Must see attractions in Lahaul & Spiti

  • Top ChoiceSights in Spiti

    Tabo Gompa

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Spiti

    Chandratal

    This gloriously calm glacial lake presents mirror-perfect reflections of the surrounding white-top peaks and geological colour-swirls. At 4270m, the 20-minute walk from the car park gets most visitors breathless enough that they stop at the nearest (southern) end. But it's well worth the 90-minute stroll to go right around the lake's edge, escaping the crowds and appreciating the reflections from ever new angles. Be aware that sudden snow falls can catch out visitors, so watch weather forecasts carefully before going, especially at the end of the season. When the Manali–Kaza road is open, daily buses pass the start of the access track (1km north of Batal) at around 9am/12.30pm east-/west-bound, but that leaves over 12km to walk or hitchhike. Note that Batal is a dhaba tent-camp, not a town, so don't expect to find taxis for rent there. Most visitors come in chartered long-distance taxis, paying an extra ₹1500 to a Kaza–Manali fare to make the Chandratal side trip, so don't be surprised if drivers ask a steep ₹500 per person to take hitchhikers to the lake from the turn-off. From early June to early October you can stay in bedded tent camps around 3km before the end of the approach track. The idea's nice in principle but the tents have no lake views and most of them are marshalled together into a single meadow, giving something of a military camp feel. By late September it's often so cold at night that you can find ice on the tent when you wake up.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Spiti

    Dhankar Gompa

    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 Spiti Valley. The result is one of Himachal's most spectacular sights, especially seen from a distance. Climbing within the main building, stairs emerge beneath a stuffed goat as you reach the top-floor courtyard, off which lie a meditation cave, a room containing ceremonial masks, and the colourful quarters in which the Dalai Lama sleeps when visiting. Accessed by a separate set of concrete steps, another prayer hall stands higher up the crag towards the fort. It has murals of the Buddha of healing, but far more memorable are the phenomenal views encompassing the twin peaks of Manirang (6593m) on the horizon.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Spiti

    Kunzum La

    Forming the watershed between Lahaul and Spiti, this 4551m pass, accessed by multiple switchbacks, is topped by a grassy area where stupas are strewn with fluttering prayer flags. Local drivers (and even the buses) briefly divert from the road to perform a respectful circuit around them. The scenery is marginally better coming from Kaza as you approach the pass climbing through a yak meadow with white-top peaks behind.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Around Kaza

    Ki Gompa

    Covering a conical hillock with an array of whitewashed monastic buildings, Ki (Kee, Key) is the largest gompa in Spiti. Views of it from the south are particularly photogenic. On request, the monks will open up some of the medieval prayer rooms that survived when the main prayer hall (now rebuilt) was ravaged by fire. In the Zimshung Lhakhang, the upper library, is the bed that was slept in by the Dalai Lama during his visits in 1960 and 2000. Around 350 monks, including many students from surrounding villages, live here. An atmospheric puja is held in the new prayer hall every morning at around 8am. Dance masks are brought out for the annual Ki Chaam Festival and again for Losar.

  • Sights in Lahaul

    Khamsar Khar

    High above Gemur but accessed on the side lane that winds up via Kolong, Khamsar Khar is an intriguing, unrestored Lahauli palace: 104 dusty, barely lit rooms in five storeys of brooding mud-walls. Highlights are the temple section, the carved wooden pillars of the inner courtyard, and the pitch-black kitchens that were once used as Lahaul's first school. Find the key holder in a house in Khamsar village, around 500m further north facing the big mani wall. The setting is delightful. The palace belonged to a thakur (landlord) who, locals claim, was infamously cruel and karmically punished by having no male offspring (though apparently his daughter married into the Ladakhi royal family).

  • Sights in Spiti

    Lhalung Monastery

    Near the top of Lhalung village, this outwardly modest monastery is actually an antique gem. Beneath a yellow painted tin roof, the very atmospheric Serkhang Gompa (main chapel) has interior walls lavished on three sides with an extraordinary array of colourful mud-plaster sculptures. They're so old that locals claim they were made by God not man. Across the lawn beside a collapsing mud-brick structure is the small cubic Langkharpo. Inside is a four-sided statue of the white deity, atop a plinth of snow lions: unique if less-accomplished in terms of divine workmanship. Light candles for ₹10 each. If the chapels are closed, ask for the key at the Serkhanh Old Age Home.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Dhankar Tso

    Offering beautiful reflections of the mountainscape plus chorten, this small lake sits high above Dhankar, accessed on foot by a steep 2km path that starts across the road from the New Monastery. Allow around an hour up.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Tangyud Gompa

    Probably founded in the 14th century near Hikkim, Tangyud monastery relocated to Komic after a devastating 1975 earthquake. The oldest section is within the smaller red building on the ridge with a goggle-eyed stuffed snow leopard hanging in its porch: women are not permitted in the inner prayer room. The bigger main building is home to around 50 monks, one of only two Spiti monasteries of the red-hat Sakya sect (the other is in Kaza). Daily pujas are offered at 8am to the protective deity Mahakala, a wrathful emanation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

  • Sights in Lahaul

    Gemur Gompa

    The masterpiece within this outwardly unremarkable 16th-century temple hides in a chamber at the back of the main idols: walk around to the right and behind you'll find the large gilded statue of Dorje-Chang with red-bodied Dorje Pangmo pointing meaningfully at his crossed wrists. The gompa is a 15-minute walk above Gemur, 4km south of Jispa. Start from the driveway of the Gemur Khar B&B and follow the steps. The courtyard is the scene of chaam mask dances in June/July.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Caves

    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 is a steep 200m walk starting up the steps opposite the Vijay Kumar shop. The one mud-and-stone building here protects a cave known as the Phoo Gompa, with recently restored early murals. If the cave door is locked, you might find the key on top of one of the pillars supporting the roof.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Ugyen Sangnak Choling Gompa

    At Kungri, this very large, custard-yellow monastery is predominantly new but has three much more interesting medieval shrines, featuring blackened murals, festival masks and carved wooden snow lions. Women are not allowed past the threshold of two of them. The complex is 2km off the road, turning west 1km south of Gulling (18km north of Mudh). The monastery's spartan, five-room guesthouse is to the left of the main entrance.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Dhankar Fort-Palace

    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 abandoned, it was once a shelter for the Spiti Valley people during times of war.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Buddha Statue

    The golden face-paint is starting to peel off the large 2005 Buddha statue, who stares across the Spiti valley from a shoulder of ridge above Langza village. The small temple set 250m behind has over 500 years of history.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Sakya Gompa

    The colourful new Sakya Gompa, inaugurated in 2009, stands just above the main road in New Kaza. Across the road is a row of eight stupas, with lines of prayer wheels beneath, commemorating the eight major events in the Buddha's life.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Monastery Museum

    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 collected treasures including artefacts and historical photos.

  • Sights in Spiti

    Library

    To enrich your knowledge of Tibet and Buddhism, discover this great little reference library hidden away upstairs within the monastery guesthouse building. Most is in English.

  • Sights in Spiti

    New Monastery

    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.