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Tabo Monastery
About Tabo Monastery

Tabo Monastery is located in the Tago village of Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, northern India. It was founded in 996 CE in the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape by the Tibetan Buddhist lotswa (translator), Rinchen Zangpo (Mahauru Ramabhadra), the king of western Himalayan Kingdom of Guge. Tabo is famous for being the oldest continuously operating Buddhist enclave in both India and the Himalayas. There are many priceless collections of manuscripts, thankas (scroll paintings), well-preserved statues, extensive murals and frescos which are on almost every wall of the monastery. A large number of frescoes displayed on its walls depict tales from the Buddhist pantheon

The monastery is in need of renovation as the wooden structures are aging and the thanka scroll paintings are vanishing. After the earthquake of 1975, the monastery was rebuilt, and in 1983 a new Du-kang or Assembly Hall was constructed. It is here that the 14th Dalai Lama held the Kalachakra ceremonies in 1983 and 1996. The monastery is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a national historic treasure of India.

History of Tabo Monastery

Early history
The monastery was built by the Buddhist king (also known as Royal Lama) Yeshe O'd in 996 A.D. Tabo was built as a 'daughter' monastery of the Tholing Monastery in Ngari, western Tibet. This royal dynasty was influential in re-introducing the Indian Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, the second major spreading of Buddhism in Tibetan history. They contributed abundantly to the political, religious and economic institutions of Tibet in the 11th century through the building of Tabo Monastery; this is documented in the writing on the walls of Tabo. It was modernized 46 years later by the royal priest Jangchub O'd, the grandnephew of Yeshe O'd. They were kings of the Purang-Guge kingdom whose ancestry is traced to the ancient Tibetan monarchy, and expanded their kingdom from Ladakh to Mustangby building a large network of trade routes, and built temples along the route.

The iconographic depictions are reported to be of 1042 and later, consisting of sculptures,Inscriptions, paintings, and extensive wall texts. The translator Rinchen Zangpo, a Tibetan lama from western Tibet, who was mainly responsible for translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan, was the preceptor to King Yeshe O'd who helped in the missionary activities. Several Indian pundits visited Tabo to learn the Tibetan language.

Late 17th to 19th centuries
During the 17th-19th centuries, the monastery and the bridge across the Spiti River witnessed historical events and political havoc in the area. Manuscripts such as Tabo Kanjur make mention of some brutal arguments. An inscription of 1837 records attacks on the Tabo Assembly Hall in 1837, which can also visually be seen by damages to some parts of the walls. The attack is attributed to 'Rinjeet's troops' who were under the kings of Ladakh. With the British Rule from 1846, the area enjoyed peace until the 1950s when the Indo-China border disputes revived the political claims of the border posts. In 1855, Tabo had 32 monks.


The monastery is situated in the Spiti valley above Tabo village on the left bank of the Spiti River. The valley is surrounded by Ladakh in the north, Lahaul and Kullu districts in the west and south-east respectively and by Tibet and the Kinnaur district in the east. Above the monastery there are a number of caves which are carved into the cliff face and used by monks for meditation. There is also an assembly hall in the caves and some faded paintings on the rock face. Tabo village is in a bowl-shaped flat valley, the monastery is also in the bottom of the valley, unlike other monasteries in the valley, which are perched on hills; in the past the region was part of Tibet. It is located in a very arid, cold and rocky area at an elevation of 3,050 metres (10,010 ft).

Modern era

The original monastery was harshly damaged in the 1975 Kinnaur earthquake. Subsequent to its full restoration and the addition of new structures, the 14th Dalai Lama visited the monastery and started the Kalachakra Festival in 1983, after the Kalachakra Temple was built. He also revisited in 1996 when the millennium of its existence was celebrated and has returned on numerous occasions. In 2009, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to launch the Kalachakra Stupa, which has been built as an auspicious symbol, following the special blessings of Kalachakra he had performed earlier. His Holiness Sakya Trizin and other Tibetan teachers and meditation masters have also visited the monastery and encouraged the Buddhist practice among the local people.

The monastery has 45 monks. Kyabje Serkong Tsenshap Rinpoche (1914-1983) served as the Head Lama prior to Geshe Sonam Wangdui, who became the Abbot of Tabo Monastery since 1975. His responsibilities include caring for the monastery and monks, teaching Buddhist scripture, and looking after the local community. Current Serkong Tsenshap Rinpoche is the spiritual head of the monastery.

Architecture of Tabo Monastery

Tabo Monastery (Tabo 'Chos-hKhor' or Doctrinal Enclave) now has four decorated stupas, cave shrines, and nine temples. The paintings date to the 10th-11th centuries for main temple (Tsug la Khang), 13th-14th centuries for the stupas, and from the 15th to the 20th centuries for all the other temples. Yeshe O'd and his two sons when they built the monastery in 996 AD merged the provincial and regional characteristics with that of India and Central Asia. One particular feature mentioned in this regard is the iconographic themes of non-Buddhist traditions originating from the protectress deity Wi-nyu-myin. The main temple is conjectured to represent the whole Vajradhatu Mandala. The monastery has a huge collection of manuscripts and Pramana texts, which were filmed between 1991 and 1998.

Main Temple

The temple has an entry hall (Go Khang), which has paintings dated to the late 19th century or 20th century. The old entry hall, which initially formed the only part of the complex, has retained the paintings of 996 AD. The Vajradhatu mandala is seen in the New Assembly Hall after entering from the old entry hall where the main deity of Vajradhatu, Vairocana is shown seated on a single lotus throne on the back wall.

The main iconographic deities here are the Vajradhatu and life-size clay sculptures with painted decorations complementing the main theme. The mandala also has 32 life-size clay sculptures of other deities which are enclosed to the wall which merge well within the painted environment.

The Protector Deity, Dorje Chenmo, originally known as Wi-nyu-nin, of the main temple was honored in this hall. The paintings are of very good quality with bright colours, and are dated to 15th or early 16th century. The paintings are depicted in three sections with the central panel of the throne scene. An inscription which brings out the details of renovation works done is fixed to the right of Vajrapasa image. The royal lama, Jangchub 'Od, who was in charge of the renovation, is painted here. On the left part of the composition 'the great Sangha of Tabo monastery' is depicted.

A seated Buddha figure sitting on a throne with the base sculpted with two lions facing each other is also seen; this is a partially restored image. The circumambulation of the temple performed by the devotees in a clock-wise fashion passes through the assembly hall. During this process, the narrative imagery on the south and adjacent walls, the pilgrimage of Sudhana, and on the north and adjacent walls, the Life of the Buddha are seen.Three very large life-size sculptures are located on a raised platform. They are within the shrine area of the temple. Each is flanked by a pair of painted goddesses.

The main temple (Tsug la Khang) has the main hall and main assembly area. It also contains many scriptures written on wooden planks, which are hung on the walls. The dark main temple room is lit by a small sky window and hence the room appears dark. In the inner entrance hall there are colorful frescoes of Buddhist and Hindu-Buddhist gods. Next to the vestibule is the small room where garments for the ritual dances are kept. The main hall at the centre is studded with images and at the centre there is a Buddha image in the Lotus position. This image is bordered on either side by celestial figures. On the pedestals next to the main image are many more brass images of Lamas. The 108 holy scriptures are also part of the main hall display and weigh about 500 pounds.

Older Temples

Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple
The Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple is an ancient temple which was founded in the first 100 years of the main monastery as testified by the wooden door frame. Remnants of a painting is attributed to the 14th century. According to the sketch in the Mandala Temple it is signified that the Maitreya Temple was initially double storied, which is also confirmed by the damage to the entrance wall. The image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya here is over six metres (20 feet) high. There are also murals showing Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse and the Potala in Lhasa. A carved stone column base has the figure of a lion.

Temple of Dromton
The Temple of Dromton is founded by Dromton (1008-1064 CE), one of the main disciples of Atisha. The Large Trom-ton Temple has wall paintings of the eight Medicine Buddhas which are dated to the 17th century; at the base of this temple the life of Shakyamuni Buddha is painted in a narrative form. The Small Mandala Temple is used for tantric rituals and teachings, may also be of the early period. The interior of the Small Trom-ton Temple has very stylish paintings; however, remnants of carvings, dates attributed to the 13th or 14th century, are discriminated at the entry door to the temple. The Nun's Temple, a small temple, is seen on the back wall of the compound; the paintings here dated to 18th century are not of good quality.

Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is said to have been once covered with gold. It was modernized by Sengge Namgyal, a king of Ladakh in the 16th century. The walls and ceilings are covered with wonderful murals which are well preserved and are dated to the 16th century.

Initiation Temple
In the Initiation Temple there is a huge painting of Vairocana surrounded by eight Bodhisattvas. The other walls are covered inmandalas. This is where monks receive their initiations.

Newer temples, Stupas and Grounds

Newer Temples
Five temples are included in the newer temple group, such as the Chamber of Picture Treasures (Z'al-ma) and the White Temple. (dKar-abyum Lha-Khang). After the assembly hall, the large Temple of Dromton (Brom-ston Lha khang) is the largest temple in the complex and contains many wall paintings; the wooden planks in the ceiling are ornamented.
The Mahakala Vajra Bhairava Temple (Gon-khang) contains the protective deity of the Gelukpa sect; it contains violent deities and is only entered after protective meditation. The Protectress deity of the monastery along with her followers are depicted on a large panel on the east wall of the main entrance.

There are many stupas in the areas of the temple complex of which four have paintings in its interior. Two of the stupas are dated to the 13th century, based on the paintings. A carved wooden beam was also found in one of the stupas.

The monastery has been built like a fort with very strong walls. The walls of these structures are 3 feet (0.91 m) wide and it is the reason for its survival over the centuries of depredations and natural calamities. The high mud brick wall which encloses some 6,300 square metres (68,000 sq ft). In addition to the temples, chortens, and monks' residence, there is an extension that houses the nuns' residence.

Features of Tabo Monastery

Buddhism in Himachal Pradesh - Daily worship starts with chantings at 6 am which was performed by the lamas who live in the new temple complex. The lamas also perform tantric rites here in the temples.

Tabo was developed as an important centre of learning in its early centuries; the Kadampa School developed into the Gelugpa School. The monastery currently runs the Serkong School, which was founded on 29 May 1999, marking the 15th birthday of Serkong Tsenshap Rinpoche, the present abbot. There are 274 students, from the age of 5 to 14 years, in classes 1-8. The monastery has plans to enlarge the school's infrastructure and facilities but needs funding.

Many festivals are celebrated in the areas of the monastery. The Tibetan monks perform traditional Buddhist and regional songs and dances. The most popular religious festival held here is the Chakhar Festival, which is dedicated to the peace and happiness of all. This is held every three years, generally during September or October. On this occasion, religious masked dances, songs and general festivities are the main events.

How To Reach There

By Air
The nearest airport is Kullu Manali which is situated at a distance of 250 km from Tabo.

By Rail
The nearest railway station are situated at Shimla and Pathankot.

By Road
One can reach Tabo through the following three gateways:
1) From Shimla, via the Spiti Valley
2) From Manali, via the Rohtang Pass
3) From Ladakh, via the Sing -O-la passes



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