By Kristen Zipperer
The Mustang region of northern-central Nepal is unlike any other place in the country, it is characterized by its barren, windswept humps of mountain desert earth, all shades of pink, purple, brown, and gray.
For the majority of its history, Mustang was an independent kingdom that was closely tied in language and culture with Tibet. It was a center for trade, and Buddhist scholarship and art. Caravan trains packed with Himalayan salt would pick their way down from the mountains to do business on the Indian plains.
Later, in the 17th century, an economic decline set in as cheaper salt became more readily available in India. Settlements were abandoned, left to the wilderness. Today, Mustang’s desolate valleys and hills feel at once peaceful and haunting. The ephemeralness of human life exists in stark contrast to the steadfast, silent mountains.
These days, the region is divided into Lower Mustang and Upper Mustang. Lower Mustang is home to the Thakali people, who are culturally and linguistically distinct from the Tibetan people of Upper Mustang. Lower Mustang has been incorporated into the Annapurna Circuit, and is the most common way that foreigners experience the region.
Travel to Upper Mustang, Mustang’s cultural and political center, is exceptionally more difficult. In an effort to regulate the amount of tourists who visit Upper Mustang each year, the government requires travelers to obtain a special permit that costs $50 per day per person.
To get a taste of Upper Mustang without splurging for the pricy permit, one of the best options is to spend a few nights in Kagbeni, a village along the Annapurna Circuit that straddles the border between Lower and Upper Mustang. Kagbeni has the look and feel of its northern neighbor, and is known as the “Gateway to Upper Mustang.”
The town of Kagbeni sits at the bottom of Muktinath Valley, which is scattered with abandoned settlements and irrigation fields. No one knows exactly when or why these places were abandoned. However, legend has it that Kagbeni was founded when two of these villages were destroyed by a demon that had the head of a lion, and a body of a serpent. The surviving villagers came together and founded a new village, which is modern-day Kagbeni.
The centerpiece of Kagbeni is its fortress ruins. In the second half of the 16th century, before the establishment of the village, Muktinath Valley’s king built his son a fortress at the convergence point of four trade routes. This strategic location allowed the king to levy taxes on the commodities and animals that passed through the valley.
The holes in the fortress walls are a unique feature in Kabgeni. The reason for these holes remains unclear, however, it is possible that they were designed as a defense mechanism against invasions. Internal disputes within the larger Mustang empire happened on occasion, and sometimes resulted to armed conflict. In 1652, a power dispute in Mustang’s capital of Lo ended with the banishment and incarceration of Lo’s prince in Kagbeni.
Looking north, one can see the beginning of Upper Mustang. After a five day trek into the mountain desert, one reaches Lo Mantang. In the photograph on the right-hand side, you can see the trail leading to Upper Mustang.
With the influx of tourism in recent years, new buildings and hotels have nudged their way between Kagbeni’s old mud and stone houses. However, take a walk around the old part of the town surrounding the fortress, and one discovers buildings that haven’t substantially changed for hundreds of years.
Each day, the town temporarily empties out as residents take to farming their fields and herding their animals out to graze. The resulting quietness in the streets is evocative of the abandoned settlements perched in the valley above.
At its height in the 18th century, the monastery housed 100 monks from twelve surrounding villages. The monastery has declined over the years. However, in 2009, a monastic boarding school was established next to the monastery in an effort to revitalize the region’s Buddhist scholarship.
In addition to the fortress, one of Kagbeni’s most recognizable landmarks is its red monastery. Built at the confluence of two rivers, which in Buddhism signifies a holy place, the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery was founded in 1429 by a renowned Buddhist scholar from Tibet.
Despite the general decline of the monastery, Buddhism remains a fundamental part of the culture in Kagbeni. Early each morning, a low undulating drone of prayer fills the town.
Lamas intone mantras, which are occasionally interrupted with bursts of music—cymbals, bells, drums, and horns.
Yet, the prayers are not necessarily always for spiritual upliftment. More often, lamas perform rituals for the welfare of the village, or for an individual’s health. Above is the entrance of the town, which greets visitors with prayer wheels and small stupas.
Given the drastic changes in political, social, and economic structure that have happened in recent years in Tibet proper, the Mustang region today represents one of the most significant refuges for Tibetan religion and culture.
Above Kagbeni is a series of cave ruins that date back to prehistoric times. There are more than 10,000 abandoned cave settlements throughout Mustang, dug into the sides of cliffs.
Nearly all evidence about their history has been erased with time. In more modern times, these caves have been used as temples and places for meditation, as evidenced by discoveries of Buddhist murals and reliquaries inside them.
The Himalayas are among the youngest mountain ranges in the world, and rise an average of one centimeter each year. The rock face above Kagbeni is folded sea sediment that once used to sit at the bottom of the ocean. Throughout Mustang, one can find marine fossils, or shaligram, as the locals call it. In Hinduism, these fossils are considered to be a form of the god Vishnu, and are holy.
The wide valley in which Kagbeni is situated is not carved by the Kali Gandaki River that runs through it, like many people assume. Instead, it is a block of land that has moved downwards over the years, and the river has followed.