January 25, 2015

When India was an Island - Adventures Above the Tethys Sea

(Edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 25-Jan-2015)

Spiti River and the Road towards Lhangza from Spiti

Long long ago, even before the reigns of the kings and warrior lords, when dinosaurs trudged this planet, when the continents used to move and collide with each other, and when water was in abundance, a supercontinent named Pangea broke into multiple landmasses. And there was an ocean that separated the ancient land masses of Gondwana and Laurasia. This ocean, known as Tethys was named after the sister and consort of Oceanus, the ancient Greek God of Ocean.

With the continental masses moving, geographies changed – what was once in Southern hemisphere moved to the North. The Indian landmass which was divided from the Eurasian  plate by a distance of 6400km and was closer to the content of Australia, kept moving towards the latter at a rate of 9meters per century and collided head-on. Around 40million years ago when this phenomenon was occurring, the Tethys Sea began to shrink.

The plates of India and Tibet collided and created a massive mountain fold – called Himalayas - which continue to rise by an average of 2cm every year. New species evolved and some were let go. But Life, as a whole, sustained and evolved; and those that perished were engraved into the golden pages of the landmass’s history.  The fossils that were deposited on the Tethys sea bed were pushed upwards. Coral reefs from the Tethys Sea now resting at 5,000m above sea level would be a nice site to visit, isn’t it? And we decided to check this open-air museum in one of the most remote and highest villages in India.

Fossils found in the open-air arena

We had spent close to a week travelling from Shimla and exploring some of the most remote villages bordering our neighboring countries. After having visited Sarahan, Sangla, Chitkul, Nako, Gue and Dhankar we finally arrived at Kaza, the administrative Headquarters of the Spiti region. We gave an evening’s rest to the spine and decided to visit the twin beautiful high altitude villages in a region that almost kisses the skies.

In no mood to trek due to a weeklong hitchhiking, we rented a private car. The road from Kaza meanders along the Spiti river and then you take a right that climbs up a dusty mountain and this was the one that was eventually to take us to Langza and Komic. The vast empty bed of the Spiti river was clearly visible as we rode up and we could clearly feel the gaining altitude. A few foreigners were brave enough to walk all the way from Kaza to Komic, not much in terms of distance(30odd kilometers), but there was absolutely nothing except for falling boulders, dust and sparse oxygen in the air enroute.

We were soon introduced to the Shila Valley that has some of the most gorgeous yet treacherous snow capped peaks. This region boasts of some beautifully named peaks like Chocho Khang Namo [translates to Black Mountain Princess] (5964m) and the Chocho Khang Nilda [translates to Sun-Facing Mountain Princess ](6380m), the 3rd highest peak in Spiti. [Chocho or ChauChau=princess, Khang=mountain, Namo=black, Nilda= sun facing]



The clear blue skies and the arid mountains dotted with a few patches of greenery greeted us into the village of Langza. The 600 year old monastery that is supposed to be a branch of the Tabo monastery bore an unassuming look. After the visit to the monastery, few kids and women showed us some really old fossils that they claimed to have collected from the river-bed and wanted to sell for a few hundred bucks.  Though one could trek to the fossil base that is around an hour’s walk from the Langza village, we preferred to let the fossils remain as-is in their own nature’s lap, in their own open-air museum.  Later, at Kaza, we found similar fossils being sold to tourists instead of being preserved in museums. At Langza, a huge statue of Buddha, sitting on top of a knoll, overlooks the valley below and wards off any evil or illness that tries to emerge from below. The Buddha here is supposed to be also called as Medicine Buddha is the guardian of the villagers here.

Closeup of Medicine Buddha overlooking the mountains at Lhangza

And then we continued driving towards the end of the road, that is, Komic. Situated at an altitude of 4587m (15049ft) this village has nothing more than a handful of villages and a really old monastery. Etymology informs us that, 'Ko' means ‘snow cock’, 'Mic' stands for ‘eye’, and the reason this place was called so was due to an esoteric legend. It was foretold in Tibet that a monastery was to be built in the backdrop of a mountain which would be in the shape of a snow leopard on the left, a beheaded eagle on the right with four springs in the vicinity. The area in between these mountains was to be in the shape of the eye of the Snow Cock and this was to the exact location where the monastery was to be built.

Similar to other ‘highest’ adjectives being given to most of the things found at this altitude, this monastery is the world’s highest Motorable Monastery.  The monastery is called as Komic Lundup Tsemo Gompa(or Komic Lundup Chhemo) and belongs to the Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is expected to be atleast 500 years old.  A board forebode women from entering the monastery while a stuffed snow leopard greeted me in.

The monastery has multiple legends associated with it, for it is quite unnatural to find the monastery at such a high altitude dating back to 14th century. It is said that the three feet tall status of the deity, Mahakal, became so heavy when robbers tried to steal it that they had to abandon it. It was then brought back to the gompa wherein it resides till date. Another story confirms the mightiness of this statue while spinning another legend. The Mahakal Statue that is believed to symbolize Dharma, refused to move from its foundation at Komic when the monks decided to shift it to the nearby and low-lying village of Hikkim. Only one monk stayed back despite others moving to Hikkim and he continued to pray before it. An earthquake that hit the region in 1975 or earlier, reduced Hikkim to rubble but the Mahakal statue at Komic held its ground. The monks re-ascertained the importance and the holiness of Komic and decided to move back wherein they practice till date.

Monastery at Komic

We were here only for a few hours, but I felt a deep karmic-konnection-in-Komic. William Hazlitt’s words, as he mentions in ‘On Going a Journey’ resonated…“Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours' march to dinner -- and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy. I begin to feel, think, and be myself again. Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull common-places, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence."

While we were just about to leave the monastery, I struck up a conversation with a lama loitering there and found out that there are some uncanny treasures like the tail of a man, horn of a unicorn, dragon’s egg, ribcage of what would be a big demon that are kept extremely secretive in here. Since the monastery was part of the Sakyapa sect of Buddhism, that believes and practices in Tantric practices, this was very much possible. I wandered into the imagery associated with these esoteric treasures while we slowly rode down the serpentine road and entered back into the soullessness in Kaza.

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