The quaint and ancient site of Tabo lies at 10,800 feet, which is amongst the lowest elevations in all of the Spiti Valley. Home to what is also known as the Himalayan Ajanta, the Tabo monastery was founded by Rinchen Zangpo in 996 CE on behalf of the King of Guge, a kingdom based in the Western Himalayan Region. Tabo is known for being the oldest continuously operating Buddhist monastery in India as well as the Himalayas. In other words, despite the vagaries and strifes of time, Tabo was never abandoned or isolated. Comprising nine temples and gompas, the monastery’s incredible sculptures, wall paintings, and thangkas exhibit an ancient aura. The town of Tabo itself takes one back to a forgotten era. Whilst photography remains prohibited in the main sanctum, torches are available to help visitors discern the magnificent artistry put into the enormous walls of the monastery. A whole range of Bodhisattvas horizontally span across the main sanctum, and the rear end of it is adorned with intricate artwork that left me awestruck even on my fourth visit. Due to its rare archaeological and historical value, Tabo Monastery is maintained by the Architectural Survey of India. The monasteries at Dankar and Key all fall within the Gelukpa order of Buddhism and are important venues where His Holiness the Dalai Lama held the Kalachakra initiations. The first Kalachakra initiation held by His Holiness in Tabo attracted around 10,000 participants. Mystic breezes and absolute serenity have accorded it a special place in my Spitian memories. The Spiti river flowing alongside it, the mysterious art caves overlooking the town from one side, and monks playing cricket on the town’s helipad, all make for unique sights to behold. The Shanti Stupa, a modern addition to the ancient monastic complex, makes for a blend as seamless as eternity itself. Strolling past the complex during my first visit back in 2017, I chanced upon a charming little cafe run by a local family. Thanks to them, I experienced the finest pancakes ever made, out of tsampa flour and drizzled with honey and mangoes. A perfect pairing with butter tea for the odd palate, this became a meal to savour and devour on every visit to Tabo in the coming years. And as memorable as this culinary delight is the little girl who dwells in the adjoining homestay. Tenzin Pamsom is now all of 10 years old, and Tenzin is a bright young girl full of beans and stories. The cafe owner’s niece, who stays with her uncle and grandmother to pursue her schooling in Tabo over her parental village of Mane, Pamsom, is another important highlight of my Tabo sojourn. During every subsequent visit, I am to reassure Pamsom that I met her on a previous visit by citing photographic proof, lest she dismisses my claims. After attesting to the photographs that I dish out from my camera archives, Pamsom looks a little more trusting of this stranger amidst the hundreds that stop by at this cafe year after year. This time around, Pamsom animatedly tells us a story that a recent visitor to their homestay told her—the legend of Yasho Masi. An epic tale that sounded much like the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (minus Pamsom’s filmy songs that she had attached to it), I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the little storyteller made me search for Yasho Masi on Google. When it showed us results of some female actor look-alikes of the K Series, Pamsom bemusedly dismissed them and Google for not knowing enough. We rewarded her entertaining efforts with a hamper containing her favourite chocolates and snacks, the sight of which made her eyes light up.
She promised us that she would share her treats with her older sister. Just then, her grandmother peeked out of her bedroom window and summoned Pamsom to run some errands. Pamsom ran along and bade us farewell until next time.
We walked some more through Tabo town, and from a previous visit, I remembered stumbling upon an entire batch of young monks outside the monastic academy near Shanti Stupa late in the evening. They seemed to have been revising some verses under the supervision of a teacher. Their combined chanting made me and my friends just close our eyes and listen. After a moment of doing so, when we planned on making a move, we spotted a naughtier young monk switch off all the lights, sprinting from switchboard to switchboard while his teacher chased him amongst giggles from the others. A maroon-robed frenzy of such pure innocence warmed our hearts, and we smiled our way back to our hotel rooms.