Tabo Monastery (or Tabo Chos-Khor Monastery) is the oldest continuously operating Buddhist enclave in both India and the Himalayas. Founded in 996 CE, the monastery lies in the Tabo village of Spiti Valley.
The monastery houses priceless collections of thankas (scroll paintings), manuscripts, well-preserved statues, frescos, and extensive murals that cover almost every wall. Hence, people affectionately refer to them as the Ajanta of the Himalayas.
Having preserved the glorious traditions and heritage of Buddhism through murals and intricate paintings, Tabo is an integral part of the Buddhist legacy through generations.
The secrets it holds of its millennium plus existence, the sheer beauty of the artistic expression through the ages, the serenity in its unassuming exterior, the beauty of its simplicity – is all a must-visit, must experience!
Let's quickly dive into the details:
About Tabo Monastery
Tabo monastery is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India as a national historic treasure of India. It was built by the Royal Lama Yeshe-O in 996 AD when the ancient Tibetan monarchy was extending their kingdom from Ladakh to Mustang through trade routes. You may refer Tabo as the daughter monastery to the Tholing Monastery in Ngari (western Tibet).
Over the millennium of its existence, Tabo has seen a lot. From attacks of Ladakhi Kings to earthquakes, the manuscripts of the monastery have a lot of stories to tell. The monastery was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1975. And, in 1983 a new Du-Kang or Assembly Hall was constructed.
The monastery is home to 45 monks.
Tabo village is a little bowl-shaped flat valley, with Ladakh in the north, Lahaul, and Kullu districts in the west and south-east respectively, and Tibet and the Kinnaur district in the east. Curiously, while most Himalayan monasteries are usually perched atop a hill, Tabo Monastery is in the bottom of the valley, along with the rest of the village, on the left bank of the Spiti river.
Situated at an altitude of 3,050 meters above sea level, the monastery boasts of a number of caves carved into the cliff face which is often used by monks for meditation. There is a prayer hall situated inside the caves.
Best time to visit Tabo Monastery
The winter period in the Spiti Valley is unabashedly harsh, and it is wise to be aware of the fact that the temperatures are not manageable for most of us. In fact, as of writing this article, December 30, 2019 – the weather in Tabo is -18 degrees Celsius.
It is not for the faint-hearted with the entire place covered completely in layers of snow. Also, this harsh climate will be accompanied by road blockages then! Ideally, when you’re visiting the Spiti Valley, you should reserve some time to visit Tabo Monastery.
You can experience the joys of discovering the monastery to the fullest during May – September. Temperatures in this period will range anywhere from -5 degrees Celsius to 20 degrees Celsius.
How to reach Tabo Monastery
Tabo Monastery is roughly at a distance of 337 km from Shimla and 149 km from Reckong Peo. The easiest way to reach the monastery is by road. Being an extremely isolated region of the Himalayas – you’ll be hard-pressed for a better way to make your journey.
As with all places in Spiti, you may either choose the Manali or the Shimla route for your journey. I highly recommend doing the entire circuit and entering the valley from the Shimla side as it provides better acclimatization as compared to the other route.
Shimla is the nearest airport if choosing the Shimla side for traveling. However, minimal flights fly in here. If you’re choosing the Manali route for your onwards journey, then Bhuntar Airport in Kullu will be the closes base, which is situated 295 km from Tabo.
In terms of better connectivity to major other airports, Chandigarh Airport is the most commercially operated airport. From the respective airports, you will need to hire a cab/hail a bus for your remainder of the journey.
The nearest railhead is Kalka, situation 450 km from Tabo. You may hire taxis from here to reach Tabo Monastery or catch a bus for Shimla and switch buses there.
The most convenient way to travel anywhere deep in the hills, the road will take you to your destination while showing you the most beautiful views imaginable. If you’re planning on hiring a taxi – they’ll be available at all major rail and airheads.
In terms of buses, you’ll need to reach Reckong Peo from Shimla, and then only one bus runs between Reckong Peo and Tabo (heading to Kaza) starting from the Reckong Peo bus stand at 6:30 A.M. Manali to Kaza bus can also be boarded to travel to Tabo which takes around 9 hours.
Exploring the Monastery
Situated 40 km from the Indo-Tibetan border, Tabo lies between Reckong Peo and Kaza. Providing the most scenic and striking views of the Spiti Valley. Dalai Lama once announced that he believes the Tabo Monastery to be one of the holiest places and he wishes to retire here.
Spread across an area of 6300 sq., the monastery comprises of nine temples, four stupas, Gompas and a handful of cave shrines. The monastery is home to several thankas, mural, and statues along with paintings that depict the culture and history of the Himalayan region.
Essentially, this monastery represents the merging of two cultures – the Tibetan origin and Indian origin. This is beautifully captured by the representation of the guardian deity Wi-nyu-myin.
Just above the monastery, Tabo cavers have been used by the monks for dwelling in harsh winters. Today, these caves are used for meditation.
Not to miss places in the monastery
In total, there are nine temples in the monastery complex, scattered multi-axially within the wall enclosure. While the main temple is easily the most alluring of the lot with its life-size sculptures and lots to explore, the other temples have a lot to offer as well.
The nine temples of the monastery are –
- The Temple of the Enlightened Gods (Tug-Lha-Khang)
- The Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple (Byams-Pa Chen-Po Lha-Khang)
- The Golden Temple (Ser-Khang)
- Mystic Mandala Temple (dKyil-Khor- Khang)
- Temple of Dromton (Brom-Ston Lha Khang)
- Chamber of Picture Treasures (Z’al-ma)
- White Temple (Kar-Abyum Lha-Khang)
- The Large Temple of Dromton (Brom-Ston Lha Khang)
- The Mahakala Vajra Bhairava Temple (Gon-Khang)
The Tsuglakhang (Main Temple)
A wonderful testimony to the creative energy of the monastery, the main temple is a representation of the imagination of its founders. The main temple’s entrance, GoKhang, is stunning and houses images of its creator – Yeshe-O, along with his two songs – Nagaraja and Devaraja. It followed by the assembly halls, Du-Khang.
Towards one end of the hall are the shrine and an ambulatory passage. The paintings in the temple date back to the 15th century. The main temple room is dark and only lit by a small sky-window. There are adjacent rooms used for several purposes, such as storing the ceremonial dresses, etc.
The most interesting aspect for me was the 108 holy scriptures on display – weighing over 500 pounds. Philosophically, space is a true representation of the will of its founders to gather talented artists and represent many eras in their highest quality.
The Golden temple was once fully covered in gold up till its renovation in the 16th century. There are beautiful murals on the walls and the ceilings of the temple. Young monks are inducted in this temple through a beautiful ritual.
One of the older temples on the complex, the Bodhisattva Maitreya temple has remnants dating back to the 13-14th century. This temple houses a 91/2-ft high statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the future Buddha), symbolizing the redefining of the Dharma in the next era. The Trom-ton Temple was founded by one of the main disciples of Atisha and houses murals of the eight medicine Buddhas.
Caves of Tabo Monastery
Tabo is believed to be the only Buddhist pilgrimage that has natural cave shrines as the same site as the monastery. Earlier, these used to be used by the monks in extreme winters for warmth.
However, now, the caves are used by the monks and tourists alike for meditation. Unfortunately, the restoration efforts by the ASI began too late, and the murals and paintings in the cave seem close to disrepair.
Tabo monastery festival
The 14th Dalai Lama visited the monastery in the year 1983 and began the Kalachakra Festival. A festival dedicated to peace and happiness, the Kalachakra festival is held every three years during September – October.
There are major events common to the Buddhist culture – including the chhaam dance, songs, and folklore as well as serving traditional delicacies.
Stay Options near Tabo Monastery
There are a few options to choose from while staying in Tabo. The Dewachen Retreats has eight rooms overall, and the tariff includes all the meals. Another option is Khangsar, which only has four rooms but can arrange camping at nominal charges.
The Tabo monastery guest house is a great place to stay for budget travelers. It has a ten-bed dorm plus some individual rooms. However, there is no hot water, and some rooms might have shared bathrooms.
Food options Nearby
Dhabas will serve you with basic yet delicious food, including Indian (dal, chawal) and Tibetan (momos, thupka). There are a couple of options in the village that will provide you with some options – Monastery Restaurant in Tabo serves Chinese and Spitian.
Tashi Khangsar offers good Israeli and Spitian along with Continental and Indian food. For a good cup of coffee and excellent cheesecake, head to German Bakery.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the timings for the Tabo Monastery?
The monastery remains open every day from 5 AM to 5:30 PM including public holidays and national events. Also, it should be noted that morning prayer begins at 6:00 AM. Classes begin at 8 AM.
What are the charges to visit the Tabo monastery?
There are no entry fees to visit the Tabo Monastery.
Do I require an inner line permit for visiting Tabo?
Foreign nationals will require Inner Line Permits – Indian nationals don’t. However, these are easily available and can be obtained in Reckong Peo (if traveling from Shimla) or Kaza (if traveling from Manali).
Will I experience AMS?
There is always a possibility of experiencing AMS when at such dizzying heights. Of course, it is best to take full precaution and climb 1000 ft every 24 hours and taking proper breaks while traveling to such elevations.
Dripping in history and art, Tabo monastery is a delight to visit. It reopens doors to the past. But, most of us are not aware of it. Having history depicted through art will open your minds to visualizing an era gone by and the glory attached to it.
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Tabo Monastery is a must-visit place for understanding how the out aplomb is not as important as the inner quality it carries. The views to match its soul – Tabo is a must-visit place while exploring Spiti Valley.