Tabo Monastery is located in the Tago village of Spiti Valley,
Himachal Pradesh, northern India. It was founded in 996 CE in
the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape by the Tibetan Buddhist
lotswa (translator), Rinchen Zangpo (Mahauru Ramabhadra), the
king of western Himalayan Kingdom of Guge. Tabo is famous for
being the oldest continuously operating Buddhist enclave in
both India and the Himalayas. There are many priceless
collections of manuscripts, thankas (scroll paintings),
well-preserved statues, extensive murals and frescos which are
on almost every wall of the monastery. A large number of
frescoes displayed on its walls depict tales from the Buddhist
The monastery is in need of renovation as the wooden
structures are aging and the thanka scroll paintings are
vanishing. After the earthquake of 1975, the monastery was
rebuilt, and in 1983 a new Du-kang or Assembly Hall was
constructed. It is here that the 14th Dalai Lama held the
Kalachakra ceremonies in 1983 and 1996. The monastery is
protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a
national historic treasure of India.
History of Tabo Monastery
The monastery was built by the Buddhist king (also known as
Royal Lama) Yeshe O'd in 996 A.D. Tabo was built as a 'daughter'
monastery of the Tholing Monastery in Ngari, western Tibet. This
royal dynasty was influential in re-introducing the Indian
Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, the second major spreading of
Buddhism in Tibetan history. They contributed abundantly to the
political, religious and economic institutions of Tibet in the
11th century through the building of Tabo Monastery; this is
documented in the writing on the walls of Tabo. It was
modernized 46 years later by the royal priest Jangchub O'd, the
grandnephew of Yeshe O'd. They were kings of the Purang-Guge
kingdom whose ancestry is traced to the ancient Tibetan
monarchy, and expanded their kingdom from Ladakh to Mustangby
building a large network of trade routes, and built temples
along the route.
The iconographic depictions are reported to be of 1042 and
later, consisting of sculptures,Inscriptions, paintings, and
extensive wall texts. The translator Rinchen Zangpo, a Tibetan
lama from western Tibet, who was mainly responsible for
translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan, was the
preceptor to King Yeshe O'd who helped in the missionary
activities. Several Indian pundits visited Tabo to learn the
Late 17th to 19th centuries
During the 17th-19th centuries, the monastery and the bridge
across the Spiti River witnessed historical events and political
havoc in the area. Manuscripts such as Tabo Kanjur make mention
of some brutal arguments. An inscription of 1837 records attacks
on the Tabo Assembly Hall in 1837, which can also visually be
seen by damages to some parts of the walls. The attack is
attributed to 'Rinjeet's troops' who were under the kings of
Ladakh. With the British Rule from 1846, the area enjoyed peace
until the 1950s when the Indo-China border disputes revived the
political claims of the border posts. In 1855, Tabo had 32
monastery is situated in the Spiti valley above Tabo village on
the left bank of the Spiti River. The valley is surrounded by
Ladakh in the north, Lahaul and Kullu districts in the west and
south-east respectively and by Tibet and the Kinnaur district in
the east. Above the monastery there are a number of caves which
are carved into the cliff face and used by monks for meditation.
There is also an assembly hall in the caves and some faded
paintings on the rock face. Tabo village is in a bowl-shaped
flat valley, the monastery is also in the bottom of the valley,
unlike other monasteries in the valley, which are perched on
hills; in the past the region was part of Tibet. It is located
in a very arid, cold and rocky area at an elevation of 3,050
metres (10,010 ft).
The original monastery was harshly damaged in the 1975
Kinnaur earthquake. Subsequent to its full restoration and
the addition of new structures, the 14th Dalai Lama
visited the monastery and started the Kalachakra Festival
in 1983, after the Kalachakra Temple was built. He also
revisited in 1996 when the millennium of its existence was
celebrated and has returned on numerous occasions. In
2009, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to launch the
Kalachakra Stupa, which has been built as an auspicious
symbol, following the special blessings of Kalachakra he
had performed earlier. His Holiness Sakya Trizin and other
Tibetan teachers and meditation masters have also visited
the monastery and encouraged the Buddhist practice among
the local people.
The monastery has 45 monks. Kyabje Serkong Tsenshap
Rinpoche (1914-1983) served as the Head Lama prior to
Geshe Sonam Wangdui, who became the Abbot of Tabo
Monastery since 1975. His responsibilities include caring
for the monastery and monks, teaching Buddhist scripture,
and looking after the local community. Current Serkong
Tsenshap Rinpoche is the spiritual head of the monastery.
Architecture of Tabo Monastery
Monastery (Tabo 'Chos-hKhor' or Doctrinal Enclave) now has four
decorated stupas, cave shrines, and nine temples. The paintings
date to the 10th-11th centuries for main temple (Tsug la Khang),
13th-14th centuries for the stupas, and from the 15th to the
20th centuries for all the other temples. Yeshe O'd and his two
sons when they built the monastery in 996 AD merged the
provincial and regional characteristics with that of India and
Central Asia. One particular feature mentioned in this regard is
the iconographic themes of non-Buddhist traditions originating
from the protectress deity Wi-nyu-myin. The main temple is
conjectured to represent the whole Vajradhatu Mandala. The
monastery has a huge collection of manuscripts and Pramana
texts, which were filmed between 1991 and 1998.
temple has an entry hall (Go Khang), which has paintings dated
to the late 19th century or 20th century. The old entry hall,
which initially formed the only part of the complex, has
retained the paintings of 996 AD. The Vajradhatu mandala is seen
in the New Assembly Hall after entering from the old entry hall
where the main deity of Vajradhatu, Vairocana is shown seated on
a single lotus throne on the back wall.
The main iconographic deities here are the Vajradhatu and
life-size clay sculptures with painted decorations complementing
the main theme. The mandala also has 32 life-size clay
sculptures of other deities which are enclosed to the wall which
merge well within the painted environment.
The Protector Deity, Dorje Chenmo, originally known as
Wi-nyu-nin, of the main temple was honored in this hall. The
paintings are of very good quality with bright colours, and are
dated to 15th or early 16th century. The paintings are depicted
in three sections with the central panel of the throne scene. An
inscription which brings out the details of renovation works
done is fixed to the right of Vajrapasa image. The royal lama,
Jangchub 'Od, who was in charge of the renovation, is painted
here. On the left part of the composition 'the great Sangha of
Tabo monastery' is depicted.
A seated Buddha figure sitting on a throne with the base
sculpted with two lions facing each other is also seen; this is
a partially restored image. The circumambulation of the temple
performed by the devotees in a clock-wise fashion passes through
the assembly hall. During this process, the narrative imagery on
the south and adjacent walls, the pilgrimage of Sudhana, and on
the north and adjacent walls, the Life of the Buddha are
seen.Three very large life-size sculptures are located on a
raised platform. They are within the shrine area of the temple.
Each is flanked by a pair of painted goddesses.
The main temple (Tsug la Khang) has the main hall and main
assembly area. It also contains many scriptures written on
wooden planks, which are hung on the walls. The dark main temple
room is lit by a small sky window and hence the room appears
dark. In the inner entrance hall there are colorful frescoes of
Buddhist and Hindu-Buddhist gods. Next to the vestibule is the
small room where garments for the ritual dances are kept. The
main hall at the centre is studded with images and at the centre
there is a Buddha image in the Lotus position. This image is
bordered on either side by celestial figures. On the pedestals
next to the main image are many more brass images of Lamas. The
108 holy scriptures are also part of the main hall display and
weigh about 500 pounds.
Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple
The Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple is an ancient temple which was
founded in the first 100 years of the main monastery as
testified by the wooden door frame. Remnants of a painting is
attributed to the 14th century. According to the sketch in the
Mandala Temple it is signified that the Maitreya Temple was
initially double storied, which is also confirmed by the damage
to the entrance wall. The image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya here
is over six metres (20 feet) high. There are also murals showing
Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse and the Potala in Lhasa. A
carved stone column base has the figure of a lion.
Temple of Dromton
The Temple of Dromton is founded by Dromton (1008-1064 CE), one
of the main disciples of Atisha. The Large Trom-ton Temple has
wall paintings of the eight Medicine Buddhas which are dated to
the 17th century; at the base of this temple the life of
Shakyamuni Buddha is painted in a narrative form. The Small
Mandala Temple is used for tantric rituals and teachings, may
also be of the early period. The interior of the Small Trom-ton
Temple has very stylish paintings; however, remnants of
carvings, dates attributed to the 13th or 14th century, are
discriminated at the entry door to the temple. The Nun's Temple,
a small temple, is seen on the back wall of the compound; the
paintings here dated to 18th century are not of good quality.
The Golden Temple is said to have been once covered with gold.
It was modernized by Sengge Namgyal, a king of Ladakh in the
16th century. The walls and ceilings are covered with wonderful
murals which are well preserved and are dated to the 16th
In the Initiation Temple there is a huge painting of Vairocana
surrounded by eight Bodhisattvas. The other walls are covered
inmandalas. This is where monks receive their initiations.
Newer temples, Stupas and Grounds
Five temples are included in the newer temple group, such as the
Chamber of Picture Treasures (Z'al-ma) and the White Temple. (dKar-abyum
Lha-Khang). After the assembly hall, the large Temple of Dromton
(Brom-ston Lha khang) is the largest temple in the complex and
contains many wall paintings; the wooden planks in the ceiling
The Mahakala Vajra Bhairava Temple (Gon-khang) contains the
protective deity of the Gelukpa sect; it contains violent
deities and is only entered after protective meditation. The
Protectress deity of the monastery along with her followers are
depicted on a large panel on the east wall of the main entrance.
There are many stupas in the areas of the temple complex of
which four have paintings in its interior. Two of the stupas are
dated to the 13th century, based on the paintings. A carved
wooden beam was also found in one of the stupas.
The monastery has been built like a fort with very strong walls.
The walls of these structures are 3 feet (0.91 m) wide and it is
the reason for its survival over the centuries of depredations
and natural calamities. The high mud brick wall which encloses
some 6,300 square metres (68,000 sq ft). In addition to the
temples, chortens, and monks' residence, there is an extension
that houses the nuns' residence.
Features of Tabo Monastery
Buddhism in Himachal Pradesh - Daily worship starts with
chantings at 6 am which was performed by the lamas who live
in the new temple complex. The lamas also perform tantric
rites here in the temples.
Tabo was developed as an important centre of learning in its
early centuries; the Kadampa School developed into the
Gelugpa School. The monastery currently runs the Serkong
School, which was founded on 29 May 1999, marking the 15th
birthday of Serkong Tsenshap Rinpoche, the present abbot.
There are 274 students, from the age of 5 to 14 years, in
classes 1-8. The monastery has plans to enlarge the school's
infrastructure and facilities but needs funding.
Many festivals are celebrated in the areas of the monastery.
The Tibetan monks perform traditional Buddhist and regional
songs and dances. The most popular religious festival held
here is the Chakhar Festival, which is dedicated to the
peace and happiness of all. This is held every three years,
generally during September or October. On this occasion,
religious masked dances, songs and general festivities are
the main events.
How To Reach There
The nearest airport is Kullu Manali which is situated at a
distance of 250 km from Tabo.
The nearest railway station are situated at Shimla and
One can reach Tabo through the following three gateways:
1) From Shimla, via the Spiti Valley
2) From Manali, via the Rohtang Pass
3) From Ladakh, via the Sing -O-la passes