Symbols of Buddhist Belief: The Neglected Stupas of Lahaul-Spiti District

In the mountainous landscapes of Lahaul-Spiti district, nestled amidst the majestic mountains, lie over 750 stupas that serve as timeless symbols of Buddhist belief and faith. These ancient monuments, known as 'chortin' in the local language, stand as silent witnesses to centuries of devotion and spiritual significance.These structures, often white and made of stone and mud, are adorned with prayer flags and sacred Mani stones.  However, despite their cultural and religious importance, many of these stupas have fallen into a state of neglect, lacking the necessary agency or funds for restoration. In this article, we delve into the rich history of these stupas, their significance in Buddhism, the challenges they face, and the efforts underway to restore their lost glory.

What are Stupas?

Stupas are Buddhist monuments that are usually hemispherical or mound-like structures that contain relics. The word "stupa" comes from Sanskrit and literally means "heap". Stupas are considered to be sepulchral monuments, or places of burial, that can also house religious objects. They are also fundamental places of devotion for Buddhism, and are used for meditation and veneration. Stupas can range in size, and the most auspicious materials for their construction are precious substances or medicinal wood.

Over time, they evolved into distinctive architectural marvels, with various types serving specific purposes. From commemorating Buddha's life and teachings to housing sacred relics, stupas embody the essence of Buddhist faith and heritage.

The Significance of Stupas

  • Places of Devotion and Meditation: Stupas offer Buddhists a serene environment for prayer and contemplative practices.
  • Monuments of Veneration and Enlightenment: Stupas embody spiritual ideals and can contain relics of the Buddha or saintly figures.
  • Commemoration of Buddhist History: Many stupas were built to mark important events in Buddha's life or to preserve his teachings.

Current State and Challenges

Many stupas in the Lahaul-Spiti district are facing neglect and decay despite their cultural significance. Some of the larger stupas located in places like Tindi, Trilokinath, Cindwari, Thirot, Mulling, Gushal, and Udaipur sub-division are in deplorable condition and require immediate refurbishment. The lack of an agency dedicated to their restoration and maintenance has led to deterioration, with some stupas on the verge of collapse. The absence of funds further compounds the challenge, hindering efforts to preserve these invaluable heritage sites.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Ravi Thakur, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Lahaul-Spiti, has appealed to Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu for urgent financial aid to restore these stupas. Currently, no dedicated agency exists to fund their maintenance. The cost of repairing each stupa varies significantly depending on its size, ranging from around Rs 25,000 to Rs 1.50 lakh. While some significant stupas might attract funding from existing sources like the MLA Area Development Funds, many others are located in remote areas and are completely neglected.

Faith and Community at Risk

"These stupas hold great significance in our faith and traditions," says Nawang Cheering of Chchem Kyee village. "It is important to have a system in place for regular maintenance." Locals typically walk around stupas as part of religious rituals to promote wellbeing and prosperity. Stupas have various purposes, such as paying respect to spiritual leaders, deceased family members, or deities like Lord Buddha, Trilokinath, and Goddess Tara. They often contain valuable items such as gold, silver, and gemstones. Neglecting these sacred sites disregards the spiritual practices of the community.

Preservation Initiatives Offer Hope

Some positive steps are being taken. In October 2023, funds were allocated under the Integrated Tribal Development Project in Spiti (Kaza) for a tribal museum, monastery hostel, and conference hall. These initiatives signal a commitment to preserving the region's unique Buddhist culture. Furthermore, ancient monasteries such as Tabo and Dhankar continue to attract tourists from around the world, showcasing the global significance of Himalayan Buddhism.

The Tabo monastery, located at the southern edge of the Trans-Himalayan plateau in the Spiti Valley, is believed to be the oldest monastery in Himachal Pradesh. It was founded by Rinchen Zangpo in 996 AD and later refurbished in 1042 AD. The monastery is situated in a cold arid desert at an altitude of over 10,000 feet.

Similarly, the Dhankar monastery, which is located in the Spiti Valley between Kaza and Tabo, sits at an elevation of almost 12,800 feet. It was the traditional capital of the Spiti Valley kingdom during the 17th century, and like the Key and Tangyud monasteries, it was built in the Tibetan pattern as a fort monastery. 

These monasteries are home to some priceless centuries-old artifacts such as tankas (paintings) and scriptures, which need to be conserved before they are lost.

The Way Forward

The neglect of stupas in Lahaul-Spiti is a significant loss to both the tangible heritage and intangible spiritual traditions associated with them. Despite the challenges, the recent focus on restoring stupas is a positive development. To address this issue effectively, a combination of government funding, community involvement, and partnerships with international Buddhist organizations may be necessary. Preserving these sacred monuments will not only protect a crucial part of India's rich heritage but also pay homage to the profound faith of the people of Lahaul-Spiti.

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