TABO Monastery-Ajanta in the Himalayas

  • By Koushik Roy
  • March 9 2021
Monastery Courtyard. Pic by V Shourie
  • Article tells about the importance of Tabo Monastery, how it evolved and its importance in Buddhist religiosity, artistry and architecture.

Transcending the cruel scourge of time, the Buddhist frescos and murals in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora – like Prince Siddhartha with Blue Lotus, The Divine Dream of Mayadevi, Yashodhara and son Rahul have been mesmerising us as the epitomes of India’s Buddhist spirituality and artistic consciousness. Amidst the snowy, tranquil expanses of the gigantic Himalayas, such holiness and aroma of Buddhist artistry as well as spiritualism are also evident within a Buddhist monastery – the Tabo Gumfa. Located at the high altitude and picturesque Spiti Valley, within the Devabhumi of India – the state of Himachal Pradesh.


The residents inside Tabo Monastery are principally of the Gelukpa Community, who always believe in that eternal chanting - “Om Mani Padme Hum” – Behold that Gem of wisdom within the Divine lotus that would terminate your moral stigmas, evil and unsated desires, anguish, superstitions and envy. The Tabo Gumfa is saved from torrential downpour and subsequent landslides since the Spiti Valley is saved, from the monsoon wind, by the Himalayan slope.


This Tabo Monastery had been set up in the year 996, under the guidance of one of the stalwarts in Tibetan Buddhism - Mahaguru Ratnabhadra or Rin Chen Tsang Po. The Monastery comprises of nine temples with an ancient Buddhist art gallery, exquisite murals and ‘Stacco’ series of pictures depicting Jataka Tales, life of lord Buddha and the activities of his celebrated disciples - Ananda, Upali, Sariputta and Maudgalyayana.


This Tabo Gumfa is India’s sole, one stone or Monolithic structure, the architectural grace of which may be compared to those of England’s Windsor Castle or Tamil Nadu’s Brihadeshwara Temple. This Tabo Monastery, located to the northern bank of the Spiti River and at 50 kms. Southeast to the city of Kaaza has been honourably included within the list of World Heritage sites by the UNESCO. At present, Tabo Monastery is being headed by the monk, Sensup Serking Rimpoche.

A section of Tabo monastery. Pic by V Shourie.

Article was first published in Bhavan’s Journal Mumbai.


Tabo Monastery was heavily damaged in the 1975 earthquake. It was then renovated with a new prayer assembly hall (Dukhang). His Holiness Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) arrived at this remote monastery in 1983 to observe the ‘Kaal Chakra’ festival for the happy and prosperous life of the local residents. The monastery’s renovation work is currently being supervised by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Tabo Gumfa has also been declared as a ‘National Historic Treasure’.


Tabo Monastery is encircled with snow melted brooks, boulders and small hamlets. About 300 - 400 impoverished, but selflessly happy people have been residing in the small, mountainous villages. They have been protecting the pristine environment from the toxic elements like plastics and polythene. A helipad and an agrohorticultural garden have also been set up here.


The frescos of the life of land Buddha have been painted on the walls of Tabo Monastery with the help of herbal colours. Buddhist religion spread in Spiti Valley with the enterprise of Guru Padmasambhaba, whose idealism spawned the establishment of this Tabo Monastery in the later period.


Padmasambhaba fused the Mahayana and Tantricism to evolve the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. He also set up a Buddhist monastery in Saamo to the south of Lhasa, as the forbear to Tabo Monastery in 779 C.E.


The Tabo Monastery was then set up with the enterprise of the visiting Bengali philosopher from Dhaka (Bikrampur), Bangladesh Pandit Ateesh Dipanka Shrigyan and Buddhist ascetic Milarepa. (see link 3 to read about Pt Ateesh)


There are 23 small shrines (Chhorten) within the Tabo Monastery, a cellar for monks and a nunnery. The earthen boundary of Tabo Monastery measures 6000 square meters. The central temple of Tabo Monastery is Sag - La - Khang (Temple of the Enlightened God). Here, the four-faced primitive Buddha (Adi Buddha) or Bhairokana is worshipped. This incarnation of Lord Buddha is believed to have created himself. Apart from this idol, there are the images of 33 more deities in this temple.

Ki Monastery Spiti Valley. Pic by S Nayyar. 

The Golden Temple was renovated in the 16th Century by then ruler of Ladakh, Tsenga Namgiyal. There is a huge oil painting or Bhairokana and the paintings of eight Bodhisattvas within the Mystic Mandala Temple or Deeksha Mandir.


A 20-feet-high, bronze idol of Lord Buddha and some mural paintings from Lhasa’s Potala Palace are found within the Tabo Monastery’s Bodhisattva Maitreya Temple. Ateesh Dipankar’s disciple, Dromton also built a temple within Tabo Monastery where the icons of Lord Buddha and his two favourite disciples, Sariputta and Maudgalyana are preserved, along with wonderful ceiling paintings. Tabo Monastery also contains the protector of Geluk Patribe, Mahakala Vajrabhairav’s temple.


In respect of Buddhist religiosity, artistry and architecture, Tabo Monastery of the Spiti Valley may also be synonymous to Bharhut and Karla Chaitya, Dalada Maligawa Pagoda in Sri Lanka and Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Myanmar. Tabo Monastery can be reached through an ardous, exciting, 350 km journey through Shimla, Narkanda, Rampur, Kulu, Manali, Rohtang Pass, Wangtu, Sang La and Kunzum Pass.



This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 15 February 2021 issue.

This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


Also see pictures of / read

1. Spiti Valley

2. Tabo Spiti   

3. Atisha’s Spiritual Journey to Tibet via Sumatra

4. Ajanta Caves 20 to 26

5. Ajanta Caves 16, 17

6. Buddhist Caves Ellora

7. Spiti Valley a Hidden Paradise   

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