With a population of only 715, this Buddhist settlement situated at 3,050m (9,760 ft.) elevation in lower Spiti is centered around its celebrated 2,000-year-old monastic complex, said to be the place where the present Dalai Lama will "retire." A serene village of flat-roofed houses topped by thatch packed with branches, mud, and grass, Tabo has as its focus its monastery -- or "doctrinal enclave" -- consisting of nine temple buildings, chambers for monks and nuns, 23 snow-white chortens, and piles of stones, each carved with scriptural inscriptions. The sanctity of this World Heritage Site is topped only by Tholing monastery in Tibet. Don't arrive expecting some cathedral-like masterpiece; Tabo Gompa 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 torch 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 (gTsug Lha-khang), which includes the Assembly Hall (or du-khang) where there's a 2m (6-ft.) high 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 Drompton (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.