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Tabo Gompa

Top choice in Spiti

Founded in AD 996, and retaining five sub-temples dating back over 900 years, Tabo Gompa is reckoned to be the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India. Don't expect the towering, colourful structures of Ladakh: the temples here are low-rise structures whose uncoloured mud exteriors are faintly reminiscent of ancient Malian mosques. Without artificial light, the half-dark intensifies the mystique of the interiors, albeit making it hard to see the detail of many masterpieces of mural and sculpture. No photography inside.

The old gompa's undoubted highlight is the Tsuglkang (main assembly hall) dating back to the monastery's first foundation, possibly by Ringchen Zangpo, the Great Translator. It is entered through the muralled 16th-century Zal-ma antechamber where bags, phones, cameras and torches must be left behind. Two blue protector deities in wonderfully naïve style guard the next doorway, behind which the hall's walls are lined with a remarkable array of near life-size clay sculptures: 28 bodhisattvas plus two more protectors. Murals below depict 10th-century life. 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 with Vairochana at its centre. Behind, venturing into the unlit inner sanctuary is an eerie experience, with silhouettes of unseen figures suddenly appearing from the gloom as you try to make out the features of a stucco Amitabha Buddha.

To see inside the other smaller sub-temples you might need to ask an attendant to unlock them. Most dramatic of these is the Byams-Pa Chen-po Lha-Khang containing a 3m-high statue of the Maitreya (future Buddha) draped in golden cloth and holding up a reddened palm in a sign of meditation.

Just outside the ancient compound is a sparkling gilded chorten with bulbous midriff, and a brand new monastery, which is where most of the 50 or so monks spend their time. However, despite its partial museumisation, the old gompa still has chanting ceremonies at 6am (one hour) and 4.40pm (20 minutes). You're not allowed in at these times but can enjoy the sounds from outside the building.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Spiti attractions

1. Monastery Museum

0.01 MILES

A new but very much traditionally styled extension to the old gompa's Zal-ma is nearing completion and will eventually house a museum of the monastery's…

2. Library

0.02 MILES

To enrich your knowledge of Tibet and Buddhism, discover this great little reference library hidden away upstairs within the monastery guesthouse building…

3. Caves

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A number of small caves, whose openings are easily visible on the hillside just above the main road, were once part of the old monastery complex. Access…

4. Dhankar Tso

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Offering beautiful reflections of the mountainscape plus chorten, this small lake sits high above Dhankar, accessed on foot by a steep 2km path that…

5. Lhalung Monastery

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Near the top of Lhalung village, this outwardly modest monastery is actually an antique gem. Beneath a yellow painted tin roof, the very atmospheric…

6. New Monastery

9.74 MILES

The lamas who remain at Dhankar no longer inhabit the old gompa, having moved in 2009 to the red-and-gold New Monastery, 800m away around the hillside.

7. Dhankar Gompa

9.96 MILES

Like a series of whitewashed limpets, the 1200-year-old Dhankar Gompa clings precariously to an eroded cliff-edge rock pinnacle, high above the beautiful…

8. Dhankar Fort-Palace

9.99 MILES

On the very crown of the gompa crag stands the crumbling fort-cum-palace that gave Dhankar its name (khar means 'citadel' and dhak means 'cliff'). Now…