The Spiti Valley in the Indian Himalayas is a unique high-altitude location that has remained pristine mainly due to its inaccessibility and sparse population. It is almost devoid of vegetation and numerous Buddhist monasteries nest on its rocky slopes. Because of this, it is often called “Indian Tibet” – and indeed, the local population is much closer to Tibetans in their lifestyle than it is Indian.
Spiti is outlandish, desolate, and striking in its intense, barren beauty. “Out of this world” is what comes to mind upon seeing its stark rocky landscapes, chilly airy expanses, and magnificent snow peaks.
And, indeed, it is quite literally so – the valley is only accessible from June to September, and throughout the rest of the year snow and ice isolate it from the rest of the world.
My journey started at Kalpa valley, where I stayed for a couple of days to acclimatize at the altitude of 3600 m.
Kalpa is a picturesque little village surrounded by fragrant apple gardens and the fantastic view of Kinnaur Kailash (6050 m) and Jorkanden (6473 m) mountain peaks.
According to the legend, Kinnaur Kaliash is a place where Shiva spends winters away from his divine wife, deep in meditation. I must admit I do understand him – I couldn’t take my eyes off the play of light and clouds on these ancient slopes …
The mood changed by the minute, at one moment, the mountain was a sanguine divine abode bathing in pinky hues, and then became tumultuous and erratic, pregnant with snow and icy wind.
The next stopover on my trip was a small and peaceful Nako village – a place where life is hasteless, people are smiling, and the sun bounces off the snowy mountain peaks to illuminate the village in fluorescent blues and greens.
A magnificent Tabo monastery – standing at a secluded, flat, barren ground – was the first monastery I have seen in the Spiti valey – and it left me speechless.
Established in 996 AD, it is today more than thousand years old. It was developed as an advanced center for learning and till date it has managed to preserve the Buddhist legacy.
The vegetation in the valley is so scarce that the scenery seems outlandish, like another prehistoric planet that is devoid of civilization. Spitians heavily depend on agriculture and livestock for livelihood, and though tourists provide for some income, it is relatively meager. One can only imagine how hard it is to cultivate land so rocky, harsh, and unyielding. It is work that is literally back-breaking.
Dhankar monastery (and the village with the same name) is another precious jewel of Spiti that dates back to the 9th century. The view is awe inspiring – the complex is built on a high spur overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers.
Dhankar means ‘a place in the mountains unreachable for strangers.’ It was the capital of the Spiti Valley Kingdom during the 17th century and the seat of the early rulers of Spiti, the Nonos.
After an hour of breathless hiking from Dhankar monastery up the narrow trail leading towards the top of the hill, I was greeted with a splendid view of Dhankar lake. Crystal clear water, snowy hills as a backdrop, and fluffy clouds reflecting in the lake – what a treat for a photographer!
There is a small Buddhist gompa with prayer flags at the side of the lake, adding up to the atmosphere of serenity and tranquility.
The next staggering destination was Ki Gompa monastery (4000 m), the largest in Spiti valley. It is located 12 km from the regional center – Kaza village. It was built on a conical rock jutting out of a mountain slope, which is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque sights in the Indian Himalayas.
The monastery hosts a large community of monks and their main Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of Rinchen Zangpo, also known as Mahaguru, a well-known translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan and a revered preacher.
From what I have seen, the monks’ days are full of hard work, including maintenace of the monastery and praying for the fates of the world. When young monks have time to rest, their life is as uncomplicated and enjoyable as it can be – they play games, laugh a lot, and enjoy the food. They just let the rest of the world pass on by.
The nearby Kibber village is a very good example of Spitian architecture: functional, robust houses with thick walls, and able to withstand the onslaught of wind, snow, and even time itself. Kibber is also the highest village in the world that has a road and electricity. Sometimes that electricity is gone for months at a time, however, and the locals rely on solar power generation.
At the time of my visit, the agricultural season had just started, and, as most men were busy at road construction (a never-ending affair in Himalayas) and cattle herding, the fields were cultivated almost exclusively by women. With the soil and climate like this, it really is difficult work to remove stones from the fields, fluffing the soil and planting, with little or no machinery.
The stones taken out of the fields are used for constructing fences. To be honest, their purpose escaped me, as it was not much of an obstacle for local wildlife to overcome the barrier. Wild Ibex goats jumped over them with ease and grace.
One of the things I thoroughly enjoyed during my travels was interacting with Spitian kids. So cheerful and inquisitive… I always felt like squeezing their sun-kissed cheeks and hugging them!
Stupas and prayer flags mark sacred locations outside inhabited places. These were a real treat for the eye after hours and hours of weather beaten foreign landscapes.
The play of light and shadow in the mountains is indeed a fascinating thing to see!
Langza, the next destination on my route, is famous for the huge Buddha statue overlooking it and fossils that can be found there.
The most exciting thing I have seen here was the moonshine-making operation run by extremely friendly local ladies.
Komic monastery located nearby seemed the remotest place on earth to me, probably because it was so empty – except for one monk, that is, who stayed there to watch over it. Everybody else went down to other monasteries for the colder season and were just about to get back.
The welcome I received here was the warmest ever! This industrious and perhaps lonely monk treated me to tea and allowed me to photograph the interior of the monastery which I had not been permitted to do elsewhere.
As my journey was coming to its end, I felt like staying at the final destination – Losar village – for a few days, in order to rest, as well to observe the nature and village life at a quieter pace, with more focus. I was in no hurry.
The experience was immensely gratifying … I was absorbing everything around me – Tibetan prayer stones, simple and friendly people, details of their houses, smiley and playful children, and even the cute livestock the villagers keep – a cross between a cow and a yak.
Visiting Spiti was an experience of a lifetime. It stays with you, comes back to you in your dreams, and summons you to leave your modern life to visit again. Take a deep breath, enjoy its pure and chilly air, and let your body, mind, and soul find rest.
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Elena on Elena
I am a photographer, traveller, translator, avid reader, yoga amateur and a foodie … I was born in Kazakhstan, currently based in New Delhi, India and also occasionally found in Russia. I am an introvert and a day dreamer who doesn’t wear a watch, I love mountains, the wind and stormy skies… I love to learn random things and stories about the world we live in, to hear other people’s opinions, their experiences and stories. I love flea markets, street food stalls and village fairs. I have a bad sense of direction, which allows me to always get lost in strange places and wander for hours, soaking in the atmosphere and capturing it in my images. When I took my first flight at the age of 21, I was fascinated with how vast the world is …
After that, there was no way back, and the fascination turned into an irresistible draw to travel as much as I can. At first, photography was just a way to record memories and places, but quite soon it transformed into something else – a passion to capture moments to let the viewer see the beauty of the world surrounding us, to share my appreciation of special moments that I have encountered. Be it the crowded bazaars of India, the ancient, soaked in history streets of Jerusalem, the quaint, watercolor-like canals of Venice or remote, isolated and magnificent Himalayan peaks, travelling keeps me better connected to the world and myself. Every place has something unique, and once you start going out there and start looking for these stories, you start to see your whole world very differently. I am always trying to find something that really inspires me, and then play around to see how I can instill that inspiration in an image and pass it on to others.
Through my photography page I’m now able to share my work and fascination with the world with people, always hoping you to enjoy, to write comments, impressions and to come back to see more.