Eastern Nepal’s Mundum landscape
There is no better way to understand the Mundum cultural belief system of the Kirat people than to walk across the mountains of eastern Nepal and let the spirits take over.
The Mundum Trail traverses the important landmarks of the Rai, Limbu, Sunuwar and Kulung ethnic groups of the mountains of eastern Nepal, and their way of life that blends shamanism, animism and Shiva worship.
First introduced in January 2018 to trekkers, the trail passes through important sites of these indigenous Kirat groups from Chakhewa Bhanjyang on the Khotang-Bhojpur border across Mehrung, Maiyung, Lauri, Shilichung peaks, then on to the holy Shalpa Pokhari to Bhojpur and ends at Maiyung and Suntale peaks.
The trail is of moderate difficulty, with the highest point at 4,165m, and being off the beaten track there are not many tea houses, so camping is necessary in the wilderness. There are some lodges in Diktel, Bhojpur and basic amenities at Shalpa Pokhari, but trekkers are advised to carry tents.
The trail commands a sweeping panorama of the eastern Himalaya with views of most major eight-thousanders, including Mt Everest (8,848.86m) Lhotse (8,516m) Lhotse Shar (8,382m) Makalu (8,463m), Ch Oyu (8,188m) and Kangchenjunga (8,586m).
There are lesser peaks that are more prominent because they are nearer: Karyolung, Number, Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Kangtega, Chamlang, Baruntse, Jannu, and even Gauri Shankar and Langtang far off on the western horizon.
Besides the views, the trek is also a deep dive into Mundum culture, its rituals, belief system and way of life. The Kirati group here speak 10 different languages, with new dialects in every next village. Besides them, there are a sprinkling of Sherpa and Tamang communities with their own culture and language.
Shalpa Pokhari and Shilichung Peak are two of the most important sites in Mundum culture, and a pilgrimage destination for the Rai and Limbu people. Legends speak of Salpa Pokhari being the inhabited place of the creator goddess. Sumnima and the Sky God, Paruhang from Kirat mythology.
Because of the heavy rainfall the Mundum trail also has great eco-biological diversity, with wildlife, birds and plants found in great abundance in its verdant slopes, watershed and wetlands. The rhododendron, conifer and bamboo cloud forests teem with red panda, ghoral, danfe pheasant, deer, leopard, Himalayan black bears, and strands of rhododendron, bamboo.
The transition from temperate to alpine landscape yields to high altitude meadows where villagers bring livestock to graze in the monsoon. This is an important part of life in Mundum culture, and the trail passes many sheds housing yak, sheep, cows and water buffaloes.
Hiking through the settlements, it is clear that the Kirati people have living in harmony with the nature that they revere, and their way of life is closely tied with the biological diversity of their surroundings.
The Mundum Trail is a perfect post-Covid-19 trek, where visitors reconnect with nature, rediscover the importance of maintaining an ecological balance and developing sustainably. This eastern Nepal trek is also a walk back in time, as we see a part of Nepal that has not been over-developed by tourism, and the trails remind us of a time before trekking ‘discovered’ Nepal.
In its 70 years of history of tourism development, Nepal has never witnessed a catastrophe at the level of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tourism entrepreneurs say that things were not as bad even during the Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006 or in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal.
While it may take time for international tourists to return to Nepal, the Mundum Trail is waiting for Nepali travellers who want to experience the real, raw Nepal and discover their country’s rich ethnic diversity and natural splendour.
Achyut Tiwari, PhD, is a lecturer at Tribhuvan University and Ramesh Kumar Rai is a tourism entrepreneur.
Contemporary relevance of Mundum oral wisdom
Despite my ethnic background, it was only later in life that I delved beyond the literary importance of my Mundum culture to discover that it as the original philosophy of life of my people.
The more I learnt about my Limbu heritage, the more I was forced to look beyond just the social science and anthropology of Mundum culture to its fragile beauty and its cultural completeness.
Since then, I have spent the most important years of my life to collect, edit and translate into Nepali language, facets of Mundum culture before it is obliterated by the relentless march of modern education, science and technology, migration and the process of globalisation.
My introduction to Mundum began after meeting the linguist, Prof R K Sprigg of the School of African and Oriental Studies, who showed me photocopies of handwritten Limbu manuscripts stored at the India Office Library by Brian H Hodgson in 1864.
Sprigg and his wife stayed with us in Sankhuwasabha for a month back then, but the importance of preserving Mundum culture still did not grab me. It was only after I read Iman Singh Chemjong’s Kirat Mundum that I really became aware of the importance of researching and preserving Limbu script, literature, culture and history.
Mundum is an oral tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next in song, verse, fables and chants with its own creation myth, explaining the importance of human co-existence with nature and all living things. Mundum may have animistic, shamanistic and Shaivite influences, but it transcends religion.
Mundum culture still forms the substrate of society in eastern Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling and beyond wherever there are Kirat settlers. The rituals and recitals lay down the rules for everything from planting to harvest, community relations, birth, death, marriage, dealing with the cycle of seasons, appeasing malevolent spirits and appealing to benevolent ones.
When a pig or chicken raised in the farm needs to be eaten, a Fedangma priest recites the proper prayers before they can be killed. There are rituals when women become pregnant, prayers are offered to ancestors and patron deities every three years. The Fedangma’s recitations are from memory, and are passed down from the priest before, and I have marvelled at the knowledge, vocabulary, symbolism, and literary richness contained in them.
These recitations describe the creation of life, how humans came to be, their migrations, the rise and fall of civilisations, evolution and extinction, and our place in this ancient unwritten history of the world. There are different styles, metres, and tonal variations in communicating these messages through humour, drama, stories and poetry that make Mundum a well-developed form of literature.
Mundum also emphasises affinity for nature and the importance of its protection: why we need to strike a balance with the web of life. It contains a wealth of lessons from past human experience in ensuring its own survival.
The emergence of human beings is regarded as the pinnacle of evolution, but after being let down, the Creator was forced to become invisible. This left human beings helpless in their ignorance, and thus began their suffering. They were consumed by greed, envy, ambition, anger and cruelty.
However, Mundum offers a solution to this tragic outcome, and the riddle of existence. This is a human-made dilemma, and humans can find a way out of it. There is still hope if humanity can strive for freedom from the cycle of birth and death through good karma. Death can be defeated by decent living, and a realisation of man’s place amidst the completeness and beauty of creation.
It is not enough to believe in goodness, Mundum teaches us to be good in our actions towards other people and to nature as well. The Earth is not just for human beings, we have to share it with other living things. Their survival will determine our survival.
This collective wisdom of the ages is an important message to us today as we strive to save life the Planet from human short-sightedness and avarice.
Bairagi Kainla is the pen name of Til Bikram Nembang Limbu. He is an author and researcher, and served as Chancellor of the Nepal Academy. This piece is adapted from his acceptance speech at the 2019 Jagadamba Sri Award.