Spellbound in Spiti
This piece was first published in Travel Secrets Magazine. Read the published version here: Spellbound in Spiti
I sit sandwiched between my driver, Pemba, and another traveller, Jyoti, as the landscape shifts with every sharp turn of the road. My camera is on and ready, but the pony herds and water springs seem to drift past too quickly. Many attempts later, I put my camera away and sit down straighter. The journey has only just begun, I remind myself.
I am on my way to Spiti, the spellbinding valley that lies in the northernmost region of Himachal Pradesh. Bordered by Ladakh in the north, Kullu Valley to the south and Kinnaur to the south east, Spiti is more rugged and remote than its neighbouring regions. Why did I choose to visit it? – My month long quest on the internet to discover a remote and unique side of India has led me here. I wanted to visit the place while it was still unspoilt by a spell of commercialisation and tourism.
Securing a place on the tourist map only a decade ago, the valley can be reached either through Shimla or Manali. I have chosen the shorter route from Manali which still means 12 long hours, large parts of which include driving through extremely narrow roads, some that resemble the rocky bottom of a dried up river and others that lie in the way of a steady waterfall. While the rivers of Satluj and Spiti take turns to catch up with the moving vehicle, snow glaciers peek out from behind the barren mountains that are changing shade every minute. As we cross both Rohtang Pass and Kunzum Pass on our way, boulders line the road at one point and hang out from cliffs at another. It’s a gruelling drive, no doubt, but with every passing kilometer I only become more aware of how much more difficult and heartbreaking the drive back is going to be.
We pull into the sub-divisional headquarter, Kaza. This is the most commercial and developed of Spiti’s villages, and it’s easy to see why it is recommended as the first stop. The German Bakery here sells freshly baked cheesecakes and apple pie (the best I have ever eaten). The colourful local offers a sense of comfort. I scout around for STD booths but stumble upon Internet cafes instead. They are of no use to me, but for a region with unreliable electricity, I understand how big a deal it is to have them at all. Soak in the familiarity, but make sure to not get too comfortable, I warn—this is the closest you will come to civilisation in the valley.
Spiti Valley is a cluster of 66 villages, except it is not really a cluster as villages lie scattered across its vast expanse of 7,500 square kilometers, some more than 15 kilometers apart. At an average height of about 13,000 feet, these villages are either near the Spiti River bed or at the base of mountains, relying on natural water springs from the glaciers.
Over the next few days, I drive across the winding roads of Spiti, listening to the endless stories of my guide, Anjaan. We cross traditional white houses at regular intervals as small villages appear and disappear. Small patches of cultivated land and the narrow roads are dotted by locals busy at work, all of them excitedly distracted by us for a short moment as we pass by.
Slowly stumbling upon the secrets of the region, we reach the ancient village of Tabo, which houses Spiti’s oldest monastery, dating back to 996 AD. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1975 and now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, Tabo Monastery retains its old world charm with well preserved statues, nine temples, numerous stupas, and an assembly hall in its compound. A mountain stands in the background, and a short hike up there takes me to the isolated meditation caves or Gonseling phu as they call them. Anjaan tells me that these were used by monks for unperturbed meditation during the winters. As I enter the tiny doors to take a glimpse, I can somehow feel their presence through the burn marks left by once-used heaters on the walls…the strong breeze seems to have carried their prayers over the years across the vastness of the mountains and the valley.
I visit many monasteries over the next few days, one perched beautifully on top of a cliff in Dhankar village, while another at a hilltop overlooking Asia’s highest motorable village, Komic, inhabited by 13 families. The entire population of Spiti (10,500 people) practices Tibetan Buddhism. Though I notice migrants from both Bihar and Nepal doing business and menial labor, the local inhabitants of the region are all devoted Buddhists. Irrespective of which village I go to, the sight of prayer flags, mani stones (intricately carved stone tablets, most with the inscription “Om Mani Padme Hum”, a Sanskrit mantra) and distant monasteries greet me. I notice how the practice of a common religion and common belief has given a soul and warmth to the valley—the coldest and smallest of its villages radiate this warmth, and that’s what makes the people here ever welcoming, ever content.
As I like to light heartedly remember, only the locals of Spiti could get someone to sip six cups of black tea and sit up awake listening to their legends after a strenuous day on the road.
On my last day, I am thrilled to sight Ibex, a species of wild mountain goat, and exotic birds like Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture, Himalayan Griffin, Himalayan Griffon, Tibetan Snowfinch, Fire-fronted serin and Yellow- billed Chough – all of which Anjaan excitedly points out to me. How close I have come to nature over the last few days!
Another reward awaits me in the village of Hikkim, where a rusty signboard outside a small house announces the presence of what is believed to be the world’s highest post office. A lover of postcards, I am tempted to address one each to my entire family and all my closest friends. It isn’t easy. How do you condense such overwhelming experiences in a few lines at the back of a picture?
As I struggle with words in a post office that sits 14,200 feet high, I wonder if any other place in the world can match the magnificence and humility of this surreal valley. I try to imagine one, but fail.
Also read: Spiti – A Dustland Fairytale