There are few places left in the world where mystery still exists, where the long arms of ‘civilization’ and globalization have not reached. On the northern border of Nepal in the heart of the Himalayas and adjacent to the land of Tibet lies a place where natural beauty, wildlife, history and culture co-exist. This is the land of Mustang.
The district of Mustang is one of the most beautiful and varied districts in all of Nepal. The southern border reaches down into the middle hills near the Pokhara Valley while the northern half stretches up through the Himalayan ranges onto the Tibetan Plateau. The Kali Gandaki River flows beneath lofty snow-clad peaks creating a stunning landscape.
This varied terrain provides unique habitat that harbours a huge number of species of animals and birds as well as some of the world’s most endangered species such as the Snow Leopard. Here, rare and exotic animals such as musk deer and blue sheep are seen traversing the steep valley walls and golden eagles float on the wind that comes up the valley. The inaccessibility of much of the terrain also allows ancient cultures to flourish as they have done for thousands of years. The steep and forbidding hills have slowed the advance of western modernity.
Each year thousands of visitors come to Mustang to experience this culture and the multitude of peaks. Perhaps the greatest asset to the Land of Mustang, however, is the endlessly hospitable and friendly people.
The Upper half of Mustang is a restricted area and was only opened to foreigners in 1992. Each year only a few 1,000 people are allowed to enter and even then only under strict regulations. People entering must be travelling with a registered guide agency and have an environmental office with them. The groups must be self-sufficient and bring out whatever they bring in. Upper Mustang has had little experience with tourism, underlining the need to respect both the natural landscape as well as the people and heritage.
The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) took on the responsibility of running this area and in that regard, created the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). ACAP is a comprehensive, grass-roots organization that strives to maximize the positive impacts that can be taken from tourism while at the same time, minimizing the negative impacts. It also works towards environmental and cultural preservation by motivating the communities to take a proactive role in their own situation. With so many people coming to this area this is a tough task and requires the commitment and cooperation of all the people that enter this timeless realm.
Upper Mustang is an area that historically has been highly influenced by Tibet and shares cultures, languages and religion with its northern neighbour. It is now a refuge for Tibetan Buddhist shrines and monasteries and offers a rare view into the way of life and religion that has dominated this area of the world for so long.
Mustang is part of an area that is geologically one of the most dynamic on the planet. As recently as 40 million years ago Mustang was under what is called the Tethys Sea and was completely submerged under water. It was located at the south edge of one of the two continents called Laurasia.
This ancient sea still shows itself in all the seashells and fossils that are dotted throughout the region on the valley floor as well as on the hills and ridges. These fossils, called Shaligrams are around 100 million years old and are held by Hindus to be holy as forms of the god Vishnu.
Between 80 million years ago and 40 million years ago the sub-continent of what is now called India broke off of the east coast of Gondwanaland and travelled 4000-5000 miles at a rate of 15-20 cm/year. This is relatively quick compared with the 2-4 cm/year generally associated with plate tectonic movement. Then, approximately 40 million years ago the sub-continent crashed into the south coast of Laurasia causing uplift of land. This uplift created heights of land including the middle hills to the south as well as the high Himalayas. It drained the Tethys Sea and formed the greatest mountain range currently on Earth, The Himalaya. This process is still continuing and the Himalayan range is indeed still growing at a rate of 1-4 cm/year.
The heart of Mustang, both upper and lower is the Kali Gandaki River. This river called the Thak Khola in lower Mustang and the Tsang-po in Upper Mustang, is considered the holiest river in Nepal. It flows from the Tibetan Plateau, cutting through the Himalaya and ends up flowing into the Ganges River of Northern India. The fact that it cuts through the mountains shows that it existed long before the mountains and created the river valley as the mountains grew up around it. As it flows between the Annapurna (8,091m, 26,492 ft.) and Dhaulagiri (8,167m, 26,795 ft.) massifs the Kali Gandaki forms the deepest river valley in the world.
This valley is a geologist’s dream. Everywhere one looks there are formations of ancient rock protruding from the valley walls.
Mustang is very rich in terms of biodiversity. The first comprehensive study was done in association with ACAP in 1994. The district stretches from the sub-tropical forests on the southern faces of the Annapurnas up to the alpine/sub-alpine valleys of the high Himalaya. It also bridges the eastern and western floral elements, the Kali Gandaki being a major divide for plant and animal species. These two factors give rise to an incredible variation in species of plants and animals.
In the Annapurna Conservation Area, in which Mustang lies and composes a large part of, there are 22 different forest types ranging from Sal forests to extensive Rhododendron forests to Pine and Poplar. Rainfall varies from 2,200 mm/yr. in the south to less than 400 mm/yr. in the north, accounting partly for the large variation in forest types.
These forests are home to 101 species of mammals including the endangered snow leopard to the highly valued musk deer and blue sheep. Over 1,100 species of plant have been recorded from 147 different families, 23 species of amphibians, and 32 species of reptiles.
Perhaps the most stunning array of species in the area, however, is the birds. There are 478 species of birds found in ACAP, a number which represents more than 50% of the bird species in Nepal and includes such giants as the Golden Eagle and the Himalayan Griffon.
The study of Archeology in Mustang is a relatively recent endeavour. In the early 1980s, a crew of workers who were drilling for a micro-hydroelectricity project discovered some ancient burial caves in Chokhopani. A few years later they were fully excavated and studied with the help of some German experts. A comprehensive program was launched that not only studied archaeology buy also other aspects of ancient culture such as trade, art and linguistics.
People have been living in the Kali Gandaki Valley since at least 800 B.C. Some of the cave systems in the area are massive including one system in Chhoser called Sijha Dzong Cave that has over 40 rooms and 5 stories.
The early cave dwellers, called Troglodytes had a very advanced society. They carved out and decorated their caves with carvings, ornaments and murals. The murals have for the most part disintegrated over time leaving us only two surviving examples in the Luri and Chapel caves in the Sao Khola valley.
Many of the caves that have been found are burial caves and contain extensive examples of the Troglodytes material culture. They buried their dead with ornaments such as shell pendants, musk deer teeth, glass, bone and copper beads, and copper arm rings. The richest burial caves are found in conjunction with old settlements in Chokhopani (opposite of Tukche), Myabrak (opposite of Jharkot) and Fudjling (opposite of Khinga). The caves have been occupied and abandoned alternately throughout their existence and most recently have been used by Lamas as places of meditation and seclusion.
The inhabitants of the region showed a great sense of both art and religion as shown on their pottery and religious paintings. There are several sites where fire-lanes have been found, evidence that fire ceremonies were carried out has been found as well as religious images depicting various deities.
Upper and Lower Mustang, throughout recorded history, have been influenced by similar forces. Despite their proximity, however, they have developed differently and have their own distinct cultures.
Upper Mustang has traditionally been most highly influenced by Tibet. Upper Mustang, comprising mostly of an area called Lo-Tshu Dhyun (meaning the seven districts) and half of Baarah Gaon (twelve villages) was under the Authority of the King of Western Tibet until 650 years ago. In the late 1300’s Lo-Tshu Dhyun was conquered by a Buddhist from Tibet named Amepal who established his own kingdom that survives until today. Amepal brought in many people from Tibet to oversee the building of the new kingdom. Most notably were his son, Angun Sangpo who helped rule with his father, Kalun Sangpo who was the builder of LoManthang and its monasteries, and Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo who was a Lama and brought the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism down with him. Under Amepals’ and his descendants rule, Tibetan Buddhism flourished and many monasteries and shrines were built. The current King of Lo is a direct descendant of Amepal.
Upper Mustang has relatively easy access to Tibet through its northern passes and therefore was traditionally a major thoroughfare for trade and allowed for easy exchange of religion and ideas. Its economically advantageous position attracted bandits and thieves prompting the building of the walled capital of LoManthang. This valley was also the primary route for salt traders from the north to bring their goods through to the markets in India and southern Nepal. Mustang holds four of the twelve passes through the Himalayas, as well as the most easily passable all year round. Long trains of donkeys and yaks would come through the valley bringing salt and return by the same route carrying Indian grain.
In the mid-1700s the powerful Jumla rulers to the west desired to dominate the trade and economic markets extended their boundaries to include Lo. Lo, therefore, had to pay a yearly tribute to their Jumla conquerors. Soon thereafter, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha king who united all of present-day Nepal, annexed many of Jumla’s vassal states including Lo. The Kingdom of Lo, however, retained much of its original autonomy until the Shah rulers took over in 1951.
In 1862 the King, Jung Bahadur Rana gave a directive that would regulate the trade and increase the benefits to the government. Up until then, only a nominal border fee had to be paid on the Tibetan and the Lo side. The King put an army captain in charge of the trade in the valley who failed in his post and the job of the regulator, given the title of Subba was given to a Thakali named Kalu Ram Dhimzam. Ram Dhimzam had helped the government as a translator in the second Tibetan-Nepali war and was well known to be trustworthy by the King. The post was bid on every three years and therefore changed hands numerous times among the Thakali community. The Subba had a monopoly on the trade as all the salt had to be sold to him at the going rate.
With this transition, the Thakalis gained much power and prestige and their economy skyrocketed compared to their neighbours. They took on positions of responsibility and power in the monasteries of Lo and Tibet as well as in other areas. The hub-site moved around as different Thakalis became the Subba. Sometimes it was in the Kobang/Larjung area and other times it moved up to Chairo or Tukche.
This era of prosperity came to an end in the 1950s with the end of the Rana dynasty and the conquest of Tibet by China. The ties with the government were strengthened and the amount of goods allowed to pass through the border by the Chinese was very minimal. The salt trade that had been dominant in the area for over 1,000 years was all but done. The Thakali people had to rely once again on animal husbandry and farming.
The first tourist that came to Mustang was a Japanese Monk by the name of Ekai Kawaguchi. Ekai travelled through Darjeeling, many parts of Nepal including Mustang and Dolpo and eventually made his way up into Tibet. He studied Tibetan and when entering Nepal posed as a Tibetan monk. His quality of disguise was tested under the scrutiny of many individuals but he passed the test every time. He stayed in Tukche for a long while at the house of the Subba, Harkaman Sherchan (in the building which is currently the distillery). He travelled north to Muktinath and Tsarang where he stayed and studied for ten months. Eventually, he returned to Marpha where he stayed for another three months, arranged for a porter/guide and in June of 1900 left on his way up to Tibet through Dolpo. This was illegal and only by virtue of his disguise was he able to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa. He was the first foreigner to stay in the city for an extended period of time.
The Tibetan liberation movement or the Khampa movement based itself in Upper Mustang and from there went on missions against the Chinese. They were backed for a time by the CIA and had some success in reclaiming portions of their country. There was, at the height of the movement over 6,000 Khampas. All of Mustang was declared a restricted district and no foreigners, with the exception of a few researchers were allowed to enter. The movement came to an end in the mid-1970s and the Nepali government then opened up the lower half of the district of Mustang for tourism. Today, tourism brings a lot of money into the area and in Lower Mustang, many people earn their living through guest houses or shops. In Upper Mustang fewer people see the benefits of tourism due to its restricted nature.
Although Upper and Lower Mustang followed different courses in history, they still share a lot in terms of social systems, landscape and beliefs. The vast stretches of undulating, treeless hills are magnificently carved by the snow, wind and water. The valleys, filled with glacial moraine and then eroded by the elements are stunning and look as if they were carved by man.
The settlements are usually located on the valley floor and are formed in dense clusters of houses, interspersed with narrow roads. The fields are also situated low in the valley where agriculture is possible, often giving the illusion of an oasis in the desert. The houses and inns themselves are made in traditional, flat mud roof style with wood for cooking and heating lining the outside of the roofs. In many cases, the bottom floor is used for keeping animals, while the middle floor is for cooking and worshipping and the top floor is for sleeping. Multi-generational families live together, often times ending up with 4 different generations of people in the same house.
In Upper Mustang polyandry, or one woman marrying two or more husbands is still practised although it is declining. Usually, two brothers will marry the same woman in order to prevent the splitting up of the family’s land. There is a saying, “A woman with two husbands laughs and a man with two wives cries”.
Around the capital of LoManthang, there are still many nomadic families. They travel around, living in tents made of Yak hair, following the edible grasses and berries in order to support their herds. The Dhokpas herds mostly consist of yaks and pashmina sheep.
Other than the Dhokpas, most people depend on agriculture and trade for which they travel south to Pokhara or India in the winter. Fields are taken care of very well because the people’s livelihood is linked with that of the fields and animals.
During harvest time, it is a rule that every household must help with the labour harvesting of the Raja’s fields. Only then may a family’s own fields be harvested. The Raja plays an active part in the community, both as a religious leader but also settling disputes among the people. He offers prayers in all four compass directions every day. His purity is reflected in the purity of the land. If there is any fault with his religious practices it could result in disharmony between men and the gods.
Many illnesses are dealt with through herbal medicine. Traditionally there is a lot of knowledge about various herbs and their uses in the communities of Amjis, or herbal practitioners. Most villages have at least one Amji. There is one Amji school called ‘Lo Kunfen Traditional Herbal Medicine School’ which is located in LoManthang and teaches 25 students.
In Mustang, religion permeates every part of the people’s lives. Their meals, ceremonies, day to day activities are all directed by their beliefs as are their views of life, sickness and death.
The oldest religion known in the area is known as Bon-Po. In the valley, this religion was almost universally followed. Bon was here before Buddhism arrived although the predominant influence on the Thak Khola valley was indeed a mix of Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. In Bon, natural phenomenon and nature are worshipped as shown that the deities of the four Thakali clans are birds. There are two types of Bon, Bon dKar (white Bon) and Bon gNak (black Bon). Black Bon was indigenous to the area and then in the 11th-12th century, Tibetan Buddhism of the Sakya-pa sect mixed with White Bon descended from the north and prevailed throughout the Kali Gandaki gorge through until the 19th century.
During this time the people turned to Tibet and Lo for guidance and built many monasteries (or gompas) and shrines. Religion remained a major part of peoples’ lives and monasteries were prominent in each community.
The monasteries were taken care of by the town that they were associated with and in exchange would accept all unmarried children into the monastery. In addition, the 2nd son would usually become a Lama and similar rules applied to women. The Thakalis from Lower Mustang, during their period of economic dominance, assumed influential positions in monasteries in Lo and Tibet, some even becoming head Lamas of schools and monasteries.
The Nyingma-pa sect of Buddhism became more influential by the 19th century and is still the dominant form found in Mustang. The influence of Hinduism from the south is also not insignificant. Although Buddhist and Bon beliefs were firmly established (as they are even today), Hindu influence increased as the Nepali government gained the power of the region. Many people, in order to increase in favour with the Shah rulers, adopted some Hindu traditions and beliefs such as not eating beef and the belief that souls do not get reborn. Especially in Lower Mustang, this continued the meshing of traditions and created the mixture that is found there today.
The blending of traditions can be seen in rituals that are carried out such as celebrations and funerals. One such ritual that is performed in Upper Mustang is the practice of making charms from sheep’s skulls with a spirit catcher in the middle and then hanging them over the door in order to keep witches and ghosts out of the house.
The Funerals especially show the different influences that are strong in a certain area as well as the environmental constraints that are experienced.
In Upper Mustang, for example, they dispose of their deceased in four ways. Each reflects a different element (fire, earth, water and air) as well as the sparse resources available. The rarest and most revered method is cremation. Since wood is used for the pyre, this method is very costly and usually reserved only for Lamas. After the fire has burnt out, any remaining bones are ground up, mixed with clay, and set into the tiny Votive figures found in sacred spots all over the kingdom.
The lowest forms of burial involve earth and water. If the body is to be interred, the back is broken to avoid demons. The deceased is placed upright in a shallow grave and marked with a prayer flag. When a corpse is to be cast into the water, a Lama accompanies them to a lonely place away from the village where prayers are said and the Lama, using a ritual knife cuts the body to attract predators before being dismembered and thrown in the river.
Similar ceremonies inform the body’s return to the final element, air. Though considered unpleasant and often sensationalized by westerners, sky burial is, in fact, the most efficient way to dispose of the dead bodies in this environment. Accompanied by a Lama, relatives and friends carry the corpse to a high place where it is broken into pieces. When the skull and bigger bones have been crushed and the flesh is exposed, conches are blown to summon the vultures. The deceased is never left unattended, it is a mark of disrespect to leave the burial ground before all parts have been consumed, and the departed soul has become one with the wind. This also reflects the Buddhist belief that the body must return to the earth and be reborn in another form.
Infants are buried quickly with a minimum ceremony. They have not been part of the community long enough to require adult death rites. A firstborn son, however, merits special treatment. In the absence of another male son, the child’s body is preserved in salt and lodged in the wall of the family’s home. In this way, the household will be protected from hungry ghosts until the arrival of another son. Only then can the dead be dislodged and cremated.
In Lower Mustang, many of the same ceremonies are practised although oftentimes the Hindu influence shows itself in the worship that goes on before cremation as well as the practice of the sons when the father dies to shave their head except for a small tuft of hair on the crown of the head.