The kingdom within a republic

Mustang’s king grapples with the impact of climate breakdown and other challenges

On 28 May, as the rest of Nepal was celebrating Republic Day, here in Mustang King Jigme Singe Palbar Bistawas being treated like royalty.

The king himself is deeply involved with many problems faced by this once-isolated finger of Nepal sticking out into the Tibetan Plateau. Although there is now a road linking Lo Manthang to the rest of Nepal, the district faces challenges of under-development, lack of jobs and outmigration, cultural preservation, and lately the impact of climate breakdown.

As the king travels around his district, the people of Mustang treat him with visible affection and respect. And the feeling seems to be mutual. The district survives mostly on income from tourism and remittances from Mustang people living in Japan, Korea and the United States.

The mostly elderly residents come out to greet their king and their main concern is about the lack of water due to the climate crisis. Winter snowfall has failed for several years, while there are torrential downpours during the summer in this usually arid region.

There have been destructive floods when glacial lakes burst last year in Kagbeni last year and in Lubra in 2021. Elsewhere, entire villages have had to relocate because springs and streams have gone dry.

The king was born in Thingkar village in Upper Mustang 67 years ago, and remembers there used to be much more snow in the mountains during his childhood. “The whole landscape has changed, the snow and the ponds are all gone,” he tells us during a walkabout. 

“In the past, the weather pattern was predictable, snow in winter, some rain the monsoon and the winds would blow as expected,” he adds. “Now everything is unpredictable. The future does not look good at all.”

Data from the Jomsom station of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology shows that average annual temperature rose from 17.7°C in 2012 to 18.2°C last year. This trans-Himalayan region is in the rainshadow, but summer rain volume went up from 286mm in 2011 to 666mm in 2021, damaging traditional stone and mud houses. But in winter there has been no snow for several years.

The change in weather has also forced many to abandon traditional flat top architecture for tin roofs and cement walls. Warmer weather means new pathogens are moving up the mountains, but also apple orchards and vegetable patches are possible where it was too cold before.

Mustang king NT
Jigme Singe Palbar Bista, the monarch of Mustang

“The climate crisis poses a threat to all traditionally built houses, including monasteries, and heritage structures,” says the king, who is actively involved in climate adaptation work through the Lo Gyalpo Jigme Foundation, named after his father. “We are now carrying out a comprehensive study of how climate change will affect Mustang, and will plan depending on findings.”

The king fondly remembers his father, Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who died in 2016. He says he worked tirelessly for the development of Mustang and the welfare of its people. During his reign, he focused on reconstructing and preserving dilapidated monasteries and shrines and ensuring that Mustang was not affected by politics in Kathmandu, and by geopolitics. 

“My father always kept the welfare of the community as his number one priority,” says the king. 

Jigme Palwar Bista owned 65 horses, but his son owns only 5 — an indication of the diminishing importance of horses after the road from Jomsom to the Chinese border was built ten years ago.

As a boy, the king used to travel three days on horseback from Jomsom, and the animals were integral to the culture and daily life of the Mustang people. 

Last year, during the wedding of crown prince Jigme Dhindup Phunchok Palwar Bista, Lo Manthang rural municipality declared a public holiday and residents brought their horses to the celebration — altogether 250 of them.

“I wanted to hold my son’s wedding in Kathmandu, but the citizens insisted it should be here,” the king confided. “We didn’t ask them to bring their horses, but out of love and respect for the institution, they brought their own horses for the celebration.”

The king now spends part of his time in Kathmandu where he looks after his 92-year-old queen step mother. But the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu makes him homesick, and he longs to be back to also take care of his resort in Lo Manthang.

The eldest brother of the previous King Jigme Palbar Bista died at a young age, another brother became a monk in Dolpo. The former king’s own son also died at a young age, and when his biological mother died, the current king was adopted as the heir to ensure continuity of the royal lineage.

The king says Mustang will need help from the international community to cope with the impact of climate breakdown. He says, “We also need to understand the changing climate better, and unite to adapt to its impact.”  

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