Tabo Monastery of Himachal – Graffiti, Caves and Rock Crafts

Tabo, a small peaceful village nestled in the lap of the enchanting Spiti Valley. Situated on the banks of Spiti river, this village is surrounded by Leo Pargil peak in the east and Manirang in the west. This beautiful Tabo village in Himachal is famous for the more than 1000 years old Tabo Monastery and the stupendous heritage hidden in its earthy structure-filled complex. The frescoes, thanka paintings, manuscripts, lime crafts and sculptures and the unique and unique architecture are the enchanting assets of this monastery.

Tabo Monastery entrance
Tabo Monastery entrance

We had reached Tabo village by the time of lunch. Our intention was to spend some time in this monastery and then proceed to Kaza. However, while having lunch, when Mr. Rajinder Bodh of Devachen Retreat briefed us about the caves and rock-crafts here, we immediately decided to spend a whole day, not a few hours, in the village of Tabo. The longing to see the heritage of this village was intensified in our mind. To be honest, this determination of ours proved to be invaluable in the true sense.

Tabo village is situated at an altitude of 3280 meters or 10,000 feet above sea level. Its population is about 400.

Tabo Math or Chos-Khor Gompa

Tabo Monastery is called the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ because of its frescoes. Another reason for this is that both Ajanta and Tabo are considered symbols of Buddhist faith. Lama Dechen, a former monk of this monastery, gave us a guided tour of the monastery complex. As a Buddhist monk, his visit was more full of devotion than the splendid expression of the artifacts. But at the same time a group of officials of the Archaeological Survey of India and some trainees reached there to visit the monastery. Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to interact with a person who was entrusted with the task of restoration and preservation of a temple in the monastery and its frescoes. He gave me a subtle and detailed information about the various techniques of painting there and the antiquity.

Tabo Monastery – Oldest but Living Monastery

Tabo Monastery on the banks of river Spiti
Tabo Monastery on the banks of river Spiti

This oldest and lively monastery has 9 temples and some stupas which if seen from a distance, it appears to be a small village with mud houses. The very simple outer landscape of the monastery wrapped in mud, what is hidden inside it, it is not possible to feel it from outside. On the outside of the monastery, only the name of Tabo Monastery is written on a simple information panel. As you enter the monastery, you will find yourself surrounded by a number of clay structures, which have if there is any shade of bright color, then it is only the bright red clothes of the Lamas. It is like entering a strange world. Why not? Before this, I and perhaps you too, would never have found myself in the midst of such structures built entirely by the soil.

clay reefs
clay reefs

We began our observation at the main temple called the Tsuglangkhang or the meeting hall. The sculpture that caught our eye inside this oldest structure of the monastery was the statue of Ganesha, which appeared to be a symbol of the confluence of two religions. The paintings present in this room are from the 17th century. The statues of the two sons of the founder of this Math, Nagraj and Devraj, stand at the entrance of the meeting hall.

monastic hall

The meeting hall of the main temple of Tabo Monastery is a masterpiece that needs to be spent enough time to behold. On its four walls there are 33 exquisite sculptures made of lime of Bodhisattvas. Each of them has special names that begin with the word ‘Vajra’, such as Vajra Lasya or Vajra Ratna. They are mounted on top of exquisitely painted walls. The first sight they remind of Ajanta. But their portrayal style is not the same. The wall on the right depicts a biography of the Buddha, known as the local Shakyamuni Buddha. Biographies of Bodhisattvas take precedence over the other walls of the chamber. Some of these paintings are believed to be from 996 AD to 1042 AD and some from 17th AD to 19th AD. It appears as if the various time periods of the life span of more than the last millennium years experienced by this monastery have been displayed in layers.

Tabo Village and Monastery
Tabo Village and Monastery

The only source of light inside this room was a hole on the ceiling of the chamber which was made like a raised window covered by glass. Pillars made of the aromatic wood of juniper or hapusha were supporting the roof. A feature of this structure was that it stood on a hollow base on the ground, which I had not seen before.

Tabo Gompa

The Tabo Gompa is built in the form of a mandala on the central part of the hall of the main temple. The hall is a symbol of ‘Vajradhatu Mandala’ in which there are fourfold Vairocana in the turning of the wheel of Dharma. There are images of 33 Vajrayana deities on the reefs near them. Inside the sanctum there is a statue of Amitabha riding a lion. It has Rampani on the right and Mahasthanprata on the left. Although Amitabh’s vehicle is a peacock, but here he is shown riding on a lion. According to our guide, this place probably once had a statue of Buddha, which at the time of refurbishment was replaced by the image of Amitabha and kept his vehicle unmoved.

Bodhisatva
Bodhisatva

Usually, there is a small hall called the Gon Khang inside the monastery into which only professional monks are allowed to meditate. Here it is in front of the meeting hall. It is also called as Mahakal Vajra Bhairav ​​Temple. I was told that there are statues of Mahakal and Sridevi inside them.

According to Peter Van Hamm’s version, the inscription inside Chokhor’s Tsug Lakhang is:

For those who are tired after a long journey,

And for those beings who are witnesses of sorrow,

Friends and relatives who have abandoned,

This beautiful temple is dedicated to him.

-Inscribed within Chokhor’s Tsug Lakhang

Source – Peter Van Hamm’s Blog

Tabo Monastery frescoes

bodhisattva murals
bodhisattva murals

The frescoes of the Tabo Monastery are of the same tempera painting style as those in the Ajanta caves. In these, aqueous dyes are used along with a synthetic substance. For this reason, these frescoes of the reefs of Tabo Monastery are facing a serious crisis because the layers of the reefs are coming down due to water leakage. Officials of the Archaeological Survey of India are investigating the problem. It is hoped that with the help of experts, they will soon find a solution to this problem and will be able to preserve this heritage.

Similar to Ajanta, the frescoes here also tell stories of Buddha and Bodhisattva. Geometric figures are painted on the roofs.

In some places, outlines of incomplete paintings are visible, indicating the process of painting or perhaps the colors there have faded over time.

pictures of buddhist monks
pictures of buddhist monks

Inscriptions of the mural at many places give information about the date of painting and the subject matter of the story depicted. Also the names of the sponsors of these pictures are also there. All inscriptions are in Boti script.

Guge Empire

This monastery was built by the kings of the Guge kingdom under the direction of Rinchen Jangpo. Rinchen Jangpo was a great translator who translated Buddhist manuscripts from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Rinchen Jangpo was a student of Nalanda University. While building this monastery, they brought Kashmiri artisans here to paint the reefs. His influence is clearly visible in the frescoes of the monastery.

To see the other 8 temples, you will have to request the Lamas to open their doors. Inside a temple, I remember a strange picture depicting Ushnishvijaya with a green star and 3 faces and 8 hands. Maitreya Temple has a huge statue of Maitreya Buddha. There is a unique door frame at the entrance of the temple which reminds me of the Western Chalukya temples.

There are 23 stupas in the monastery complex, some with frescoes inside. In the absence of good display facilities, the Archaeological Survey of India has not granted permission for their observation. Carvings can be seen on some stupas.

Tabo village is considered to be the ancient confluence of Indian and Tibetan cultures where Tibetan students used to come here to receive teachings from Indian Buddhist scholars.

The life here is centered around the monastery and the tourism economy generated by it on a small scale.

Photography is not allowed inside the temple, but you can buy and take pictures of the frescoes inside the temple as a souvenir.

A new monastery has also been built here, where the Dalai Lama himself had initiated the Kalachakra in 1996 to commemorate the completion of a thousand years of the monastery.

Tabo Caves

Ancient Caves of Tabo
Ancient Caves of Tabo

If you had visited this place a thousand years ago, you would probably have been living in these caves which you can see today scattered on the hill adjacent to the village of Tabo. Presently these caves are in very dilapidated condition and it is very difficult to reach them. However, these caves are located so close to a cave temple under Tabo Monastery that you can clearly see these caves from there. Some caves are of two floors and some appear as if they were carved out of rocks. I was told that there are signs of smoke inside these caves indicating that these caves were inhabited at some point of time. Although their date is not known, but it is estimated that they must have come into existence around the time when this monastery was being established in 996 AD. Till then the village of Tabo did not exist and the traveling monks supposedly stayed in these caves only.

caves in the mountains
caves in the mountains

The Cave Temple is a simple cave structure under the Tabo Monastery that is covered with mud in such a way that if your clothes touch the surface, take a handful of clay with you. The responsibility of its conservation rests with the Archaeological Survey of India. A paved staircase made of cement-concrete will lead you to the cave which has a temple, a kitchenette and a hall.

rock craft

ancient craft
ancient craft

I had no prior knowledge of the rock crafts here. I came to know about him only after coming here. Suddenly some words were expressed about him from the mouth of our guide which gave rise to our curiosity. In the beginning he discouraged us from going there by saying that it would require a strenuous trek to reach there. But I stood firm on my determination. Finally he led us to see some amazing rock formations inside a government complex located on the back side of the village school. Although the marks on the rocks were excellently preserved, but these rocks were scattered scattered in the bushes. I had to take some hardships to reach them but my hard work proved to be very fruitful.

ancient taxa

I saw dark brown shards that were punctuated by light gray. The scenes of animals and hunting were also engraved on these rocks like other ancient rock crafts sites. There one scene surprised me the most. Many signs of swastika were engraved on almost all the targeted stones. At some places I could see the signs of Om.

Bridge connecting Tabo village to the world
Bridge connecting Tabo village to the world

It is the misfortune of this place that there were no information boards providing information about them anywhere near. I was informed that some person independently studied these rock crafts and also published a book on the research done on them. But I did not find that book, nor its name.

The next day we crossed the bridge and reached the road leading to Dhankar and Kaza. I was leaving from there carrying Tabo’s legacy in my mind forever. I was sure that I would talk about this place for life.

Translation: Madhumita Tamhane

About Peter Rhody

"Loving India is a passion of mine. I have enjoyed several long journeys to all corners of the sub-continent, completed my B.A and M.A in Asian studies, studied languages such as Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit, written on the Hari Krishna movement, lectured on Indian culture and history in university, advised others on their trips to India all the while preparing my next visit to India. There are so many places in India I love and want to always go back to but my favorite destination has to be the holy city of Varanasi. Here you can feel the living pulse and the beating heart of the center of religious India with its overwhelming spirituality and history and just for being a true microcosm of India itself "

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