Tabo Monastery in Spiti Himachal Pradesh India is a complex of ancient cave shrines and temples, decorated with detailed Buddhist wall paintings and some seriously captivating realistic statues.
These Himalayan Highlands will literally take away your breath with oxygen deficiency and the bluest sky in the world, creating an unforgettable trip to the tiny Buddhist enclave of Tabo in Spiti!
You will recall our trip to Kinnaur and Spiti Valley in the region of Himachal Pradesh, (Himalayan Highlands in India next to the Tibet border).
I talked about Kinnaur road and created a lengthy +45 minute clip showing one of the most dangerous roads in the world and how to take it.
After that, I introduced you to Nako village, one of the most serene travel gems left in this world, situated right next to Tibet and China at 3600 m altitude.
Where is Tabo Monastery situated?
Today is the continuation of the Himalayan Odyssey, with the Tabo Monastery in Spiti Himachal Pradesh, which is situated after Nako village on the way towards Kaza and direction Kunzum and Rohtang Pass.
Himachal Pradesh is a region in the North of India, situated between Pakistan and China.
This is a popular vacation region for people from all over the world, however, some districts are more commercialized than others thanks to the Himalayan mountain range.
Tabo is in Spiti district, which is a highland region right next to Tibet. The people living there are Buddhists and some are Tibet refugees. Spiti is often while known as the little Ladakh (another similar region up north) or little Tibet.
Tabo Monastery in Spiti Himachal Pradesh, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Tabo Monastery is a complex of ancient Buddhist cave shrines and temples at the center of the village known for some of the most preserved Wall paintings and Buddhist heritage art in the world.
The place is totally surreal and has a mysterious vibe to it.
Sometimes Tabo is compared to Ajanta, which are ancient caves, miles away in the state of Maharashtra in India. Ajanta is known for the Buddhist carved in stone cave rooms, painted walls and Buddha/Stupa statues. Ellora is another similar sight.
But Tabo is nothing like this!
We, my husband and I, traveled to Tabo with our car from Nako.
It took us maybe 2 hours to get there, so we reached there before midday. Along we took two Austrian travelers. After all Austrian folks help Austrian folks and we do like some company.
When we reached Nako we decided to look out for some rooms to stay for the night. We didn’t get rooms because a huge group of researchers/enthusiasts were bound to come and had booked everything in the village.
Ancient Tabo Monastery
The Ancient Tabo Monastery complex is hard to identify at first because the structures melt into the environment. A board lets you know where what is and then you can see the dessert colored domes appearing in front of you with the small entry points on all sides.
Essential things to know when you visit the ancient Tabo Monastery complex:
- The Entry to the Tabo Monastery is free for anyone.
- Just make sure to remove your shoes! This is important! 😱 Remove your shoes early on and keep them outside each entry point.
- You can not take pictures inside! Not in any active Buddhist temple monastery in North India. That is why you will never see pictures from the inside of an ancient Buddhist monastery (except Ajanta and Ellora without flash)
- You may leave a donation to the preservation of the monastery. The main temple complex, deep in the darkness past the statues in the heart of the structure, you will see more money on a table or a praying saint statue. That’s where you can add some cash or you can donate online via PayPal as well.
- We didn’t see an option for guided tours. People are preoccupied with their own world. Monks are being Monks, locals the locals.
- There are no booklets or info sheets about the ancient Tabo structures. If you want to learn anything about the history of the place you will need to bring a book along because there is no internet or you do get info in the Monastery. I honestly felt awkward asking the monks, so I didn’t ask.
- Be silent inside! And for god’s sake, if you have to come with your whole extended family and children, please make sure that everyone respects the place. Keep silent and DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING!! DO NOT SCRIBBLE YOUR INITIALS INTO WALLS!! 😑
Tabo Monastery inside
This is the main part why you have traveled so far! The inside of the Monastery cannot be explained in words. There are no pictures (although one wall painting popped up in Wikipedia) so you have to go there to see it for yourself.
First of all the outside is covered in a mixture of hay and clay kind of mud. It looks like the locals keep on painting the outside of the monasteries that way. These isolated walls create something like an isolated cool and dry environment on the inside.
Therefore, the walls are very well preserved and this is important because each wall is painted with intricated details about Buddhist mythology and their gods.
The rooms are like caves and hidden in the darkness of the shades you will see statues, being, and gods appearing in a seated position, floating above your head. They are life-like sized. The eyes so very real as if they are staring at you.
It’s as if you have entered not just a sacred place but another dimensional multiverse somewhere lost in time and space.
Only the cracking of the wooden floor with the carpet reminds you about your whereabouts. The silence just takes you away once again.
I could have stayed there for hours but because we had taken along our Austrian hitchhiker friends, and I wasn’t alone, we moved on after 2 hours being there.
Tabo is situated between mountains in a bowl-shaped valley environment. Around the village, you will notice caves in the mountains. A friendly young local boy (or so he said) near the temple explained to us that the ancestors lived up there and that the monks still use the caves.
This is something that I find super intriguing as well! However, you can’t just go up there and maybe you shouldn’t anyway. Don’t mess with the place!
There are not many trees or shrubs as this is an arid and cold environment which doesn’t get any rainfall.
Rooms in Tabo
This was our experience and I reserve the right to this opinion. You can add your thoughts to this chapter in a comment further below.
Tabo is a tiny village and isn’t built to stay. You can get spartan rooms in the new monastery. Eventually, there is (are?) another place near the monastery who seems to have rooms but they were booked out.
Rooms are not cheap, they were all asking for above 1000 INR per day. However, this might have been because everything was booked out and they were demanding. I can’t know because you can’t check the internet or call anybody.
No mobile phone no internet Network in Spiti Valley. (Note except if you get a BSNL government mobile sim card)
We noticed a lot of new building structures and developments coming up. We didn’t feel comfortable and because we didn’t want to search further for rooms, we moved on after checking out the Tabo Monastery.
Actually you don’t really need to stay in Tabo you are better off staying in Nako and moving along further to stay in the beautiful Dhankar village (next village after Tabo).
I would suggest to at least just stop and visit the amazing ancient monastery!
Those of you who mentioned online that these are real authentic Spitian Homestays, I have to say you folks are wrong. Go to Dhankar, Comic, Demul, Lalun, and Langza. Those are authentic Spitian Homestays in those villages. Not even the ones in Nako are authentic, those are just guest rooms with an option of getting food.
To be honest! (I am dead honest folks!) Tabo is a place prepared for tour operators, it’s where they stop to take groups of Indian families to stay overnight. Foreigners who have come to look for authentic Spiti adventure feel will not feel comfortable at Tabo and mostly move on to Dhankar and the villages above Kaza (Komic, Langza etc).
Tabo one day will turn into something like Calangute in Goa, Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, New Manali in Himachal Pradesh or Mc Leod Ganj and Bhagsu near Dharamshala, if they continue down the commercial path. (I hope they will maintain the sustainable tourism label!)
We met Czech, Spanish, Israeli, Canadians further along our travel who didn’t stay in Tabo. They didn’t feel the need to take a room. However, if you are totally into studying Tibetan Buddhism and if you want to be around for the 6 am prayers, then you might want to take a room there to experience all that and to learn more about the culture.
Food in Tabo
The food is simple but tastes great in those parts of the Himalayas. As explained in my post about Nako, food ingredients which might become for us are at times difficult to get because Spiti is secluded from the rest of the world.
How to get to Tabo Monastery in Spiti?
Districts such as Kinnaur, Spiti, and Lahaul are still very hard to access and that is because nature doesn’t make it too easy. Landslides, shooting stones and avalanches are common.
Although some of the popular tourist destinations, such as Manali, are only 200 kilometers apart, the glacier pass makes it almost impossible to cross to the other side for the most part of the year.
Travel from Manali to Tabo:
To travel from Manali to Tabo you will need to cross 2 glacier passes (!).
Glacier number one is the famous Rohtang Pass which is near Manali. You will take almost 2 hours just to get there form Manali. The roads are notoriously tangled and dangerous.
Glacier number two is the divine Kunzum Pass, which is open only for a short time in the year from somewhere in May/June to August. This pass is deadly!
Do not attempt to drive yourself in these parts. Only 4×4 cars with very experienced drivers or heavily equipped motorbikes should be taking those roads. There are almost no roads, it’s all rocks and ice and those turned into heavy water streams when the snow melts in spring.
Google maps and Tomtom both show about 250 kilometers from Manali, passing Kaza, to Tabo. The road trip length is more than 12 hours!! The maps are wrong with the Estimated time.
Travel over the Kinnaur road:
Starting point Rampur Bushar or Sarahan over Reckon Peo, Kalpa and Nako. Remember foreigners require a Travel Permit between Indian and China to continue to travel, which can be obtained in Reckon Peo (a few 1000 ms high up the main road).
These are Highland Roads, dusty and unfinished. This main road is one of the most dangerous roads in the world, however, the presence of military is reassuring because they are helpful and they are there in case of an emergency.
Best is to make a stop in Nako and spend a night there before continuing to Tabo.
If you had to choose which way to take, I would say pick the Kinnaur road because you can come back to the kunzum pass and finish a whole Kinnaur – Spiti – Lahaul valley district round to see all the different mountain extremes and weather conditions.
Also, Kinnaur road may be one of the most dangerous roads in the world because it is unfished but honestly we were shit scared when we took the kunzum pass. It was spring and we were literally driving in the water with no roads between meter high glacier blocks. Totaly surreal and nobody is around. Not even the army!
Tabo has a dark energy, which I find intriguing. I was taken in by the beautiful darkness and I was digesting each piece of wall art.
I totally recommend visiting Tabo!
Note: A video with the travel route from Nako to Tabo is in the making.
Dear Reader, Are you planning a trip to Tabo soon?