The Magnificent Tabo Monastery of Himachal Pradesh

4 mins 6th January 2020


The ancient rock-cut caves at Ajanta in Aurangabad may corner the spotlight for their magnificent paintings but there’s another equally beautiful Buddhist shrine whose art is priceless. Around a thousand years old, the Tabo Monastery in the Spiti Valley in modern-day Himachal Pradesh has walls that are decorated with statues, paintings, Thangka art, murals, frescoes, stucco and manuscripts representing multiple influences from across Buddhist centres in Kashmir, Nepal and Bengal.

Especially astonishing is the Assembly Hall or the main shrine of the monastery. It has more than 30 near life-size statues of Bodhisattvas in stucco on its walls. The rest of this wall and almost every inch of the other walls of this shrine are covered in murals that include the life story of Buddha and stories of Bodhisattvas.

This holiday season, consider a trip to the foothills of the Himalayas to experience divine serenity in the lap of nature and witness the exquisite Buddhist art at the Tabo Monastery.

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Apart from the monastery itself, the caves tucked into the cliff face above, once the dwellings of monks, are covered in paintings, traces of which are still visible.

Located in Tabo Village at the foothills of the Himalayas, all roads seemed to have led to Tabo in ancient times. The village is at a crossroads, connecting Kashmir and Tibet to the rest of India. This made it a great centre of learning and a meeting place for scholars from Tibet, Nepal, Kashmir, Bengal and Odisha.

Also called Tabo Chos-Khor, the monastery was built in 996 CE by King Ye-she-o, who belonged to the Purang-Guge Kingdom of Western Tibet and whose kingdom extended from Ladakh to Mustang in present-day Nepal. The king worked hard to revive Tibetan Buddhism and it was during this period that the faith spread across the Himalayan region.

The Tabo Monastery has an interesting story behind it. According to legend, King Ye-she-o sent 21 local youngsters to study and learn the Tantras from Indian masters in Vikramshila University of Bengal, the most renowned centre of Tantric learning at the time. Sadly, unable to bear the heat of the plains, 19 of the 21 men died. The two who survived were Rinchen Sangpo and Lhekpai Sherap.

Rinchen Sangpo went on to become a prolific traveller and renowned scholar. He is said to have translated many Indian works into Tibetan and visited many Buddhist centres in Central India and Kashmir. The Tabo Monastery is said to have been built by Rinchen Sangpo on behalf of King Ye-she-o.

The Tabo Monastery complex has been under attack by warring groups often and hence it has been renovated many times. An inscription in the shrine suggests that it was repaired by Chang Chu-po, the grand-nephew of Ye-she-o, 46 years after its construction. The most major restoration took place after the monastery was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1975. The monastic complex now has nine temples, four stupas and cave shrines used for meditation.

The Monastery has stood tall for centuries, but the 21st century has presented Tabo with its biggest challenge yet – climate change. Rainfall has increased in this otherwise dry region, and humidity and moisture have been damaging the monastery’s frescoes and murals for years. The mud-baked structures in the complex have suffered damage and some have even cracked due to water seepage.

Located in the barren, snowy and rocky desert of the Tabo Valley, the monastery is enveloped in an aura of calm and is an oasis of peace. Here, monks chant prayers, continuing an unbroken spiritual tradition that goes back a thousand years. All is calm but for the art that adorns Tabo, all is not well.

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