Keylong: A mix of virgin nature and Buddhism
A view of snow-marooned village on the outskirts of Keylong town in Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul-Spiti district
Just 122 km north of the picturesque Manali tourist resort, a serpentine road meandering its way through the gargantuan hills takes you to a haven of green fields and willow trees. Water streams bordered by jagged hills and almost round-the-year snowcapped peaks welcome you as you forget about the ups and downs of a hilly journey to settle down on the banks of the Bhaga river. But that's not all. Besides the innate beauty of the Himalayas, Keylong, situated at an altitude of 10,354 ft on the main road to Leh in Jammu and Kashmir over the majestic Rohtang Pass, takes you to a land of Buddhism and monasteries.
This administrative centre of Lahaul-Spiti district and its nearby two dozen small, scattered villages, located in the Lahaul Valley at elevations ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 ft above sea level, give a taste of adventure too. "It's simply a land of trans-Himalayan Buddhism, imbued with rich elements of Hinduism," remarked Australian tourist John Clarke. Not open throughout the year, the landlocked Lahaul Valley remains cut off for at least five months from December owing to heavy snow accumulation at the Rohtang Pass (13,050 ft) - the only connection with Manali in Kullu district. It reopens once the snow starts thawing after mid-April.
Very close to Keylong is the Kardang Gompa. Visible from Keylong, the monastery and Kardang village lie across the Bhaga river. Against the backdrop of bare mountains, the monastery, five kilometres from here, is believed to date to the 12th century and is one of the most revered places of the Drug-pa (red hat) sect. Guru Ghantal monastery, some eight km from Keylong, lies high over the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers. It's regarded as the oldest monastery in Lahaul. The temple in Trilokinath, 53 km from Keylong, is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. Both pay homage to a single image.
The Hindus regard Trilokinath as Lord Shiva, while the Buddhists regard the image to be that of Avalokiteshwara, the personification of compassion. Udaipur, also 53 km from here, has an ancient temple dedicated to goddess Durga. Besides the Rohtang Pass, the world's highest motorable passes that can be reached from here are Baralacha (16,020 ft) and Kunzum (14,931 ft), the gateway to the Spiti Valley from the Lahaul Valley. The entire Lahaul-Spiti district is populated mainly by tribals. The climatic conditions are harsh as much of the land forms part of a cold desert where the mercury drops below minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter.
Most important local festivals and rituals fall when the villagers are marooned in the snow. The consumption of 'arah', a local liquor extracted from barley, and 'challo', or gambling, are part of every occasion of the locals. The staple food here is buckwheat. Barley, wheat and rice are also consumed as well as lots of 'chhang' (locally extracted beer) and salted tea mixed with butter. The Buddhist-dominated Lahaul-Spiti district attracts globetrotters not only for its nature-based activities but also due to its ancient monasteries.
The district, spread over 13,835 sq km, is a place of remote, untouched beauty with just 31,528 people. Away from towering concrete blocks, congested roads, screaming traffic and other unpleasant scenes of city life lies the uncluttered retreat where the hills with blue skies stretch out as far as the eye can see. The entire district has just three petrol stations - one at Tandi in the Lahaul Valley, which is around 100 km from Manali, the second in Kaza in the Spiti Valley and the third in Keylong.
Getting to Lahaul-Spiti:
How to travel: In summer, by public or private transport. From Manali to Keylong via Rohtang Pass for Keylong; From Shimla to Rekong Peo in Kinnaur district to Spiti to Keylong. Distance: 692 km from Delhi to Manali to Keylong; 979 km from Delhi to Shimla to Rekong Peo to Kaza to Keylong. Shimla and Manali are connected by air from Delhi. Where to stay in Keylong: Small hotels, guest houses and even home stays with local people. There is also the state-run Chandrabhaga Hotel.