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The hills and valleys of Himachal Pradesh have historical linkages with Buddhism that predate the arrival of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959 by centuries. The sacred lake of Rewalsar, the more than 100-year-old monastery of Tabo, the fortress like Dhankar monastery, the spectacular Kee monastery and the many Gompas of Lahaul are a testimony of the living traditions of Buddhism, one of the great religions of Asia.
Many of the monasteries in Himachal Pradesh trace historical links to Guru Padamsambhava, the great Buddhist teacher known as Guru Rimpoche to the Tibetans, who spread the influence of Mahayana Buddhism into Tibet. In fact, the story of Rewalsar Lake talks about the king from Mandi setting out to kill Padamsambhava in the 8th century so as to wean away his daughter who was under the influence of the great Guru.
For the pilgrim, the believer, the uninitiated, researcher, photographer or just a curious traveller, the Buddhist circuit of Himachal Pradesh captures a range of beliefs and iconography of age-old traditions that are associated with the religion.
Starting out from Dharamshala-Mcleodganj, the Buddhist circuit goes through Bir Billing, Joginder Nagar, Rewalsar (Mandi), Manali and over the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul. In this valley, centered around the monasteries near Keylong and Trilokinath at Udaipur, most of the residents are Buddhists. Crossing over the Kunzum Pass into Spiti, the valley abounds with many monasteries. Kee, Komic, Tabo, Dhankar and the Pin Valley monasteries preserve a 1000-year -old tradition. Moving down Spiti valley, passing Nako, you reach Satluj Valley. Kalpa, which includes Sangla and Rampur are places with some Buddhist interest. At Shimla and Solan the circuit stands completed. If one makes an entry from Solan-Shimla, it would end at Dharamshala-Mcleodganj. The complete circuit, however, can only be done in the summers because from November to May/June, the valley of Lahaul is landlocked due to heavy snow over the Rohtang Pass.
Dharamshala – Mcleodganj
Perched on the commanding Dhauladhar range, overlooking the vast Kangra valley, Dharamshala lower on the hill and Mcleodganj at a higher elevation is famous the world over for being the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Foundations of Mcleodganj were laid by British settlers in the early 19th century, but ever since the Dalai Lama took up residence and settled the Tibetan community here, the small town has even been rechristened as ‘Little Lhasa.’
The temple Tsuglag Khang here is an important Buddhist site where a congregation of monks and nuns can be seen chanting holy scriptures year round. The temple houses statues of the Buddha as Shakyamuni and Avalokiteshvara. It also has the statue of Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava).
Rewalsar is a small scenic hillside town that is well known for its pagoda style monasteries built on the banks of a holy lake. The monasteries have well preserved old stucco sculptures, wall murals and wall paintings. A convergence of religions takes place at Rewalsar as the place is held sacred by Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists alike. There are temples and a Gurudwara also by the lakeside.
Gateway to the Buddhist lands of Lahaul and Spiti, Manali is one of the most popular tourist destinations of India. Beas River, born out of the slopes along Rohtang Pass, gently flows through Manali, enriching the township and the farm lands of the charming rural landscape. The Tibetans settled in Manali have built two Buddhist temples, the Gadhan Teckchoking Gompa and the Himalayan Nyingma Gompa
A spiritual land, Lahaul and Spiti is truly for those who want to experience Buddhism as it has been practiced for centuries. In geographical seclusion and harsh terrain, the people have found calmness in Buddhism to appreciate the mysterious dynamics of nature at work. Missionary activity of sage Padmasambhava did introduce Buddhism to Lahaul-Spiti in the 8th Century AD. It still has a strong presence here.
As the middle country, Spiti was a bridge where the two great traditions of India and Tibet diffused in the trans-Himalayan region. With freckles of green over a dry weather-beaten face, Spiti is a cold desert that is characterized by a stark relentless beauty, narrow valleys and high mountains.
Settled on the left bank of Spiti River, in a flat valley, Kaza (altitude 3660 m) is the sub-divisional headquarter of Spiti. Surrounded by steep ridges and snow-covered peaks, Kaza has a small marketplace, medical facilities, a filling station, rest houses and hotels. It serves as a base for excursions taken in the area.
Founded by Dromtön (1008-1064 AD), Kee is the largest and also one of the oldest monasteries of Spiti. Perched on a hilltop (4116 m), overlooking Kee village, the monastery is 12 kms from Kaza.
White Clay Mountains escort you into Tabo village as you drive from Kaza or approach it from Shimla-Kaza road. Tabo monastery (altitude 3050 m) was founded in 996 AD and is one of the most revered Buddhist institutions in the Himalayas.
At first glance Tabo appears nothing more than a cluster of large mud huts, but once inside, there are a series of amazing galleries of wall paintings and stucco statues. It is the largest monastic complex in Spiti.
Getting there: Tabo can be reached only by road from Kaza (50 kms) and from Shimla (500 km).
Best time to visit: From May to early November is a good time to visit Tabo.
In dry but scenic surroundings, with a turquoise lake, at an elevation of 2950 m, is the beautiful village of Nako where the monastery, founded by Rinchen Zangpo was established in 1025 AD. Rinchen was a Buddhist scholar who translated Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. The monastery complex, a wood and stone structure, preserves centuries old architecture, sculptures and fine carvings on its walls.