KAZA: WINTER WONDERLAND.
Considered to be one of the most remote regions of India, the Spiti valley never really blossomed into a trade hub despite the geographical proximity to Tibet. Most of the trade bypassed Spiti. The route to Rampur Bushahar via Shipki La through Kinnaur was faster and more comfortable. The main road via Ladakh to Kullu was through Lahaul. Cut off by high mountain ranges and devoid of any significant mercantile activity, the people of the valley never really had any extensive knowledge of the outside world. Even now the lifestyles are more traditional, and rudimentary but with a young population enticed by modern telecommunication networks, the scene is changing rapidly.
The valley is named after the river that gives it life. Spiti, flowing through the icy landscape, is the only water source for the valley. It flows down from the glaciers on the top of the Kunzum la and travels down to join the river Sutlej, near Pooh which flows down from Tibet. The valley can be accessed from two sides - from Manali via Rohtang and Kunzum La and the other from the Kinnaur valley via Nako. The former is more adventurous while the other is more gentle and scenic. The Chhatroo-Batal-Losar route is from Manali is totally off-road while the via Puh-Nako-Tabo is well maintained except for the falling rocks.
THE KEY OF FAITH.
Key Monastery is one of the biggest monasteries and stands on top of a conical hill, much like the castles of Europe. It acts as a vantage point for travellers and tourists to enjoy the view and finer cultural aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. That was brought to these parts by the legendary Lochen Rinchen Sangpo, who is credited by the feat of building 108 monasteries in Ladakh and Western Tibet including the great monasteries at Tabo, Lamayuru and Alchi during the second diffusion. From Key, the view is indeed a sight to behold. It is surrounded by high mountains on three sides and by the flood plains of the river Spiti on the fourth. Standing at an altitude of 4,166m, the fort-like structure of Key was built in the 11th century. It has been made and destroyed several times. First by Mongols, then after the war between Kullu and Ladakh and then damaged again in the year 1841 during the Dogra invasion. It also suffered a severe fire in the 1840s, and each time it was rebuilt. It was in 1975 after it was hit by a major earthquake that the Archaeological Survey of India stepped in to help the State Department restore and maintain it. It is believed that Key, houses around 250 monks and has a priceless collection of ancient thangkas, including Tibetan silk thangkas up to 800 years old and frescoes depicting the life of Padmasambhava. The Gelugpa or the yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, govern the Monastery, just like Tabo and Dhankar in the region.
The valley unfolds itself in remarkable ways. The azure of the sky, the emerald green waters, mud houses and monasteries make the road the Spiti an unforgettable experience. The rarefied air plus the barren landscape of the Spitiian cold desert leaves you awestruck. Once you cross Nako, the downhill to Tabo and another 40 odd km to the town of Kaza often makes you wonder how insignificant humans in comparison to the stark geology stares you in the face.
Spiti, almost at the end of the Zanskar range, offers the delights of Ladakh on a mini scale. Unlike its Kashmir cousin, Spiti isn't of any strategic military significance nor are there any direct flights. This has helped the traditions and ways of the old to remain intact. Still relatively untouched by the world, Spiti remains an essential pastoralist and agro-pastoralist community, who heavily rely on the high mountain ecosystem for sustenance.
It is also home to a variety of wildlife species that are part of the global conservation efforts, especially the snow leopard and Markhour. Culturally too, Indian and Tibetan worlds have merged here, giving rise to a web of closely related cultures separated by geographical boundaries. The valley has three significant monasteries - with Tabo being the most important, then the two visually ethereal ones at Dhankar and Ki.