Mustang in shadows and light
T his time of year Mustang is a profusion of colour: lapis lazuli sky with dazzling clouds, purple fields of buckwheat, ripening golden barley terraces, Dhakmar’s towering red cliffs, yellow rocks, salmon sunsets.
As Tibetologist Charles Ramble explains in the preface, ‘Mustang: Black and White, But Never Gray’, the Kingdom of Lo was historically perceived as a ‘dark’ corner. Even early Bon Tibetans found the place forbidding and inhabited by demons.
But Ramble gives Mustang’s ‘darkness’ a positive attribute. ‘Sometimes, darkness is the best place in which to see the cosmos in its full radiance,’ he writes. Anyone who has gazed up at the Milky Way from the starlit landscape around the ancient monastery at Lo Gekar will know what he is talking about.
Mustang is technically in Nepal, but is part of the trans-Himalayan plateau, situated on what used to be the shores of the Tethys Sea. Exposed boulders high on cliff faces were once strewn on the banks of the prehistoric Kali Gandaki, which cut through the mountains as they rose, lifting fossilised ammonites that once crawled the ocean floor.
Bubriski writes that Mustang’s colours have always fascinated him, adding: ‘My choice to represent Mustang in black and white was motivated by the dramatic power of how the bright sunlight and deep shadows transform the physical earthen forms and shapes of chörten, gompa, mountains, ladders and doorways into visually powerful and compelling compositions.’
Bubriski first came to Nepal in 1975, spending two years in Humla as a Peace Corps volunteer. Most of his photographic life has been in darkrooms working with black and white prints, eschewing the digital camera. Finally giving in, he now uses a smartphone app for square black and white images with artificially frayed edges.
Artists have been inspired by Mustang to use various medium to capture its richness. Robert Powell took to water colour to depict Mustang in his book Earth Door Sky Door: Paintings of Mustang. Bubriski explains his choice of black and white photography: ‘As the reality of the colour world was distilled by my eye… I found the visual transformation and abstraction intriguing with what it added, yet also with what it took away.’
Sienna Craig is an anthropologist who first travelled to Mustang in 1993, and has kept coming back for research. In stark, poetic prose in chapters that take us town-by-town up the trail, she describes how the place is changing with outmigration, the arrival of the road and mobile connectivity.
Even the climate breakdown is forcing villages to relocate and swollen glacial lakes' bursts regularly bringing down destructive torrents of grey mud paste and boulders. There are now vast apple plantations where it was once too cold for orchards.
Change is a constant in Mustang today. The trails at Tsarang have hoof marks next to tractor tyre tracks. Mule trains are being replaced by Boleros, young men in Adidas caps and Nike sneakers loiter by sidewalk shrines, waiting for travel documents that will take them to Korea or Iraq. With no men to work the fields, diesel threshers do the harvesting. The sound of K-pop wafts with the wind in the poplars in Choser.
Yet even with change, the ruins of ancient forts blend back into the cliffs they were built on. Eroded by the wind, it is hard to tell what is monastery and what is mountain — they are embedded in each other.
‘Has the wind carved this landscape to resemble the ruins of ancient buildings? Or are these manmade remnants of an ancient civilisation?’ asks Craig. Maybe both, as abandoned homes dissolve back into the landscape. In exquisite monochrome and lyrical text, Bubriski and Craig have captured Mustang in a photo frame of time ‘neither past nor future, just present’. Change has come to Mustang, but Mustang will keep its mystery and darkness.
Charles Ramble has himself co-authored a new book (also published by Vajra) on the abandoned settlement of Chuksang, where once stood a 17th-century nunnery. A Blessing for the Land traces the history of the head lama of Künzang Chöling, who dedicated his monastery to the land, choosing the slope on the other side of the Kali Gandaki known as ‘Convent Ridge’. Although on the academic side, the book is part-archaeology, part-architecture, part-anthropology, but mostly it is deep history.
Ramble and other authors work with archaeologist Nyima Drandul from Mustang, who is a descendant of the Künzang Chöling nobility. A Blessing for the Land and Mustang in Black and White are both available in Kathmandu book stores, and are fascinating journeys in time and space. Both books force us to rethink Nepal’s diverse cultural history, and to ponder how much more of our past we do not yet know as we plunge into an uncharted future.