Most travellers just pass through Lahaul as an overnight stop at either Keylong or Jispa on their journey on the famous Manali – Leh highway. I had done so too, on my first trip on this magical road. Over the years I have kept returning and explored Lahaul in bits and pieces; it is too huge a place to explore in one go. Such is also the irony that I have never meant to specifically explore Lahaul but have always seen the sights on other longer sojourns to offbeat places in the Himalayas.
I had reached Keylong with the aim of acclimatising before embarking on the epic solo trek to Zanskar. I was particularly fascinated with Lahaul’s history : Lahaul, Spiti and Zanskar were part of the kingdom of Ladakh in the 10th century. However, in the 17th century, Ladakh was defeated by a combined Mongol-Tibetan force changing the customs and culture of the entire region.
Lahaul was later separated into Upper Lahaul and Lower Lahaul which came under the control of Kullu Kings and Chamba Rajas respectively. Most people follow a curious blend of both Hindu and Buddhist customs in Lahaul resulting in a fascinating amalgamation of culture, customs and architecture.
Located at approx. 3300m Keylong is the dist. headquarters of the Lahaul section of Lahaul & Spiti district and is a pretty modern town with a swanky bus-stand that has ample connectivity by buses to all parts of Lahaul & Pangi valley (as far as Killar in Pangi). Lahaul (also Lahoul) also has the distinction of being one of the most prosperous areas in entire Himachal Pradesh. There are lush green fields everywhere courtesy of the river basins of Chandra & ChandraBhaga.
There was no seat to be found in the Haridwar-Keylong bus in Manali and I had no option but to board a 400 Rupees per seat shared sumo from Manali bus stand and reach breathless in Keylong. From the sea level of Jaipur to 10000 feet of Keylong was no joke and I was huffing and puffing while making my way up from the bus stand where the taxi left us.
Some local Lahauli friends came to meet me once I was in the guest house; I was keen on visiting all the monasteries around Keylong and luck smiled upon me. They had a car and were going to the biggest monastery in Lahaul : Kardang.
The road crossed Tandi bridge and branched off upwards from the main highway and kept ascending quite prominently to pass through lush greenery. Kardang village is situated on the left bank of the river Bhaga and was once the capital of Lahaul and the monastery is located on top of the village. It may have taken us around one hour to cover this distance of around 20 kms.
It was the auspicious day of a Buddhist festival and there was a festive mood even among the monks. Flowers of various colours and sizes were growing in the vicinity of the monastery. The view of Chandra Valley from the open courtyard of the monastery was beautiful, checkered fields were visible interspersed with houses even as the Chandra river flowed serenely below.
The well maintained Drukpa Kargyud gompa of the red hat sect itself didn’t look 900 years old, as was claimed. The monks later told me that it was repaired in early 20th Century by a lama by the name of Norbu. The yellow roof of the Gompa is stunningly perched against the backdrop of the bare mountains of the Rangcha massif that tower above the valley. Prayer flags flutter in the cool breeze, my heart skips a beat too – it is summer in the valley and yet cold.
A separate room in the monastery enshrines a mighty prayer wheel said to contain a million strips of paper bearing the Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum (‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’). There is an all day ceremony in progress at the monastery because of the festival, we are invited by the monks and offered drops of ‘arak’ a potent barley liquor in the form of prasad.
There are statues of Sakyamuni in the centre, Padmasambhava on the right, and Vajradhara on the left, inside the main monastery or du-khang. Kardang (Or Kardong) monastery also houses a around 80 lamas and djomos (female monks). There are full volumes of Kangyur and Tangyur (Sacred Buddhist texts) inside the monastery.
The walls of the gompa are decorated with colourful wall paintings, also called frescoes. As I am with esteemed locals, I am also invited for lunch with the monks at the dwelling of the high ranking lama. There is very tasty rice and dall, and a strange looking local snack to be savoured with tea. I am happy when they tell me I am lucky to come on an auspicious day.
The local amchi (Traditional Tibetan medicine doctor) takes us away and gives us some medicines made from herbs for our well being. I have the choice of either walking by a 2 hour shortcut to Keylong or go back with them in the comfort of a car. I choose the latter and am pleasantly surprised to know of another small monastery by the name of Jabjes Monastery in Kardang Village.
I am told there are rare paintings and frescoes inside Jabjesh monastery but alas, it is closed for renovation and the monk with the key is not to be found. I spot some rock carvings outside the monastery.
It is deja vu, I had asked to be left there; kids come and play with me, dark clouds gather and it promptly starts drizzling. I try taking a shortcut, spot the Tupchiling Gompa and watch rain cover the valley while chatting with the monk.
I had begun on an auspicious note, and the gods did not disappoint me. I was to explore more of Lahaul’s riches over the next few days and years.
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