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103 Meridian East » Leisure/Travel »  The Spiti Valley: The Land In The Middle
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Low, whitewashed houses press tightly against one another. A swarthy, dark-haired woman in a brightly-coloured shalwar-kameez and woollen shawl pours green tea into drinking bowls. The gilded roof of a Buddhist temple glistens in the sun. I glance even higher, where white pinnacles touch the clouds. I am breathing heavily, but it is hardly because of the height; rather, I am gasping at the sight of all this unreal, cosmic and limitless splendour. We are in the Spiti Valley, a patch of Tibet in India's north.

Hidden in the Snows

Modern Tibet consists of several detached parts. In the middle, there is China's autonomous region of Tibet, home to Lhasa, the "city of the gods", where weary pilgrims traditionally make their way to the sacred Mount Kailash. A mere century ago, foreigners were refused access to Tibet, so these lands were reached only by the most tenacious travellers, such as Gombojab Tsybikov, who had to disguise as a Buryat lama and walk with a caravan for months. To visit Lhasa today, one has to apply for a permit, which is easily obtained with a package tour.

But historic Tibet is twice as big as the Tibetan autonomous region. Its other territories are divided administratively into the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Xinhai, Sichuan and Yunnan, in addition to "Minor Tibet", comprising the north Indian regions of Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti. Small, cold and sparsely populated, Spiti is hidden in the Himalayan snows, on the border of the Tibetan plateau and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The word "Spiti" can be translated as "the land in the middle".

The Dark Past of Buddhist Kingdoms

For a long stretch of time, Tibet was split into kingdoms that, at times, coexisted peacefully and, at other times, fought one another. From the 7th to 9th centuries, central Tibet was ruled by the powerful Yarlung Dynasty. King Songtsan Gampo introduced Buddhism to Tibet. In the mid-9th century, the dynasty collapsed. An ambitious descendant of the fallen kings, a certain Nyima Gon, later conquered the western margins of Tibet and united them, including Spiti, into one realm.

Following the rule of Nyima Gon, the vast territorial possessions were divided among his three sons. The elder brother inherited the powerful kingdom of Ladakh, while the deserted and poor Spiti was given to the younger one. Later, the rulers of Ladakh would occasionally send the army to the vassal valley as an assertion of their power. However, Spiti's inhabitants were not to be caught off-guard: sentinels were watchful on the high mountain ridges and precipices and would light signal bonfires at the sight of the enemy. When in danger, everyone assembled in the fortresses specifically erected on steep cliffs, which were extremely difficult to access. Even monasteries and residences in Spiti were built as defence structures – with thick walls, tiny porthole windows and heavy wooden doors with massive locking bars.

In the 17th century, Spiti was left alone by the Ladakh rulers who were faced with a threat in the form of the Moguls. In the 19th century, Spiti came under the control of the Sikhs, whose ambitions plans were to conquer central Tibet. After the Anglo-Sikh wars in the mid-19th century, the region came under the control of the British East India Company. In 1947, India obtained its long-awaited independence, and Spiti became part of the state of Punjab. In 1966, the Spiti Valley was annexed to the state of Himachal Pradesh, in whose most remote corner it lies today.

Never Losing Heart

To anyone who grew up in a warm climate, Spiti hardly looks hospitable. There are very few sites located lower than 3,000 metres, while villages and nomad camps can be found as high as 4,000 metres above sea level. Impressive, all covered in deep crevices, glaciers flow to the foot of the snow-capped mountains. Birds of prey build their nests on the dead mountains. It's very dry here and there is no forest whatsoever. Local people tend to their few plants as others care for their in-house conservatories. The wind is frequent here, dry and prickly.

The harsh climate is compensated by the splendour of the landscape. Against the backdrop of chocolatetruffle and snowy-streaky mountains crouch tiny, neat villages. Down below flow baby-blue bands of a river meandering through the small squares of fields. Here and there are massive, grotesque formations of sand, clay and stones; these are ancient deposits of the former riverbed, ground by the wind and rain to the perfection of jewellery.

When you come to Spiti for the first time, you can't help but think that someone must have invented a time machine. This region seems not to have changed since mediaeval times. Houses are still built from unburnt clay bricks. Like centuries before, nomads drive their herds of yaks to alpine pastures. In ancient Buddhist temples, the same services are held where young monks learn mantras under the supervision of knowledgeable mentors. Spiti had been long isolated; up to the 1960s when a strategic road between India and China was built, one could reach the valley only via highland passes that were accessible several months a year.

The menu of the local people is very humble: barley, wheat, rice, milk, butter, yoghurt and meat, while vegetables and fruits are lacking. Several times a day, women brew green tea in their sooty teapots, adding in some yak butter. This beverage that looks more like a soup helps fight the cold and dry conditions of the highland. If you first put some barley flour and dried yak cheese in a drinking bowl, then pour in the buttery, salted tea and stir it, invariably with your fingers as locals do, you will end up with tsampa – the Tibetan's staple food. Guests are welcomed with chang – barley beer that is said to help you keep warm. "Once a yeti came to our village and drank several litres of our chang", an acquaintance from Spiti prone to believing in myths and legends proudly tells me. Rare tourists come here over the summer, yet they wrap themselves in rugs and woollen shawls. Blackouts happen and could last from two to three days. Europeans deprived of the opportunity to charge their photo cameras and cell phones are indignant over the lack of electricity, while local Spiti dwellers only shake their heads and keep on smiling, like all Tibetans do. Obviously, nothing can upset their routine.

Away from the Changes of Time

Since the arrival of Buddhism in the 9th and 10th centuries, the people of Spiti have whispered mantras daily while counting the 108 beads that must correspond to the number of syllables pronounced. While resting, they turn praying drums, inside of which are tattered scrolls with sacred scriptures. Each home has an altar adorned with a picture of the Dalai Lama surrounded by colourful buddhas and multi-armed bodhisattvas, richly decorated and seated on lotus flowers.

Every morning, deities are offered seven small cups filled with water. On the roofs of houses, stupas and temples fly red, yellow, white, green and blue banners. It is believed that the strong Tibetan wind will read the prayers printed on them with the help of wooden printing blocks, and will spread them around the world. There is hardly a family that does not have at least one member who is a monk or who lives in a monastery mastering Buddhist teachings.

But some changes did reach Spiti. During service breaks, monks make calls from their cell phones, the roofs of houses flaunt solar panels and satellite dishes, kids munch away on crispy chips and chocolate biscuits and the former Silk Road path is ridden by Indian jalopies. But as long as serious international organisations take care of the decrepit ancient monasteries, the people of the Spiti Valley, emitting serenity, will ritually walk around their gompas for the millionth time. It looks like Tibetan piety, like the endless blue skies and the eternal reddish-brown mountains, is immune to the changes of time.

Text by Antonina Zakharova
Photos by Antonina Zakharova
and Pavel Borisov


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Dr Ann Tan


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