Mustang (pronounced moo Stong) is a remote, semi-autonomous kingdom in northern Nepal, where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in one of its purest forms. Situated between the Annapurna range and Tibet, it is an isolated place where some people still believe the earth is flat, noblemen still keep serfs, sheep skulls are kept outside houses to keep out bad spirits and nomads sleep in yak hair tents. For a long time there were no telephones, no cars, roads, no airport, no banks. The post offices was often closed because there were no stamps. What Mustang does have is wonderful temples untouched since the 15th century.

Mustang is located in large canyon that ranges in elevation from 2,700 to 4,500 meters. The canyon if formed by the Kali Gandaki River, a tributary of the Ganges. Only about 15,000 people live in the entire kingdom and the average elevation of the region is over 4,572 meters (15,000 feet). Mustang is dotted with villages, each of which as its own Gompa (monastery), some of whom welcome visitors and give them a tour of the facilities. Most families have horses and a few have mortobikes. Household light is provided by candles and oil lamps. Without streetlights the sky is filled with stars at night.

The landscape of Mustang is barren, brown and grey. The Himalayas block the monsoon rains that nourish most of Nepal. The handful of small, green valleys in the kingdom are nourished by a few mountain stream that flow through it. Most days the skies are radiant blue and most nights the sky is full of thick concentrations of stars. On top of the ridges you can see snowcapped Himalayan peaks in the distance. The grays and browns can turn lovely yellows and reds in the late afternoon sun.

Mustang is a Nepali mispronunciation of Manthang the kingdom's capital. Contacts between Tibet and Mustang have been cut off due to political tension between the Chinese government, the Nepalese government and the Tibetans.

Book: “Mustang: the Forbidden Kingdom” by Michel Peissel. A chronicle of his visit in 1964.


History of Mustang and Tibet

Known as the “Forbidden Kingdom,” Mustang was a fairly prosperous place in the 16th and 17th centuries . Known for its temples and superb Buddhist art, the kingdom was a major stop for the caravans from India that followed the Kali Gandaki river into Tibet where trades traded grain and other lowland goods for Tibetan salt. Later Mustang declined as the caravan routes shifted and the kingdom was conquered by the Hindu kingdom of Nepal. By the 18th century, Mustang was an isolated Himalayan backwater.

The first Westerners didn't arrive in Mustang until 1952. In the 1950s and 1960s Mustang was used as base by C.I.A.-backed Tibetan insurgents for raids into Tibet. In 1960, the Chinese closed the Tibet-Nepal border and pressured the Nepalese government to seal off Mustang from the rest of Nepal. The kingdom, which had banned entry to foreigners for nearly 500 years, finally opened to them in 1991. In the 1960s, the kingdom of Mustang had a special 200 year-old agreement with the government of Nepal. In return for their independence the king of Mustang was required to give the king of Nepal the equivalent of US$120 and one horse. [Source: Michel Peissel, National Geographic, October 1965]

Tibetans from the Kham province — known for their fierceness — were trained by the C.I.A. in Mustang in the 1960s to fight a guerilla war against the Chinese. Skilled horsemen, who wear hats over their long hair and carry scimitars in their belts, the Khams were flown to the United States, where they were trained in how to use automatic weapons and espionage equipment in Colorado. The Khams were employed when Mustang was used as staging area for attacks by Tibetan rebels. The operation produced few results. Support for the Khams was dropped after Nixon visited China in 1971.

Mustang is surrounded on three sides by Tibet and Tibetan culture is more alive here than it is in much of Tibet, where the Communist destroyed many temples and imprisoned monks. The most important events of the year are Tibetan-style exorcism festivals. Mustang's villages, towns and religious buildings are filled with orange and white temples and stupas adorned with Tibetan-Buddhist prayer flags, bas-reliefs and magnificent 15th century frescoes. There is now some discussion of building a building a road into Mustang from Tibet. Supporters of the projects say the road will provide access to hospitals and schools in Tibet. Critics argue it will spoil Mustang's unique culture.

Ancient Cliff-Side Caves in Mustang

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: Mustang “is home to one of the world's great archaeological mysteries. In this dusty, wind-savaged place, hidden within the Himalaya and deeply cleaved by the Kali Gandaki River—in spots, the gorge dwarfs Arizona's Grand Canyon—there are an extraordinary number of human-built caves. Some sit by themselves, a single open mouth on a vast corrugated face of weathered rock. Others are in groups, a grand chorus of holes, occasionally stacked eight or nine stories high, an entire vertical neighborhood. Some were dug into cliffsides, others tunneled from above. Many are thousands of years old. The total number of caves in Mustang, conservatively estimated, is 10,000. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, October 2012<|>]

The caves were painstakingly hand-dug from the brittle stone. “No one knows who dug them. Or why. Or even how people climbed into them. (Ropes? Scaffolding? Carved steps? Nearly all evidence has been erased.) In the mid-1990s, archaeologists from the University of Cologne and Nepal began peeking into some of the more accessible caves. They found several dozen bodies, all at least 2,000 years old, aligned on wooden beds and decorated with copper jewelry and glass beads, products not locally manufactured, reflecting Mustang's status as a trade thoroughfare. <|>

“Pete Athans first glimpsed the caves of Mustang while trekking in 1981. Many of the caves appear impossible to reach—you’d have to be a bird, it seems, to gain entry—and Athans, an exceptionally accomplished alpinist who has stood atop Everest seven times, was stirred by the challenge they presented. During visits between 2007 and 2011 Athans and his team had made some sensational finds. In one cave they discovered a 26-foot-long mural with 42 exquisitely rendered portraits of great yogis in Buddhist history. In another was a trove of 8,000 calligraphed manuscripts—a collection, most of it 600 years old, that included everything from philosophical musings to a treatise on mediating disputes. The most promising site was a cave complex near a tiny village called Samdzong, just south of the Chinese border. Athans and Mark Aldenderfer of the University of California, Merced; had visited Samdzong in 2010 and found a system of funerary caves.


People of Mustang: the Loba (Mustangese)

Ethnically similar to Tibetans, the people of Mustang called their homeland Lo and themselves Loba, or Lo Pa. Often called Mustangese by outsiders, they follow Tibetan Buddhism and respect the Dalai Lama. The highest religious figure in Mustang is the abbot of the single active monastery in Lo Manthang. Tibetan culture found in Mustang is considered purer and less disturbed than Tibetan culture in Tibet. Mustang has traditionally been one of the world’s most isolated places. Many people of Mustang believe the world is shaped like a half moon. [Source: Robert Caputo, National Geographic, November 1997]

The Loba have traditionally carry on trade between Nepal and Tibet in the Upper and Lower Mustang areas. They practice Tibetan Buddhism. They have their own local language and engage festivals that are somewhat different from those of other Buddhist groups. Many Mustangese used to be nomads but most are settled now. Explaining why he prefers his yak wool tent to a house, one nomad told National Geographic, "In a tent you can hear the yaks at night if they are in trouble. And in the day you can see all around. A house is too dark."

Tibetans, Sherpas and Mustangese all practice polyandry. A woman can have two, even three husbands. Mustang history chronicles the reign of one queen who was married to three kings. There is still some polyandry in Mustang today. Traditionally, men and women in Mustang ate the same food but is was prepared differently for each sex. What was good for a man is judged unfit for woman and visa versa. [Source: Michel Peissel, National Geographic, October 1965]

Mustang Religion and Culture

The Loba of Mustang are Tibetan Buddhists with a strong belief in spirits. There are 416 Mustangese demons of land, sky, fire and water. These demons are believed to cause 1,080 known diseases and five forms of violent death. Intricate demon traps are set up and horse skulls is buried under every house to keep demons out. To gain merit one should only pass a temple on the right. Even horses and yaks follow this custom. “Lunga tangen” is a ritual in which people climb a hill and light a fire with juniper and incense and then release small pieces of tissue with prayers written on them into the wind while praying for long life, health and good fortune and chanting "Tharro" ("May we reach home safely"). [Source: Michel Peissel, National Geographic, October 1965]

Mustang monks play long trumpets that sound like mooing cows. The 20 foot long horns collapse like a telescopes to make them easy to carry. They also play Tibetan horns which are embellished with silver and gold, and set with coral and turquoise. Monks used to undergo training in Tibet but the closing of the border between Tibet and Nepal has meant the new recruits have to go to India or Kathmandu for training.

Many Mustangese are losing interest in religion. Monks wear Chinese-made sneakers underneath their robes and handgpictures of America movie stars next to portraits of the Dalai Lama. The abbot of Lo Manthang told National Geographic, "Religion does not mean as much to people nowadays. When the people see Tiji, for most its only a show. Especially the young people-they just think about money.”

Mustang is one of the best places in the world to observe Tibetan Buddhist art. One reason for this is that when the kingdom declined it couldn't afford to cover up the old paintings — as is the custom in Tibetan monasteries — so they are still visisble. Many of the books in Mustang's monasteries weigh over 20 kilograms. Like Tibetans, the Mustangese use cups and drums made of human skulls and flutes carved out of a human thigh bone.

Mustang Festivals, Rituals and Customs

One of the most important Mustang festivals is Tiji, an annual spring festival that marks the beginning of the planting season with dancing, costumed dramas and exorcism rituals. The climax of the Tiji festival is when everyone gathers outside the walls of Lo Manthang and the golden-robed king of Mustang fires a shot in the air with an ancient flintlock rifle and masked monks smash bowls with the evil spirits that cause fire, flood, drought, famine and earthquakes. Afterward everyone gathers inside the town's walls and leaps over a fire to get ride of demons that may have followed them inside.

During exorcism ceremonies monks dressed in elaborate ceremonial robes and yak-hair boots symbolically hurl painted arrows from bows, stoned from slingshots and bullets from muzzle-loading guns at masked demons. A policeman-monk with peacock feathers for a nightstick keeps order. Ever gesture, chant and prayer must performed according to rigid specifications or, the Mustangese believe, the demons will not be expelled.

Social hierarchy is still very important in Mustang. Platforms set around the cooking fire are different levels so none of the high ranked people have to be lower than a person of lower rank. Blacksmith and butchers are considered dirty and have such low status they may not even the enter the homes of ordinary Loba and must sit outside the doorway.

When a person dies, according to Tibetan custom, he can either be cremated, thrown into a river, buried, or chopped into pieces and fed to vultures. The Mustangese have added a fifth choice. The body of a man who dies leaving neither sons nor grandsons can be enclosed in the walls of his house until a boy is born. Then he can be removed to a hill where his body is traded to demons in return for long life of his male heir. [Source: Michel Peissel, National Geographic, October 1965 ⌂]

When entering a working monastery it is customary to present the head monk with a white scarf known as a kata and some money. He then returns the scarf with a blessing. When you greet the king of Mustang you present him with a kata. If you greet him without one it is considered very, very sinful.⌂

In the 1960s, the Mustangese (Lo-bas) considered washing to be an unhealthy, harmful practice. Dirt caked both their clothes and their skin. When the French anthropologist Michel Piessel asked a Mustang monk what they did about thieves the monk picked up a shriveled human hand and showed him. At that time some people Mustangese groomed their hair with yak butter.⌂

Mustang Homes and Daily Life

A typical home in Mustang is a two-story, mud-brick structure with storerooms for grain and stalls for animals in the first floor and living area for people on the second floor with a kitchen, dining room and bedroom all in one dank, windowless chamber. A sheep skull pierced by twigs blessed by a monk is placed on the front of the house to keep demons away. An altar with statues of Buddha and other deities is kept in the house. The entrance to a village is usually marked with a long wall of carved prayer stones and chortens,

The people of Mustang grow barley and raise goats and sheep for milk and butter and raise horses and yaks as beasts of burden. Many Mustang villagers keep large growling mastiffs chained near their front door. For a long time most people didn't have electricity or running water. Cooking is still largely done over a dung fire and oil lamps are used for lighting. Wood is scarce and burned only for special occasions.

Daily chores include milking goats, winnowing grain, stuffing grain into sacks, tending the fields and moving animals to pastures. Butter is made by churning yak or goat milk in a sheepskin bag. Rice, momos (Tibetan dumplings), tsampa (Tibetan barely porridge), yak milk cheese and fresh goat are common foods. Tibetan tea is brewed with an equal measure of salt and yak butter, giving it a consistency like soup. As a special treat for honored guests a raw egg is added. Westerners sometimes have trouble with the food. It often used to have dust and pebbles in it. Mustangese find it strange that Westerners eat fish. [Source: Michel Peissel, National Geographic, October 1965]

The modern world has brought its influences to Mustang, The walls of some homes are decorated with Metallica and Iron Maiden posters. People began watching Rambo and Bruce Lee videos when VCRs acquired in India and Kathmandu appeared. Chortens have crumbled; people ignore the king; few people help in the king’s harvest even though they are now paid; the crown prince lives in Kathmandu, where he owns a rug factory. "During my reign," the king told National Geographic, "I have tried to reinforce our culture. But it is not easy. The people are changing much. It's not that they aren't interested in their traditions anymore. but they are very poor. People have to survive."

Mustang Livestock and Economy

In Mustang there are basically three professions: farming, herding and trading. Herdsmen have traditionally traded yak butter, wool and dung (used for cooking fires) for grain grown by farmers. Many Loba leave Mustang in the winter to earn a little money. Many go to India, where they buy sweaters in the Punjab and sell them in Assam. Traders can a hundred time more money in a few weeks in India than they can the rest of the year back home.

The Loba are Buddhists and their Buddhist belief have traditionally prevented them from killing animals. They even rescue flies from their tea. If an animal is killed naturally then it is all right to eat the animal. [Source: Michel Peissel, National Geographic, October 1965 ⌂]

Traditionally, yaks in Mustang were not killed but once a year they were bled and the dried blood was eaten. Yak tails are cut off and sold in India as fly whisks. Owners of yaks sometimes hope their animals will fall off a cliff. Only then do they get to eat more than 800 pounds of yak meat. The only people allowed to kill animals are the Shembas — a low status tribe similar to the untouchable in India, who are not allowed to live in Mustang. ⌂

King of Mustang

The King of Mustang is a position that existed since 1380, when Ame Pal established a kingdom at Lo Manthang. Also known as a raja or mir, he is regarded as half human and half and half divine. As of the 1960s, the King of Mustang still owned serfs who tilled the land and could not leave their master. [Source: Michel Peissel, National Geographic, October 1965 ⌂]

Visitors to the king of Mustang's palace have traditionally been picked up with a horse with a silver saddle. Upon meeting the king visitors must present him with a scarf known as an “akata”. If they greet him without one it is considered very, very sinful. The king for many years had long hair, braided Tibetan style, and was attended by 30 or so noblemen dressed in silk brocade and sheepskins. Dogs and chickens roamed the throne room, and the king often spit into a jug. He sometimes let five minutes of uncomfortable silence pass before he answered a question or spoke. Sometimes, he moaned softly and fingered his prayer beads while waiting to answer. ⌂

Visitors to the royal palace have to sit on platforms lower than the one occupied by the king. The king's subject don't obey him unquestionably as they did before but they still respect him and call on him to settle disputes.

Jigme Palbar Bista (1930-2016) was the king of Mustang for many years. He ascended to the throne in the early 1970s. The 25th ruler in the 600-year-old line of succession, he was large man who wore a turquoise earring and golden robe during religion festivals but donned trousers and a windbreaker when he greeted visitors at his palace. He had long braid tied around his head and often had prayers in his hand. He enjoyed raising several dozen pedigreed Tibetan horses, told stories and performed traditional healing. In 1995, the king visited the United States and saw skyscrapers and the ocean for the first time.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (, Nepal Government National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.