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Key Monastery
About Key Monastery

Key Gompa is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery which is situated on top of a hill at an elevation of 4,166 metres above sea level close to the Spiti River in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh, Lahaul and Spiti district, India. It is the biggest monastery of Spiti Valley and a religious training centre for Lamas. It is home to around 300 lamas who receive their religious education here. It reportedly had 100 monks in 1855.

However it is believed that the monastery is at least a thousand years old. There was even a celebration of its millennium in 2000 in the presence of the Dalai Lama. Key Gompa was frequently attacked by the Mongols, such as the 17th century raid during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The walls of the monastery are decorated with beautiful paintings and murals, thangkas (a painted or embroidered Tibetan banner), stucco images, valuable manuscripts, and unique wind instruments. There is also a collection of weapons which were probably used to defend the monastery from the attackers. The wind instruments are still put to use during the enaction of Chham in summers.

Best time to visit Key Monastery is during summer from May to October. From October end, Rohtang Pass remains closed due to snow fall.

Location of Key Monastery

The monastery is about 12 km north of Kaza and can be reached by covering a distance of 210 km from Manali to Kaza. From there daily buses are available to the Kye Monastery.

The biggest centre of Buddhist learning in Spiti Valley, Key Monastery is over 1000-year-old. It is the oldest training centre for Lamas. It is located at a height of 13,668 feet above mean sea level in Lahaul Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh in north India.

Founded by Dromton, a famous disciple of teacher Atisha in the 11th century, the monastery used to house about 350 lamas at one time. The number of prisoners at the monastery has come down.

History of Key Monastery

Key Gompa is founded by Dromtön (Brom-ston, 1008-1064 CE), a pupil of the well-known teacher, Atisha, in the 11th century. This may however, refer to a now destroyed Kadampa monastery at the nearby village of Rangrik, which was probably destroyed in the 14th century when the Sakya sect rose to power with Mongol assistance.

Key was attacked again by the Mongols during the 17th century, during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama and became a Gelugpa establishment. In 1820 it was sacked again during the wars between Ladakh and Kulu. In 1841 it was harshly damaged by the Dogra army under Ghulam Khan and Rahim Khan. Later that same year suffered more damage from a Sikh army. In the 1840s it was destroyed by fire and, in 1975, a violent earthquake caused further damage which was repaired with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India and the State Public Works Department.

The walls of the monastery are covered with paintings and murals, an example of the 14th century monastic architecture, which developed as the result of Chinese influence. Key monastery has a collection of ancient murals and books, including Buddha images. There are three floors, the first one is mainly underground and used for storage. One room, called the Tangyur is richly painted with murals. The ground floor has the wonderfully decorated Assembly Hall and cells for many monks.

Key Gompa now belongs to the Gelugpa sect, along with Tabo Monastery and Drangtse Monastery, one of three in Spiti. "The monastery of Key accommodates nearly 250 monks, who reside within the sacred walls in winter, and stay during the summer with their parents or brothers, working in the fields, or employed in carrying travellers' goods. These monasteries have their regular heads, or abbots, and the higher religious titles can only be obtained by the candidates proceeding in person to either Shigatzee (Shigatse) or Lhassa (Lhasa)." A celebration of its millennium was conducted in 2000 in the presence of the Dalai Lama.

Architecture of the Monastery

The monastery is famous for its architecture called Pasada style. Pasada style is characterised by two or more stories and often plays the role of a fort-monastery. The monastery is spread over three floors – underground, ground and first floor. Underground is mainly utilized for storage; ground floor is used as assembly hall, called Du-Khang. The ground floor also has small rooms for monks.

The rooms with murals called Tangyur is worth to visit. The monastery is famous for its ancient murals, rare thangkas and ancient weapons. The images of Gautam Buddha in dhyana (meditation) position are a must see. The monastery also has a sizeable collection of musical instruments like trumpets, cymbals and drums.

Key Gompa, belongs to the Gelugpa sect also called the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Key is among the three monasteries of the Gelugpa sect in Spiti valley, the other being Tabo and Drangtse Monastery. In 2000, the Kalachakra ceremony was held at the monastery in the presence of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. Over 1500 lamas attended the ceremony.

The scenic landscape which forms the backdrop for Key Monastery is also a factor in the large number of tourists making a beeline for the remote monastery. Surrounded by snow capped mountains and glaciers, the beauty of the valley is amazing. The route to Key Monastery is also beautiful.

The culture of Key, like the rest of Spiti, closely resembles that of Tibet. It is hardly surprising then that the whole of Spiti is known as Little Tibet. Chham (mask dance) by monks are very popular and an integral part of festivities. The themes of the dance emphasize the victory of good over evil.

Exhibits Inside Key Monastery

Inside there are low rooms, gloomy passages, arduous staircases, narrow corridors and tiny doors that lead up to prayer rooms. These prayer rooms themselves do not follow a single design.

In addition to all the drawbacks the monastery also has its own set of highlights. For example, the paintings and the murals of the walls promptly catch one’s attention. There is also an image of Dhyana Buddha inside.

The monastery houses an exquisite collection of thangkas, priceless manuscripts, stucco images, unique wind instruments and above all a collection of weapons. These weapons continuously reminds of the past when the monastery was frequently under attack. The wind instruments are still made use of during the performance of Chham in summers.

Festival Celebrated in Key Monastery

In the month of June and July the Kye Monastery celebrates a festival in which Chaam dances are followed by a procession that reaches the ritual ground below the monastery. Here, a large butter sculpture of a demon is set on fire. The festival sees devotees not only pouring in large numbers but also laying themselves down on the procession route so that lama walk over them.

Spiti Valley

The sub divisional headquarters of the Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, the Spiti valley extends over an area of 100 km and is divided into eastern and western valley. The valley encompasses villages and some fields where the inhabitants grow barley, buck- wheat, peas & vegetables. Lot of people here are Buddhists.

It has its headquarters located at Kaza from where the Kye Monastery is only 12 km away. The town of Kaza has a host of shops, hotels and houses. Hence, for all those who are desirous of staying will not face any problem.

Best Season / Best time to visit Spiti

The weather of Lahaul and Spiti remains cold for most part of the year. Summers (Mid May to Mid October) is the best time to visit the area as this is the time when the routes are open. It seldom rains during the summers and adventures too can be enjoyed. Winters (November to April) the area received very heavy snowfall and the roads are closed. There is very less or no rainfall in this region.

Other Attractions Around Key Monastery

Tabo Monastery
This is yet another monastery that was founded in the 10th century and as such has completed 1000 years of existence. Its significance is further enhanced by the fact that it is next only to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet in fame. Murals of the monastery are a huge attractions here because they have very much resemblance to the paintings of Ajanta caves in Maharashtra.It is located about 50 km from the town of Kaza and houses around 60 lamas.

Dhankar Monastery
If the Thang Yug Gompa serves the western population of the Spiti valley, the Dhankar Monastery is there for the eastern population of the Spiti valley. It is about 25 km away from Kaza and houses around 100 lamas. An image of 'Vairochana' or Dhayan Budha is of huge importance here. Apart from this, the monastery also houses Buddhist relics like paintings and sculpture.

Thang Yug Gompa
It is located at a distance of about 13 kms from the town of Kaza, the Thang Yug Gompa stands at a remote place in the narrow gauge of Kaza Nallah. The monastery is meant for the use of western population of central Spiti. From this monastery, a long plateau goes upto Shilla peak.

How to Reach Key Monastery

By Rail
The railway station from Spiti lies at Shimla and Pathankot.

By Road
Kaza can be reached from Manali by direct buses and taxis. However, the route from Manali is open between specific months, May to October, depending upon the opening and closing of the Rohtang Pass, the gateway to the Lahaul and Spiti valley. Kaza can also be reached from Shimla via Kinnaur. Both buses and taxis are available. From Kaza, a daily bus takes you to the Kye Monastery.

By Air
Kullu and Shimla are two nearby airports that are well connected to other parts of India.



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