The Religion of the Lopa:
Tibetan Culture as Preserved in the Kingdom of Lo
Christians have called the people of Lo “the most unreached people group in the world.” This description accurately conveys the relative seclusion of the Lopa. The Lopa have been isolated from the West for all of their existence, and isolated even from their neighbors for much of the 1900s. Lo seems like a snapshot of medieval life, compared with the bustling Nepali cities of Pokhara and Kathmandu. Since the Lopa converted from to Buddhism with Tibet and is dominated by the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, this snapshot is also one of old Tibetan religion.
The Lopa are a Nepali people of Tibetan origin. They dwell along Nepal’s northern border in the region of Lo, a part of Nepal that juts into the land of Tibet. Lo is known to foreigners and other Nepalese as Mustang (a British cartographer’s corruption of Manthang, the capital of Lo), and it is one of Nepal’s 75 districts. Lo has approximately 14,500 inhabitants, and there are 1400 Lopa living outside its boundaries as well. Lo is the highest kingdom on earth – its villages are between 11,000 and 13,000 feet. Manthang, the capital city, has a population of over 1200. Manthang means “plain of aspiration.” The 780 square miles of Lo are dry, sunny and windy. Because it is in the rain shadow of the Himalayans, very little rain falls. However, this desert area is cold due to the altitude.
Ame Pal and his three sons founded the kingdom of Lo in 1380. According to legend, Angun Tenzing Zampo, one of Ame Pal’s sons, freed the land of Mustang from the Demon Black Monkey. The people were grateful and made him their chief. Three years later, Angun took an army and conquered the local warlords in Lo. Ame Pal and his sons decided to build a capital and founded Manthang. Because it is situated directly on the ancient salt trade route between Tibet and India, Lo had enormous economic opportunity. Tibetan salt was traded for Indian and Nepali grain, and the Lopa were able to control a key portion of the route. The great days for the feudal kingdom lasted until 1600, when constant warfare and exhaustion of resources forced its decline. For most of its existence Lo fought repeatedly with Jumla, a neighboring kingdom. Finally, Lo was defeated in 1760, and began to pay tribute to Jumla.
Then in 1795, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha who united most of Nepal, defeated Jumla. Though the Gorkhas never conquered Lo, in 1795 Lo began to pay tribute to the Gorkhas. In return, the Gorkhas agreed to provide protection for Lo. However, it was still an independent kingdom, isolated on the north side of the formidable Himalaya. Lo became an autonomous part of Nepal when it sided with Nepal in the 1855 Nepali/Tibetan war.
China’s invasion of Tibet in 1959 closed the northern border of Lo and made Lo home to 6000 guerrilla fighters from Tibet. The Khampas were rebels and enemies of the Tibetan government, but they became its only defenders when China invaded. For over a decade many of them lived in Lo, raiding across the border into China-occupied Tibet. The Khampas taxed the already low resources of Lo, put strain on Lo’s relationship with Kathmandu, and harassed and robbed the Lopa people. Because Lo was an unstable area, Nepal closed it off. The area remained closed and highly independent until 1991, when Kathmandu agreed to allow a limited number of tourists into the area in exchange for high fees.
Lo is a feudal kingdom with a king and serfs, very much resembling medieval Europe. The current king, or raja, is Jigme Palbar Bista, the 25th in line from Ame Pal. The world’s last feudal king owns land and houses in almost every village in Lo, and he still has serfs who work his fields and care for his dwellings. Though he is still honored and respected by his people, the king’s role has become increasingly symbolic. Until 1952, Mustang was a mainly autonomous region in Nepal, paying tribute to Kathmandu in return for protection. There were several such self-ruling areas in Nepal, but in 1952 the king of Nepal became stronger and formally took power away from the rajas. However, Kathmandu allowed the raja of Lo to continue to have some measure of power. Today “Raja of Mustang” is a title given by the king of Nepal. Along with that title comes the rank of colonel in the Nepali army. In 1956, Nepal officially abolished the feudal system and serfdom in Lo. However, though it is somewhat reduced, feudalism continues even today.
The history of Lo is not a completely isolated one; the Lopa, as traders, had frequent contact with the surrounding world. Their lamas were educated in Lhasa, and some Lopa made yearly trips across the Himalaya to Nepal for trading. The events of the 1950s and ’60s, however, ensured that Lo would remain unharmed by tourists until rather recently. China closed Tibet’s border with Lo in 1959; Nepal closed the southern borders of Lo shortly after that. While trekkers, climbers and hash-smoking peace seekers were overrunning the rest of Nepal, no one was able to enter Lo. The land remained largely closed off (Lopa could cross the borders, but others could not) until 1991. In that year, Kathmandu yielded to pressure from westerners and trekking agencies and officially split the land of Lo in two pieces. Lower Mustang was declared open to anyone with a valid trekking permit. Upper Mustang, including most of Lo’s important religious and cultural sites, was opened to only one thousand visitors each year – for a stiff fee. The trekking permit is no longer required for Lower Mustang, and Upper Mustang is now open to as many people as can afford the 700 USD fee.
With the advent of tourism, the Lopa lifestyle began to change more dramatically, and it is quickly becoming interesting only as a case of rapid cultural change. However, limited research was done on the Lopa in 1991. Combined with the account of a lone westerner who was allowed by Kathmandu to enter Lo in the 1960s, these writings form a window into a Tibetan culture that is quickly disappearing. It is not a Nepali culture, though the Lopa have officially been Nepali citizens for over 140 years. On the north side of the massive Himalaya, the Lopa followed Lhasa’s lead in things religious and cultural.
Tibetan Buddhism was strongly established in Lo following the forming of the kingdom, though it had been present since the 8th century. Buddhist ideas had started to mix with folk religion in the land of Lo at about the time the same process was happening in Lhasa. However, it was not until the late 14th century that a deliberate attempt was made to firmly establish Buddhism in Lo. Ame Pal and his sons started a great building campaign, founding the monasteries and temples that still stand in Manthang and other cities. Two of Ame Pal’s sons went to Tibet to find a great religious man to bless their Buddhist temples and monasteries. Ngorchen Kunga took a special interest in the new kingdom. He visited three times – in 1427, 1436 and 1447 – and founded many monasteries. Because of his interest, Lo was a great Buddhist pilgrimage site in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its Sakya monks were educated in Lhasa, and temples were endowed with magnificent Tibetan art.
One feature that survived until recent times and continues today is the religious calendar, with seasonal festivals. Lok Khor is perhaps the most important festival of the agricultural year. Since the land is so harsh and agriculture is so challenging, this midsummer festival appeals to the gods for fertile fields. The festival begins with early-morning offerings in the temple. The lamas then lead the people out to the fields; everyone, youngest to oldest, participates in the parade, and each one carries Tibetan scriptures. At the front of the parade, the monks play horns and cymbals in an attempt to get the attention of the gods. The festival is over after the parade winds through every field near the town. Yar Dung, a similar festival, is held prior to the harvest to petition the gods for a productive harvest.
These festivals are necessary because the land is so dry. Science has shown that Lo was at one time much more fertile – large trees were present within the last thousand years. The Lopa have myths that explain the sudden drying of the land. One example is the following, called the Sao Gompa valley legend. A lama and his assistant were performing a fertility renewal ceremony for the Sao Gompa valley. The ceremony involved boiling rice in a pot. The lama put the rice in the boiling water. He told his assistant not to remove the lid until the rice was overflowing the pot, then the lama went off over the river. Vultures gathered around him, and the lama started to teach them. Seeing the vultures, the assistant assumed the lama was dead. He took the cover off of the pot. Because of the failed ceremony, the valley immediately dried up.
Buddhism, in Lo and elsewhere, seems to be replete with these examples of appealing to deities for help, when in fact the religion denies the reality of any higher power. Certainly there are heavens filled with “gods” according to the Buddha’s teaching; but those gods are ordinary beings like the Lopa farmers. There seems to be no mention among the Lopa of these gods using their karma to enhance agricultural production; instead, they treat these gods just as though they were higher beings than themselves. In Lo, at least, this seems to be the legacy of some older religion. The inhabitants of Lo probably practiced a religion known as Bon, along with the rest of the Tibetan world, before they were introduced to Buddhism. By far the most interesting feature of the surviving Lopa religion is its reliance upon some elements of Bon. Apparently, Buddhism did not completely replace Bon when it was introduced in Lo.
Besides having a rather un-Buddhist-like view of gods, the Lopa have a preoccupation with demons. Even the legend of the beginning of the kingdom tells how Angun Tenzing Zampo freed the land from the Demon Black Monkey. In fact, the presence of demons seems to explain more about the Lopa world than the presence of gods: the remedy for most problems is to ward off the demons, not pray to the gods. Demons are responsible for all that is wrong with the world, from general misfortune to illness and sometimes death. Fear of demons runs high, and warding them off is a constant obsession. Tall chortens (stupas) are built on the corners of every house and every city wall to eradicate the demons that hide in corners.
Two major festivals are held each year to lessen the demonic influence in Lo. The first is appropriately called the Demon-chasing ceremony. It is held for four days following the Tibetan New Year. A chosen group of citizens dresses up as demons, complete with angry masks and headdresses; they symbolically terrorize the city. A group of monks, followed by the rest of the townspeople, chases the demons outside the town and symbolically kills them. The process takes four days because of the elaborate dances that are a part of the terrorizing and chasing.
The Tiji ceremony is another demon-killing ritual. This ceremony is only performed in Lo Manthang, so the surrounding population comes from miles away to participate. The Tiji ceremony is essentially a three-day reenactment of a popular myth, beginning each year on May 29. The myth is that, long ago, a powerful demon was terrorizing the people. The demon’s son, Dorje Dono – a god, had compassion on the people and decided to save them from his father. Dorje dances 52 dances to repel the demon. Then he kills it. With the completion of this ceremony, the people are free from misfortune, water is plentiful, and balance is restored on the earth. In this way, the Tiji ceremony is effectively a spring-renewal ceremony.
Demons are also the enemies in most medical practice. The process for obtaining healing begins by calling a regular doctor. The doctor most often diagnoses a demon, and a monk is called (for this reason, many doctors are monks). Disease and illness are attributed to different worms, and each worm is caused by a demon. The treating of the worm is accomplished by “treating” the demon. The Lopa catalogue 424 diseases, caused by 1080 demons. All monks know how to treat each of these demons.
Besides these religious customs that have survived through the closing of Lo’s borders, one other thing has survived, something more material. The intricate and colorful art of the Lopa temples and monasteries has saved a part of Tibetan culture that has systematically been destroyed in Tibet by the Chinese. A few of the 14th century buildings still have their original artwork; many more have more recent, but still priceless, paintings. These are understandably in great need of restoration, and thieves have damaged and stolen a significant portion in recent years. Nevertheless, this is a priceless contribution to the surviving world of Tibetan culture.
The “hidden kingdom” of Lo is like a piece of the 14th century that has survived, largely intact, until the present day. Unless further regulations are put in place, the intellectual and aesthetic treasures of Lo will likely continue to be destroyed – too many people are eager to touch this “untouched” world. Kathmandu is even planning to build a road through “Upper Mustang” early this century – that will irreversibly change the Lopa lifestyle. The road will most likely be good for the Lopa, who have suffered economically since their borders were closed and who receive no money from Kathmandu’s lucrative trekking business. The Lopa will have access to outside resources, since the Khampas and trekkers have exhausted Lo’s natural resources (trekkers are now required to carry in and carry out everything they need). Development is needed now, if the Lopa are to survive. With that development, however, will come the quick passing of the world’s last feudal kingdom and one great institution of old Tibetan culture.
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