Mustang Province, Nepal
Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic
This Month in Photo of the Day: National Geographic Magazine Features
Dusk falls over the temples and homes of Tsarang, once the region’s most important town. In Mustang, where the centuries have not disrupted the traditional rhythm of life, the caves offer clues to a time when the remote Himalayan kingdom was a hub linking Tibet to the rest of the world.
The village of Tsarang is just south of the walled town of Lo Monthang, the capital of the Kingdom of Mustang in North Western Nepal. The village of Tsarang (Charang) has numerous stupa structures, a monastery (gompa) and a fortress (dzong). The monastery is made up of several buildings and structures. Some are in the process of being renovated and others are in a state of serious disrepair. The inner walls of the main temple are painted with murals depicting the deities of the Medicine Buddha mandala. They have recently been cleaned and restored. It has been suggested by some local informants that depictions and rituals of Medicine Buddha are a special object of devotion in the Kingdom of Mustang and can be found in the temples of almost every Mustang village.
By far one of the most interesting buildings in the small walled monastic complex is located at the back of the property, looking like nothing but a ruin, almost falling over a cliff. The structure is referred to locally as the Ani Gompa, or Ani Lhakang (nunnery). Navigating the only entrance, a set of small wooden double doors, flanked by a Wheel of Life and murals of the Four Guardian Kings, arriving inside, it is immediately noticeable that the roof has large gaping holes, numerous rafters with blue sky behind. The floor is an uneven surface of mud and dirt and the entire place seems like it could collapse at any moment. Yet despite all of that, the inner walls are completely decorated with brightly coloured murals, some of which appear to have been cleaned and restored in very recent years. It is like an oasis of colour and palace grandeur, unexpected, awesome and immediately comforting and strangely well grounded, stable and solid.
The inner layout of the room, clearly a temple or shrine room of some sort, is not completely typical. The main inner wall at the front of the room (across from the door) has a large depiction of the Buddha Vajradhara, the primordial Buddha, surrounded by the lineage teachers of the Sakya Lamdre – based on the Hevjra Tantra and teachings of the Indian mahasiddha Virupa (depicted with six different forms in the murals of the main temple). On the viewer’s left hand side is a very large painting of Padmasambhava surrounded by a Nyingma lineage. On the right side of the room is a large painting of a Drugpa Kagyu teacher surrounded by a Drugpa Kagyu lineage. The side walls of the room appear to depict the Five Symbolic Buddhas accompanied by smaller buddhas representing the One Thousand Buddhas of the Age. To the immediate right and left of the entrance are protector deities of the Sakya Tradition on one side and protectors of the Drugpa Kagyu Tradition of the other side.
Despite being called an Ani Gompa, the structure is more likely to be a Lamdre Lhakang or a building created for use during the Monastic Summer Retreat – and later painted. As a backdrop to the monastery, on the steep cliff sides of the valley surrounding the village are evidence of extensive cave dwellings both for religious as well as secular use. Only some of these caves are accessible, most are not. Only a small percentage of the caves have been explored by trained climbers and cultural specialists.