Tabo is a small town living peacefully in the lap of lovely Spiti valley. Situated on the banks of Spiti River Tabo is surrounded by the Leo Pargul peak in the east and Manirang in the west. What makes Tabo famous is its 1000+-year-old monastery and the amazing heritage hidden inside its mud wrapped complex. Treasures at Tabo Monastery include wall murals, Thangkha paintings, manuscripts, stucco sculptures and an architecture that is unique.
We reached Tabo around lunchtime with an intention to spend a couple of hours at Monastery. And then move on to Kaza that was to be our next stop. As we sat down for lunch, Mr. Rajinder Bodh of Dewachen Retreat told us about the caves. And the rock carvings and in an instant, we decided to spend the day at Tabo and explore its heritage. It turned out to be a treasure in the true sense of the word.
Tabo is located at a height of 3280 Meters or > 10,000 feet and it has population of ~400 people
Tabo Monastery or Chos-Khor Gompa
The Tabo Monastery is quoted as ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ for its painted wall murals. Also for the fact that both Ajanta and Tabo represent the Buddhist faith. Lama Dechen, an ex-monk of the monastery took us for a guided tour of the monastery complex. As a monk, his tour was more soaked in devotion than in the art displayed all around. But as a matter of destiny, a team of ASI officials and trainees were visiting the monastery. I got to interact with the person working on the restoration of one of the temples and its paintings. He was able to give me insights into the painting techniques at Tabo and the antiquity of the work there.
Oldest Living Monastery
In this oldest living Buddhist monastery, there are 9 temples and few stupas in the monastery that from a distance can look like a small village of mud houses. The exterior is simply mud wrapped with no sign or indication of what is hidden inside it. A simple board at the entrance announces the Tabo Monastery. You step in to be surrounded by mud structures all around, with Lamas in bright red as the only bright spots. It was like entering a different world, for when was the last time I was standing in the middle of all mud structures.
We began our tour from the main temple called Tsuglagkhang or the assembly hall. In this oldest structure in the monastery, the first sculpture that we met was of Ganesha re-enforcing the confluence of faiths. Paintings in this hall belong to 17th CE. Two sculptures of sons of the founder of this monastery Nagaraja & Devaraja stand in the entrance of assembly hall.
Assembly Hall of Monastery
Assembly hall at the main temple of Tabo Monastery is the masterpiece where one needs to spend some time. All four walls have 33 stucco work Bodhisattvas sculptures jutting out of the walls. Each has a name with a prefix Vajra like Vajra Lasya or Vajra Ratna. They sit atop the intricately painted walls. They do remind you of Ajanta on the first look, although the painting styles are not similar. On the right wall is painted the life story of Buddha whom the locals always call Sakyamuni Buddha. Rest of the walls in this hall are dominated by stories of Bodhisattvas. Some paintings date back to 996 CE & 1042 CE, and some from 17-19th CE. As if carrying the layers of various eras that this monastery has seen in its 1000+-year lifetime.
The only source of light in this hall is an opening in the middle of the ceiling as a raised window with glass panels. Wooden pillars made of fragrant Juniper wood support the roof. Interestingly the pillars stand in a hollowed base on the floor, something that I have not seen elsewhere.
The Tabo Gompa was built as a Mandala centered on the assembly hall of the main temple. Assembly hall represents the “Vajradhatu Mandala“, with the four-fold Vairocana in dharma chakra Pravartana mudra flanked by 33 Vajrayana deities on the walls. The sanctum sanctorum houses Amitabha on a lion. With Ramapani on the right and Mahasthanaprata on the left. Amitabha’s vehicle is a peacock, but here he depicted on a lion. As per our guide, there was probably a Buddha sculpture here originally, that got replaced by Amitabha during renovation and the vehicles carried on.
Gon Khang is a small room within the monastery where only the practicing monks are allowed to go in and meditate. At Tabo, it can be seen right outside the assembly hall and is also called The Mahakala Vajra Bhairava Temple. It is supposed to house Mahakala and Sridevi statues.
For those who are tired from the long journey;
and for all beings, witnesses of misery
that have been abandoned by friends and relatives;
this beautiful temple has been constructed.
-Inscription inside Tsug Lhakang of Tabo Chokhor
Source –Peter Van Ham’s post on Tabo Gompa
Paintings at Tabo
Paintings at Tabo are Tampera like those at Ajanta. They are facing a major hazard from the water seepage that is peeling off the painted layer from walls. ASI is working on the site and I hope they rope in experts to conserve this heritage.
Like Ajanta, the walls have stories of Buddha & Bodhisattvas and ceilings have geometric designs.
Sketches of some unfinished paintings can be seen at places giving an insight into the process of painting or did the paintings lose color with time.
Inscriptions at various places provide the date of paintings, the stories depicted. And names of the donors who sponsored these paintings in native Boti script.
Kings of Guge kingdom had built this monastery under the direction of Rinchen Zangpo, the Great Translator who translated the Buddhist manuscripts from Sanskrit to Tibetan. Ringchen Zangpo was a student of Nalanda University. He brought Kashmiri artists to work on this monastery and you can see the influence in painting styles.
To see the other 8 temples you will have to request the Lamas to open them for you. In these temples, I remember a brilliant painting of Green Tara and Ushnishvijaya with 8 arms and 3 faces. Maitreya temple with a big statue of Maitreya Buddha has a beautiful doorjamb that reminded me of Western Chalukyans temples.
For more on temples in Tabo, refer NIC Website on Tabo and Wikipedia
There are 23 stupas in the Tabo Monastery complex and some of them have paintings inside them. But they cannot be seen unless ASI finds a solution to showcase them. Carvings can be seen on some of the stupas.
Tabo is considered the ancient meeting place of Indian & Tibetan cultures, where Tibetan scholars came to learn from the Indian Buddhist scholars.
Life in Tabo revolves around the monastery and the small tourism economy that it has generated here.
No Photography is allowed inside the temples but you can buy postcards of paintings as a memento to carry along.
New monastery has been built and Dalai Lama himself did a Kalachakra initiation here in 1996 when the monastery celebrated its 1000 years.
Caves at Tabo
If you had visited Tabo a millennium or so ago, you would have probably lived in the caves that you can now see scattered on the hill adjoining the village. As of now, they are in quite a dilapidated state and it is difficult to reach them. However, they are close enough to one of the cave shrines that is part of Tabo monastery. From here you can see the caves quite clearly. There are double-story caves and there are caves that almost look like they have been excavated out of the rocks. We were told that the signs like smoke inside these caves indicate that they were inhabited. No dates are available, but it is assumed that before or just around the time monastery came up in 996 CE. The village was still to establish, traveling monks may have lived in these caves.
A cave shrine that is a part of the Monastery and comes under ASI is a simple cave structure again covered with mud. So much so that if your clothes touch the walls, an ounce of mud will tag along. A flight of concrete stairs takes you to this cave that has a temple, a kitchen, and a hall.
Rock Carvings at Tabo
I did not know of the rock carvings at Tabo till I reached here. Our guide raised curiosity by talking about it. Then tried to dissuade me from going there by telling me it requires a lot of trekking. I persisted and he showed me some of the best-preserved rocks in a government complex behind the village school. That has rocks lying carelessly amid all kinds of vegetation. It took some courage to walk through the vegetation and reach out to the rocks but it was worth it.
I found dark rocks with engravings in light brown color – as if someone engraved and then baked the rocks. There were usual animal and animal hunting scenes that you find in almost all ancient rock carving sites. What is intriguing at Tabo was ample signs of Swastika on almost all carved rocks that I could see. I could even spot Om sign at a couple of places.
Alas, there was no one to explain the carvings. Apparently, someone has independently done the study of these rock carvings and written a book about it. But I could not get my hands on to this book or even its name.
Next morning when I crossed the bridge to take the road to Dhankar and Kaza, I knew its heritage got etched onto my heart and mind. I would be talking about this place for the rest of my life.
Recommend you to read following Places to visit in Himachal on my Travel Blog.