Stories from Spiti – Chai at Key Monastery! – Travel Photo Essay

View from our lodging facility at Key Monastery.
View from our room at Key Monastery. Which, by the way, is also the best place for star-gazing!

The one place that single-handedly kept Spiti on the very top of my travel bucketlist! This will probably sound silly, but then most of the things I end up doing are silly so what the hell. Remember Highway, the scene where Alia is sitting and staring at the mountains on the other side. “Aisa lag raha hai ki woh mujhe bula raha hai, kaash hum waha jaa paate”, and Randeep Hooda very lovingly agrees to take her across. I’m not talking about those mountains, but the monastery in the background – that’s Key Monastery.

"Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?" Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.
“Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?” Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.

I have been lusting over that sight ever since I saw the movie, and I had never imagined that the actual place could be thousand times more spectacular!

The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.
The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.

Key Gonpa!!! The crown jewel of my entire trip to Spiti. I ended up staying here more than at any other village, and given a choice I wouldn’t have ever left! Technically, all the monasteries in Spiti have lodging facilities for travelers, but none come even close to the experience you’ll have at Key. For one thing, at Key you’re not put up in a guest house, you live in the existing Lama quarters, at Rs. 200 per night, including meals that will be cooked by and for the resident monks. The kitchen at Key Monastery beats every café, anywhere in the world, because here’s where conversations flow over endless cups of butter tea. When I visited, the Lama incharge of the cooking duties was Kunga ji, and he is the most adorable Lama I have ever met. Always smiling, always up for a chat (over a cup of chai, mind you!).

Time: 5:30 AM Place: Kitchen - Key Monastery. Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!
Time: 5:30 AM
Place: Kitchen – Key Monastery.
Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!

The evening I reached the monastery, I entered the kitchen to try and meet someone who could tell me what are the lodging facilities, and I met Kunga ji running around, serving all the monks. It was only 7 pm, but that’s regular dinner time at the monastery, and the tiny kitchen was bustling with more monks than it could accommodate, and one tiny traveler who looked utterly lost. Kunga ji noticed this and immediately came over with a plate of piping hot rajma and tingmu (Tibetan bread), “baitho baitho, pehle khana khao (sit sit, eat first!)”, and immediately 2 monks got up from the only bench in the kitchen to offer me a seat. I resisted,  but I was overpowered by 5-6 monks “aap humare guest hai, aap baitho! (You are our guest, you should have a seat!”).

And I knew in that moment that this place would steal a piece of my heart forever.

The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.
The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.

 

School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!
School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!

 

A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.
A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.

 

I was lucky to be at the monastery on one of their most important days. It was the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye (Khetol), – a tradition of the Gelugpa religion of Buddhism, wherein all the 300 monks from Key Monastery visited each and every house in the village to conduct prayers and offer blessings. I was lucky to accompany them through this pilgrimage, visiting houses, indulging in the lovely hospitality of the locals, and chai – lots and lots of chai.

 

Don't have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.
Don’t have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.

 

Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.
Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.

 

Young monks share a light moment.
Young monks share a light moment.

 

Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.
Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.

 

Followed by chai of course! There's always time for chai.
Followed by chai of course! There’s always time for chai.

 

Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.
Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.

 

Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couples joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.
Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couple joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.

 

Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I'm sure the kids had a great laugh later.
Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I’m sure the kids had a great laugh later.

 

Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I've had on my travels.
Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I’ve had on my travels.

 

 

After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, I legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn't let me be without a second helping of lunch.
After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, my legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn’t let me be without a second helping of lunch.

 

I couldn't have left without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.
I couldn’t leave without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.

 

Didn't feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.
Didn’t feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.

19 thoughts on “Stories from Spiti – Chai at Key Monastery! – Travel Photo Essay

  1. This is a lovely blog! Looks like you are/were having the time of your life! Thank you for allowing us a glimpse in to this rich vibrant culture. I will definitely visit this place; and do all the things you have done!

  2. Hi there, great blog. I was thinking of going to Ki Monastery real soon. Do you have a point of contact over there or do I just land up over there? Do let me know. Thanks. 🙂

      1. So I’ve read in quite a few other blogs that they don’t allow outsiders to stay. I want to live in the monastery with them

        1. I’ve done it, so trust me when I say you’re allowed. The other monasteries have a different guest building with professional kitchen etc, but Key Monastery let’s you stay and eat with the monks.

  3. Visited Spiti last month but did not know about lodging facilities at Key. Wish I had read your blog before visiting 🙂
    Keep it up!

  4. I hope it will become a great journey of our life……. I had inspired from Mr. krishnanath… his real life story… “spiti me barish” it will fulfill your journey …… I have trying to reach this destination from last 4 years…. now after reading your satisfying post.. I decided to bang there… give suggestions about this trip….. thank you ..nidhi….

  5. I was there with my friends in the monestary in the second week of september and stayed there with the same people. Such a wonderful experience, I remember the chai pe charcha in the kitchen, Definitely one of the best memories of the trip, Going back to the monestary next week. Hope I find a place to stay.

  6. What an incredible sounds g experience. Thanks for sharing your story..
    Was there any sort of communication barrier? I only speak English and would fear I would have a much different experience haha.

    1. Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine if you know English. Most hotel owners and taxi drivers understand English. Of course you will face difficulties at times, but more often than not, you’ll be able to find someone to help you out. In India, you always do 🙂

  7. Hi,

    Thank you for information. I am looking forward to visit Ki monastery. Is there any limitation on the number of days stay in Ki monastery and is there any courses that we can take up? Do they allow us to do any kind of service in the monastery like cooking, cleaning, etc..,

    1. Hey Vibha, there is no such restriction, you can stay as long as you like. I don’t know about courses, but you can join all their activities like cooking, cleaning, playing cricket / football, teaching young monks every morning. They let you join in every experience 🙂 Hope you have a great trip!

  8. Hi, We (3 people) are planning a visit to Spiti in June and want to stay at Key monestiry for a day. Is it possible to stay in the monestory rooms? Do you have a contact number for us to reach out and check availability ? Please email me at rajibijur@gmail.com

    Thanks
    Raji

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