The Unique Culture Of Spiti That Trekkers Don’t Know About

I remember the first time I heard about Spiti, It was while reading Rudyard Kipling’s book “Kim.” Published in 1901, this book is set against the geographical grandeur and the cultural richness of India and specifically the Himalayas.

The protagonist of the novel, Kim O’Hara, along with a Tibetan Llama, traverses through the Spiti valley which is aptly described.

“At last they entered a world within a world — a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… surely the Gods live here”.

Surely, there couldn’t exist such a place as Spiti — secluded, untouched with its shamanic rituals, tenets of Buddhism and symmetrical villages against pink jagged mountainscapes — surely, there couldn’t exist such a spiritually electric place as Spiti!

Key, the largest monastery in the Spiti Valley region and possibly one of the oldest in the region. Picture by Sudheer Hegde.

Spiti- The Shangri La!

Pronounced  locally as “Piti,” Spiti  literally  means the middle country  that lies between India and Tibet. It was and still is  the ancient gateway to Tibet .

The beauty of its topography paints a stark picture against the blue canvas of the  sky. If you have visited Spiti once, you will never be able to forget it. The small things will stay vivid in your memory, especially the shapes and  colours — the white chortens, the prayer tablets, the mud walls of homes studded with pebbles, dust devils rising from the fine silt islands, the Spiti and the Pin rivers, like  mirrors, glinting through the arid cold desert – this high altitude world will truly take your breath away.

Read about 11 Places To Visit In Spiti After Your Trek

You trek through these stunning views of Spiti Valley on the Pin Bhaba Pass trek. Picture by Gourab Nandy.

Many treks — the Pin Bhabha Pass, Pin Parvati Pass, Kanamo peak — either begin or culminate at the heart of Spiti. All of  these treks give you a glimpse of the grandeur of Spiti’s brilliant landscape as well as the cultural heritage it expresses.

As a trekker, one must on any account, explore beyond the trails of the trek and beyond the touristy. We, at Indiahikes, believe that a trek is the best way to understand places in the most intimate way, and Spiti is one of those rare regions that allows you to do that.

Land of the Buddha

Spiti belonged to the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung. With the coming of the Tibetans in the valley, Buddhism flourished but the Zhang Zhung culture with its Tribal rituals and shamanic practices continued to survive in different forms, synchronising itself with the cultures of Hinduism and Buddhism along the centuries. 

You will meet locals who will tell you about various primitive traditions, beliefs and superstitions that are both taken from the Mahabharata as well as Mahayana Buddhism. Hindu and Buddhist gods have been assimilated together, living in harmony. You will be completely amazed by the understanding that exists between these two philosophies and their similarities. It will make you realise that culture is not a water tight compartment of a certain set of rituals, customs or religions. Rather it is a melting point where many philosophies can meet, interact and exist in harmony.

The Golden Buddha at Langza, deemed to be a 1000 years old. Picture by Satyen Dasgupta

The Spitians

The vernacular landscape is as sharp as the topographical. The people are flat faced, rosy cheeked but deeply lined because of the harsh cold. They drink the Chang (salted butter tea) and murmur prayers into the air with beads twirling in their hands.

A mother caught admiring her child. Photo by Ravindra Joisa.

You will be amused to find out that the gods here are quite temperamental in nature and require constant appeasement. You will definitely come across colourfully dressed villagers celebrating festivals to escape the dreadful ire of their gods. 

Spiti will make you feel far, far away from everywhere.

 The Magic of Tabo

When the great Italian scholar, Giuseppe Tucci went to Tibet in 1933 through Spiti, he wrote that the Spiti valley contains some of the most precious relics of  Tibetan Art and architecture. 

Lying next to the Zanskar region, the Spiti valley remained landlocked because of its harsh climate and inaccessibility. Thus its Tibetan culture  remained as it is – sealed in a time warp.

And to have a better understanding of this culture — one must visit Tabo.

Situated at Sumdo, the Tabo Monastery is not only the official entry point into Spiti but a doctrinal enclave and a living  museum. It was built in 996 A.D. by Rinchen Zangpo who translated 158  holy scriptures from Sanskrit to Tibetan. In addition, he also built 108 monasteries and stupas under the patronage of Yeshe Od, the king of Guge in western Tibet. The monastery celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 1996 in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama performed the Kalachakra ceremony for world peace.

Designed in western Tibetan style and painted by artisans invited from Kashmir, Tabo is a paradise of human artistic genius. The complex has nine temples, 23 chortens and chambers for monks and nuns.

Upon entering the main assembly hall or the Du Khang, you will see beautiful frescoes depicting the life of the Buddha and stucco figures of gods and goddesses. What will truly enthral you is the 13 foot seated figure of the four faced Vairocana, the Buddha in meditation, on the wall across the main door of the monastery .

Visit the Ser Khang or the golden temple and you will see lovely paintings of the Gandharvas (angels specialising in the arts) along with birds and delicate floral motifs. Standing here, amongst these ancient relics and paintings, with monks and nuns vibrating with prayers- you will  be reformed- take our word  for it!

Next day  you could drive on to Ki Gompa, the largest monastery in Spiti. Although this monastery was invaded and plundered umpteen times by the Ladakhis, Dogras and the Sikhs, it still has been able to preserve its collection of sacred Buddhist  paintings or Thangkas which are more than 200 years old.

You will also come across a collection of old weapons and a few three-metre-long trumpets.

Shamanism and  medicine men  

In the Himalayan region, particularly in Himachal Pradesh, an ancient form of tribal religion called Bon has a significant influence. Bon is popular in the Zanskar Range and throughout Tibet and is perhaps the earliest form of religion in Spiti.

Bon religion is associated with shamanic rituals of medicine men or Amchis as they are locally called. Spend some time in any village and you will meet medicine  men who forage  for their medicines in the forests, preserving them in tiny leather pouches. Don’t mistake  their kind,  lined faces for ignorance .They can tell you  the  contents of  your stomach or whether you’re possessed by  the spirit of a local demon just by checking your pulse !

Harmony with nature and within

Harmony is a way of life at Spiti. You will notice this harmony in everything as you trek through these valleys. The villages, their colour, the polite people, their even politer yaks and ponies, the women winnowing the chaff from the grain. Everything exudes contentment and a deep reverence for nature. Tucked away here is the epitome of synchronised living with nature.

The women of Mud Village smiling while they go about their farm work. Picture by Gourab Nandy.

The harmony of the villages will strike you at first. The villages in Spiti all look the same. Unlike the haphazard hamlets in the rest of Himachal, the sameness of the homes in Spiti with their white mud washed walls and the brown hay stacked rooftops will surely make you feel a déjà vu.

Notice the harmony in the houses of this village. Picture by Ravindra Joisa.

The villages lie perfectly symmetrical next to a clear running stream coming from a natural spring.You will be delighted  to see that all  houses are lime washed externally and the top of the house is painted red with Chak (red soil).All the villages in this region are on the sun facing side and in wet point settlements.With the scarcity of water, they are mostly located next to glacier fed streams.

The  white Gompas and Chortens surround the villages  and prayer tablets  are strewn across the trails. You will know you are in the presence of a strong Buddhist way of living as soon as you set eyes on a village at Spiti .

Talk to a shop owner, a chanting monk  or a smiling lady working in the fields. You will realise that harmonious living is in the culture of Spiti. Every conversation will be somehow related to the meaning of life, to the land and its preservation. You will learn that religion and a reverence for the habitat go hand in hand at Spiti. The locals are deeply connected to the land and their natural heritage. If this is not modern sustainable living – then  I wonder what is ?

Chamurthi Horse- A rare heritage breed

Spiti has many wild treasures including the Pin Valley National Park — home to the Ibex, Snow Leopard and the Red Fox. Even the postmen are mules! But I will tell you about the most fascinating one. 

The Chamurthi horse — one of India’s seven recognised heritage breeds-  is a native of the Spiti Valley. You will come across this breed nimbly climbing steep frozen slopes with their hardened hooves. 

You will be astounded to know that the Chamurthi, despite being one of the rarest  horses in the world, is also  highly intelligent.

Ask a local horse keeper and you will learn that the Chamurthi has the capacity to remember and navigate really well. They can travel long distances, as long as Ladakh to Spiti, even remembering the house and the people who have raised it!

If you come across a Chamurti, carefully observe its owner too. The people of Spiti love talking to their animals. The horse and its keeper enjoy many lone conversations of love and home when they are travelling  together.

In these barren surroundings, with the snowy peaks in the distance, a gentle but freezing wind and the sound of horses’ hooves clip clopping, Pause. Sit on a roadside tea shop , staring into the green barley fields and the blue sky corralled with  white clouds and wonder why treks have to end at all…

They really don’t need to, do they ?

Drop a comment if you’ve been to Spiti and have some stories to share about its culture & experience!

Megha Anne

Megha Anne

Megha Anne is a writer and a serious dog lover. She has been a mountain child for as long as she can remember. Her family, including her dog, Coco is a family of travellers. Megha loves writing -- she believes that words help steer her imagination. She writes poetry, stories and some other not-so-nice stuff to earn and travel to the mountains. Currently, after the Brahmatal Trek, she has developed a big crush on Mt Trishul and Mt Nanda Ghunti and plans to return soon!