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Dakardzong
 

Mustang

By Mark Turin / Photographs by Arthur Pazo

Take a map of Nepal. Find the town of Pokhara and run your finger up the river to the north-west. This is the mighty Kali Gandaki, The Black One, and its source lies in Mustang, the most awe-inspiring of Nepal’s 75 districts.

History
Shrouded in mystery and unparalleled in natural and cultural beauty, it should come as no surprise to hear that through the ages, Mustang has gone by many names. “Mustang” is an English corruption of Lo Monthang, the walled capital city and the seat of the local king. The earliest reference to this ancient realm in western literature was by Kirkpatrick, the first Englishman to visit Nepal, who in 1793 wrote, in what was to be perhaps the greatest Himalayan understatement: “Moostang is a place of some note…”. Moostang was to become Mastang, and then in turn, Mustang. None of these names is as evocative as the original Tibetan though: Lo Monthang or “The Southern Plains of Aspiration”.

 

Look back to that map of Nepal. Note how Mustang sticks out to the north deeper and further than other part of Nepal? It has even been described as “a thumb in the eye of Tibet”. This is a clue to the historical and strategic importance of the area. In its heyday, between the 15th and 17th Centuries, the kings of Lo Monthang dominated the Trans-Himalayan trade between Tibet and India. Salt from the vast lakes deep inside Tibet as well as wool from mountain yaks were traded for grain and spices from India. Mustang in particular was a through-fare, a conduit, for this immensely important trade. During this golden age, the kings of ancient Lo were rulers of all of West Tibet and the walled capital was an urban centre, attracting painters, scholars, doctors and artisans. Their legacy is still to be seen in the magnificent frescoes adorning the crumbling monasteries and temples.

Over time though, Mustang’s influence began to wane. By 1790, despite being ethnically and culturally Tibetan, the kingdom allied itself with Nepal in the war against Tibet, and was annexed soon afterwards. Until 1951, Lo formed a separate principality, ruled over by the local king who acted as a tributary to the king of Nepal.

For nine years, starting in 1951 when Nepal officially opened her borders, foreigners could visit Mustang. Thereafter, from 1960 until 1991, the kingdom was closed once more. During the 60s and 70s, Mustang was the operational base for the Khampa guerrillas from eastern Tibet who were fighting against the Chinese occupation of their country. These freedom fighters were supplied with weapons and food by the American government, dropped by CIA pilots who flew low over the treacherous mountains to deliver their loads. After a tape-recorded plea by the Dalai Lama (already long in exile in India) to cease their violent struggle against the Chinese, many Khampas laid down their arms and were settled in refugee camps in Nepal. Others refused, and fought to the death, whilst some committed suicide, torn between disobeying their spiritual leader and relinquishing their homeland. During these difficult decades, the upper reaches of the Mustang valley were completed sealed off to outsiders. In 1991, rather unexpectedly, the Nepalese government reopened Mustang to a limited quota of foreign visitors.

Monks awaiting the arrival of their rimpoche at Jomsom airport
 

To this day, Mustang remains a cultural anomaly: an ethnically Tibetan kingdom, untouched by the ravages of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, possessing unrivalled artistic expression and a moon-like topography, nestled within the Hindu kingdom of Nepal. The present ruler, whilst having no special status within Nepal, has retained the title of Maharaja, or “Great King”, and is widely respected. He is married to a Tibetan princess, as is his son, the crown prince, who will inherit the throne in due course.

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