Tabo Gompa

Top choice buddhist monastery in Tabo

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The gompa was founded in AD 996, possibly by Ringchen Zangpo, the Great Translator, as Tibet's Guge kingdom expanded into these outlying territories, and is reckoned to be the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India. Five of the nine shrines inside its mud-walled buildings date from the 10th and 11th centuries, when they were painted by some of the best Buddhist muralists of their era, blending Tibetan, Indian and Kashmiri styles. Bring a torch as lighting is dim.

The other shrines mostly date from the 15th to 17th centuries. While the old gompa is still used for some monastic activities, most of the monastery's life today goes on in the modern gompa beside the ancient compound.

The old gompa's spectacular main assembly hall, the Tsuglkang, is entered through the Zal-ma antechamber. Large sculptures of four blue protector deities (one for each compass point) flank the Tsuglkang's doorway (two inside, two outside), and its walls are lined with stunning, near life-size clay sculptures of 28 bodhisattvas. The hall's focus is a statue of a four-bodied Vairochana Buddha turning the wheel of law – the whole room being a 3D representation of the Vajradhatu mandala, which has the Vairochana at its centre. Murals below the bodhisattvas depict 10th-century life. Behind the Vairochana, the inner sanctuary holds a stucco Amitabha Buddha and two smaller bodhisattvas. The ambulatory behind that is adorned with hundreds of small and large lotus-position figures.

You may have to ask a lama to open up other temples in the compound. The other worthwhile early temples are the Ser-Khang (Golden Temple), second to the left from the Tsuglkang, with outstanding murals on its north wall of the green Tara and the goddess Usnishavijaya; the Kyil-Khang (Mystic Mandala Temple) behind the Ser-Khang, with a Vairochana mural facing the entrance and mandalas depicting deities surrounded by eight other deities on the north and south walls; and the Byams-Pa Chen-po Lha-Khang (Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple), immediately right of the Tsuglkang, with a 3m-high statue of the Maitreya (future Buddha).

The modern gompa outside the ancient compound has a sparkling gilded chorten and a brand-new temple, and holds a well-attended puja at 6am (guests welcome).