A land of wide contrasts on the Manali-Leh route, Lahaul is a bouquet of scenic mountain villages and fascinating Buddhist art and culture. As the better half of Spiti that lies across the high Kunzum Pass, Lahaul is marked by high mountains, massive glaciers, rivers and high passes. The word ‘Lahaul’ is derived from the Tibetan word Lho-yul meaning ‘country in the south’. Another meaning of Lhahi-yul stands for ‘country of the gods.’
The land is a quaint settlement guarded by snow-topped mountains that stop the advance of monsoon rains from the south but the northerly winds pound the region with heavy snow in winters. The landscape changes from verdant valleys and forested hillsides to a sandy terrain dotted with miniature villages of flat-roofed houses precariously hanging along rocky hillsides as you move deeper into the highland, leaving the traveller in awe of the raw beauty scattered around.
Keylong is the administrative headquarters of Lahaul. The lands simple rustic charm, rich culture, full of folk dances and songs regularly attracts tourists from all over the world. It is a thriving centre of Buddhism and home to several monasteries which are repositories of ancient murals, thangkas, wood carvings and massive statues of Guru Padmasambhava, the missionary who introduced Buddhism to Lahaul, Spiti and Tibet.
Greener than Spiti, Lahaul is nourished by the two mountain rivers of Chandra and Bhaga and their tributaries that originate on either side of the Baralacha La Pass. It is at their confluence at Tandi in Pattan Valley that the rivers become River Chenab, traditionally still called Chandrabhaga.
Languages spoken: Hindi and English are understood and spoken by the people in Lahaul. The locals use Lahuli (Bhoti), a dialect, to communicate in their everyday lives.
Clothing essentials: Lahaul is a cold land that has a mild summer and a freezing winter. Changes in altitudes can rapidly change temperature variations. Chilly winds and sudden snow showers can causes sudden dip in temperatures. Woollens and a rain proof heavy jacket are essential. Even at the height of summers, light woollens along with cap and scarf are needed for the evenings can get pretty cold.
Rail: The nearest narrow gauge is at Jogindernagar. The further journey to Keylong has to be done by road only.
Road: Heavy snow cuts off road connectivity to Lahaul valley at Rohtang Pass for nearly six months, starting from late November to mid-May. State-owned coaches ply regularly from Manali to Keylong and taxis are easily available from Manali from June to October. A tunnel under construction below the Rohtang Pass is likely to become operational soon that will provide year round access to Lahaul.
|Places to visit||Distances from Keylong (Km)|
Not many can resist the charm of untouched beauty that lies north-west of Gramphu. Tibetan Buddhism has a heavy influence on the culture and heritage of the region, which coupled with a gentle touch of nature makes Lahaul a tourist and spiritual paradise.
Buddhism is deep rooted and a visit to Lahaul is incomplete if you haven’t visited the magnificent yet quaint monasteries. The valley is also home to some highly revered Hindu temples, Trilokinath temple being one of them. At this unique temple, Hinduism and Buddhism have co-existed for centuries.
Apart from religion and landscapes, Lahaul is famous for lip-smacking local delicacies like ken, shod, gongal. The staple food is buckwheat, locally known as kathu. Organically produced vegetables, barley and rice are served in most eating joints.
Small eateries with valley front terraces make for a good dining experience in Lahaul. A perfect mix of local and international elements do fuse some tasty combinations. The valley has an exotic and hearty platter which includes ken, shod, and gongal on offer. Restaurants and cafes draped in prayer flags, local art pictures and Tibetan murals, offer dishes made from organically produced vegetables and locally sourced barley and rice.
There are government run clinics and small hospitals in Lahaul which meet the basic health care needs of a traveller. To meet any serious emergency, one has to reach Manali or Kullu for want of better health facilities.
There is government run allopathic Regional Civil Hospital and a traditional medicine Ayurvedic Hospital at Keylong.
Lahaul being on the busy Manali – Leh route has good road connectivity during the summers. Buses and taxis are readily available from Manali to Keylong and other destinations of Lahaul. With the onset of winters, Lahaul becomes landlocked as Rohtang Pass which provides the sole access route to the land becomes snowbound. The highway over Rohtang usually remains open from June to early November. A tunnel under this pass is likely become operational soon and it will open up all year access to Lahaul.
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Halda is a festival of lights celebrated in deep winter on Magha Poornima which falls at around the time of New Year. For this occasion, villages in Chandra – Bhaga valley light torches made of cedar wood and head into the night to a place selected by Lama priests so as to drive away evil forces. After the ceremony, a bonfire of wood collected from every household is lit. In the warmth of the sacred fire unity of the community is celebrated with nightlong singing and dancing that can extend for a couple of days.
Celebrated to usher in spring from mid January onwards, Phagli is a major festival of Lahaul’s Pattan valley. At midnight villagers collect snow in baskets and pile it on their roofs to shape it like a Shivling. The family joins in to worship Lord Shiva in the symbolic snow made Shivling. The celebrations are incomplete without preparation of special dishes and hosting of community feasts.
Celebrated in February, Gochi, also known as Gotsi, is another festival celebrated in Chandra – Bhaga valleys. In houses that have been blessed with a son in the preceding year, the family members come together to perform ritual dances for Gochi. A cake made from mixed flour is cooked and placed in a ritual platter that is carried by four men to make an offering before the local deity. The procession is headed by a young, unmarried girl, dressed in ceremonial robes. Two men, one carrying a lighted torch and the other pine branches bundled in sheepskin, follow the young girl and the mother. The bundle is tied to the branches of a tree and shot with an arrow. The celebration is concluded by dancing to folk notes.
After a long cold winter, summer is a season to celebrate and revere the gods. In June, on a full moon night, the Ghantal festival is held at Lahaul’s oldest Buddhist monastery. The believers congregate at Guru Ghantal Monastery to hold prayers and community feasts. Tourists passing through the region can join the festivities. The Ghantal festival provides a rare glimpse of an age-old culture.
|Keylong STD Code||01900|
|Udaipur STD Code||01909|
|Deputy Commissioner Lahaul-Spiti at Keylong||222501|
|Civil Hospital, Keylong||01900 -222211|
|Police Station, Keylong||01900-222223|
|Police Station, Udaipur||01909-222253|
|SDM cum DTDO, Keylong||01900-222225|
The small town of Keylong is the district headquarters of Lahaul & Spiti. Perched on the bank of River Bhaga, along the highway to Leh, the township has a small marketplace, a petrol/diesel filling station and basic medical facilities.
Confluence of Chandra and Bhaga at Tandi is just 8 km away. As you approach Keylong, the landscape starkly changes from rocky mountains to blending sands in different hues of brown which dramatically give way to lush green slopes. The outskirts of the town are a vast greeny patch of fields growing barley crops.
Communal harmony has Hinduism and Buddhism coexist peacefully in Lahaul for centuries, best exemplified at the highly revered Trilokinath temple. Here Hindus and Buddhists pay reverence to the same deity. The holy sanctum, housing a six-armed idol of Lord Shiva as Trilokinath is dated back to circa 2nd century AD. Another statue placed above the Trilokinath idol reveres the Buddha as Avalokiteshvara.
This temple shrine at Trilokinath is 53 km from Keylong. In older times, Trilokinath was also known as Tunda vihar. The shining white temple, hanging by a cliff, is considered a pilgrimage with comparable sanctity of one to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in Tibet.
Every year in August, Pauri is a festival held for three days where followers of both religions gather to offer prayers to Trilokinath.
Udaipur is a fertile, low lying land with orchards of apple, walnut and apricots. Founded by Raja Udai Singh, a ruler from Chamba, it served as an administrative outpost of the principality. A temple of local goddess ‘Mrikula Devi’, sitting in the middle of the settlement, is famous for its intricate wooden carvings, especially those on the ceiling.
The timber-bonded stone structure of the temple sports a spartan exterior to withstand the harsh climatic conditions and is covered with a wood-shingled roof. The wall panels have beautifully carved reliefs depicting scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana. The temple is said to be a master craft from the man who built the famous Hidimba temple at Manali. Well connected by road, Udaipur is 53 km from Keylong.
‘A pass with crossroads on the summit’ is what Baralacha La means in the native dialect. At an altitude of 4890 m, the 8 km-long pass divides Chandra and Bhaga catchments to have the rivers flow in opposite directions till they meet at Tandi. To the west lies Suraj Tal, a turquoise lake that is in sharp contrast to the barren brown mountains around it. Camping by the lake and watching the Milky Way stars go by in a clear night is something one will not forget in a while.
It is at this Pass that the Pir Panjal and Zanskar ranges meet. The divide gives way for connecting Manali, Keylong with Leh by a well laid out highway. Baralacha is 75 km from Keylong on the Manali-Leh road. Before trade with Tibet came to a standstill in 1962, Baralacha La was also at the crossroads of a trade route with western Tibet.
A prominent learning centre that attracts scholars and pilgrims from across the world, Shashur Monastery is a highly revered Buddhist temple (Gompa) just 4 km from Keylong. Founded by Deva Gyatso, the monastery is an architectural gem from the 17th century. Set amidst a green patch of pine trees in an otherwise barren landscape, the monastery is sheltered by towering mountains on all sides that bestow immense beauty of the monastic centre.
The name ‘Shahsur’ means ‘in the blue pines.’ The three-storeyed structure standing atop a hill with dim chambers housing rare thangkas and beautiful murals radiates a monastic charm that doesn’t cease to amaze visitors. The festival of Shahsur Tsesha, held in the months of June/July is a good time to witness colourful mask and costume dances at the monastery that are performed by resident monks.
Suraj Taal as the lake of Sun god is a beautiful natural amphitheatre near Baralacha La Pass. It can be easily reached from the Manali-Leh highway passing bye. In winters, the lake freezes and as summers approaches, the lake returns to its full glory with blue icy waters forming a crystal clear mirror image of the beauty of snow-capped mountains around it.
Guru Ghantal Monastery
Perched on a hilltop, overlooking the confluence of the rivers Chandra and Bhaga at Tandi, Guru Ghantal Monastery (also known as Gandhola Monastery) from circa 8th century AD is one of the oldest monasteries of Lahaul. Two legendary gurus who propagated Buddhism into these trans Himalayan lands, Padmasambhava and Rinchensang-po, find an association with this institution.
The monastery, with an eight-storeyed timber and stone tower, has an idol of goddess Vajreshwari Devi (Do-jeLha-mo), a wooden idol of the Buddha and a marble head of Buddha as Avalokitesvara. A story goes that a statue was sighted slowly emerging from the sandbank at Tandi but without waiting for it to emerge fully, someone sliced the head off. Another tale would have us believe that the monastery has the visage of the demon Tsedak, who once ravaged the land. He was captured and lies locked inside a dark airless room of the monastery.
Established 900 years ago, the Kardang monastery is one of the oldest institutions of Drug-pa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in Lahaul. It is a repository of the sacred Kangyur and Tangyur texts with some fine thangka paintings, rare musical instruments and old weapons. The monastery is of historical importance for being in Kardang village – once the capital of Lahaul.
Lama Norbu Rinpoche, who in 1912 breathed new life into the crumbling walls of the monastery finds mention in its literatures. The monastery is now home to dozens of resident monks, nuns and others who are there for short periods.
‘Tayul’ (Ta – Yul in Tibetan) means “the chosen place,” and so it is. A belief holds that the main prayer wheel of the monastery rotates on its own accord on certain auspicious occasions. The monastery, overlooking the village of Satingri, is in possession of an elaborate library of one hundred and one volumes of the sacred Kangyur texts. Thangkas and murals on the walls depict episodes from the life of Lord Buddha. A 12 feet tall statue of Guru Padmasambhava in manifestations as Singhmukha and Vajravarahi is revered at the monastery. Tayul is a Dugpa sect monastery that started to build a reputation from the 17th Century.
In Pattan valley, 8 km from Keylong, Tandi is where the rivers of Chandra and Bhaga meet. Village folklore has it that Chandra is the daughter of the moon and Bhaga a son of the Sun god. Both fell in love and decided to marry. To sanctify this, they encircled the vast tract of Lahaul to finally meet at Tandi.
A beautiful hamlet with a monastery on the right bank of the river Chandra, Gemur is 18 km from Keylong. In July the gompa hosts a devil dance by red-robed lamas to ward off evil spirits.
Sissu village, on a broad flat ground overlooking Chandra River, with vistas of willow and poplar trees, green terraces and wild flowers make the village an unforgettable feast of colours. At a small monastery, Lord Ghepan is revered as the presiding deity to protect the village from demonic powers. A ‘dance-drama’ sequence enacted every July is a good time to be in Sissu. A little short of the village are the refreshing Sissu falls cascading over a cliff that bridges two adjacent mountains.
Just 4 km ahead of Gemur, near the confluence of two streams merging with Bhaga River is the small village of Jispa. It notably has a very large dry river-bed for an extended courtyard.
Sarchu (Sar-Chu) means ‘gold drop’, is a picturesque stopover on the Manali–Leh highway. The stopover marks the boundary of Himachal Pradesh with Jammu & Kashmir. Between the two Passes of Baralacha La and Lachlung La, Sarchu was a old trading station on the Silk Route. The barren splendour of the place is still a favourite with nomadic tribes and adventurers.
In Pattan valley, by the waters of the Chandrabhaga, Jalma is considered to be the legendary abode of many of Lahaul’s deities.