Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Lahaul & Spiti - The Land of Wondrous Gompas by Ashok Thakur

Ashok Thakur belongs to the ruling family of Lahaul. He is presently 
the Principal Secretary (Culture and Tourism) to the Government of 
Himachal Pradesh. As such he is responsible for the preservation of 
some to the oldest monasteries of this remote Himalayan region. 

The Himalayan district of Lahaul–Spiti in the Indian state of Himachal 
Pradesh is one of the last refuges for Tibetan Buddhism in India. As 
one crosses over the Rohtang Pass from verdant Manali through the 
fluttering prayer flags and piled up mane stones one truly enters into a 
different world – a world of gompas, chortens and above all smiling 
faces with chinky eyes and warm hearts which is in stark contrast to 
the overall ruggedness of the landscape. Centuries of landlocked and 
hard existence have led these people to devise their own social 
institutions for their survival - polyandry, law of primogeniture and 
above all the monastic system of life all designed to keep population in 
check and at the same time to avoid fragmentation of land holdings. 
Even today the district is land locked for 5 months in a year as all the 
passes leading into the valley are blocked due to heavy snowfall from 
December to May each year, the only connection with the outside 
world then being a once a week helicopter service for medical 
emergencies. 


Amongst all the three institutions it is only the gompas which are still 
going strong thanks largely to the Dalai Lama who has been frequently 
visiting these areas and holding Kalachakra discourses for the people 
of this Himalayan district. 
I shall take you for a tour of the stunning gompas of Lahaul and Spiti. 
Let us first go to Lahaul. Around Kyelong, Lahaul’s headquarter, one 
can find some of the most exquisite gompa of the area. 
Located 8 kms from Keylong, Guru Ghantal is overlooking a precipice 
above Tandi village, where the Chandra and Bhaga rivers join to form 
the Chandrabhaga. The gompa is surrounded by a large number of 
rock caves. Locals claim that Guru Padmasambhava had meditated 
before here leaving for Tibet. Guru Ghantal is a double-storeyed 
structure made of wood, with pyramidal roofs and a big assembly hall, 
characteristic of monasteries in the Lahaul valley. 
The monastery has a black stone image of the Hindu goddess Kali, 
locally known as Vajreshwari Devi, the deity has been assimilated into 
the Buddhist pantheon. 
A few kilometres away is Shashur gompa. Founded in the 16th century 
by a Tibetan Lama, the place is named after the juniper trees growing 
in its vicinity. The original temple has been rebuilt several times; the 
last being about a hundred years ago after it was destroyed by an 
avalanche. This monastery has gigantic tangkhas, some over 4.5 m 
tall and numerous wall paintings, including that of the 84 Buddhists 
siddhas. 
Once the capital of Lahaul, the village of Kardang possesses a 900 
year old monastery built on the banks of the river Bhaga. It was 
renovated by a Tibetan master, Lama Norbu in 1912. The multi-
storeyed structure has four temples. 


Kardang’s library has a collection of musical instruments, beautiful 
tangkhas and ancient weapons. Unfortunately the old gompa has been 
demolished and in its place a more spacious and a modern one built 
has been constructed. 
In Satingiri village, Tayul gompa (or ‘chosen place’ in Tibetan) is 
famous for its 4 meter tall statue of Guru Padmasambhava. The prayer 
wheel at this gompa is reputed to have the divine power of ‘self 
turning’. According to resident monks, this last happened in 1986. 
Lahaul has the particularity to have two temples holy to both 
Buddhists and Hindus. The Mrikula Devi temple in Udaipur village is 
dedicated to the goddess Kali. This wooden temple was built in the 
11th century. The local priests claim that it was built much earlier. 
Overnight, the Pandava brothers would have constructed it from a 
single block of wood. 
A fascinating panel depicts the Assault of Mara, in which Buddha 
engages in battle with Mara the Tempter, flanked by Rama warring 
with the demon Ravana. 
The other temple is the 8th century Trilokinath temple across the 
Chandrabhaga river. It has a six-armed deity that is said to have been 
installed by Padmasambhava himself. It is worshipped as Shiva by 
Hindus and Avalokiteshwara by Buddhists. 
Officiating priests claim that those who pass through the narrow 
passage between the temple’s wall and the two pillars that stand at 
the entrance to the main shrine, wash off all the sins of all their 
previous births. 
The other valley of the district is the Spiti valley. Here you can find the 
most awe-inspiring gompas. Spiti’s early monasteries were built during 
the 11th and 12th century during an era of peace and renaissance. The 
great translator Rinchen Zangpo has been instrumental for the revival 


of Buddhism in the area. With the Mongol invasion in the 17th century, 
this peace was shattered and warfare affected the architecture of most 
of the gompas. During this period, the gompas were constructed on 
elevated ground, usually on hill peaks. Thus they gained the 
appellation ‘fort monasteries’. One of the most well-known examples 
of such construction is Kye, which was shifted from lower ground at 
Rangrik to a higher one. 
The uppermost rooms in the gompa are assigned to the khenpo (the 
abbot); this position indicates his superior status. The most sacred 
spaces in a gompa are the lha-khang (sacred shrine) and the dukhang 
(assembly hall). The gon-khang (chamber of protective deities) 
and zalma (chamber of picture treasures) are also of great 
significance. Lower down in monasteries are the monks’ cells. The 
verandas of the du-khang are usually most extensively decorated. A 
monastery’s courtyard, the site of all monastic festivals, is an integral 
part of the building. Every courtyard has a lungta (prayer flag) around 
which monks perform the annual cham (ritual dance). 
In most monasteries, the inside walls, windows and doors are painted 
in vivid colours like black and red, in contrast to the white exterior. 
These sharp, alternating colours are a feature of Tibetan architecture, 
and derive their philosophical basis from Tantra, which emphasises the 
union of opposites. 
Kye gompa is situated 7 kms from Kaza, Spiti’s headquarters. It is the 
first fortified monastery in Spiti. The entire complex is located on the 
slope of a hill. Kye’s garrisoned architecture still bears stark testimony 
of the Mongols’ attacks in the region. As late as the 19th century, Kye 
was subjected to more assaults during the Kullu-Ladakh, the Dogra 
and Sikh wars. 


Kye is also a vibrant centre of Buddhist cultural tradition. Its elaborate 
du-khang was rebuilt after the original was destroyed in the 
earthquake of 1975. 
Not far away at Komic is Tangyud gompa at an elevation of 4,587 m. 
It is one of the highest in the world. This monastery is over 500 years 
old and has about 45 monks in residence. 
According to a legend its construction was foretold in Tibet, as a 
monastery built between two mountains, one shaped like a snow lion 
and the other like a decapitated eagle. The space between the 
mountains would resemble the eye of a snow cock, and, the name 
Komic in fact derives from this – ko means snow cock and mic, eye. 
India’s oldest functioning monastery is Tabo gompa, some 47 kms 
from Kaza. This monastery is an architectural illustration of the 
concept of the mandala. The monastery celebrated its 1,000th 
anniversary in 1996 when the Dalai Lama performed the Kalachakra 
initiation in Tabo. 
The gompa is known as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’, holds treasures 
in its dimly-lit interiors. Its walls and ceilings are a canvas for 
astounding mural paintings. Sharp lines, earthy colours and distinctly 
Indian features are characteristic of the paintings from this early 
period. The du-khang is the most elaborately decorated, with its walls 
divided into 3 tiers. The life of Buddha is depicted on the lowermost 
tier, followed with 32 stucco images on pedestals in the middle tier, 
and 3 rows of Boddhisattvas on the uppermost tier. 
From a considerable distance, Dhankar gompa stands out because of 
the solidity of its construction, which led the 19th century traveller, 
Trebeck, to refer to it as a ‘cold fort’. Dhankar was originally called 
Dhakkar or ‘Palace on a Cliff’. Dhankar was once the capital of Spiti. 


This gompa has been enlisted as one of the World Endangered 
Monument. 
A two-hour drive from Dhankar is Lha-lun gompa (literally the ‘Land of 
Gods’). It is one of Spiti’s oldest monasteries which is believed to have 
been constructed overnight by the gods after Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo 
planted a willow tree here, stating that if it lived through the year, a 
temple had be built next to it. The tree still stands outside the gompa. 
As a result of the sectarian strife in Spiti most monasteries belongs to 
the Gelukpa sect. Only in Pin valley, particularly at Kungri and Mud, 
one does find monasteries of the Nyingmapa tradition. This is probably 
because this region was very isolated, the only entrance being through 
the Pin river. The Kungri gompa has a large retinue of monks in 
residence. The dilapidated, mud-walled old building is flanked by a 
recently built hall decorated with paintings and woodwork. 
The monastic history of the region makes it clear how links with 
Tibetan culture were (and are) maintained and balanced with the local 
ethos. This is an indication of the ‘sacred geography’ that extends 
across countries. In Ladakh, for example, the Stakna monastery 
maintains a link with Guru Ghantal and with their mother monastery at 
Pangtang Dechinling in faraway Bhutan. If a monk desires higher 
education, for which facilities are not available in Lahaul, he goes 
there. 
My earliest association with gompas of Lahaul-Spiti was as a child in 
Gemur gompa in Lahaul where I learnt the Tibetan alphabet under the 
guidance of my grand father Thakur Mangal Chand, the Rais (or Wazir) 
of Lahaul. He was the one responsible for inculcating in me interest in 
Lahauli history and culture. He himself was a multifaceted personality: 
being an accomplished administrator, a renowned amchi [Tibetan 
traditional doctor], a master of Thanka painting and an explorer who 


led expeditions successfully into Tibet with British officers. For this 
reason, he was appointed as the British Trade Agent at Gartok. 
My later association with the region and its gompas was in my official 
capacity as the Deputy Commissioner Lahoul Spiti which means that as 
head of the District, I was also responsible for the gompas and their 
restoration and upkeep. I continue doing so today as the head of the 
Department of Culture in the State of Himachal Pradesh. 
And do not forget, Himachal is the land of hospitality; we will be 
delighted to take you around our wonderous gompas. 

Glossary 

Mani Stones carved with the sacred chant Om Mani Padme Hum are 
stacked one on top of the other to form walls. Often, the mani wall 
ends at the entrance to a village or on the top of a pass. 

Gompa or monastery is supposed to be located in solitary place, far 
away from social settlements. 

Chorten, Tibetan for stupa, is a Buddhist reliquary structure that 
commemorates an auspicious occasion or ceremony, or is a repository 
of the relics of important monks and saints. 




1 comment:

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