In the summer of 1990, I found myself on a crowded bus heading for Spiti, a little-known region tucked away in the folds of the North Indian Himalaya. I was deep inside the Inner Line, that invisible boundary that parallels India’s long border with Tibet beyond which no outsider – ordinary Indians included – can travel without a special permit. I had been on the road for a week, making my way slowly up the gravity-defying Hindustan-Tibet Road, which follows the vertiginous gorge of the Sutlej River. The bus finally forked off at the thunderous confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti Rivers, deep within the confines of the mountains, boxed in on all sides by grim, looming ridges. I felt my excitement mounting. In a sense, this was a homecoming for me; as a Tibetan refugee, born and brought up in India, Spiti was as close to Tibet as I had ever been.

The Spiti Valley soon opened up, a sliver of flat land lined on either side by an endless concatenation of serrated peaks, their summits streaked by veins of lingering ice. Occasionally, the triangular heads of snow-covered mountains reared above these ramparts. The overwhelming colour was brown, in all its variations, broken only by the inky cobalt of the sky and the bottle green of the river. Whitewashed villages appeared periodically along the margins of the river – clusters of adobe houses in the traditional Tibetan style – surrounded by patchworks of fragile fields. The passengers on the bus, almost all locals, chattered away in a dialect of Tibetan that I could understand if I concentrated hard enough and their good-natured, rough-hewn faces were not unlike those of my parents who had fled their villages in Tibet soon after the Communist Chinese invasion of 1949. The turbulent upheavals and depredations that followed transformed Tibet’s way of life forever. But in Spiti, which had come under the control of British India in the mid-nineteenth century and subsequently become a part of independent India, the age-old customs and traditions of Tibet continued intact, preserved by its hermetic and forgotten existence within the Inner Line. I had the feeling that I was stepping back in time, of literally visiting the land of my forefathers.

Spiti is home to around 10,000 inhabitants who share with their Tibetan neighbours a common ethnicity, language and culture. Prior to China’s takeover of Tibet, these ties were kept alive through marriage, trade and religious exchange. Spiti’s close association with Tibet goes back at least to the 10th century when it was a part of the Guge Kingdom of Upper Western Tibet. The preeminent Tibetan scholar and saint of that period, Lochen Rinchen Zangpo, passed through this region and left a lasting legacy, the miraculous 1000-year-old temple of Tabo with its perfectly preserved murals and statues. From such auspicious beginnings, Tibetan Buddhism flourished in the valley and several monasteries were established over the centuries. Monks from Spiti regularly went to study at the great monasteries of Central Tibet.

During that first, brief visit to Spiti, I spent most of my time between Tabo and Kaza, the district capital and the largest town in the valley. There were no hotels in all of Spiti and accommodation could only be found at the government rest houses maintained by the Public Works Department. Taxis were nonexistent and the local buses that plied the dusty track along the valley floor were few and far between. Making a long distance phone call was next to impossible. Yet, I was delighted just to be there, struck simply by the fact of being in a completely Tibetan environment. For me, as for countless other Tibetans who grew up in exile, our homeland was an abstract entity, a mythical place that we could only reconstruct in our minds from pictures and stories. We had never seen a yak, could not imagine what a real Tibetan house might look like, had never been to really high altitudes.

But, enchanted as I was by my discovery of a place that mirrored old Tibet, I could nonetheless sense that change was in the air, that Spiti’s long years of solitude were coming to an end. Everyone I met, especially the younger people, spoke excitedly of impending plans to deregulate the area and to allow in tourists. They conveyed a feeling of restlessness, of wanting to break out from their long and enforced isolation and become a part of the larger, modern world. I knew I was witnessing a place on the threshold of a major transformation, a medieval world coming face to face with the late twentieth century.

I went back to Spiti in 1995. The valley had undergone dramatic changes; the Inner Line restriction had finally been lifted and for the past three summers small but increasing groups of intrepid tourists – mostly Westerners – had made their way into the area. The immediate difference was the proliferation of hotels and restaurants in Kaza. A small fleet of four-wheel-drive taxis, although expensive, now made travelling between the villages more convenient. Satellite dishes sprouted from the roofs of the old town opening a window into the distant world outside the valley and allowing in the first whiffs of strange new cultures. In Tabo, preparations were underway for the millennium celebrations of Rinchen Zangpo’s temple, which were to be held the following year; the Dalai Lama and a host of Indian dignitaries were expected along with thousands of Buddhist pilgrims and tourists. The sleepy village of my first acquaintance was being transformed beyond belief; the temple complex had been spruced up, its interiors restored and all around it, feverish construction was taking place, like in some latter-day boomtown.

On this occasion, I explored the length and breadth of Spiti, often staying at the homes of villagers whose warmth and hospitality never ceased to amaze me. They were mostly farmers who worked hard during the brief summer months to raise their crops of barley and peas. Their homes were generally without running water or electricity. A hole in the ground served as the toilet. Sitting around the family hearth – a wood burning stove in the middle of the kitchen – and sharing a simple meal with them, the outside world seemed unimaginably remote. I wondered what life might be like during the long winter months of forced inactivity when temperatures plunged to -30 degrees Celsius. Yet, this was the very period when the people of Spiti celebrated most of their festivals and ceremonies, a time of communal eating, drinking, singing and dancing.

The everyday life of these villages still revolved around the pivotal influences of the lama, the oracle, the astrologer and the traditional doctor, to whom the people turned for advice and guidance on all matters – from births, illnesses and deaths to marriages and harvests. Hundreds of local spirits, some malevolent and others benign, were believed to live in close proximity to the people and were regularly propitiated. Buddhism was the paramount guiding force and permeated every aspect of the people’s lives.

An unusual feature of Spiti life was the system ofkhangchen (big house) and khangchung (small house). When the eldest son of a family got married, he inherited all its wealth and property and his parents and younger siblings moved out of the khangchen into the khangchung, which were normally adjacent to each other. The family jewellery was given to the eldest sister on her marriage and she moved to her husband’s house. The younger brothers were made monks and younger sisters nuns thereby neutralizing any discontent over inheritance. This meant that the population of Spiti stayed more or less constant for centuries and the ownership of land remained unchanged. But now, with the spread of education and the opening up of the economy, this ancient system was beginning to unravel.

For a period after 1959, when Tibet disappeared under Communist Chinese rule and its spiritual influence suddenly ceased, the monastic tradition of Spiti went into a slow decline. In 1969, a Tibetan high lama who had come to India as a refugee, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, made the first of several trips to Spiti. The local inhabitants requested him to send them a qualified spiritual teacher on a more permanent basis and in 1976, he sent a Tibetan geshe (a learned monk), Sonam Wangdu, to Tabo. When Sonam Wangdu arrived, he found only two monks looking after the main temple, which was in a state of disrepair. By the time I visited in 1990, a new monastery had been built adjacent to the temple and, under the guidance of the geshe, a community of 35 monks, all from Spiti, were once again engaged in the traditional study and practice of Buddhism.

This was the beginning of a religious renewal in Spiti, both within the monasteries and in the day-to-day practices of the ordinary people. Where previously monks from the region had gone to study in the monasteries of Central Tibet, they now went to the monasteries established in India by the exile Tibetan community. The Dalai Lama made the first of three visits in 1983 when he conferred the Kalachakra Initiation at Tabo, a religious event of great significance that had a major impact on the region. Over the years, various Tibetan high lamas spent time in Spiti and ensured the continuing development of its spiritual traditions. In the past, it would have been a rare occasion for any of Tibet’s religious elite, let alone the Dalai Lama, to have made the long and arduous journey to Spiti. Ironically, exile made this possible.

In the remote Pin Valley of Spiti, I came upon the Buchen, the last of Tibet’s wandering religious actors. Once, Buchen troupes performed their open-air religious plays – impromptu dramatizations of religious and mythical events interspersed with songs, dances, breathtaking acrobatics and magic rituals – throughout Western Tibet. Now, the Buchen of Spiti represented the last of this dying tradition. At a country fair in Kaza, I watched a Buchen group perform a truncated version of the stone-breaking ritual, for which they are famed. In this dramatic ceremony all the evil forces affecting a village were focused into a large boulder, which was then placed upon the belly of one of the performers lying flat on his back. The Buchen Master struck the boulder with a small stone and magically split it into two thereby dispelling the negative energies trapped inside.

In 1995, there were only five Buchen masters living in the Pin Valley. The youngest, who had only recently attained the status of a full master, was 25-year-old Ghatuk Tsering. He told me that he might be the last of the lineage as fewer and fewer younger people were willing to undergo the rigorous physical and spiritual training necessary to become a Buchen. Ghatuk Tsering himself, before becoming a Buchen, had gained some local renown as a disco-dancing champion!

Among the many people I met on this trip was a dynamic young monk, Tashi Namgyal, who had studied at the Buddhist School of Dialectics in Dharamsala, the exiled home of the Dalai Lama. He had returned to Spiti with the aim of starting a modern school that would teach the Tibetan language and Buddhism along with more contemporary subjects. This was an inspired and much-needed project. Although the opening up of Spiti was the immediate instigator of development and change, a greater threat to its cultural identity was the spread of Hindi as the preferred language of communication, especially among the younger people. This was not surprising for traditionally, the monasteries had been the only places where education of any sort was available and there, the emphasis was on Buddhist studies. When the Indian Government established schools in Spiti in the sixties and seventies, the medium of instruction was Hindi. A knowledge of Hindi became a prerequisite for government jobs and essential for any commercial dealings outside the valley. Later, television brought with it the all-pervasive influence of Bollywood-inspired pop culture, which further promoted the use of Hindi. Spiti’s traditional language was fast becoming obsolete and it was in this context that Tashi Namgyal’s efforts took on a special significance.

It was another five years – in the early summer of 2000 – before I returned to Spiti. A greatly expanded Kaza announced itself from the distance with the ugly, green tin roofs and concrete buildings of its government quarter. I was dreading the worst but was relieved to find, despite the inevitable signs of progress – piles of empty mineral water bottles and other plastic rubbish – that the old town still retained some of its medieval charm, with its traditional mud houses and narrow alleys. The bazaar was packed with shops and stalls and there was even the ubiquitous STD telephone booth, which made long distance phone calls readily possible. A floating population of Indian traders had set up shop and remarkably, fresh vegetables and fruit were plentifully available. Many more restaurants and hotels had sprung up and the first gangs of Israeli bikers could be seen lounging about on their terraces. Groups of road-workers from Nepal and Bihar were everywhere, building new roads and repairing existing ones. Jeep trails now linked even the most remote of villages.

Yet, despite these changes, the much-anticipated tourist invasion had not materialized on the scale that people had expected – or hoped for. The vagaries of Spiti’s climate and its hostile location meant that even its short tourist season was prone to disruption. While I was there, an unexpected burst of sustained rainfall caused severe landslides that cut off Spiti’s southern entrance for several weeks. Travel, for the most part, was still limited to those willing to rough it out or to those with a genuine interest in the place and its culture. An unexpected benefit of this selective tourism seemed to be a new awareness among younger people about the importance of their own language and culture. From my own experience I knew that one of the indirect effects of the growing Western interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism was to force younger Tibetans – who were otherwise enamoured of Western ways – to examine their own culture more closely. Tashi Namgyal’s school was now up and running and Geshe Sonam Wangdu in Tabo had plans to start a similar school.

There was no doubt that Spiti was determinedly pushing ahead, embracing development and material progress. But the essential qualities that defined the place and its people for me when I first encountered it – their cultural heritage and spiritual landscape – seemed to me to have survived this first decade of change. As I left the valley, I realized how much Spiti meant to me, how much it still symbolized for me my lost homeland. I wondered what I would find the next time I came. Would the people of Spiti somehow achieve that elusive balance between the fullness of their traditional life and the inroads of the modern world? For their sake, and for ours as well, I hoped they would.