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Everest with Mountain Madness

Mustang Trek — Tantra

Deana Zabal­do photo

Ear­ly one morn­ing in Lo Man­thang, the walled fortress-like cap­i­tal of Mus­tang, we vis­it the monastery to receive a bless­ing from an old monk. He has spent more than 40 years in the monastery and is mas­ter of an ancient Tantric rite, one that derives direct­ly from the 8th cen­tu­ry begin­nings of Himalayan Bud­dhism. He chants scrip­tures, toss­es grains of rice, pours water from a met­al jar stuffed with puri­fy­ing pea­cock feath­ers, and wields a small gold­en dag­ger with 4 faces carved on its hilt vajrak­i­la. One by one, we kneel as he offers us a tra­di­tion­al blessed thread to wear at our necks for pro­tec­tion and well-being and lays a white prayer scarf over our shoul­ders. We then walk to the main prayer hall where the monks chant their morn­ing bless­ing while blow­ing horns, sim­mer­ing cym­bals, and thun­der­ing their dou­ble-sided hang­ing drums.

Rit­u­al Tantric imple­ments. Deana Zabal­do photo

After morn­ing prayers, a few monks gath­er for break­fast on the monastery steps. Deana Zabal­do photo

Lo Man­thang and the near­by vil­lages are home to some stun­ning Bud­dhist art­work includ­ing the world’s only sur­viv­ing monastery paint­ed entire­ly with 15th cen­tu­ry Bud­dhist man­dalas. The monastery paint­ings have been care­ful­ly restored under the guid­ance of an Ital­ian con­ser­va­tion expert and also by train­ing local artists to mas­ter the old styles (all with fund­ing from the Amer­i­can Himalaya Foun­da­tion), but pho­tographs are not allowed inside. (You’ll just have to come see them for your­self!) Dark, cen­turies old prayer rooms reveal tow­er­ing deities and intri­cate cir­cu­lar man­dalas as we explore the town. Along the jour­ney, we also vis­it sacred caves filled with col­or­ful flags, detailed paint­ings, stat­ues, stu­pas, and prayer scarves. 

Sacred caves where Pad­masamb­ha­va med­i­tat­ed more than 1300 years ago. Deana Zabal­do photo

Paint­ed stu­pa inside a cave. Deana Zabal­do photo

Care­tak­ers of remote shrines are some­times assigned by the head lama of the area and oth­er times come from a fam­i­ly lin­eage where 20+ gen­er­a­tions have passed knowl­edge and respon­si­bil­i­ty from father to son. Deana Zabal­do photo

Anoth­er monastery we vis­it is as old as Samye, the old­est monastery in Tibet. A demon was obstruct­ing the con­struc­tion of Samye, so 8th cen­tu­ry Guru Pad­masamb­ha­va chased him out of Tibet and slew him in Nepal. A monastery marks the heart of the demon, while the red col­or of near­by rock is the demon’s blood strewn on the cliffs. Whether you believe in ancient demons or take the demon as a metaphor for the local pres­sures and indige­nous beliefs that were resis­tant to Bud­dhism, this land is rife with his­to­ry and leg­end dat­ing back to the ear­li­est era of Tantric Bud­dhism. We move among the myths as much as through the mountains.

Cliffs splashed red with demon’s blood.” Deana Zabal­do photo

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