MUSTANG

History


Nepal, a developing country, is rich in spectacular landscapes replete with hill tribes, ancient pagodas and temples, snow-capped mountains, and untouched artifact. Steeped in multiculturalism and diverse religious beliefs, the country is also blessed with two of the world’s most incredible treasures: Lumbini, the birthplace of the historical Buddha, and Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

Mustang sits in the northern Himalayan region of Nepal, and is surrounded by snowed mountains, barren grey earth, and deep river gorges with strong howling winds that blow northwards between narrow mountains passes. It is a sacred region with many historic Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, ancient Himalayan works of art, and forts and pagodas, which are the main and most important structures in the region to date, despite the introduction of modern housing in recent years.

Since the 1960s Mustang has become an important destination for many prominent researchers studying Tibetan Buddhism and ancient Himalayan cultures. It was also one of the last Himalayan regions of Nepal to be opened fully and freely to foreign visitors. Western anthropologists and Tibetologists travelled to Mustang from the 1960s onward for the sake of carrying out research on Tibetan Buddhist and other Himalayan cultures, though their work fails to draw a fair or complete picture of the area. Moreover, most of these researchers seem to have been mainly interested in obtaining antique objects and documents from historic monasteries and local individuals, only to sell them in the western market. They were well aware of the value of such items in international markets, whereas the people of Mustang had no awareness of the value of these precious items.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Mustang was an important hub for scholars from all over the Buddhist world for religious discourse, seminar, and pilgrimage. Many highly realized Tibetan Buddhist scholars and saints were seen continually flocking to the region, mostly at the invitation of the ambitious spiritual king Ama-Pal and his noble son Agon-Sangpo of Mustang. During the reign of these great kings, all the important religious monuments including monasteries, stupas, and palaces were built, and many historical religious functions were also carried out with the participation of scholars from as far away as Tibet, Sri Lanka, Kathmandu, and India, together with local scholars. It is believed that some of the monasteries accommodated over three thousand monks studying, composing and meditating on Buddha Dharma under the generous financial supports of the kings and ministers.

Therefore, Mustang once had a great reputation as a glorious Buddhist center for those who seek instruction and guidance on Buddhism. Many great Buddhist scholars of Mustang such as Lowo Khenchen Sonam Lhundup (meaning “the great abbot of Mustang”) were also born in this noble land, and earned great respect and fame in Tibet for their scholarly achievements.

Economic


Mustang once enjoyed economic prosperity as an important center of trade between Tibet and southern Nepal, which lasted until the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1959. Indeed, it was once one of the most economically prosperous areas of Nepal, which helped the local inhabitants to maintain the traditional financial support of local monastic communities and to offer at least one member of their family as a monk. Similarly, local people also maintained the virtuous way of leading a peaceful and harmonious lifestyle, with a spirit of contentment and satisfaction with whatever little means they had, despite their regular generous contributions to the monastic community.

However, over time numerous new professions have emerged in Mustang, especially over the past two decades. Although the opening of the region to foreign visitors has helped the local people enormously in developing new, tourism-based sources of income, no collective efforts for preserving the important monuments, pagodas and precious traditional religious studies centers have been made by the local community or government. So, the religious and cultural identity of Mustang has suffered greatly over the last century.

NGOS and INGOS working in MUSTANG


Nevertheless, a few INGOs such as the American Himalayan Foundation have shown interest in restoring the historic monasteries and their magnificent wall paintings in the upper part of Mustang. Although their project is highly noteworthy, it is limited in that it fails to take into consideration the overall preservation of the cultural identity of the people in the area. Indeed, their main interest does not seem to involve preserving the backbone of the cultural identity of the region, namely, the local centers of Buddhist education.

In the past, such interests remained dear during the compassionate, far-sighted, and exemplary reigns of the ancient independent kings and religious leaders of Mustang. Under their benevolent and gracious leadership, the people of Mustang enjoyed overall wellbeing for over four centuries.

One can see that the work of these INGOs is mainly focused on restoring beautiful and precious works of art in the area rather than doing something that would encourage the general public to realize for themselves the importance of preserving the active religious institutions that safeguard the works of their ancestors. Unless an inward change of awareness occurs, the mere external revival of a historical monument cannot guarantee the overall preservation of the cultural identity of a people, let alone shared human happiness.

Nevertheless, some INGOs have also offered regular financial support to some of the religious centers in upper Mustang, which is indeed the most helpful contribution they have made thus far. But we must wonder why their support for traditional religious study is limited to only a few monasteries, and why they do not extend their support to other monasteries that seem to be more in need of help, instead turning their attention to the restoration of neglected meditation caves and old monasteries. These long-neglected caves and temples hardly have any monks practicing there.

Surely it is crucial to carry out such work, but merely preserving a monument may not serve the purpose of preserving the living spirit of a culture. What good will the restoration of these historical monuments do in regard to living a practical life when these cultural artifacts are simply like museums in the lives of those who visit them? Although the maintenance of such work aids locals in obtaining monetary gain through tourism, that should not be the main purpose of their efforts. Otherwise, one cannot claim that such work carries the spirit of preserving a living cultural inheritance.

Climate


Mustang was covered with lush green grasses and dense forests till the late 16th century, when the wood used for the construction of the giant historic structures such as monasteries, palaces and pagodas were supplied from the forests in these areas. It is now hard to believe this fact, since Mustang today is a barren land with a lack of rainfall, making it almost impossible for plants to grow on or around the nearby hills. Indeed, one might think that Mustang must always have been an area severely affected by the effects associated with global warming and climate change. Currently, one cannot find even enough firewood from the surrounding hills, which once used to be the source of abundant firewood for cooking and other daily tasks. So, the practice of using firewood for cooking has now already been replaced by the use of gas in almost all of Mustang’s settlements.

Due to a lack of timely rainfall and also grasslands for grazing animals, traditional professions such as farming and animal husbandry have declined. Yet many are still heavily dependent on farming and animal husbandry, farming small plots and keeping a handful of animals, such as Himalayan goats.

Despite the scorching sun, barren plains, and dry weather throughout most of the year, many of the areas in Mustang receive heavy snowfall during the winter. The melting of the snow in spring helps the local people to water their crops using traditional irrigation systems. Unfortunately, though, many areas have become flooded as a result of glacial melting.

Occupation


As mentioned earlier, many of the youth in Mustang today seek foreign employment. A large flock of young people from Mustang travel to different parts of the world every year looking for new opportunities, and similarly many of them are also migrating to larger cities such as Pokhara and Kathmandu for various reasons such as healthcare, education, and career opportunities.

In summary, today the population of Mustang is decreasing to ever smaller numbers in comparison with the past. The more permanent inhabitants are mainly comprised of monastic communities and older citizens. Especially with the creation of new roads into Mustang, life has been greatly influenced by modern, consumerist culture. The construction of the roads has attracted more tourists to pour in both from outside and within the country. Meanwhile, easier access to healthcare centers located in the bigger cities is perhaps the most appreciable benefit reaped from the creation these roads. Since people in the past were at risk of untimely death due to a lack of proper medical facilities, many pregnant women and older people risked their lives by making difficult journeys to faraway urban centers.

Education


The modern school system and small primary schools in Himalayan regions including Mustang play an important role in bringing a western consumerist culture and modern secular education to Nepal. However, these schools still cannot provide international standards of education to their students. Therefore, many people who can afford it opt to send their children to private English boarding schools in cities such as Pokhara or Kathmandu rather than having them attend local free government schools. Yet all of these schools have completely failed to introduce the youth to local cultural values, not to mention traditional Buddhist education, given the educational curriculum of such schools prepared by the educational ministry of the government does not include anything related to traditional Buddhist studies or cultural value.

Kagbeni & Monastery
Kagbeni, located at the entrance of Upper Mustang, just half an hour ride by jeep from Jomsom is an oasis with its apple and apricot orchards and barley fields, vibrant with color standing against the vast landscape of silver gray river, stones and stark, brown cliffs on the edge of the Kali Gandaki River. Here on the precipice of a steep cliff and bordered by the Kali Gandaki and the Dzong Khola rivers, sits the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery founded by the renowned Sakya scholar, Tenpa Gyalsten of Tibet in 1429. The monastery being the center of spiritual life for the local community, who live here, has been well cared for during the past 570 years. Until the middle of the 18th century this monastery housed nearly 100 monks from twelve different surrounding villages practicing Dharma and keeping alive Tibetan Buddhism. Local economic condition and the lack of school and health care facilities have forced many village people to take their families and relocate to larger villages or eventually go to Pokhara, Kathmandu or India leaving the village and more importantly, the monastery with only a few senior monks, too old to leave.