Medieval Mustang Town

Introduction:

Situated at an altitude of 2,800m, Kagbeni is a unique village of Baarah Gaun (twelve villages) region in Mustang district. It lies on the popular Annapurna Circuit Trek and is a gateway to Upper Mustang. It is a fascinating medieval village with closely packed mud-brick houses, dark alleys and imposing Chhortens. The village stands in a little green oasis dominated by its red monastery. The “Kag” of “Kagbeni” used to be “Ghag” meaning centre and hence, is a centre of nearby villages of Jomsom to south and Muktinath to the east. “Beni” in Nepali means confluence of two rivers, and indeed Kagbeni lies on the banks of the confluence of Kali Gandaki and Jhong Rivers. Before heading to Muktinath, Hindu pilgrims offer Pinda and perform Shraddha (death ritual) to their deceased ancestors at this confluence believing that it brings salvation to the departed soul. According to the Hindu epic Adhyatma RamayanaKagbhusundi meditated here on the suggestion of Saptarishis, hence the place was named Kagbeni. The village maintains the characteristic appearance of a fortress town and is culturally rich. The town played a very significant role during the “Salt Trade” era that flourished between Tibet and Nepal. However, with the formation of Mustang in the 15th century, Kagbeni’s importance diminished. The main ethnic group in the village is the Bhotias (who take the last name Gurung and Thakuri).

Access:

  • From Besisahar via Thorung La (5,416m): 9 to 12 days walk
  • From Beni or Nayapul-Birethanti: 4 to 7 days walk
  • From Jomsom: about 2 and 1/2 hours walk

Key attractions:

  • Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Gompa:
    The gompa is one of the important Shakya Pa sect monasteries in the Baarah Gaun region. Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling translates as “monastery of the place to stop and develop concentration on teachings of Lord Buddha”. The renowned Shakya scholar Tenpai Gyaltsen of Tibet founded the monastery in 1429. Until the middle of the 18th century, this monastery housed nearly 100 monks from 12 surrounding villages. Bronze icons of Shakyamuni Buddha flanked by his disciples Sariputra and Maudgalanya and other divinities, are displayed on the altar of the monastery. Along with Thangkas, holy canon, frescoes, and fine woodwork. Visitors have to pay a small entrance fee to enter the monastery.
  • Kheni (Primitive Figures):
    When is was founded Kagbeni was surrounded by a defensive wall. Originally there were two entry-exit gates in this wall, both of which were guarded by the people. About a century ago, two Khenis (the ghost eaters) representing a man and a woman replaced the human guards. These grotesque primitive figures, reflecting age-old animist beliefs, welcome visitors to the village. Animism was practised here long before the advent of Tibetan Buddhism in the 11th or 12th century.
  • Devthen Chhorten:
    The Chhorten located near the secondary school south-west of Kagbeni was built by Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava) in order to protect the village from ghosts. The Chhorten houses idols of Guru Rimpoche and other deities.
  • Kag Khar Ruined Palace:
    The ruined palace of Kag Khar dynasty used to house 108 rooms. Historically, Kagbeni used to be an important fortified palace along the “Salt Trade Route”. Even today, the town bears testimony of war and reflects its border position. The dark alleys give way to small interior courtyards. The streets and the tunnels appear to wind their way through the sturdy whitewashed houses of the old town, constructed as a fortress as a defence against wind and bandits. The ruins of this old fort at the centre symbolize the fact that this was once an important place located strategically at the junction of two valleys, Mustang and Muktinath.
  • Maitreya Chapel:
    The small private monastery is owned by Red House Lodge in Kagbeni. The chapel houses a huge clay idol of Maitreya, the second largest (the largest is Jhampa Gompa in Lo Manthang) in Mustang. It’s Tibetan name Jhampa translates as Future Buddha. A big Mandala accompanies the idol along with beautiful wall printings.

Other Attractions:

Eye-catching views of the impressive huge Chhortens, traditional flat mud roofed houses with prayer flags and Mhanes on the roof, old women weaving and gossiping in their traditional costumes are some of the other main attractions in the town. Besides, Kagbeni provides spectacular views of Mt. Nilgiri (7,060m), Tilicho Peak (7,139m), Yak Kawa (6,482m), Thorung Peak (6488m), Tiri village and Samdup Choedhing Gompa.

Festivals/Events:
Kagbeni celebrates four annual festivals, Chhongu (New Year) in January, Dhajyang in April/May, Fangel in August and Yartung immediately after FangelChhongu is celebrated for 7 days while Dhajyang is celebrated for 5 days. During these festivals, men test their archery skills in the belief that good performances ensure success in the years to come. Fangel is celebrated for good health while Yartung is the traditional horse racing festival. Men in traditional costumes dance in praise of Kag Khar (royal family) and villagers which is called Bhatein Shyak. Feasting, merry making and drinking local beer – Chhyang is an integral part of all these festivals.

Side Trips:

  • Lhungfu Cave:
    This holy Buddhist cave is located near Phalyak and Dhakarjhong villages, about 2.5 hours walk from Kagbeni. Locals believe the deity of this cave stays there in summer and in Gurusangbo Cave (near Kobang) in winter. Many Buddhist pilgrims visit the cave each year and pray for rain. Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche) is said to have meditated in this cave.
  • Phudzeling:
    This archaeological excavation site unearthed some important findings in Mustang’s archaeology.  Some of the findings are displayed in Mustang Eco Museum in Puthang, about a 5-minute walk south of Jomsom airport. The ruined settlements and caves are evidence of the ancient civilization of the Muktinath Valley. Apparently, present-day Kagbeni settlement was shifted from here. It is about an hour’s walk along Jhong River, located opposite to Khinga.