A Symbiotic Religious Site of Hindus and Buddhists

Introduction:

Muktinath is situated at an altitude of 3710m at the base of Kathang Kang (Thorung Peak), in Baarah Gaun (twelve villages) region in Mustang district. It is a gateway to Mustang from Manang on the famous Annapurna Circuit Trek route. Named after the highly revered Muktinath shrine, the valley is a religious site for both Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims. Hindus call it Muktichhetra (lit. the salvation region). Many Shaligrams (Ammonite) found here are considered by the Hindus as the incarnation of Lord Vishnu and they worship them. According to Hindu myths, Lord Bishnu turned into the Shaligram because of a curse by Brinda, wife of Jhalandhar. Similarly, Buddhists call this valley Chuming Gyatsa (lit. the place of 108 waterspouts) It is believed that Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), the scholar and founder of Tibetan Buddhism once meditated and gained the lifetime achievement of spiritual enlightenment, while on his way to Tibet in the 12th century. The valley has seven famous historic villages: Putak, Jhong, Chhyonkhar, Purang, Jharkot, and KhingaRanipauwa (lit. queen’s pilgrim hostel, named after Queen Subarna Prabha Devi) is a new settlement founded by the people of Purang. Most of the hotels are located here. The main ethnic group of the valley is Bhotias (who possess last names Thakuri and Gurung) of Tibetan origin.

Access:

  • From Besisahar via Thorung La (5,416m): 8 to 11 days walk
  • From Beni or Nayapul – Birethanti: 5 to 8 days walk
  • From Jomsom: about 6 hours walk

Key Attractions:

  • Muktinath Temple Complex:
  1. Muktinath Temple:
    The Pagoda style Muktinath temple is the symbol of religious symbiosis between Hindus and Buddhists. Hindus believe that lord Bishnu got salvation from the curse of Brinda here. Therefore he is worshipped as Muktinath (lit. the lord of salvation). Hindu devotees bathe in the chilly water of 108 waterspouts located behind the temple. It is also believed that the deity originated from Jumla, far Western Nepal. On the other hand, Buddhists worship Bishnu as Avalokiteshvara (Chingresig). The temple houses metal statues of lord Bishnu, the goddesses Laxmi, Saraswati, Janaki, and deities of Garuda, Lava-Kusha and Sapta Rishis.
  2. Mharme Lha Khang Gompa:
    This monastery is situated north of Muktinath temple. Mharme Lha Khang translates as a thousand holy lamps. As this monastery is dedicated to Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), his huge clay image is placed at the centre of altar along with the Bon deities: red Trakpo at the right side and blue Singe Doma at the left side. Since Singe Doma is a lion-headed deity, Hindus worship the deity as Narsinha and named the monastery Narsingh Gompa. It is also believed that it is Ne Chog Khandoling (lit. holy meditation spot) of Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava) where he received enlightenment during his meditation. The presence of Bon deities in this monastery indicates that present-day Muktichhetra used to be a Bon pilgrimage site in early days.
  3. Dhola Mebar Gompa: This is the monastery of the miraculous flame. The main deity of the monastery is Chingresig under which natural gas is continuously burning. Although there are three kinds of flames: “Sale Mebar” (holy flame from the soil), “Dhola Mebar” (holy flame from rock) and “Kla Mebar” (holy flame from water), currently only two flames are burning. Hindus believe that this miracle of fire lighting was an offering made by Brahma himself and worship it as Jwala Mai (lit. goddess of fire). The monastery is situated south of the Muktinath temple.
  4. Gompa Samba: Gompa Samba means “new monastery”. It is believed that the founder of this monastery Syandol Lama came from Tibet. Originally this monastery was a big hostel for lamas that later collapsed and people of Khinga and Jharkot jointly reconstructed it. The main deities of this monastery are ShakyamuniChingresig & Guru Rimpoche. The monastery is situated on the left from the main entrance gate of Muktinath temple complex.

Anila (Buddhist nuns) of Khinga and Jharkot take care of the cultural heritage inside the Muktinath temple complex. Photography & filming of the deities inside the monasteries and temple are strictly prohibited.

  • Tharwa Chyoling Nunnery:
    It takes about a 1-hour walk from Ranipauwa via Chhyonkhar and 1 and 1/2 hours from Jharkot to reach this monastery. Since this monastery is situated in a deep valley, locals call it the Gompa Dhong Dhong. The original name is Tharwa ChyolingTharwa means salvation and Chyoling means area of religion. It was established by a local Takla Thakuri but was ruined by an earthquake. Believed to be about 40-50 years old, it was renovated by Syangpa Rimpoche, a reincarnated lama about 5-6 years ago.
  • Gargen Chyoling Nunnery (Ghar Gompa):
    This monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the valley. Anila or nuns from Chhyonkhar, Purang, Jhong and Putak villages study and live here. More than 160 nuns with long braided hair used to live here to become Dubral, or senior nuns. The monastery was renovated by two monks of Luri Gompa, Upper Mustang about 26 years ago. Lama Chyongi Rimpoche of Ngesdon Osoling Monastery of Swayambu, Kathmandu built the hostel for AnilaLuri Gompa and Taglung Gompa are the only two monasteries in Mustang, which are similar to this nunnery.

Other Attractions:

The ruined settlement called Phudzeling is found opposite of Khinga. Similarly, cave ruins called Myabrak are located opposite of Jharkot. These ruined settlements and caves stand as evidence to the ancient civilization of the Muktinath valley. This is the site of interesting archaeological excavations, where some of the most important archaeological findings of Mustang have been made. Some of the findings are placed in the Mustang Eco Museum in Puthang, near Jomsom airport. The valley provides breathtaking views of Yak Kawa (6,482m.), Thorung Peak (6,488m.), Mt. Nilgiri (7,060m.), Tilicho Peak (7,139m.), Mt. Dhaulagiri (8,167m.), and Tukche Peak (5,877m.).

Festivals/Events:
Many interesting festivals take place in the valley at different times of the year. Yartung, perhaps the most famed festival of the valley, is celebrated during August/September. This is the festival of harvests and horseraces take place in Ranipauwa. Devotees from surrounding villages and Manang gather here during the festival. Other important festivals include Lhosar (New Year), Dhajyang/Toranla (Festival of Archery), Dhekyap, Bakchhap (festival of Lama Dance), and Fangyal (festival of taking rest). Villagers perform a Syabro Dance (local dance) in their typical traditional wear during most of the festivals.

Side Trips:

  • Chhyonkhar Village:
    Chhyonkhar translates as “the cycle of religion” in the Tibetan language. It is believed that Chhyonkhar village was founded by a Tantrik monk of Tibet named Chabgyepa Dhorje Singe about 209 years ago. One of the monks of his generations founded Chhyonkhar Gompa where Tantrik teachings are taught. Several worships such as Yangdak, Narak and Thorim take place during different times of the year. Monks perform Dhekep, a masked dance on the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar. This village celebrates a unique festival called Yul Yartung, where horse riding takes place. It is about half an hour from Ranipauwa.
  • Jhong Village:
    The village is the ancient capital of the region and makes an interesting side trip from Ranipauwa and Jharkot. Tibetan culture and tradition is still intact. Jhong translates as “fort” in the Tibetan language. Jhong Chode Shedup Choephel Ling Gompa, one of the important and largest Shakya-Pa sect monasteries in the Muktinath valley, is situated on ruins of the forts. The fort is called Rabgyal Tse (lit. the peak of supreme victory) founded around 14th century by Pondrung Throgyal, the great successor of Ame-Pal. In the past, the chief used to control six villages of Muktinath valley from this fort. This ancient monastery was established in the 16th century by Lo-Khenchen Sonam Lhundup, one of the best disciple of Ngorchen Kunga. Sangpo shelters monks of Jhong, Putak and Chhyonkhar villages, as it is the main monastery of these three villages. The monastery depicts images of Shakyamuni (historical Buddha) and other deities. It has beautiful wall paintings and woodworks. Photography and filming inside the monastery is strictly prohibited. Visitors have to pay a fee to enter the monastery.
  • Jharkot Village:
    It is an impressive fortress-like village with its picturesque Kani (huge Chhorten) and large Shakya-Pa sect monastery. The monastery is situated close to the ruins of the forts in Jharkot. The Tibetan name of the monastery is Ngorp. It is believed that this monastery was founded during the regime of King Chopse. Four monks regularly stay there and perform various worships during different times of the year. It is the main monastery of Jharkot, Purang and Khinga people. Visitors have to pay certain fees to enter the monastery.

Lubra Village:
The village is about three hours walk directly from Ranipauwa and avoiding Kagbeni – Eklebhatti route. It is about two hours walk from Jomsom along Panda Khola. Both routes remain closed from June to August because of floods in Panda Khola. Founded around 1200 A.D., this is the only village in Mustang, where Bon (pre-Buddhist) religion is still practised. There is a Bonpo monastery named Lubra Gompa at the centre of the village. It was founded by Lubragpa, a great scholar of Bon religion in the 11th century.  It houses the idol of Walsa and other Bon deities and Buddha along with wall paintings and fine woodwork.