The Buddhist Circuit in Himachal Pradesh
The hills and valleys of Himachal Pradesh have historical linkages with Buddhism that predate the arrival of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959 by centuries. The sacred lake of Rewalsar, the more than thousand-year-old monastery of Tabo, the fortress-like Dhankar monastery, the spectacular Kee monastery and the many Gompas of Lahaul is a testimony about the living traditions of Buddhism, one of the great religions of Asia with its origins in India.
Many of the monasteries in Himachal Pradesh trace historical links to Guru Padmasambhava, the great Buddhist teacher known as Guru Rimpoche to the Tibetans, who spread the influence of Mahayana Buddhism into Tibet. In fact, the story of Rewalsar Lake narrates about the king from Mandi setting out to kill Padmasambhava in the 8th century so as to wean away his daughter who had under the influence of the great Guru.
For the pilgrim, the believer, the uninitiated, researcher, photographer or just a curious traveler, the Buddhist circuit of Himachal Pradesh captures a range of beliefs and iconography of age-old traditions that are associated with the religion.
Starting out from Dharamshala-Mcleodganj, the Buddhist circuit goes through Bir Billing, Joginder Nagar, Rewalsar (Mandi), Manali and over the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul. In this valley, centered around the monasteries near Keylong and Trilokinath at Udaipur, most of the residents are Buddhists. Crossing over the Kunzum Pass into Spiti, the valley abounds with many monasteries. Kee, Komic, Tabo, Dhankar and the Pin Valley monasteries preserve thousand-year-old traditions. Moving down Spiti valley, passing Nako, you reach Satluj Valley. Kalpa, which includes Sangla and Rampur are placed with some Buddhist interest. At Shimla and Solan the circuit stands completed. If one makes an entry from Solan-Shimla, it would end at Dharamshala-Mcleodganj. The complete circuit, however, can only be done in the summers because from November to May/June, the valley of Lahaul is landlocked due to heavy snow over the Rohtang Pass.
Mountains are magical, they can cast a spiritual spell on you. If the smell of mountains creeps into your blood, you will return to them time and again. Perhaps, this is why Himachal Pradesh tops every avid travel’s bucket-list. Every nook and corner of the hilly state exudes an air of spiritualism, peace, and respect for the supreme.
Setting out on the circuit, here we begin our itinerary from Dharamshala and Mcleodganj, which outside of Tibet is considered the Mecca of Tibetan Buddhism.
Dharamshala – Mcleodganj
Perched on the commanding Dhauladhar range, overlooking the vast Kangra valley, Dharamshala lowers on the hill and Mcleodganj at a higher elevation is famous the world over for being the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Foundations of Mcleodganj were laid by British settlers in the early 19th century, but ever since the Dalai Lama took up residence and settled the Tibetan community here, the small town has even been rechristened as ‘Little Lhasa.’
The temple Tsuglag Khang here is an important Buddhist site where a congregation of monks and nuns can be seen chanting holy scriptures round the year. The temple houses statues of the Buddha as Shakyamuni and Avalokiteshvara. It also has the statue of Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava). On occasions, the Dalai Lama does lead the prayer sessions at this temple.
Other sites of importance here are the Namgyal Monastery, the Gompa Dip Tse-Chok Ling, Mani Lakhang Stupa, Nechung Monastery, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.
The original Namgyal Monastery was founded in Tibet by the second Dalai Lama Gedun Gyasto (1440-1480) but was relocated to McLeod Ganj after the Tibetan uprising in 1959. The monastery also known as the Namgyal Tantric College has become a centre of the study of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. In residence, there are more than 200 monks who study Buddhist Sutra and Tantra texts along with other modern subjects. A large number of followers and scholars, domestic and international, do visit the monastery.
Getting there: Mcleodganj can be reached by road only. The nearest airport is at Gaggal (Kangra, 18 km) and the closest broad gauge train station is at Pathankot (65 km). A narrow gauge connecting train from Pathankot to Kangra is also available. Dharamshala-Mcleodganj can be easily reached from Chandigarh or Delhi.
Where to stay: Located in the heart of Dharamshala city is Hotel Dhauladhar, a property operated by Himachal Tourism. Facing the mighty Dhauladhar ranges, the rooms also offer wide views of the valley spread and the vast Pong Dam waters.
Club House, a premium Himachal Tourism property, is located in Mcleodganj. Located in the vicinity of the monastery, the hotel mostly remains packed and needs to be booked in advance. Hotel Bhagsu is another hotel located close to the monastery. Dharamshala and Mcleodganj also have a variety of private hotels and guest houses.
Best Time to Visit: Throughout the year, though the winters can be nippy and cold.
Not far from Palampur, at a distance of about 30 km, is the Buddhist colony of Tibetans at Bir. It was Neten Chokling, an incarnate lama of the Nyingma school, who settled at Bir in 1966 to lay the foundation of this settlement. The community now has many monasteries in the area where traditions of Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools of Tibetan Buddhism are followed and practiced.
The Dirru monastery belongs to the Sakya school, the Drikung Dozin Theckcho Ling monastery to the Kagyu school and the Palyuo Chokhorling Monastery is of the Nyingma school. The Choking Monastery at Bir has a large stupa and an impressive statue of Padmasambhava. The Palpung Sherab Ling Monastery at Bhattu, west of Bir offers periodic courses in Buddhist meditation and philosophy.
The colony houses a Tibetan handicraft centre, a Suja (children’s village school), an institute for study of Buddhist traditions, culture, spiritual literature, Tibetan medical and astrological systems. Bir is also famous as an excellent site for paragliding and mountain biking.
Getting there: Bir can be easily reached by road from Palampur (30 km) and Joginder Nagar (16 km). Taxies can be hired from Palampur, Dharamshala or Joginder Nagar to reach Bir.
Where to Stay: Himachal Tourism properties hotel ‘Tea Bud’ at Palampur and Hotel ‘The Uhl’ at Joginder Nagar are at a distance from where Bir is easy to reach. Private hotels, guest houses and Home Stay accommodation is available at Bir.
Best Time to Visit: Throughout the year.
Rewalsar is a small scenic hillside town that is well known for its pagoda-style monasteries built on the banks of a holy lake. The towering presence of a 150 feet tall statue of Padmasambhava, overlooking the holy waters, is indicative of the places’ spiritual importance. The monasteries have well preserved old stucco sculptures, wall murals, and wall paintings
A convergence of religions takes place at Rewalsar as the place is held sacred by Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists alike. There are temples and a Gurudwara also by the lakeside. The fish in the lake waters are considered sacred and no fishing is permitted.
A legend narrates that the King of Mandi wanted to kill Guru Padmasambhava when he learned that his daughter Mandarava had become a devotee of the Guru and wanted to run away with him. The king captured them and attempted to set them on fire but the Guru with his supernatural powers turned the pyre into a lake. Padmasambhava took a spiritual flight to Tibet from Rewalsar but believers hold that his spirit still resides in the lake. In Tibet he is known as Guru Rimpoche.
The Gurudwara was built in 1930 to commemorate a month-long stay that Sikh Guru Gobind Singh spent by the serene waters. The Hindu temples are dedicated to Lord Krishna, Lord Shiva, and the sage Lomas.
Getting there: Rewalsar (altitude 1360m) can be reached by road only. It is 25 km from Mandi and 80 km from Joginder Nagar, the closest train station to the place. The nearest airport is at Bhuntar, Kullu, 85 km away.
Where to stay: Himachal Tourism runs hotel ‘The Tourist Inn’ at Rewalsar. Private hotels, guest houses, and Home Stay accommodations are available.
Best time to visit: Throughout the year.
A spiritual land, Lahaul & Spiti is truly for those who want to experience Buddhism as it has been practiced for centuries. In geographical seclusion and harsh terrain, the people have found calmness in Buddhism to appreciate the mysterious dynamics of nature at work.
The missionary activity of sage Padmasambhava did introduce Buddhism into Lahaul-Spiti in the 8th Century AD. It still has a strong presence here.
Against a backdrop of brown hills Keylong, the district headquarters of Lahaul-Spiti, is an oasis of greenery in summer. Resting on the right bank of Bhaga River, the Manali-Leh highway passes through Keylong. Four of Lahaul’s best-known monasteries are nearby.
Founded by Deva Gyatso in the 17th century, Shashur monastery (3 km from Keylong), is located in a sparse patch of woodland in an otherwise treeless landscape. The very name ‘Shahsur’ means ‘in the blue pines’. The festival of Shahsur Tsesha, held in June/July, is a good time to witness the colorful mask and costume dance performed by the monks.
Tayul means a ‘chosen’ place. A belief connected with the monastery (6 kms from Keylong) is that on auspicious occasions the main prayer wheel begins to rotate on its own accord. The monastery has a large statue of Padmasambhava and its library contains 101 volumes of the Kangyur text.
This small monastery contains a rare 11th-century idol of a Bodhisattva of the female deity ‘Marichi Vajravarahi’ as an embodiment of dawn. Gemur (18 km from Keylong) is held in great sanctity and is well known for its ‘dance-drama’ enacted every July.
Sitting on the left bank of Chandra-Bhaga, Trilokinath temple and monastery is revered by Hindus and Buddhists. Devotees of both the religions converge to pay homage to the same idol. The Hindus regard ‘Trilokinath’ as Lord Shiva, while the Buddhists revere it as Avalokiteshvara, as a Buddha personification of compassion and infinite light.
The belief is that the six-armed figure of Avalokiteshvara idol was installed by Guru Padmasambhava. The marble idol features Trilokinath with Buddha sitting on its head. This unique dual formation of the idol makes it a common place of worship for Hindus and Buddhists. Every August ‘Pori’ a local fair is held. Trilokinath is 53 km from Keylong.
Getting there: Keylong is 115 km from Manali and 180 km from Kaza. From Manali, one has to cross the Rohtang Pass and move on the Leh highway to reach Keylong. If approaching Lahaul from Spiti one has to cross the Kunzum Pass and move on the Manali-Leh highway to Keylong.
Places to stay: At Keylong Himachal Tourism operates the budget friendly hotel ‘ The Chandrabhaga‘. There are private hotels, guest houses and Home Stay accommodations available at Keylong and at other places in Lahaul valley. Some of the monasteries also provide basic accommodations.
Best time to visit: From mid-May-June to October/early November.
As the middle country, Spiti was a bridge where the two great traditions of India and Tibet diffused in the trans-Himalayan region. The valley is fed by several fast-flowing streams that drain into Spiti river flowing through the middle to join Satluj river at Khab. With freckles of green over a dry weather-beaten face, Spiti is a cold desert that is characterized by a stark relentless beauty, narrow valleys and high mountains. The people are largely Buddhists, with most being followers of the Gelukpa sect, Religion plays a major role in everyday life.
Settled on the left bank of Spiti River, in a flat valley, Kaza (altitude 3660 m) is the sub-divisional headquarter of Spiti. Surrounded by steep ridges and snow covered peaks, Kaza has a small marketplace, medical facilities, a filling station, rest houses and hotels. It serves as a base for excursions taken in the area.
Kee (Ki, Kye)
Founded by Dromtön (1008-1064 AD), Kee is the largest and also one of the oldest monasteries of Spiti. Perched on a hilltop (4116 m), overlooking Kee village, the monastery is 12 kms from Kaza. It is a collection of rooms and a labyrinth of corridors that have grown over the years. There are more than 300 resident lamas at the monastery who painstakingly learn meditation techniques, philosophy, tantra, cosmology, mysticism and other streams. Kee (Ki, Kye) has a rich collection of rare Thangka paintings and several ancient musical instruments, which include trumpets, cymbals and drums. The library possesses manuscripts of Tangyur texts. The Gompa has a large du-khang, which is an assembly chamber lined by religious paintings.
Komic (31 km from Kaza) is one of the highest villages of Spiti that is connected by a motorable road. The small Tangyud Gompa is atop a hillock at 15000 feet and belongs to the Sakya sect.
Getting there: Kee and Komic monastery can be reached by road only. From Keylong one can reach Kaza only between June and October. From Shimla through Kinnaur one can safely reach Kaza from March to November. Though regular buses ply on the route, but a sturdy off-roading vehicle is best suited for the terrain. Spiti valley has only one petrol pump at Kaza.
Where to stay: Hotel Spiti at Kaza is a Himachal Tourism property that provides a comfortable stay. Private hotels, mostly run in the summer months, Home stay and summer camping accommodation is also available. At Kee, the monastery also provides some basic accommodation.
Best time to visit: Spring breaks out by mid May at these heights. For June to early November is a good time to visit Spiti.
White Clay Mountains escort you into Tabo village as you drive from Kaza or approach it from Shimla-Kaza road. Tabo monastery (altitude 3050 m) was founded in 996 AD and is one of the most revered Buddhist institutions in the Himalayas. In 1996, to mark its 1000 years of existence, his holiness the Dalai Lama conducted a Kalachakra at Tabo. The ceremony is an initiation of time cycles, where all existence is about it.
At first glance, Tabo appears nothing more than a cluster of large mud huts, but once inside, there are a series of amazing galleries of wall paintings and stucco statues. It is the largest monastic complex in Spiti. The old section has nine temples, 23 chortens, a monks chamber and a nuns chamber. There are several caves and contemporary structures that form a part of the Tabo complex.
Getting there: Tabo can be reached only by road from Kaza (50 km) and from Shimla (500 km). Though regular buses ply on the route, but a sturdy off-roading vehicle is best suited for the terrain.
Where to stay: There are many privately operated hotels and Homestays at Tabo. If you are looking for a reasonable staying option, the monastery guesthouse is a perfect place to be. The nearest HPTDC hotel is The Spiti at Kaza.
Best time to visit: From May to early November is a good time to visit Tabo.
Spiti is full of surprises that grip you in awe. Dhankar (altitude 3370 m) is one such place. Precariously hanging to a cliff, overlooking the spread of the Spiti plains, Dhankar monastery did serve as a guarding fort for the valley. This monastery is exemplary about the building and architectural skills of the inhabitants. It was the castle of Nono, the ruler of Spiti, where prisoners also used to hold. The monastery has a statue of Vairochana as Dhayan Buddha, scriptures in Bhoti script and ancient Thangka paintings. Near the monastery is the Dhankar lake.
Getting there: Dhankar is about 30 km from Tabo. It can be reached from Keylong-Kaza route as well as from Shimla-Kaza route. From the Kaza-Tabo-Nako-Shimla road, 7 km from a place called Schichling, a branching road heads out for Dhankar.
Where to stay: Home Stays and basic monastery accommodation is the only staying option at Dhankar.
Best time to visit: From June to early November is a good time to visit the monastery.
At Atrangoo, 10 km from Schichling village, side-road heads into a valley carved out by Pin River, a tributary of the Spiti. Pin at its origin is fed by the Kungri glacier. There are six monasteries in this valley, of which one is a large monastic establishment and the other five are village monasteries.
Much of Pin Valley is a National Park, which conserves rare high-altitude wildlife. Some of the highly endangered species found in this park are the snow leopard, Ibex, Bharal, Red Fox, Marten, Weasel, Snow Cock, Bearded Vulture, Chuckor, Golden Eagle, Griffon and Himalayan Chough.
Guru Padmasambhava sometime in the 14th century founded the Kungri Monastery. It belongs to the Nyingma sect and is considered as one of the oldest monasteries of Spiti. There are about 80 resident monks here. The monastery is 3 km from Gulling village.
Spread over three blocks the Kungri monastery is a favorite among scholars, pilgrims, and tourists who want to stay back for months or longer, to live the life of a monk without disowning one’s own religion. The Gompa has a prized collection of over 380 Thangka paintings and many old relics. A traditional ‘Devil and Sword Dance’, performed by the monks each year in July is a good time to glimpse the religious life of the community.
The other monasteries at Tangti, Sagnam, Phar, Todnam and Kangri at Mud village are village monasteries.
Pin Valley is also good trekking country with one path headed over the Pin Parbati Pass into Kullu and the other into Kinnaur through Bhaba valley.
Getting there: Pin valley can be reached by road from the Spiti valley side.
Where to stay: Only private hotels, guest houses or homestay accommodation is available in the valley. The Kungri monastery also does provide basic accommodation for visitors.
Best time to visit: From May to early November is a good time to visit Pin.
In dry but scenic surroundings, with a turquoise lake at an elevation of 2950 m, is the beautiful village of Nako where the monastery, founded by Rinchen Zangpo was established in 1025 AD. Rinchen was a Buddhist scholar who translated Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. The monastery complex, a wood and stone structure, preserves centuries old architecture, sculptures and fine carvings on its walls. Though the exterior looks mundane, it changes dramatically as you enter the shrine. Original clay sculptures, murals and ceiling panels are preserved in their original form and colours. There are four temples in the monastic complex. The towering Reo Purgyil peak (6816 m), the highest in the region, overlooks the religious place.
Getting there: Nako is on the Kaza-Shimla highway and can be easily reached from Kaza, Tabo, Pin or Dhankar. From Shimla, Nako is 330 km. Buses and hired taxis ply on the route regularly.
Where to Stay: Only private hotels and home stay accommodation is available at Nako.
Best time to visit: From May to early November is a good time to visit Nako.
From Nako, the Buddhist circuit winds down the valley to reach Khab and then moves along Satluj river.
Kalpa (altitude 2960 m) is part of Kinnaur district. The Hu-Bu-Lan-Kar monastery here is believed to have been founded by Rinchen Zangpo (950-1055 AD). Tall prayer flags flapping in the cold air and white chortens in the middle of the courtyard exude an air of spiritualism. A pair of dragons carved on wooden pillars faces the courtyard.
The Brelengi Gompa, lower in the hillside at Reckong Peo is an impressive Buddhist edifice. It was only built in 1992, specially for hosting the Kalachakra ceremony conducted by his holiness the Dalai Lama.
Sangla is a scenic valley carved out by Baspa river and is about 40 kms from Reckong Peo. The valley has a culture where Hinduism and Buddhism beliefs do fuse even though there are more Hindu temples than Buddhist ones here.
At Kamru village, overlooking Sangla village, is an old fortress structure which served as a residence for the royal family of Bushehar estate, who governed Kinnaur till independence in 1947. At the entrance to Kamru Fort is an old Buddha statue placed there, while an idol of Kamakhya Devi, a Hindu goddess is worshipped at the third floor of the building. At the Lord Jagas temple in Kamru there is a small room where local Buddhists assemble.
Close to the Indo-China international border, Chitkul (28 kms from Sangla) is the last village of the valley. The Kagupa temple in Chitkul has an old and valuable idol of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Getting there: Kalpa can be reached from a branching road near Powari on the Shimla-Kaza highway. It is 250 kms from Shimla. Sangla valley can be reached from an uphill branching road at Karcham dam site. Sangla village is only 17 km from Karcham. From Kalpa, Karcham is 33 kms.
Where to stay: At Kalpa, Himachal Tourism operates Hotel Kinner Kailash that provides a comfortable stay. There are a variety of private hotels and homestay accommodation options available in Kalpa and in Sangla valley.
Best time to visit: From April to November is a good time to visit Kalpa and Sangla valley.
Rampur is a township on the banks of River Satluj that came up as a trading centre with Tibet. Foundations of the Thungyur Lakhang temple in the middle of the market was laid by the Dalai Lama in 1990. This beautiful structure was completed in 2006. Built in the Buddhist Pagoda architecture style, the temple has 108 prayer wheels that believers keep rolling while chanting holy mantra’s.
Getting there: From Shimla, Rampur is the gateway to Kinnaur and Spiti valleys and from Kaza it is on the last leg of the Buddhist circuit of Himachal Pradesh. It is 125 kms from Shimla and 135 km from Kalpa. Regular buses and taxis ply regularly to Rampur.
Where to stay: At Rampur, Hotel Bushehar Regency, a Himachal Tourism property offers a comfortable stay. At Rampur there are many staying options, which include private hotels, homestays and public rest houses/circuit houses where accommodation can be booked.
Best time to visit: Throughout the year
Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, is a colonial heritage city that was built by the British as the summer capital of India. Tibetan refugees having settled down in the city have made it into an important Buddhist centre.
Near a hilltop in Sanjauli, a suburb, is the Jonang Takten Phuntsok Choeling monastery, which has become a Buddhist learning centre with resident lamas holding daily rituals and prayers. A flight of stairs leads to the monastery. Founded as Sangey Choeling in 1963 by Lama Jimpa, this is the only Jonang Taketen Phuntsok Choeling monastery in India. There is one other of its kind at Amro in Tibet.
At Panthaghati, another suburb of the city, is the Dorje Drak Monastery that belongs to the Nyingma school. Kyabje Taklung Tsetrual Rinpoche, who migrated to India in 1959, set up this monastery in 1984. The monastery is built in Tibetan architecture and has many monks and students residing in it.
Getting there: Shimla is an important tourist city and can be reached by road, rail and air from Delhi. Sanjauli is at a walkable distance from the town centre and Panthaghati can be reached by taking the local transport.
Where to stay: Shimla has many staying options suiting all budgets. Himachal Tourism runs Hotel Holiday Home and Hotel The Peterhof as premium accommodation hotels in the city. There are a number of private hotels and guest houses also available.
Best time to visit: Shimla has a pleasant climate but can get cold in the winter months from late December to February. One can visit the city anytime of the year
Many of the Tibetans who fled their homeland in 1959 were Bonpo, the oldest spiritual tradition of Tibet that even predates the spread of Buddhism into these highlands. The ancient roots of Bon religion still retains profound respect for nature that emphasises the healing of physical, environmental and spiritual afflictions. As Buddhism spread in Tibet, many Bon beliefs were incorporated to make Tibetan Buddhism a distinct religion. Though the two religions are distinct in many ways but they share a strong and identical commitment to bringing an end to all suffering. The Dalai Lama’s recognition of Bon as the native religion of Tibet and one of its five core spiritual traditions is an important acknowledgement of Bon’s significant role in Tibetan history.
The Bon monastery in Solan was founded by the Abbott Lungtog Tenpai Nyima in 1969 and is the only one that practices this ancient religion in India. Located near a hill top, the road leading to the monastery is narrow and steep, but once there, the ambiance is therapeutic. Many scholars and researchers visit this monastery, where a small population of resident lamas practice and preserve this rare tradition.
Getting there: The small Tibetan settlement in Solan is about 18 km from the main market. To get there one has to take the road branching out from Ochhghat on the Solan-Rajgarh road to reach the monastery.
Where to stay: A variety of staying options are available at Solan and Barog from where one can reach the monastery with ease. Himachal Tourism’s premium Hotel Pinewood at Barog provides scenic views with comfortable accommodation. The Apple Cart Inn at Kiarighat about 19 km from Solan is another place you can consider for a travel stopover.
Best time to visit: Throughout the year