Drab Tabo with the grandiose monastery

24 Jun

Honestly, when I first arrived in Tabo I thought to myself, why oh why would I want to come here? And let alone, why would anyone like to live here? Yet, this drab little place is why many people travel up to Spiti.

Tabo greets you with a helipad, a few shops and a number of hotels in the middle of a barren expanse high in the Himalayas. On each side of the small village, rocky mountains sweep down with hardly a hint of green in sight. It is like stumbling into a giant quarry with a dozen confused households.

But, in a small compound in the middle of the village is a world-famous monastery. In 1996, Tabo monastery celebrated a millennium of existence. It has been a working monastery since it was founded; in the past one thousand years, Tabo gompa has not known a day without prayer.

Most of the monasteries in Spiti are impressively located on top of a cliff or a hill. Tabo monastery is on a flat ground. Made of sand and clay, the buildings look plain and boring from the outside.

But, on the inside they harbour some of the most important Buddhist art in the world. Duck inside with a small flash light and fragile frescos and clay sculptures come into sight. Some of the murals of deities and demons inside date back a thousand years.

After our morning with 30-year old Tashi who cracked jokes and served hot chai, the puja in Nako monastery would be a tough act to follow, even for monastery rock star Tabo.

We caught the monks in Tabo just before their lunch. Twelve monks sat cross-legged in the main prayer hall, counting their prayer beads and sipping tea. A small window in the ceiling let in just enough light for them to read their prayers. As the monks slowly read through their prayers, I realised that Tashi had given us the express puja. After twenty minutes, the cymbals and drum were still untouched. My boyfriend had similar thoughts. “I bet they don't skip pages”, he whispered, before adding: “I don't think we get tea here.”

We didn't. We did however get more of a show than the one Tashi put on. While he stumbled sleepy into the monastery, wearing his red robes, a hoodie and woolen socks, these monks were impeccably attired. Several of them wore large golden decorations on their heads and intricately woven shawls on top of their saffron and red-coloured robes. The chanting at different notes by 12 monks was also more impressive than that of a single monk.

Yet, I preferred Tashi's prayer. In Tabo, a tourist would every now and then move around the room to take in the murals, while in Nako it was just the three of us. The larger number of monks in Tabo, with the occasional one checking his watch or resting his back on the pillar behind, also made the Tabo prayer feel less intimate and more like a scheduled group exercise.

And, all of a sudden, that was it. Two monks suddenly got up and walked out of the room. Another quickly emptied what was left in a white tea cup. The rest of the monks folded together their thicker blankets and walked out quickly as well. It felt like a meeting had ended.

Perhaps that was why Tabo was my least favourite monastery among the ones we visited in Spiti (Nako, Tabo, Dhankar, Kye and Kaza). The monks left without a nod, smile or a glance in our direction. In all the other places, I felt invited to see the prayer and many of the monks invited us to tea and a chit-chat post-prayer. Though in Tabo I had the feeling of being someone peaking in, not being invited in.

Yet, as we were on our way out, the woman in charge of the small gift shop at the entrance and also for detecting any cameras, encouraged us to come back: “Now, lunch break. You come back two o'clock!”


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