The ‘mantras’ inscribed on sacred stones lying near ‘Gompas’ (monasteries) lend spiritual aura to this distant land in tribal Lahaul Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, bordering Tibet.
Driving through the tough and serene terrain in Spiti, one can feel spirituality in the air. The soothing sound of fluttering of prayer flags in high velocity winds amid chanting of ‘mantras’ makes it all the more godly in this cold desert.
The olden values visibly weigh high in this land of monasteries, where the tribal folks have carried forward the tradition of contribution to the institution of ‘lama’ (monk) to a great extent.
“We are fortunate. The fast changing world hasn’t had much impact on our society. Most families are still committed to religion and spare at least one son for the service of Buddhism. He has to become a monk, while pledging celibacy,” said Tsering Dorje, 76, at Tabo.
Dorje's middle son, Tenzin is a monk and lives in a monastery in Bengaluru.
Spiti valley in tribal Lahaul Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. As per the custom, the elder son in a family in Spiti takes care of the family and inherits the property. The other children don’t have right on the property. The younger son in the family usually becomes a monk to earn livelihood through ‘bhiksha’ (offerings), choosing the religious path at a tender age of 9-10 years.
The monks live and worship in monasteries in Spiti or go out of the state to live in monasteries at other places in the country. They study Buddhism and lead a simple and discipline life, attired in maroon robes. The living expenses of monks are borne by monasteries and they are allowed to visit their families once in winters for a short period.
The monks have to stay unmarried. However, at some later stage, if a monk chooses to backtrack, he has to properly leave the institution of ‘lama’.
“Very few do it as backtracking is considered equivalent to a sin,” said Thubten, 34, a monk, who had left studies after class II to become a monk.
In the families, which don’t have a son or by choice, the daughter can also become a ‘chomo’ (nun). There are some ‘chomo’ monasteries in Spiti, which work the same way to carry the religion forward.
The prominent monasteries in Spiti are Tabo, Ke, Kaza, Pin and Dhankar. There are number of smaller monasteries in the tribal valley. A number of monks and nuns go down to bigger monasteries in the South and Central India for better exposure.
The locals shared that in earlier times, the monks used to trek up and down the valley to spread Buddhism through storytelling and other modes of communication to convince the villagers. The villagers used to donate them food grains in lieu. The practice called ‘Bhujjin’ is now limited to some interior pockets in Spiti.
“The institution of monks in Spiti has continued by choice, which is the best part. There is no compulsion. It’s just a duty that we do for the sake of Buddhism,” said Sonam, 25, a monk at Dhankar monastery. He said the only difference that the institution is facing in modern times is that many youngsters now prefer to become a monk after completing school education. “It is just to catch up with times and add value to our religious roles,” said Ringzin, 24, a nun at Tabo.
The monks and nuns in Spiti are in no way behind times for their lifestyle. They have access to modern gadgets, be it computers, internet or cameras and use them in routine. They can play sports like badminton and cricket. The only thing is that they have to lead a disciplined life.
Steeped in tradition, the tribal Lahaul Spiti district also showed the highest child sex ratio (0-6 years of age) at 1033 in the country as per 2011 census.
“One may say that lack of facility for sex determination is the contributing factor. But we feel that Spiti valley is particularly favourable for girls because people here are high on spiritual values,” said some elders in Kaza.