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Mustang, located in the Dhaulagiri zone of northern Nepal, is a region brimming with natural beauty and cultural diversity. Divided into two parts, Lower Mustang and Upper Mustang, this area offers fascinating insights:

  • Lower Mustang: Renowned for Kagbeni and Muktinath, it’s a hub for pilgrims. It’s also a part of the Annapurna circuit trek and boasts vibrant apple farming.
  • Upper Mustang: Known for its breathtaking landscapes and unique culture. The region’s geographical location results in a semi-arid, cool climate. The majority of the population in Upper Mustang practices Buddhism, which deeply influences their daily lives.

Mustang, often referred to as the “Forbidden Kingdom,” enjoyed a period of prosperity during the 16th and 17th centuries. This region is renowned for its temples and remarkable Buddhist art. It served as a crucial waypoint for caravans traveling from India along the Kali Gandaki river into Tibet. These caravans engaged in trade, exchanging lowland goods like grain for Tibetan salt.
The people of Mustang are a blend of diverse ethnic groups like Gurung, Thakali, and Lopa. The Lopa, the original inhabitants, have a distinct culture and language, preserving their traditions for generations. Mustangi people are renowned for their warm hospitality, often inviting visitors to engage in daily activities like farming and cooking.

Culture and People

The Loba people of Mustang, Tibetan Buddhists, hold strong beliefs in spirits. They recognize 416 demons tied to land, sky, fire, and water, attributed to causing 1,080 diseases and five forms of violent death. To ward off these spirits, intricate demon traps are set, and horse skulls are buried beneath every house. Passing temples on the right is a practice to gain merit, even followed by horses and yaks. The “Lunga tangen” ritual involves climbing a hill, lighting a juniper and incense fire, and releasing prayers into the wind for long life and good fortune.
Monks in Mustang play long trumpets reminiscent of mooing cows, and they use Tibetan horns adorned with silver, gold, coral, and turquoise. Mustang is a treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist art. Unlike Tibet, it couldn’t afford to cover up old paintings as the kingdom declined, preserving them. Monastery books here can weigh over 20 kilograms, and they employ cups, drums made from human skulls, and flutes crafted from human thigh bones, following Tibetan traditions.

Festivals and Foods

Tiji is a vital Mustang festival, held each spring to kick off the planting season. It features lively dances, costumed dramas, and exorcism rituals. The festival’s climax occurs outside Lo Manthang’s walls, where the golden-robed king fires a shot from an ancient flintlock rifle. Masked monks then smash bowls symbolizing evil spirits responsible for natural disasters. Inside the town, people leap over a fire to rid themselves of any lingering demons. This vibrant celebration combines tradition, culture, and spiritual cleansing.

Yartung or Horse festival is another widely celebrated in Mustang, Nepal, taking place over three days each August. The first day is dedicated to the King’s activities, the second to the monks, and the third to the local community’s involvement in festive activities. The highlight of Yartung is the thrilling horse racing, but locals also partake in the celebration through singing, dancing, and revelry, which often includes traditional drinks.

The people of Upper Mustang celebrate two Losar festivals, known as Chhegu Emma and Chhegu Semma, following the Tibetan lunar calendar. Both Losar festivals span three days of joyous festivities. During these celebrations, locals visit relatives, come together to meet one another, organize lively parties, and revel in communal dances. These festivals serve as vibrant occasions for social bonding and merriment in Upper Mustang.

When it comes to food and meals, Mustang offers a delectable culinary experience. The iconic Thakali Dal-Bhat is often the first meal you’ll encounter in Mustang. It’s a hearty combination of rice, lentils, vegetables, and sides like Gundruk (fermented spinach), achars, Chatnis and meat. Momo, the infamous dumplings, deliver an explosion of flavors and richness. Thukpas, Nepali hot noodle soups, provide a warm and comforting sensation, particularly welcomed in the cold, windy Mustang region.

One particularly intriguing dietary item is the pudding made from buckwheat, maize, or millet, known as Dhido. This unique dish, more commonly consumed in higher-altitude regions, offers a distinctive alternative to rice. Local meats like Yak and Chauri, native to the mountains, are both appetizing and nutritious. Additionally, the cheese crafted from their milk is a culinary delight.

Rituals, Customs and Daily Life

In Tibetan customs, when a person passes away, there are several options for handling the deceased. These include cremation, water burial, traditional burial, sky burial (where the body is offered to vultures), and a unique addition by the Mustangese:

  • Cremation: The body is cremated in accordance with traditional funeral rites.
  • Water Burial: The body is placed in a river.
  • Traditional Burial: The deceased is buried in the ground.
  • Sky Burial: The body is dismembered and offered to vultures.
  • Unusual Ritual: In Mustang, a distinct practice exists. If a man dies without leaving any sons or grandsons, his body can be temporarily enclosed within the walls of his house until a male heir is born. At that point, the body is moved to a hill and offered to demons in exchange for the long life of the male heir.

During exorcism ceremonies, monks wear elaborate ceremonial robes and yak-hair boots. They symbolically launch painted arrows from bows, stones from slingshots, and bullets from muzzle-loading guns at masked demons. A policeman-monk, wielding peacock feathers as a nightstick, maintains order during these rituals. Every gesture, chant, and prayer must adhere to strict guidelines, as the Mustangese believe that any deviation may result in the expulsion of demons not being successful. These customs and ceremonies showcase the deeply rooted spiritual and cultural beliefs of the region.

In Mustang, the people’s livelihoods revolve around agriculture and animal husbandry. They cultivate barley and raise goats and sheep for their milk and butter. Horses and yaks are essential as beasts of burden in this region. Notably, Marpha, Lete and Kobang in the Mustang district are renowned for apple farming and apple-based products such as dried apples, apple jams, and brandy, particularly the famous Marpha apple brandy.