THE HISTORICAL VIEW
Jangchub 'Od with lay figures and "The great Tapo [Tabo] Sangha", Renovation Inscription (C.1042), Main Temple. (J. Poncar, 2001)
It is difficult to extrapolate the cultural situation in Spiti prior to the 10th century. No archaeological
investigation has been conducted in the valley.
The only primary evidence for the history and culture of the valley in or before the 10th century is the
remains of the art and inscriptions dating to the foundation phase of Tabo Monastery.
Monks of Tabo, first (from left to right) Devaraja, fifth Dul-wa Jangchub from Nyel'or. Main Temple, south wall 996AD (D. Klimburg-Salter, 1991)
Tabo Monastery was founded by the buddhist king (and royal lama) Yeshe O'd in 996 A.D. A renovation inscription
says it was renovated 46 years later by Yeshe O'd's grandnephew, the royal priest Jangchub O'd. These royal patrons,
the kings of the Purang-Guge kingdom, were descended from the ancient Tibetan monarchy. Their ancestors migrated to
west Tibet in the 10th century. By the end of the 10th century their territory stretched from Ladakh to Purang
and included all of western Tibet (ancient Zhang Zhung). Successive members of this dynasty built many
monasteries along the trade routes linking the far corners of their kingdom.
The intimate connection between trade and religious establishments is a well known phenomenon in the history of
Indian Buddhism.The kingdom of the kings of Purang-Guge, from Ladakh to Mustang, was connected by a dense network
of trade routes facilitated by the strategic placement of a large number of temples directly controlled by the royal
family and their noble supporters. Tabo was a 'daughter' monastery of Tholing Monastery in Ngari West Tibet.
The contribution of this dynasty to the re-establishment of Indian Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet was so great it
is known as the chi-dar, the second spreading of buddhism and the principal personalities are well recognized in
They so skillfully integrated political, religious and economic institutions that throughout the 11th century these
monasteries were unparalleled for their artistic, literary and philosophical achievements.
The themes of political legitimacy and cultural integration are written large on the walls of the Tabo main temple.
An analysis of the names and costumes of the monastic community (in the entry hall on the north wall) and the aristocracy
(on the south wall) demonstrates the importance of the local culture at the time Tabo was founded.
The main temple at Tabo was a royal monument and its decorative program was based on the ideology of its
patrons : legitimacy, status and piety.
RELIGIOUS WORK AT TABO MONASTERY
Bodhisattva, in the Main Temple, Old Entry Hall, south wall. (D. Klimburg-Salter, 1991).
King Yeshe O'd was assisted in his missionary activities by his preceptor, a Tibetan lama from western Tibet,
who became known as the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo. He earned his title because of his prodigious activities
of translating Sanskrit buddhist texts into Tibetan.
According to the Blue Annals, many Indian pandits came to Tabo to learn Tibetan language.
The monastery served as a centre of translation and learning, where Indian pandits met their counterparts,
learned Tibetan, and contributed to the massive intellectual and cultural process known as the second diffusion
of Buddhism (chi-dar) in Tibet.
Here the laborious process of translation (always conducted by a team of Indian and Tibetan scholars) was pursued.
Tabo Monastery was very much a place of religious studies.
The scholar Ngo Lotsawa Lodan Sherab (1059-1109), famous for his works on the Mahayana and logic spent some years at Tabo.
As its geographical position would indicate, Tabo served as an intermediary between the Buddhist communities of
India and Tibet. Likewise, the art which was created there used Indian forms in conjunction with Tibetan wall
texts in the context of a newly evolving ritual activity which is usually described as Indo-Tibetan.
Lay person from Rum, probably the main sponsor. (detail from Renovation Inscription.)
From the 17th through to the 19th centuries Spiti was often a political pawn of its larger
neighbours Bashahr, Kulu and Ladakh.
The extremely distressed state of the manuscript collection (the so-called Tabo Kanjur) suggests
that Tabo must have been the scene of some violent confrontations during it long history.
The first of these, sometime prior to 1042 can only be inferred from the warning contained in the
admonitory inscription against harming the monastic community.
The attack on the Tabo Assembly Hall in 1837 is recorded by an inscription and confirmed by the still
visible damage to the adjacent parts of the wall. Apparently the local people attributed this destruction
to 'Rinjeet's troops', possibly being the followers of the Ladakh Rajah themselves.
After 1846 with British rule in the area, Spiti came to enjoy a century of relative tranquility and
semi-independence. The India-China border dispute from the 1950s reawakened awareness of the geopolitical
importance of this isolated area. India claims six passes as being on the boundary between the
two countries while China claims they are within her territory.
It is likely that Spiti always had to be alert to good relations with the more important neighbors
on all sides. In Lahul, unlike Spiti, Kinnauri villages contain shrines to Hindu and local deities as
well as the Buddhist cult places.