growing apples here is no mean task due to the cold desert conditions and difficulty in accessing water from the Spiti river flowing at a lower altitude than the town. But the lamas of Tabo Monastery have shown some spunk by successfully growing apples in Tabo. And what apples! Tastier, juicier and crunchier than most you will have eaten. They are truly organic – absolutely no chemicals have been used at any stage.

Tabo’s apples are the last to ripen in the state in September or October. Locals claim to store these apples for even up to a year – but that is in the cold clime and pure air of the higher Himalayas. Don’t try this in the plains lower down. I saw them being packed in boxes marked ‘Kinnaur Apples.’ They deserve their own branding, ‘Tabo Apples.’

A Buddhist monk at Tabo monastery supervising the apple crop
A Buddhist monk at Tabo monastery supervising the apple crop
Apples growing in Tabo monastery
Apples growing in Tabo monastery
Contractors packing apples before sending off to other markets
Contractors packing apples before sending off to other markets

Lahaul Spiti: Travel Tips

* Getting there: Hitch a ride with a Government or Army helicopter – not a real option. Only other way to go is by road via Manali or from the other side via Shimla and Kinnaur. Roads are closed in winters. You can takes buses too if you don’t have your own car or taxi.
* Climate: Biting cold from November to March with temperatures falling many degrees below normal. Everything is frozen over. The months of June to August are pleasantly warm, while it is comfortably cold during the other months. It is always cold at higher altitudes. Make sure you carry warm clothes at all times. Very little precipitation in this rain shadow area.
* Best time to go: June to early-October when roads are open, but dates vary every year. Catch the autumn colours in October and munch apples fresh from the trees. No vehicular movement is possible the rest of the year via Manali and Kunzum Pass. Roads are open longer when coming via Shimla but you can only go up to Kaza.
* Local transport: Limited options of buses and taxis.
* Connectivity: Only state-run BSNL mobiles work in Tabo and Kaza, and service is erratic. Internet access is limited and slow.
* Vehicles to use: It is best to use SUVs – these need not be 4-wheel powered. But people do use sedans too, but not recommended considering road conditions.
* Permits: Foreigners require Inner Line Permits.
* Places to stay: In recent years, many options are coming up for different budgets in the area including budget guest houses and homestays in some of the villages. You can also book yourself into the Key or Tabo monasteries with room rates as low as Rs. 200 a night. Pitch tent. Try the caves if you nothing else works.
* Altitude Sickness can affect even the fittest of all. Basic precautions: (a) Keep sipping water regularly, preferably warm. Keep in flasks, or stops at roadside eateries to request them to warm it for you. (b) Cover your head and ears with something warm when it is cold and windy (c) Don’t push yourself physically too much (d) Don’t stay at high altitude passes for too long – 30 minutes maximum (e) Go easy on yourself for the initial 1-2 days, you should be ok after that.

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