ancient village is about 46 Kms from Kaza, on the left bank of the Piti river at an
altitude of 10004 feet. The biggest attraction of this village, for that matter of the
whole valley, is the Tabo monastery, called Chogs-hkhor
('doctrinal circle' or 'doctrinal enclave') is a complex that holds nine temples, 23
chortens, a monks' chamber and an extension that houses the nuns chamber. On the sheer
cliff-face above the enclave are a series of caves which were used as dwellings by the
monks and includes an 'assembly hall'. Faint traces of the paintings that once embellished
the rock face can be discerned. Even today, Tabo holds the distinction of being the
largest monastic complex in Spiti. Constructed in 996 AD, Tabo was the brainchild of the
great translator and teacher, Rinchensang Po. Tabo is famous for its exquisite murals and
stucco sculptures which bear a striking resemblance with the paintings and sculpture in
the Ajanta caves. This is why Tabo has acquired the tide of 'Himalayan Ajanta'.
According to His Holiness Dalai Lama, "The most important is Tabo, noted for its
exquisite quality of paintings and stucco images that adorn its walls. These works of art
delightfully express the vigour of the transmission of Buddhism from india to Tibet and
the dynamic mingling of cultures". Tabo monastery is one of the most famous
Buddhist monasteries regarded by a large number of followers as only next to the Tholing
gompa of Tibet. Tabo is the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India
and the Himalayas with its original decoration and iconographic program intact. Tabo
monastery contains the largest number and the best preserved group of Buddhist monuments
in Himachal Pradesh. The nine chapels, four decorated stupas, and cave shrines contain
paintings datable to the 10-11th c. (Main Temple), 13th-14th c. (Stupas), and 15-20th c.
(all other chapels). Except for the main Temple and the painted interior of the stupas,
all other extant paintings are attributable to periods following the Gelugpa ascendancy.
A thousand years ago Tabo served as a meeting place between two cultures, which is
graphically represented in the art. Indian pundits and Tibetan scholars came to Tabo to
learn Tibetan and Indian Buddhist works respectively. This interaction germinated the
seeds of a new art statement best defined as Indo-Tibetan.
Tabo was a royal monastery, founded and renovated by two of the most famous royal lamas of
the distinguished line of kings of Purang-Guge in Tibet. The Renovation Inscription of the
monastery tells the temple was founded by the Bodhisattva (the royal Ye-she-O) and
renovated 46 years later by his grandnephew. But tradition attributes Tabo's founding to
the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo. According to an inscription on one of the walls, the
monastery was founded in AD 996.
The temples of the
complex are :
The Temple of the Enlightened Gods (gTsug
Lha-khang) - This is also known as the Assembly Hall (du-khang) and forms the
core of the complex. It houses a vestibule, an assembly hall and a sanctum. The central
figure in the assembly hall is the four fold Vairocana. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is
regarded as one of the five spiritual sons of the Adibuddha, who was the self-creative
primordial Buddha. He is portrayed here in a posture "turning the wheel of law".
On brackets arrayed along the walls and with stylised flaming circles around them, are
life size stucco images of what are commonly known as the Vajradhatu Mandala. These images
number thirty three in all, and are the other deities of the pantheon. With five
Bodhisattvas of the Good Age placed within, the sanctum is immediately behind the assembly
hall. The walls around the stuccoes are elaborately adorned with wall paintings that
depict the life of the Buddha.
The Golden Temple (gSer -Khang) -
Once believed to hav been layered with gold, this shrine was exhaustively renovated in the
16th century by Senge Namgyal, ruler of Ladakh. The walls and ceiling are covered with
The Mystic Mandala Temple or Initiation Temple
(dKyil-hKhor-khang) - The wall facing the door is embellished by a massive
painting of Vairocana, who is surrounded by the eight Bodhisattvas. Mystic mandalas cover
the other areas. It is here, that the initiation to monkhood takes place.
The Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple (Byams-Pa
Chen-po Lha-khang) - This shrine houses the image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya
that is more than six meters high. The temple has a hall, vestibule and sanctum. The array
of murals within, also depict the monastery of Tashi-Chunpo and Lhasa's Potala palace.
The Temple of Dromton (Brom-ston Lha-khang)
- The temple lies on the northern edge of the complex and is said to have been founded by
Dromton (1008-1064 AD), an important disciple of Atisha. The doorway is intricately carved
and the inner walls are covered by murals.
The above shrines are said to be the earliest in the Tabo complex and the following are
The Chamber of Picture Treasures (Z'al-ma)
- This is an ante room of sorts attached to 'the temple of enlightened gods'. It too is
covered with paintings which are in the Tibetan style.
The Large Temple of Drom ton (Brom-ston
Lha-khang) - The second largest temple in the complex, this has a floor area of
over seventy square meters, while the portico and niche add another forty two square
meters. The front wall sports the figure of the Sakyamuni, flanked by Sariputra and Maha
Maugdalayana. The other walls depict the eight Medicine Buddhas and Guardian Kings. The
wooden planks of the ceiling are also painted.
The Mahakala Vajra-bhairava Temple (Gon-Khang)
- This temple enshrines the protective deity of the Geluk-pa sect. Fierce deities people
the room and it is only entered after protective meditation. Often it is also called known
as 'the temple of horror'.
The White Temple (dKar-abyum Lha-khang) -
The walls of this shrine are also intricately adorned leaving a low dado for the monks and
nuns to lean against.
The monastery was originally built as a 'mandala' centering
around the assembly hall of the temple of the Enlightened Gods. The assembly hall itself
is a vivid representation of the "Vajradhatu Mandala", with the four-fold
Vairacana in dharmachakra pravartana pose sitting at the far end and flanked by 33
The sanctum sanctorum houses Amitaprabha on a lion, with Ramapani on the right and
Mahasthanaprata on the left. The change of mount from peacock to lion is significant and
deliberate as it signified the elevation of Pratyeka Buddha to Bodhisattva by meditation
on the Vajradhatu mandala.