Mustang is known as the forbidden kingdom of Nepal, where its ancient culture, tradition and custom has been preserved and is still alive. Geographically, it is one of the highest regions of Nepal where the locals subsist almost entirely on farming, animal husbandry and on tourism of late. The population of the Mustang District in 2001 was 14,981. The people are either Thakalis, Gurungs or in Upper Mustang, primarily Tibetans.
The historic region of Lo, as Upper Mustang was traditionally known, covers the northern two-thirds of the Mustang district in north-western Nepal.
Upper Mustang was, at one time, the southern-most frontier of independent Tibet and therefore still borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of Chinese occupied Tibet in the north, north-east and north-west. It was around 1400 that a Tibetan, Ame Pal, a direct descendent of the Tibetan Kingdom of Gungthang, emerged to become the founder and first king of the Lo Empire. It is for this reason that though Mustang has since been integrated into the political landscape of Nepal, culturally, it shares more commonalities with Tibet. The people of Mustang speak Tibetan and largely practice Tibetan Buddhism.
Upper Mustang is made up of 34 settlements and the seven Village Development Committees (VDCs) of Chhonup, Chhoser, Lo Manthang, Tsarang, Surkhang and Chuksang. In 2009, the population of these VDCs was around 6000. Of these settlements in Upper Mustang, Lo Manthang is the most densely populated, with over 150 households. All these settlements are located along rivers for greater possibilities of irrigation upon which agriculture and cultivation depend. The region is dotted with abandoned agricultural land due to the changes in river courses and consequent erosion or owing to the failure of irrigation canals.
The rangelands of Upper Mustang provide habitats for many species of wildlife, many of which are endangered. It is an extraordinary refuge for nature and culture owing to the insularity and seclusion the area has experienced and is under consideration for nomination as a world heritage site.
The administrative center of the Mustang district is in Jomsom.
Geography, Climate and Vegetation
Traditional Mustang (the Lo Kingdom) is 53 kms north- south at its longest and 60 km east- west at its widest, and ranges from a low point of 2750 m above sea level on the Kali Gandaki River just north of Kagbeni to 6700 m at Khamjung Himal, a peak in southeast Mustang. Much of this area, made up of 2567 kms, is a high altitude steppe. The irrigated alluvial parts of the valley are used intensively for cultivation while the lower slopes and alpine meadows are used for grazing and collection of herbs and other natural resources. Vegetative cover is sparse and the snow and strong winds act to accelerate the erosion process.
Mustang is cold and arid with an average temperature ranging between 4°C below zero to 14°C. However, the temperature in Lo Manthang can get as low as –25°C. Upper Mustang lies in the rain shadow of the great Himalayan ranges, therefore the climate is insular with sparse rain and severe winters. Two distinct seasons can be recognized: April to October is relatively mild and all agricultural activities take place during this period; November to March is severe and precipitation invariably is in the form of snow. Mountain passes are blocked and many settlements remain cut-off from the rest of the district and the country due to heavy snow. Strong winds and high solar radiation are common in the region for most of the year. These tough weather conditions cause a large winter migration into the lower regions of Nepal.
Literacy and Education in the region
According to a 2001 census conducted by the government of Nepal, only around 33 percent of the population of Upper Mustang above 6 years of age was literate (able to read and write). A considerable gender gap in literacy can be noticed- male literacy (43 percent) was nearly twice as high as female literacy (23 percent). There was also considerable variation in literacy rates by VDCs. Literacy in Upper Mustang is much lower than in the nation as a whole or in comparison with the rest of the mountainous regions of Nepal. Upper Mustang falls among the areas in Nepal with an alarming teacher–student ratio of less than 1:10 in all cases and as low as 1:5 in most cases. Although every village has a primary school, the problem is the lacking standard of education and therefore the reluctance on the part of the parents to send their children to school. There is one high school in the whole of Upper Mustang. Families, who can afford it, send their children to bigger towns like Pokhara and Kathmandu or even to India for better education.
The Upper Mustang populace is almost exclusively of Tibetan ethnicity and the social and cultural history of Lo is strongly tied with Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is the predominant religion in the region and Upper Mustang has succeeded in preserving some fine art and cultural artifacts of Tibetan Buddhism in the form of wall-paintings, Tibetan thangka paintings, idols, etc.
Through the centuries Lo-Manthang evolved as an important repository of Tibetan Buddhism where it flourished and was devoutly nurtured. The images, frescoes, sculptures, ancient religious manuscripts and artifacts housed in the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and other places of worship in and around Lo Manthang such as the Lo-Gekar Monastery, Tsarang Monastery, Namgyal Monastery, Ghami Monastery, Nyiphuk Monastery, Ghiling Monastery, Gonpa-Kang, Choser Cave, Luri Cave and the unique Chhoe-ten (stupa) of Tangya, speak of a culturally rich and glorious past. Lo Manthang also exemplifies the coexistence and flourishing of the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
Bön was the predominant belief in Lo prior to the eight century. After the eighth century, the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism remained dominant for a long time. Ame Pal, the first king, set the tradition of appointing the abbot of Ngor monastery in Tibet as their preceptor. Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo who founded the Ngor sub-sect within the Sakayapa sect in south central Tibet was appointed the first preceptor and was invited to Lo Manthang for the consecration ceremony of the Maitreya statue of Jampa monastery in Lo Manthang. Lo was not just a refuge of imported Tibetan beliefs. It also produced a number of noted Lamas and scholars. Lama Sherap Rinchen, populary known in Tibet as Lobo Lostawa, and one the finest and most respected Vajrayana scholars and translators of his time, hailed from the upper region of Lo. There are a number of well-known scholars who had their roots in Lo Manthang.
Even though foreign visitors have been allowed to the region since 1992, tourism to Upper Mustang is regulated. Foreigners need to obtain a special permit priced at US $50 per day per head. October is the peak tourism month, followed by the month of August. Over a thousand western trekkers now visit each year.