Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her latest book release Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas on her blog, Peregrination.
Himalayan travelogues are full of stories. For the most part, those stories fall into a specific genre, one that I tend to refer to as “my magical adventure in an exotic land.” Mustang, especially, has this reputation. In fact, multiple coffee table books easily available from booksellers everywhere pay homage to the “Lost Kingdom of Tibet,” the “Lost World of Lo,” and the “real Shangri-La.” Unfortunately, these books and pamphlets on high altitude travel are equally full of popular orientalist tropes of “pure” cultures and “innocent” people who somehow exist “out of time” despite being just as familiar with and a part of the “modern” world as anyone else is.
But the impetus to see Mustang (and the Himalayas generally) as “magical” place filled with “spiritual” people is a hard one to resist. Most especially because the illusion is not just conjured up by Euro-American travel agencies or National Geographic specials but by Nepalis and Tibetans themselves, many of whom rely on the trekking and tourism industry for their livelihoods in a land politically marginalized between China, Kathmandu, and India. Guesthouses, tea shops, and guide services are then, for many Mustangis, the only chance they’ll have to make full use of that modern world, build electrical grids, purchase solar panels and generators, stock clinics, or send their children to school. The irony is also certainly not lost on them, even more so because it is an image that is occasionally used by the national government to “preserve their culture” by way of denying them access to essential services or infrastructure projects.
As such, I am often deeply critical of any characterization that describes the Himalayas as “enchanting,” “mystical,” or “untouched.” I often push back on requests to narrate my experiences as enlightening or to talk about my fieldwork as otherworldly. For the most part, I tend to come off as blandly practical or I habitually recount events that are interesting but not especially inspiring.
So, does that mean it’s all just disillusionment and banality? Is there really no “magic” in the Himalayas?
Where the Gods go to get away
I lived in Mustang for more than a year, in a tiny village on the edge of the Kali Gandaki River called Kagbeni.
Every morning, the sun is greeted by the shouts of women coming out of their front doors, brooms in hand, to brush the goat droppings out of the cobbled street and into the terraced fields where vegetables and apple orchards grow. They adjust their wool chubas and headwraps against the bright, unobscured, sun and then call out “namaste” to the packs of shaggy, tail-wagging, dogs coming in for their promised breakfasts of leftover bread, cheese, and yak meat. One of these dogs, a massive, dusty, creature of brown, black, and white coloration, is called Muj and it’s his job to guard the chickens at night. Having successfully done so once more, he will now eat his fill of the early grain porridge and then nod off for a nap right in the middle of the road.
The smell of spicy black tea with milk hangs heavy in the air, but only because the sharp valley winds have not yet come in. These winds, the breath and wing-drafts of the deadly Dakini spirits who inhabit this land, will come screaming against the high granite and sandstone walls of the mountains in just a few hours. And when they do, they will scrape the world clean with their fury. So, before then, a great many things must be accomplished!
We always rise just after dawn to meet up with the gods. Just a few doors down is the main village courtyard ringed by six houses and which contains one of the few public water spouts. Before washing up for the day however, one has to pass the seven-foot-tall mud icon of Bhairav, attached to a brick wall and generously covered in red-orange pigments with black ash lining his mouth and eyes. He protects these centuries-old homes with his characteristic ferocity and supplies both people and animals with bountiful fertility. When tourists aren’t trying to steal his phallus anyway.
The air is astringent at this time of day and walking through the dark, enclosed, spaces of alley walkways, with high mud-brick walls too steep to see over, gives one the feeling of moving through the womb of the mountain. The village holds you close, comforts and defends you, until you emerge in the great landscape of the Kali Gandaki. The very place steals your ability to breathe forever.
It is vast. So much more vast than you.
It is old. Older than life itself.
And the mountains remember everything.
Lost and found
In rolls of sediments turned to rock, worn away for millions of years by ice melt locked in the Southern Tibetan Plateau, the peaks give birth to hundreds of Shaligram ammonites each year, their little spirals tumbling by in droves on their way down to the pilgrimage shores of the Kali Gandaki. There, they wait for new families to step into the freezing waters, reach out their hands, and take them home. Those left behind then wait, eternally patient, for the villagers to come and invite them to the temple. They still intend to leave, that is not debated. More pilgrims will come eventually, when the time is right.
Time is a strange thing in the Himalayas. It passes slowly and sometimes not at all. It reverses back around itself or stops to see what is going on before continuing on its way. To Mustangis, the Shaligrams are proof of this. Their spiral markings, which mirror the clockwise (or counter-clockwise) motion of the cosmos, can tame any spirit bold enough to test them. The Dakini will not enter a home protected by the gaze of Shaligram, nor will the sinmo (the demons of the landscape) attempt to rise up so long as the mantra-carved mani wheels turn and the Shaligrams flow through the crossroads. But this is how Mustang speaks itself into existence every day, with scripts and signs both human and not. There is no distinction between the two.
A caravan of yaks and mules goes jingling past. Their large brass bells clink and clatter along with the unsteady gait of their hooves. But the flour and rice and kerosene they carry will be disseminated throughout the valley within a day or two. Today, their minder, Parul, carries a new calf over his shoulders. He’s fuzzy and fat but Parul complains that he kept trying to follow a group of pilgrims on their way to the temple of Muktinath, rather than the rest of the herd. So now, he has to hold on to him until he figures out where the milk is. He stops at a stupa where someone has lit a bundle of local dried juniper leaves and breathes deeply of the scent of smoking evergreen and cold sky.
It isn’t even 7am and I am settling in for my first cup of chai in the back room of my host family’s house. The only furniture here is a few ragged wooden cabinets, a low table, and piles of hand-woven rugs and carpets piled high into every corner. Everything is wind-worn but steadfast, and lowers it eyes away from the harsh light of the rising sun because the powder blue and red paint is already chipping. The joyful voices of my sisters arrive with the teapot and another round of balep (flatbread, dip it in honey or dunk it right in your tea!). We talk of nonsense mostly. Of last week’s Chinese and Bengali soap operas or of the better candy bar – Almond Joy or Twix. They get them now in the next town over, in Jomsom, because that’s where trekkers usually do their shopping. Alma is now thinking of becoming a Buddhist nun, for no other reason really than that it would afford her the chance to travel outside of the valley and to learn to read Tibetan. Pemba disagrees and warns her that monasteries are mostly for tourists now. She should go to school in Kathmandu instead. “But the smog!” She protests. “So much pollution down there!”
I listen to them laugh and am grateful, in ways I have never before experienced, to share in this calm, contented, moment of gentle intimacy. To feel the grit of pepper on my tongue as I sip from an old ceramic cup or to offer a little hot water to the household murti sitting next to me before refreshing my tea. I also quite enjoy idly playing with Moogi, the tiny white and grey kitten who has been sleeping under my blanket for the past two days since the bite of winter has not yet relented. It’s May, but the deadly snows can still come at any time.
Every morning for almost two years, this was my life. When, at last, I had to leave it, it was with a mixture of sadness and reluctance. I hadn’t gone to the Himalayas in search of magic, but it seemed that it had found me anyway. Not in the mumblings of mystical gurus or glittering icons, but in the everyday moments of waking up to a world that spoke its own language in dust, blood, tea, and wind. In dialects of laughter and giggling water, of the clay gods we reverently touched as we passed through their thresholds, and of the loving hands of Kagbeni that parted its palms to let us go out into the wilds of the highest mountains on earth, and enclosed us in again when we returned.
Mustang isn’t lost, nor is its magic. Its people know exactly where it is.
[All photos in this blog courtesy of the author.]