Introduction to Spiti Valley - Surreal Spiti
To us, Himalayas always meant lush-green forests, snow-capped high mountain peaks and hills covered with greenery. A trip to Spiti Valley, India changed that perspective. Spiti Valley, located across the main range of the Himalayas, is full of barren hills, bare mountainsides, rough terrain, and more like a dry desert. We fall short of words in describing the captivating beauty of Spiti Valley. It is a land lost in time, like a place that humanity forgot about. Spiti valley is so tranquil that you could hear your heartbeat, skies so clear that you could spot Milky Way with naked eyes, people so amazing that they touch your heart and soul, and the land so old that you could still find evidence of Tethys Sea that existed during Mesozoic era. This blog – Introduction to Spiti Valley, will give you a peek into the location, geography, history, culture and weather of Spiti valley.
Read our previous blogs on Spiti Valley by clicking on the links or images below:
1. Introduction to Spiti Valley (This blog)
In this travel series – ‘Surreal Spiti' we give you a glimpse of the people, the culture and the ways of life in Spiti Valley in detail. This series will serve as a one-stop travel guide which will give you all the information required about Spiti Valley along with recommendations on stay, activities and itinerary so that you can plan your own trip to Spiti Valley. The first article in the series – ‘Introduction to Spiti Valley’ is where we introduce Spiti Valley to you and give you a basic understanding of location, history, people and culture of this valley. At the end of this article, you would be convinced that Spiti Valley is worth travelling to and can move on to the next article where we show how you can plan your trip to Spiti Valley.
Location of Spiti Valley
Where is Spiti Valley? Most of the metro-city dwellers would have never heard the name ‘Spiti’, let alone know its location. The fact that it is unknown to most tourists makes it so heavenly.
Spiti Valley is located high in the Himalayas in the northern part of India in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The spectacular valley is situated on the India-Tibet border. Spiti Valley is a high-altitude, trans-Himalayan land which is a dry and cold desert, has snow-capped mountain peaks, ancient monasteries, rough terrains, coloured face-rocks, pristine emerald lakes, narrow passes and frozen glaciers. The valley originates from the 16,000 feet high Kunzum pass and is often referred to as ‘the middle land’ – meaning the land between India and Tibet or the land surrounded by mountain ranges on all the sides. Spiti River, originating from the east of the Kunzum Pass, flows through the centre of Spiti Valley, giving its name to the valley and the district.
Spiti Valley lies in the remotest part of Himachal Pradesh. Let us give you an idea about Himachal Pradesh. Towards the south of the state is Shimla, towards north-west lies Dharamshala, McLeodganj (Kangra district) and Dalhousie (Chamba district), Manali (Kullu district) is located in the centre, and towards the north-east lies Lahaul and Spiti Valley. Lahaul and Spiti district is the largest district in terms of area in the state of Himachal Pradesh. As per Census 2011, district of Lahaul & Spiti is 3rd least populated district in India (approx. 31k is the population) and the 2nd least densely populated district in India (approx. 2.3 people per Sq. Km).
For those who are still confused, Spiti and Lahaul are two different places separated by high mountain ranges like Rohtang Pass (13051 feet) and Kunzum Pass (15059 feet). Spiti Valley is vastly different from Lahaul Valley and has distinctly different terrain, area, history and culture. Previously, these were two separate districts with Kardang as the capital of Lahaul district and Dhankar as the capital of Spiti district. The two districts were merged in the year 1960 and presently the administrative quarter lies in Keylong, located in Lahaul Valley. The Spiti sub-division is more barren and difficult to traverse, with an average elevation of 14,000 feet; whereas the Lahaul sub-division is greener, more fertile and comparatively easy to reach.
Understanding the Geography of Spiti Valley
Spiti Valley is situated in the rain shadow area; hence there is no to negligible rain as the mountains exclude the valley from the monsoon rains. In fact, Spiti Valley only receives an average annual rainfall of 170 mm. Though there is plenty of ice water in the glaciers above and the rivers below, the flatlands of the valley are dry. With almost no rain and excessive snowfall, Spiti seems to be a land of contrasts – a vast expanse of barren area encircles green patches of cultivation and cedar tree orchards. The terrain is dry and rough and the erosions carve in most amazing shapes and colours. The barren hills, grey slopes and steep gorges in Spiti Valley often amaze the travellers.
However, these days due to changes in climate and the sudden rush of rain in Spiti Valley, the weather is no more dry or arid. People are now able to grow vegetables like green peas, potatoes, cabbage and radish. Snowfall serves the purpose of field irrigation. Owing to the constraints due to geographical, climatic and topographic extremes, Spitians live in the most difficult living conditions.
Brief History of the Spiti Valley
As mentioned earlier, history of Spiti can be traced to Mesozoic Era. Around 150 million years ago, the landmass on earth was split into two continents – Laurasia and Gondwana. Tethys Sea, the only ocean, used to be between these continents. These two continents started drifting towards each other resulting in a collision and formation of the Himalayas. Tethys Sea disappeared and the once-living creatures of the sea died and turned into fossils. Spiti Valley is the part of the trans-Himalayan range where the Tethys Sea used to exist and the fossilized creatures can still be found in few areas of the valley. Fossil imprints on stone are easy to find and you will come across shops selling them when you travel to Spiti Valley.
A lot of history related to Spiti Valley has been lost. The earliest reliable information dates back to AD 1055. Spiti Valley used to be under the rule of Lhasa and the Tibetans. Till the 17th century, Spiti Valley remained under the rule of Tibet and hence a distinct Buddhist culture is clearly evident. In early 18th century, King Jamya of Ladakh established Ladakhi rule over the entire territory of Spiti valley. By end of 18th century, Spiti Valley was under the rule of Raja Mansingh of Kullu. In the 19th century, Spiti Valley changed hands to Tibetan rulers and again to Ladakhi rulers. It is during this period that the valley was plundered and the monasteries were looted. In 1846, Spiti Valley was annexed to the British empire.
With Indian independence in 1947, Spiti became part of Indian Republic. The capital of Spiti was changed from Dhankar to Kaza during this time. Spitians did not take part in the first and second Indian general elections of 1952 and 1957 due to difficult terrain and lack of roads. However, post this when it was time for members of parliament to elect Indian President, one of the members filed a court case as there was no representation from Spiti despite having 2 seats allocated. Hence, the court forced the government to hold elections in Spiti Valley. This was the first time democracy was introduced in this region and till date Tashigang village in Spiti Valley holds the record for being world's highest polling station. It recorded 36 votes in 2019 elections.
In 1962, due to Chinese aggression, Spiti was put within the ‘inner line’. The fruitful consequence of 1962 war was the building of roads. Two roads were built for defence needs – one from Shimla-Kinnaur-Sumdo to Kaza and second over 2 high passes, the Kunzum Pass and the Rohtang Pass. As a consequence of the inner line, no foreigner was allowed and Indian national required special permits to enter Spiti Valley. This lasted till 1993 when these rules were abandoned. Tourism to Spiti Valley started only after this and hence it is still raw, authentic and untouched by mindless commercialisation.
Culture in Spiti Valley
People of Spiti Valley:
Due to high-elevation, heavy snow, less vegetation, harsh terrain and being cut-off from the outside world for 4-5 months due to road closure in winter, the people of Spiti valley have to face a lot of hardships. Still, they always have a smile on their face and brave all the difficulties diligently. Spitians are extremely simple, innocent and highly spiritual. Some loss in cultural value is seen in the present days with progress and modernization. Traditional communities in Spiti Valley observe inheritance system similar to Tibetans. The family in Spiti community is headed by a senior male member who is known as Yunda, while his wife is known as Yundamo. They gain these titles by being the oldest member in the generation. After the parent’s death, the eldest son inherits family property, the eldest daughter inherits the jewellery, while the other siblings get nothing.
Religion in Spiti Valley:
Spiti Valley often referred to as the ‘land of Lamas’, is a Buddhist land. Spitians follow Vajrayana Buddhism, similar to that found in neighbouring Ladakh and Tibet. Spiti Valley is dotted with several ancient monasteries and is a research and cultural centre for Buddhists. 62% of the population of Lahaul and Spiti Valley are Buddhists, 36% are Hindus and the rest is divided amongst Muslims, Christians and other religions. Before the spread of Buddhism, Spitians were followers of ‘Bon’ religion – where animal and human sacrifices were made to please the Gods and spirits. It is said that some Lamas residing in the remote areas of Spiti Valley still practice Bon religion. Buddhism in Spiti became popular between 8th-10th century. In the 8th century, the second Buddha (Guru Rinpoche) stayed and meditated in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh for several years. In the 10th century, the Kings of Tibet sent a few Tibetan scholars across the Himalayas to spread Buddhism in the areas of Lahaul and Spiti Valley. Hence, you will find the monasteries of Spiti Valley to be similar in architecture, design and paintings as found in Leh-Ladakh, Zanskar, Tibet or Bhutan.
Languages spoken in Spiti Valley:
People in Spiti Valley speak Bhoti, Hindi, English and Sanskrit language. Bhoti is the local language and is similar to the Ladakhi and Tibetan languages. During our visit, we found everyone speaking and understanding the English or Hindi language quite well. The medium of education in schools of Spiti Valley is in the English language.
Festivals of Spiti Valley:
Losar festival, also known as Halda in the local Bhoti language, is one of the major festivals celebrated by the people of Spiti Valley. An elderly member of every household burns an incense stick in their house, thereafter few members of the family bring that incense stick into the open courtyard and piles it over the rest brought by other households of the community, making a bonfire. The bonfire is worshipped and the Goddess of Wealth is invited to bless the community. Losar festival is celebrated in January or February, depending on an auspicious day decided by the Lamas.
Occupation of locals in Spiti Valley:
Tourism and agriculture are the main sources of livelihood for the locals of Spiti Valley. Guesthouses, hotels, homestays, restaurants, delis, travel agencies and souvenir shops have sprouted in the areas where a boom in tourism has begun. Green peas and potato farming are common. Radish, cabbage, leafy vegetables, carrots and tomatoes are also grown in the vast fields of Spiti Valley. Other occupations include government jobs, business, artistic and craftwork, animal husbandry and private jobs. As the entire area is mountainous and prone to earthquakes, houses are generally single or double-storeyed and constructed in Tibetan architectural style. During snowy winters, transportation is largely affected due to landslides and roadblocks and the locals have to go through a lot of hardships. Spitians dry the grains, vegetables and pulses in summer months, preserve and store them, and survive on these stocks during winter.
Best time to visit Spiti Valley
The duration between the months of mid-May to mid-October is the best time to travel to Spiti Valley. This is when the roads open after being blocked by snow during winter. The temperature remains well within 15-20 degree Celsius along with a gentle breeze. The valley is dotted with vibrant flowers and green vegetation. However, light woollens are recommended as the nights are cold.
During winter, between November to March, it snows heavily in Spiti Valley. The average annual snowfall in Spiti Valley is about 7 feet. Though tourists do not prefer travelling to Spiti Valley in the winters, there are some set of travellers who fancy visiting the valley when it is completely covered in white snow. Wildlife enthusiasts often travel to Spiti Valley during winter in search of snow leopards. The road from Kullu/ Manali is closed during this time, nevertheless one can travel from the Shimla-Kinnaur route if the weather conditions are not very extreme.
With changes in climate due to global warming, the weather in Spiti Valley is rather puzzling in the present time. Summers are scorching, winters are icy-cold but shorter and rainfall has increased in the valley. The sun feels hot, shades feel cold and nights are usually chilly.
Spiti Valley Tours
Choosing a travel operator is a tough decision. While we plan all our travels on our own, planning a trip to Spiti Valley was tormenting. We were travelling during the peak season (August), and it was a nightmare looking out for experienced drivers (who are acquainted with driving on the most dangerous road of the world) and decent accommodations (very few are listed on the travel websites and most were unavailable). That is when the tour operator ‘Spiti Valley Tours’ came to our rescue. Spiti Valley Tours is located in the heart of Spiti Valley and hence we were saved from the ties of the middlemen commissions by agents operating from other areas. They have a network of hotels and experienced drivers with whom they have been maintaining a healthy relationship since the past 10 years; hence decent rooms at best rates are guaranteed. Mr. Lara Tsering and Mr. Mukesh from Spiti Valley Tours planned and organised an excellent customised tour to Spiti Valley within our budget. The best part is that they believe in responsible and sustainable tourism that coincides with our travel style. We highly recommend booking your trip to Spiti Valley with them. You can book your tour with Spiti Valley Tours through their official website by leaving them a query or by directly contacting them via e-mail or call.
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Spiti Valley is to be enjoyed in all its aspects – culture, people, barren mountains, scree slopes, history and now coming of modernity. In the next article – Plan your trip to Spiti Valley, we will give you a brief idea on the places to visit in Spiti Valley and how to go about planning your trip to Spiti Valley. So, stay tuned! Do let us know if you found our article on ‘Introduction to Spiti Valley’ useful and interesting. Drop your thoughts in the comment section below.