The Last Kingdom
The Last Kingdom
Mustang is a small district in Nepal located right on the border with Chinese Tibet.
It wasn't until 1950 that the first European set foot in Mustang, a forbidden Tibetan kingdom in the northwest of Nepal. Mustang was officially closed to foreigners until 1992.
As one of the most isolated regions in the world, Tibetan culture has been preserved in the region. The untouched Mustang became even more important after the 1951 Chinese occupation of Tibet, and prosecution of the Buddhists there.
Until very recently, the only way to reach Mustang was on horseback, after a four-day journey. In 2020, China completed a road through Mustang as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Mustang's last king passed away in 2016.
The world of Mustang might never be the same.
In October 2018, I traveled to Mustang along with two friends. It took me about eight days to get there.
I first flew from San Francisco to Guangzhou, then from Guangzhou to Kathmandu. I met my friends in Kathmandu, and we first flew to Pokhara on a small airplane, and then on an even smaller "bush plane" from Pokhara to Jomsom.
In Jomson, we were joined by our guide, Tashi, with his assistant, Bishan, and 5 horses. Kali, a local mountain horse, chose me and we set off on a journey following the deep Kali Gandaki river canyon. Four days later, our caravan reached Lo Manthang, the capital of the remote Mustang.
Tashi at work
In Lo Manthang, I met Tashi Gurung, a local Thangka and Mandala artist.
In 1999, Tashi and several other artists began restoring 500-year-old Buddhist murals in local gompas (monasteries). Tashi helped to restore Jampa, Thupchen, Tsarang, and other Buddhist gompas, as documented in the NOVA PBS documentary "Lost Treasures of Tibet".
Tashi then went on several UNESCO-sponsored trips to Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh (in India), Tibet, and Kham (in China) to take part in the restoration of other Buddhist monasteries.
Inspired by this experience, Tashi traveled to Kathmandu and for five years studied the ancient painting and iconography from Master Thangka Painter Mukti Singh Thapa.
Tashi and his Art
Tashi has a small art gallery in his hometown of Lo Manthang.
Lo Manthang is only open to tourists two-three months per year due to the cold Tibetan winters and the long monsoon seasons. Tashi paints Thangkas in other months and sometimes travels to the warmer Kathmandu.
All thangkas are hand-painted on local cotton canvas. For traditional Mustang Thangkas, Tashi uses local mineral pigments sourced from semiprecious stones such as vermillion or orpiment. These are ground to powder for three months, and then mixed with Yak-skin glue and water. 24-carat gold is used in some Thangkas as well.
In his own words:Tashi, why did you decide to pursue Thangka Art?
Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, or rice paper usually depict a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. The thangka form developed alongside the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, which are or were mostly in monasteries in the Himalayas.
A mandala is a geometric configuration of symbols. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing the mind and attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. A mandala generally represents the spiritual journey through several layers, starting from the outside to the inner core.
Wheel of Life (Bhavacakra)
This Thangka describes Buddhist philosophy and introduces the notion of reincarnation (the endless cycle of birth, death, and re-birth). It is a symbolic representation of saṃsāra (or cyclic existence).
This painting is often found at the entrances of monasteries. It is believed to have been used by wandering monks to propagate Buddhism in its early years.
The inner circle depicts the three poisons: Anger (serpent), Greed (rooster), and Ignorance (pig).
The middle circle represents the six states of existence: (good) Gods, Demigods, and Humans; (evil) Ghosts, Hell and Animals.
The fierce figure holding the wheel of life represents Yama, the god of death.
The Buddha in the top right corner, pointing to the white circle, indicates that liberation from Samsara is possible.
The Goddess Tara, a buddha of compassion, is in the top left corner. Both of them are in Nirvana, where there's no suffering.
In this Mandala, the inscriptions inside are a mantra (a repeated prayer) in Tibetan script.
The prayer is pronounced: "Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ" (Hail the Jewel in the Lotus). The mantra is seen as the condensed form of all Buddhist teachings.
In Tibetan Buddhism, this is the most ubiquitous mantra and the most popular form of religious practice, performed by laypersons and monks alike. It is also an ever-present feature of the landscape - commonly carved onto rocks known as mani stones, painted into the sides of hills, or written on prayer flags and prayer wheels.
Double Vajra Mantra Mandala
The symbol of the double vajra at the center is the support of the mandala. The center represents the point of perfect stability in the universe and the four heads align with the four main cardinal points. All together they correspond to the five elements and the Buddhas of the five families, with Buddha Akshobhya in the center.
The mantra (and the elements surrounding the center of the mandala) represent the movements of the planets and the whole cosmos around Mount Meru, the holy mountain, which is considered the center of the axis of both the physical and the spiritual universe.
Mantra Mandala Om with Eight Auspicious Symbols
These eight symbols appear often in Tibetan religious art. They are particularly prevalent in sand (ephemeral) mandalas and are believed to be the symbolic representation of the transient universe.
The Precious Parasol: gives protection from all evil.
The White Conch Shell: represents the fame of the Buddha’s teachings that spread in all directions, like the sound of the conch shell.
The Two Golden Fish: symbolize being saved from the ocean of earthly life and suffering.
The Knot of Eternity: represents the intertwining of wisdom and compassion, the perfection of knowledge.
The Vase of Great Treasures: a traditional symbol of good fortune representing the perfect nature of the dharma, longevity, and prosperity.
The Victory Banner: signifies the victory of the enlightened teachings, knowledge over ignorance, overcoming all hindrances, and the attainment of happiness.
The Lotus Flower: one of Buddhism’s most significant symbols. It is a symbol of enlightenment and mental purity. The lotus has its roots in mud, but blossoms into a beautiful flower. Similarly, though an individual may be impure, there is the potential to gain enlightenment and perfection.
The Eight Spoked Wheel: known as the Wheel of Dharma, this represents the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddhadharma: the wheel that leads to perfection.
A mandala is a geometric configuration of symbols. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing the mind and attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction.
The Mandala of Kalachakra is visualized in the practitioner's mind as a three-dimensional palace but it also exists in the physical world. A temple situated in Lhasa is a perfect three dimensional reproduction of the painting. The temple itself contains 722 Deities, while at its center, atop a golden lotus throne, sits a single Buddha: Kalachakra.
It is a five-level structure, that when painted could be considered the top (or bird's eye) view of the structure, with each detail of the painting symbolizing a particular element of the Tantra. As our spiritual journeys grows, we become more and more familiar with the Kalachakra Tantra.
The Path to Nirvana
This Thangka is also known as the "Path to Enlightenment" or "Way to Heaven".
This mnemonic diagram depicts the nine progressive stages of mental development, which are obtained through the six powers: of study, contemplation, memory, comprehension, diligence, and perfection.
The elephant represents the mind, and its dark color represents mental dullness. The monkey represents distraction or mental agitation, and its brown color represents scattering.
The black elephant follows the path of heaven and at the end of the path, it becomes a white elephant.
At the end of the path concentration is attained, and the ‘purified elephant’ of the mind is now completely submissive.