Hot and salted yak-butter tea, the teaching ground of Buddhist Lamas, the filming of the famous Hindi movie ‘Highway’ and the picturesque location makes the more-than-1000-year-old Key Monastery a must visit place in the Todh Valley of Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, India.
Ki Monastery or Key Gompa is also spelled Ki, Kye or Kee and is pronounced like the English word ‘Key’!
After a dreadful 12 hours drive from Manali to Kaza, we were heading for Kibber which happens to be the highest motorable village in the world (4850m / 15912 ft).
On way to Kibber, we made two stopovers. The first one being Hikkim which happens to have the Highest Post Office in India at 14,567 feet.
The second stopover was Key Monastery! As we turned around a hill, there, stood in front of us, built on a conical hill, the 11th Century Key monastery.
There is a 14-kilometer long motor-able approach road to the Key Monastery from Kaza. As we moved closer to the monastery two young lamas crossed us on a bike. We could see women knitting by the roadside waiting for the local bus.
What is Gompa
Buddhist temples are called Gompas and though they vary from region to region, they follow a general layout with a central prayer hall containing a Buddha statue, benches for the monks or nuns to engage in prayer or meditation and attached living accommodation.
Most of the Lahaulis follow a combination of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism of the Drukpa Kagyu order, while the Spiti Bhotias follow Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelupka order.
Monasteries in Spiti
Tabo, Dhankar, and Key Monastery are the three main Monasteries which belong to the Gelugpa Sect in Spiti. Key Monastery is one of the oldest Monastery in the region, second only to Tabo.
Key Gompa (Monastery)
Situated at an altitude of 4,166 meters (13,668 ft) above sea level, Key Gompa dates back to around 1000AD and is the largest monastery in the Spiti Valley.
It is the religious training center of the Lamas and accommodates about 350 monks. Key Monastery is believed to have been founded by Dromton (Brom-Ston 1008 – 1064 C.E.) a pupil of the famous teacher Atisha Dipankar in the 11th Century. Initially founded in Rangrik it was later shifted to the present site centuries earlier.
The monastery has a rich collection of books and finest collection of thankas (a religious painting on a scroll) and the walls are covered with paintings and murals having high aesthetic value.
I would recommend visiting the library on the top floor which has a number of ancient murals and manuscripts and gives the magical feel of being in the library of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange”.
The architecture of the Monastery
Characterized by more stories than one like a fort, Kye monastery falls in the ‘Pasada’ style of architecture. Successive trails of destruction have resulted in a haphazard growth of the monastery. This monastery rises in terraces along the sides of the volcanic cone.
New blocks keep getting added to this Monastery. When I was here, due to construction, there was cement, mortar, and sand all around in the air right at the entrance. In spite of that, there was something very captivating about how synchronized the hands of the workers were moving.
Inside the Monastery
A flight of stairs takes you inside a dark corridor of the monastery where you will find prayer wheels (called Mani wheels by the Tibetans) lined up. Mani Wheels are always spun clockwise so that the mantra (prayer) “Om Mani Padme Hum” written on the wheels passes the viewer in the order it is meant to be chanted.
With Lush green farms and Spiti river flowing like a giant serpent, the view from the top is very mesmerizing.
The butter tea of the Monastery is a must try.
Winter is long and fertile soil is scarce, so farming is marginal.
I was lucky to have visited the Key Monastery once again after I had summited Kanamo Peak and was returning home. And as luck would have it, it was the day of Chham festival! I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.
Key Gompa had a totally different feel to it on the day of the Chham Festival. There was a festive atmosphere and the place was full of maroon-robed lamas, locals, national and international tourists. There was a long queue of vehicles parked on the road.
The cham dance is a masked and costumed dance accompanied by music played by monks using traditional Tibetan instruments like Dung ( a long trumpet) and drums. The monks wear vibrant silk brocade robes and colorful masks and perform ceremonial dances in the monastery courtyard.
Few villagers were also contributing to the music.
The significance of the masks :
Most masks are gory looking and scary, while some are warm and pleasant. The fierce masks are actually the Bodhisattvas in their wrathful form.
Young lamas control the crowd.
The communal kitchen serves free food to visitors.
No festival is complete without stalls selling knick-knacks.
Following the Gelupka order, it is headed by his eminence T.K. Lochen Tulku.
Rev. TK Lochen is a Master of Buddhist Philosophy and in Tantrayana Buddhism since 1985.
Kalachakra by HH Dalai Lama
Things to remember
- There’s parking available in the Monastery premises. From the Parking to the entrance of the monastery, it is a steep climb and likely to get little strenuous for the elderly.
- Photography is not allowed inside any prayer rooms or library.
- Remember to remove shoes before entering the temple.
- Accommodation: Travelers can stay in dormitories for a nominal charge. The charge includes food and accommodation. There’s a dining area near the prayer hall. A conch shell is blown by one of the monks indicating it is meal time. Remember to carry warm clothes and quilt to use at night.
- Toilets: There are no western or Indian toilets but only dry toilets. Work out and be ready to squat!
- NO Liquor permitted inside premises.
- Donation Boxes: are kept in all prayer rooms.
Have you been to any monastery? How has your experience been? Do leave your recommendations in the comments below.