Mustang: Festivals in the Forbidden Kingdom

Upper Mustang Trek - Tiji Festival Special (18 days) Itinerary from 2nd - 19th  May 2011


Mustang is one of the few places in the Himalayan region that has been able to retain its traditional Tibetan culture unmolested… authentic Tibetan culture now survives only in exile and a few places like Mustang, which have had long historical and cultural ties with Tibet."

 The Dalai Lama

The small kingdom of Mustang closed   [The gate to Tsarang] to westerners until 1992, is an enchanting land of windswept vistas, red walled monasteries, and feudal towns. This tiny kingdom was not only a major corridor of trade from the 1400's to before the Chinese occupation of Tibet, but also figured importantly into early Buddhism in Tibet. Local legend tells the tale of the great founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava, who before building Samye (the oldest monastery in Tibet) came to Mustang to stand guard against and do battle with the evil powers out to destroy Buddhism. The temple of Lo Gekhar in eastern Mustang was built by Padmasambhava after his triumphant battle and still stands guard today. Our route will take us across the vast Kali Gandaki   riverbed, up over windswept passes at 14,000 ft. and across the 'Plain of Aspirations' to the walled capital city of Lo-Manthang. All this through a landscape of indescribable vastness and beauty, home to the infamous snow leopard, the endangered bharal (blue sheep), and the mythical mehti (abominable snowman).  Rimmed by 20,000+ snowcapped peaks and bathed in hues of orange and red rocks with sporadic fields of vibrant green, yellow and red of barley, maize, and buckwheat, Mustang is a step back to a simpler time. This is a special trip with many extra days to explore the rarely visited East Side of Mustang and the annual Tiji festival, one of the last great Himalayan festivals not inundated by westerners. A Short History of Mustang Portions of he following account of the Tiji Festival are excerpted from: East of Lo Manthang: In the land of Mustang. Peter Matthiessen and Thomas Laird, Shambhala Press, Boston, 1995.We found ourselves in the midst of a festival in which over a thousand men, women and children were taking part. Before us spread a sea of weatherbeaten brown faces that contrasted with those of the beaming, dirty little children who clung like grapes upon the rooftops of the houses" " The women… looked superb in hand woven sleeveless Chubas (a bath-robe style dress made of thick wool) over bright, loose silk blouses. Around their wast bands were tucked two aprons, a short one that hung down in front, the other caught in the belt and hanging down behind to the ground. These were gaily striped in bright, narrow bands of blue, red, green and yellow. Many women were literally smothered with ornaments of silver and precious stones…necklaces of bright orange corralline stones alternateing with turquoises…ivory-white  bracelts made of truncated conch shell (and)..head-dresses…studded with turquoises..ran along the central parting of their hair and fell down their backs.

The Tiji festival is a three-day ritual known as "The chasing of the Demons" that centers on the Tiji myth. The myth tells of a deity named Dorje Jono who must battle against his demon father to save the Kingdom of Mustang from destruction. The demon father wreaked havoc on Mustang by bringing a shortage of water (a highly precious resource in this very dry land) and causing many resulting disasters from famine to animal loss. Dorje Jono eventually beats the demon and banishes him from the land. Tiji is a celebration and reaffirmation of this myth and throughout the festival the various scenes of the myth will be enacted. It is of course timed to coincide with the end of the dry winter/spring season and will usher in the wetter monsoon season (the growing season for Mustang). Tiji comes from the  word "ten che" meaning ‘the hope of Buddha Dharma prevailing in all worlds’ and is effectively a spring renewal festival. Peter Matheissan wrote the following account of the three-day festival:

More on the Tiji Festival:

"The Tiji Ceremony began on the month of May or Jun (it depends on Tibetan colander ) mostly in between med may to med Jun)  in the main square east of the palace, under snappeting prayer flags, white cracked walls, and blue-framed windows. "

Early in the afternoon, horns resounded — the short horn or kagyling, which announces the two twelve-foot copper dunchens, with their elephantine blartings, followed by two double-reeded horns (the player is trained to blow with a peculiar technique of double-breathing), all accompanied by drum and cymbals. " Next, an ancient and enormous tanka three stories high was unrolled down the entire south wall of the square. The tanka portrayed Padma Sambhava (or "Guru Rimpoche") who brought this ceremony to Tibet in the 8th century (it is said to have originated in Afghanistan) and founded the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Following incense purification…

Crown Prince Jigme of Mustang or the reperisantive with tailored traditional dress, made an offering of six brass bowls of grain, set out on a wood altar with the painted cakes made from butter and (flour)."At mid-afternoon, in high wind and blowing dust, eleven lamas in maroon and gold, wearing high red hats, came from the palace and took their places along the wall beneath the tanka, with Tashi Tenzing on the elevated seat just in the center. At one end of the line, big Ri-Dorje and an older monk commence a sonorous overture on the twelve-foot horns, which arc supported at the open end by a carved wood stand. Horns and drums are accompanied by cymbals struck more or less casually by all the lamas."As the monks and lamas commence chanting, twelve more monks come from the palace in maroon and royal blue and glittering gold brocade, with cymbal-shaped hats decked with upright  peacock plumes. Soon they withdraw, to be replaced by the masked dancers who" start the portrayal of the Tiji myth. "Dorje Jono repels the demon through the power of his magical dancing — he dances fifty-two separate dances, one of them in ten different bodies, each with a different head  in the course of which he finds time to poke fun at the  clownish figures of a Hindu yogi and a Chinese Chan (Zen) master. As the dances end, Dorje Jono kills the demon, after which his people are relieved of their plague of misfortunes, water becomes plentiful once more, and the balance and harmony of existence are restored.

"For the second day of Tiji, numbers of Loba have arrived from the outlying hamlets, and the small square is thronged with wild beautiful people, with all of the women and children, at least, in traditional dress." "On the south wall the great ancient tanka has been replaced by another no less than a century old, a tapestry of fine silk brocade, embroidered in Tibet in the last days of the old regime and brought by the rajas father from Lhasa. "Eventually the raja appears in turquoise-green wool boots  and regal purple robe, and Rani Sahib, also in purple, wears a whole crown of tiny river pearls set off by dozens of large red coralline tones interspersed with matched ornaments of turquoise. The crown prince, too, wears purple, as well as a shirt of fire-gold over neat Western trousers and black leather boots. All are attended by royal relatives and nobles, the men in peaked hats of gold brocade, the women in imperial displays of turquoise and silver."

"Fortunately we outsiders are very few, all but lost in the horde of undefended merry faces. The costumes and masks, the twelve-foot horns, the gold cups of wheat, the butter cakes, the snow peaks and wind and dust and sun, the mehti, snow leopard, snow pigeons, saligrams, the dying glacier and the desert ruins, the drunks and rajas and foreigners, the dogs and yaks. Tantra! the rites to a cloth doll (representing the demon who is symbolically being cast out) perhaps two feet long. Into this figure was thrust in an interminable ceremony a series of blue daggers, until just at dark, the demon's pitiful remains were borne away into the palace, and the line of cold wind-swept lamas under the huge tanka became free to leave."

The Third Day of Tiji

"On the third day, Tiji ends with the ceremonial destruction of the evil remains, represented by some long black yak hair  and red torma cakes minced to a dark red gurry. The remainsare chanted over by a lama, as his assistants burn juniper and frankincense, and two lines of monks strike hand drums while those against the wall blow horns. Eventually a procession forms, led by three victory banners, red and white, then the bearers of five braziers bearing the demon's remains, then the horn blowers and monks, then lamas, then court musicians, then the raja and the crown prince and their attendants. The procession pauses for chanting and ceremony at the chortens outside of the main gate, then repeats the ceremonials at the grain-threshing platforms east of the walls, arriving finally at the edge of the town fields." "The demons red remnants are set out on an old tiger skin, where-upon they are attacked by bow and arrow, slings, and the old guns. One by one, the braziers filled  with the poor devils remains are over- turned upon the ground, each time to a wild cannonade from the old  muzzle-loaders and a wave of cheers and smoke. Finally the emptied braziers are removed and the sad remains flailed with the tiger skin to satisfy the crowd that nothing has been overlooked in dispelling the forces of evil from Lo Manthang. Tiji is over, and tomorrow the people will go home to their own villages."

Upper Mustang Trek - Tiji Festival Special (18 days) Itinerary from 2nd - 19th May 2011

This trek takes you to the once hidden kingdom of Lo-Mangthang and offers you a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness the ancient and colorful festival of Tiji.

The region of Mustang lies north of the main Himalayan range in the area known as the trans-Himalaya. Called by the locals Lo, Mustang was only opened to trekkers in March 1992. The Tibetan influenced area north of Kagbeni is known as Upper Mustang. A vast high valley, arid and dry, it has a barren desert-like appearance similar to the Tibetan Plateau and is characterized by eroded canyons and colorful stratified rock formations. Mustang was once an important route for crossing the Himalaya between Tibet and Nepal, and many of the old salt caravans passed through Mustang. It is this area which we will trek to, discovering the wonders of the architecture, language, culture and traditions which are almost purely Tibetan in this once-upon-a-time mystical kingdom.

Once you reach Lo Manthang, you get to witness Tiji Festival one of the most sacred and colorful festivals in this whole region. The festival features a three day ritual known as the 'chasing of demons'. Monks donning masks and colorful costumes enact the story of Dorje Jono who fought against his demon father to save the Kingdom of Mustang from falling apart. The festival is held annually at the onset of Spring season. As Spring season symbolizes regeneration of life, this festival is also about hope, revival and affirmation of life.

The festival is held at the walled city of Lo Manthang (3730m), the capital of Mustang. Lo Manthang is also home to Mustang's former King Jigme Dorjee Palbar Bista who lost his royal title in 2008 after Nepal became a republic. But he is still highly regarded and respected by the locals.

Program Code: Tiji Festival Specia
Program Grading: Moderate
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