Posted by: itsme | May 25, 2009

Monasteries of the Spiti Valley

While I had described my experience in the Spiti Valley in a previous post, here I would like to say a few words on Buddhism as followed in the valley. I am no expert in the matter and I write the common observations of a common traveller.

Having seen something of Buddhism in Thailand and Sri Lanka, the art and architecture of the monasteries in Spiti are different. In the true sense, they are exotic. The isolation of the valley is only now beginning to fade in the growing interest in tourism and economic progress. Otherwise, the ancient aura of the place seems to have remained with no change for nearly a millenium.

The isolation is a natural one – the valley is narrow and winding, bound on both sides by weather beaten mountain stopes, while the river flows through it as the only source of life and living. Near Tabo are some green fields. Men take to ploughing the fields while the women can be observed weeding them in preparation for the next crop. In this backdrop, the monastery of Tabo stands out. The mud houses of the village are in perfect unison with the monastery’s own walls. Caves in the hillside are an isolation within isolation, a retreat for meditation.

Every building material is derived from its natural surroundings. Nothing seems out of place. The use of mud is so harmonious that one feels it belongs here. When the buildings have outlived their purpose, the mud and the mortar, the stones and the bricks, the twigs and their thorns, would naturally return to earth. Walls are made of a mix of stones, bricks of stone rubble mixed with mortar or clay mixed with straw. Walls are often topped with thorny twigs kept in place by the weight of stones. Roofs are flat since this region gets very little rain. Roof edges are lined with twigs and dried grass making a natural and ingenius parapet. There is no decoration in any of these building elements – only a temporary order in an everlasting natural chaos.

If there are buildings that have been whitewashed, they are more for practical reasons than otherwise. They give a neatness of appearance although I like the bare mud walls just as well. In this scene of brown and white, the little dash of colour appears at the windows. Most windows have a solid border painted on the wall. This border tapers to the top. In windows where the linterl is pronounced, the border appears like a “T”. The border comes in colours of black, blue, green or brown. They give that singular highlighting to an otherwise monotoned monastery and village. They are an essential element to the overall beauty of the place.

The ancient monastery stands out. Within the complex are chortens or stupas as is commonly called in other parts of India. These are of mud and quite plain with minimal decorative moulding. Standing on a square base, they taper smoothly upwards on all four sides. In other cases, they rise up in steps. In either case, a flattened bulb tops the structure and this is further crowned by a small cube. These are perhaps the earliest structures of Tabo from which others derive their inspiration. The natural colour and texture of mud-plaster is visually striking.

Tabo is only one of five important monasteries of the Spiti Valley. The others are at Dhankar, Ki, Thang-Yug and Kungri. Tabo, Dhankar and Ki are of the Gelug-pa sect to which the Dalai Lama belongs. Tang-Yug is of the Sakya-pa sect and Kungri is of Nyingma-pa sect, the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tabo is said to be oldest of the monasteries having been founded in 996 AD. There is however a story told in these parts that Dhankar is the oldest, older than Tabo by about 30 years. The proof of this antiquity is believed to have been on a wall mural that has since been washed away in rain. Thus, the honour of being the oldest goes to Tabo.

Lalung too makes a claim to being older than Tabo in a more legendary manner. There is a story that a monk struck his staff into the ground and proclaimed that if a tree should grow at this spot within a year, a monastery should be setup. It turns out that a tree did grow and a visitor will be shown the very tree that stands within the monastic complex and right opposite the main shrine. It is said that the monastery was built in a single night but due to some bad omen the place was abandoned. The monks moved on and setup the monastery at Tabo.

Tabo and Lalung do share a little in the way of art. The main prayer halls in both places have painted stucco sculptures mounted on the walls. Wonderfully sculpted, full of expression and grace, these images can occupy a visitor for hours. The dim lighting of the halls only enhances the ancient aura and the preserved silence of the ages. The hand gestures (mudras) of these sculptures are varied. There is variation in the details of the dress, the head gear and jewellery.

The feeling is overwhelming at Tabo with 33 Boddhisatvas and 4 Dhaina Buddhas. In general, these figures are seated on lotuses and surrounded by a halo on the wall. The Dhaina Buddhas are larger and they have a bigger halo. One of the monks gave me a guided tour of the place; and without this I would never have come close to understanding the art and significance of the place.

The assembly hall is arranged in what is called Vajradhatu Mandala, a mystical representation of the cosmos. Vairocana sits at the end of hall and forms the focal point of this mandala. There are in fact four statues of Vairocana facing the four cardinal directions.

There are three Buddhas – of the past, of the present and of the future. Respectively, they are named Amitaba, Sakhya Muni and Maitreya. There are also different stages of enlightenment – the Maha Boddhisatva, the Dhaina Buddha and the Boddhisatva. Wall murals often depict Medicine Buddhas, the main one in blue. These buddhas are for health, cure and well-being and are generally seen holding a medicinal plant. Jataka tales are part of the murals and so are some important events from the Buddha’s life.

Symbolism is not to be overlooked. Avalokiteshwara stands for wisdom, compassion and power. Wisdom is represented by a sword that kills bad thoughts and also by a book for knowledge. Without symbolism there is only art. Symbolism gives everything a meaning and a spiritual purpose. The artist is a believer and a spiritual seeker. Of the many temples, the Maitreya temple is an example of this symbolism where I felt I understood something of Buddhism. Buddha as a young prince observed suffering in sickness, old age and death. This is what motivated him to seek the cause of suffering and its removal. Maitreya, the future Buddha, is half-seated and clearly in the process of standing up. There are seven medicinal Buddhas on the walls. There is also Yama riding his bull and crushing an aged man. In essence, Maitreya is bringing the message of faith to escape worldly suffering.

The ancient hanging scrolls or thangkas at Dhankar are full of vivid details and stories. Once colourful, today they are much faded. Some are tattered, full of holes and blackened with the soot rising from lamps that often burn as offerings. There are paper hats and painted masks, perhaps used as part of special religious ceremonies. At the entrance of what is called the Protector Deity Chapel, there is even a dead sheep with its head and body stuffed with straw. There is a real feel to this place. There is no modern contrivance. Low doorways lead to narrow winding stairs. Stone landings are matched by steps of mud and clay. Light filters through closed wooden doors. Diffused light rise up the dim stairs. One feels climbing to the heights of clouds and the abode of the gods; and the valley far below is a mightly drop from the precarious position of these cliffs.

At the end of day, visiting the monasteries is a special experience. There are images that stay with you forever – colourful flags fluttering in the wind, Om Mani Padme Hum carved out in every stone, clouds moving across a blue sky framed by an open skylight in the mud ceiling, the contemplation of a monk as he walks with a measured pace in the courtyard, the quiet murmurings of monks in the prayer hall, a wisp of steam slowly rising up from a morning cup of hot tea amidst Buddhist chantings, prayer flags catching the early morning light in their translucent weaves.

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