Best for Hindu Mystique: Bhimakali Temple -- Chanting and music blast from the temple loudspeakers very early each morning and again in the evenings, transforming Sarahan village into a place that literally resonates with spirituality. Combining Hindu and Buddhist architectural elements, the main section of the temple comprises two pagoda-style pitched slate-roof towers. Built from layers of interlaced stone and timber, the towers rise from a courtyard around which are living quarters and a small museum with a collection of weapons and other unusual ritual objects and relics. Had you visited the temple 200 years ago, you might have witnessed one of the annual human sacrifices that kept the gods satisfied; today, animals suffice. The tower on the right was damaged in an earthquake a century ago, and the presiding deity was relocated to the tower on the left. Climb the stairs to get to the main shrine with its family of idols. Bhimakali is the main deity, while Durga, Ganesha, and even Buddha are all in attendance. The priests don't speak English, but it's worth taking part in the small puja (prayer) ceremony, so bring your rupees and buy some religious paraphernalia outside the temple. Morning and evening prayers are scheduled but don't always take place.
Best Cliff-Edge Fortress: Dhankar Monastery -- Overlooking the confluence of three valleys, Dhankar means "fort" or "palace on the rock," and one glimpse of Dhankar Tashi Choling Monastery tells you what a brilliant protective stronghold it must have been. Precariously perched on a hill jutting out from a sharp mountainside, this was once the castle of the Nono, the ruler of Spiti, and the architecture reflects a keen defensive strategy. Entry to the temple is nerve-wracking; access steps and uppermost rooftops drop away to perilously steep rocky slopes, and if you climb higher, beyond the temple, you discover an entire community that has chosen to live on what feels like the edge of the world. Legend has it that Ladhaki invaders posing a threat to the monastery were invited for a feast. As was customary, a strong local brew was served, and once inebriated, the guests were rolled down the steep precipice by the hosts -- no need, however, to regard the butter tea offered by the monks with suspicion! Today, Dhankar is a repository of Bhoti-scripted Buddhist scriptures, and there's a small museum of unusual artifacts in the room next to the entrance. Precarious as it looks, built on what look like massive stalactites carved by wind and glacial erosion, Dhankar has survived for 1,300 years. Which is kind of good to know as you wonder around its rather spooky, gravity-defying ledges.
Highest Altitude Villages: Kibber & Comic -- Just north of Kaza, a road veers off the main highway and zigzags its way up a steep mountainside. At the end of this stretch is Kibber, perched on a rocky spur at an altitude of 4,205m (13,792 ft.). Surrounded by limestone rocks and cliffs, the remote and isolated village offers stunning views of the barren valley below. There's even a handful of very basic guesthouses should you require accommodations. Until just a few years back, Kibber enjoyed a reputation as the highest permanent settlement with electricity and accessibility by motor road, but then Comic (4,600m/15,088 ft.) was connected and the record books changed; you can hike from Kaza to Comic (where you can visit the interesting Tenggyu Komic Monastery overlooking the peaceful village) in around 3 1/2 hours, passing through some phenomenal scenery, and the views changing constantly as you quickly ascend to high altitudes fairly. Incidentally, as roadworks continue, there may soon be another village or two that usurp Comic's title.
Biggest: Ki Gompa -- Between Kibber and Kaza is Spiti's largest monastery, Ki Gompa, which is about 700 years old. Home to a large community of lamas (of the Gelugpa sect), Ki Gompa is well accustomed to receiving visitors; the monk on duty will brew you a welcoming cup of tea and show you around the different prayer rooms and assembly halls filled with holy relics. The most exciting time to visit is late June or early July, when a festival involving chaam dancing and the ceremonial burning of butter sculptures draws large numbers of pilgrims.
Most Holy: Tabo Gompa -- The sanctity of this World Heritage Site is topped only by Tholing monastery in Tibet. Don't arrive expecting some cathedral-like masterpiece; the monastery (tel. 01906/22-333 or -3315; www.tabomonastery.com) is a rustic center that is more spiritually than architecturally engaging. A high mud wall surrounds the compound, and the pale mud-covered low-rise monastery buildings suggest nothing of the exquisite wall paintings and stucco statues within. You'll need a flashlight to properly appreciate many of the frescoes and other artworks that adorn the various dark, ancient spaces; only narrow shafts of natural light from small skylights illuminate the frescoed walls, saturated with rich colors and an incongruous variety of scenes. There's a distinctly surreal, often nightmarish quality to the work -- gruesome torture scenes compete with images of meditative contemplation and spiritual discovery.
At the core of the complex is the Temple of Enlightened Gods (Tsug Lha-khang), which includes the Assembly Hall (or du-khang) housing a 2m-high (6 1/2-ft.) white stucco image of Vairocana, one of the five spiritual sons of the primordial, self-creative Buddha, or Adibuddha. Below this are two images of the great translator and teacher Rin-Chan-Sang-Po, who is believed to have founded Tabo in A.D. 996. Thirty-three other life-size stucco deities surrounded by stylized flaming circles are bracketed along the walls. Directly behind the assembly hall is the sanctum, with five bodhisattvas of the Good Age and beautifully rendered Indian-style frescoes depicting the life of the Buddha. Monks are initiated in the smaller Mystic Mandala Temple (dKyil-hKhor-khang), situated behind the main temples. At the northern edge of the complex is the Temple of Dromton (Brom-ston Lha-khang), entered via a small portico and long passage. Only enter the Mahakala Vajra-Bhairava Temple (Gon-Khang) once you've performed a protective meditation -- it's filled with fierce deities that inspire its nickname, "the temple of horrors." Just outside the complex are several contemporary monastic buildings, including an atmospheric guesthouse run by the monks. Above Tabo, across the highway, a group of caves on a sheer cliff-face was once used as monastic dwellings. (Note: No photography is allowed inside the monastery.)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.