24 hours at Spiti’s Key Monastery: Monks, Chai and a lot of star-gazing

Tibetan prayer flags atop Key Monastery (Picture credit Shaktivoyages)

The fluttering Tibetan flags atop Spiti’s largest Buddhist monastery whispered a silent prayer to the bohemian, cold wind of the Himalayas. Flanked by snow-capped mountains, the landscape is so stark, barren that its breathtaking. Perched atop a mountain, resembling several small houses built on top of the other, Key monastery overlooks a part of the valley with the Spiti river below cutting across like blue veins. A visit to Spiti is incomplete without a halt at the gompa.

Spiti river as seen from a road enroute Key monastery. (Pic credit: Shaktivoyages)

Cut off from Lahaul valley by the mighty Kunzum La pass (15,059 feet), Spiti is one of India’s least populated regions and a gateway to the northernmost parts of the nation. Right after crossing Losar, the entry point into the Spiti Valley, you can see the Key Monastery as a speck in the distant hill, overlooking the scattered villages. From a distance, the key monastery might not look as magnanimous, but as you get closer to Kaza, you get the drift. A narrow, partially-metalled road leads you to a bridge, where if you take a right, you reach Spiti’s sub-divisional headquarters Kaza, take left and you reach Key gompa after about 10 kilometers. Further ahead are Kibber and Tashigang villages. The monastery was established at around 1000 AD in the 11th century. According to historians, the gompa was ravaged many times during the 17th and 18 century due to war and natural disasters like fire and earthquake. Since then, it has underwent several rounds of restoration and maintanence work to hold its foundations.

Key monastery as seen from a hill. Below is the Spiti river. (Pic credit: Shaktivoyages)

As I snaked my way around the curvy roads leading up to the gompa, a huge red gate welcomes you to the Key Monastery. Some way ahead, a young monk laid out his hand with a thumb up and a broad smile. “Julley,” he said, as I stopped my motorcycle to give him a lift till the gompa. “Julley,” I responded, nodding my head with as much joy. He hopped on the motorcycle, placed his hands on my shoulders and motioned me to proceed. ‘Julley’, that’s the only thing I knew, and that would be the only thing I would ever need in this deeply Buddhist land.

In that formal salutation, I forged a much deeper connection with the place and its people. It’s easier to be yourself when you know nobody is judging you. And when you travel to a place which is so remote and hard to reach, there is no place for superficiality. Before leaving for Spiti, I had heard there are gompas that let travellers stay to experience the monastic way of life. Since then, I decided to stay over for a night at least at Key. The decision was spot on.

Key monastery’s main kitchen. (Picture credit Shaktivoyages)

 

This is where the food for around 200 monks are prepared. (Picture credit: Shaktivoyages)

Lugging my heavy backpack up the main staircase, I reached the entrance to the temple compound. Clueless at first, I asked an elderly monk about the accommodation. He pointed towards a dark alley-like area, which turned out to be the way to the kitchen. When I went inside with muffled footsteps, judging by the way everything was so silent except for the howling wind, I saw a group of monks sitting next to a fireplace enjoying tea. The moment I stepped inside, some got up to make place for me. I politely resisted. But they insisted saying, “You are our guest, please take a seat.”


Inside, Buddhist prayers were scrawled on the soot-covered mud walls. A thick beam of sunlight cut through a narrow gap in one of the walls, the only source of light in the room aside from a dimly-lit tubelight. Just as I was waiting to ask someone about the stay, in came Gyatso!

The 30-something Gyatso is Key’s official cook, one who prepares all the three meals for at least 200 monks and lamas residing inside the temple compound. An extremely caring and soft-spoken person, Gyatso was also present during the revered Buddhist Kalachakra initiation ceremony held here in 2002 in the presence of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. After a brief conversation about where I came from, he showed me my accomomodation. It was a shared room with three cushioned beds, blankets and one tubelight. Very basic. There was a thin carpet covering the cold earthen floor. Outside, there were only two bathrooms. The best part about the stay here is that travellers are not put up at a guesthouse but inside the monk quarters at only Rs 250 per night. This experience is therefore unrivalled and pure. This also includes three meals cooked at the monastery by the resident monks.

Elderly monks do reasoning with their fellow mates about life. This is a process wherein they are taught that nothing in life is constant, or set in stone. (Pic Credit Shaktivoyages)

The entire monastery complex was evidently all too quiet, interrupted occasionally by boisterous chatter of little monks who engaged in playful banter with each other. The only time you get to see these kids is during their games period which starts at 5 pm till 6 pm followed by early dinner. This is the time when they come out of their classes to play a variety of sports ranging from football, to volleyball etc.

SPITI NEW 5

I had the good fortune of chatting up with these monks. Contrary to my belief, they seemed to be well informed about the outside world, including the popular Punjabi rapper Honey Singh and renowned WWE wrestlers such as the Big Show, The Rock etc. When I was clicking their pictures, they would imitate these wrestlers with violent expressive faces.

Monks gather for a regular communal lunch at Key monastery, the largest in Spiti. I noticed an elderly monk sitting with a stick to lightly reprimand those little ones who are too restless or naughty. But at the same time, I was quite surprised to notice how kind and loving elderly monks and lamas were to the little ones. (Picture credit: Shaktivoyages)

My one night stay here with these monks was spot on. I would do things they would do in their playtime, like pick wild berries with them, play volleyball, and they let me in their lives.

These monks took a while to open up. But once they saw me enough times lurking around to take pictures, this happened! (Picture credit: Shaktivoyages)
A young monk poses for the camera, candid at best. (Picture credit: Shaktivoyages)

One thing I’ve learnt while travelling, if you give your time to people, they won’t hesitate to give you theirs. I spent a whole day with these lamas playing football, volleyball, sat with them when they were eating, looking, pulling each other’s leg.

These monks had a field day posing for our camera. So much energy they have. (Picture credit: Shaktivoyages)

In turn, they showed me where they pick wild berries from when nobody was looking. I loved how the older lamas were very supportive and caring towards the little ones, always pulling their cheeks and hugging them in a joyous embrace. So much love. That’s the life in Key.

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