We arrived in Lo Manthang on the 19th of May and we were met at the gate to our lodging by the library management committee, armed with kataks, white scarves used in the Tibetan world to honor guests, and smiles. After lunch and a bit of time to wash the grime off our bodies, they returned to escort us to the library.
The building is amazing. It occupies both angles of a street corner, directly across from the entry to the royal palace, and is painted in the typical primary colors of red, blue, green, and yellow, as well as white. The main entrance was closed until the innauguration, two days later.
The library is on the second floor and the bottom floor contains 11 prime-front storefronts that are almost all rented now. Inside is a square courtyard space with a beautiful prayer flag pole in the center. Directly opposite the entrance on the second floor is a large meeting room which will also provide rental income to support the library.
The stairs are on the left as you enter and take you first to the large reading room. Here, in addition to the regular books, one can find a place for lamas to sit, pray and find religious books and a set of books in Tibetan. The sign, however, does not read “Tibetan Books”, but “Local Language”, as they do not want to be identified with Tibet.
The next room is the children’s section, perhaps one of the best equipped of all the libraries. Not only are there the educational toys from Dorothy Adamson and the American School in the Hague, but other learning toys as well. The Early Childhood Center (ECC), sponsored by the American Himalayan Society, will operate 6 days a week from 9-4 in this room.
Next is the cultural section, with musical instrument, films, and items that reflect the fascinating culture of Lo Manthang. There is talk that the museum across the street will also occupy this space.
Of course there is the AV room and computer section with two computers. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) is going to provide connectivity for the library.
Without doubt, this is the most incredible building in Lo and everyone, everyone is amazed!
On the 19th, the management committee took us on a tour of the ECC and the government school. The ECC is presently in dark two-room building with an outdoor play area. There are 19 children who are 2-3 years old, 1 teacher and three parents. Three of the children, who sit together in the last row, are lower caste, and one of the mothers is also from that class and works specifically with them. The teachers work on hygiene (each child has a tooth brush, etc.), alphabet and songs. They sang for us, and then I taught them “Sano, Sano Makura” (The Eensy Weensy Spider).
About a 10 minute walk away along a path lined with water and assorted piles of goat, horse and yak droppings was the government school that goes up to grade 8. The only secondary school in Upper Mustang is in Chosar, 3 hours away. Most of the children here who go on to grade 10 and above go down to Jomsom or Pokhara for education, though. From October through mid-April, the school and all the students and teachers physically move to Pokhara for the winter, as it is too cold in Mustang.
The locals have been very concerned about the quality of education, and have turned the school into a community school. That means that local leaders have set up a fund to provide three extra teachers, more books, etc. The leader of this is Gyapcho, the head of the library committee. Interestingly also, when one looks at the students in grade 8, the highest at the time, they are all women. When I asked why, the answer was that the men went to the monastery school.
In the afternoon, we visited the three monasteries in town – Thuptchen, Jhampa and Choede – with the librarian, Diki. All belong to the Sakya sect and Choede is the foremost, with a school that houses many, many monks. Actually, the housing for the monks was built by the Indian Government, an effort to curry favor with this area bordering on Tibet, and with a road that literally links China and India. The Rimpoche is the key religious person in town.
Walking the town is amazing. Because of the wind, the alleys are narrow, either stone or dirt, and bordered by high homes on both sides. As you turn a corner, you can see anything from a group of women with lined, weather-worn brown faces, sitting on the ground spinning wool, to someone killing and cutting up a goat for dinner, to a group of horses or yaks wandering along, followed by their keeper with a stick. Everywhere you go, you need to watch, because some animal has left its mark on the ground to dodge! Many of the streets have water canals, where people gather to wash clothes, dishes or, often, themselves.
The center of the old city is the huge medieval-looking palace of the former King of Mustang and his son, the former Crown Prince Jigme. The monarchy was abolished with the new government, so “former” is politically correct. Now only six rooms are occupied, but Jigme hopes one day to restore the palace. He spends much time in Kathmandu, but at least two months here in Lo.
We had invited the Crown Prince, JIgme, and the management committee to dinner at our lodge that night. My friend Utpal, whose wife owns the best restaurant in Kathmandu, and our incredible trekking crew prepared a magnificent dinner. In the dirt courtyard of our building, they erected a large tent with Tibetan designs, and a smaller tent that would house the buffet dinner. Chaitya, our truly incomparable cook, and his group worked all day to prepare dinner. They took cans of sardines, covered them in foil, filled them with dirt, and put candles inside to give light. They scrambled to find dishes and table covers to decorate the tables, and the tempting smells of mutton curry, dal, bhat, wonderful mixed vegetables and achar filled the air. They even baked a chocolate cake for me!
The group arrived together at 7PM, led by Jigme, the Crown Prince, and Gyapcho, the committee head. Jigme is a delight – down to earth, funny, friendly, truly very natural. He had spent time in the US, primarily in California, with Richard Blum, but had also seen other places. His English was okay, but it was clearly easier to communicate in Nepali. At first conversation was a bit stilted, but Utpal’s jokes and lots of beer (except for the Choede Lama!), loosed up the conversation. Some I could follow, but the punch lines of the jokes went over my head!
Yesterday was the first day of Tiji. In the morning, on my way over to internet, I got waylayed by the head of ACAP to sit on the dais for their “birthday celebration”. It was a blend of speeches that were too long and songs by local students and others.
Then, in the afternoon, Tiji began. Tiji is basically a festival for peace, an exorcism festival where the main deity is Guru Rimpoche. It lasts three days, and the last day the monks take the sins of the village, in the form of “tormas”, figures of flour, food coloring and water, and break them, carry them outside the village and and shoot flaming arrows off into the air.
Each day begins with the unfurling of a Thanka (large picture) of Guru Rimpoche. The first day is primarily dancing that is geared to cleansing the area of evil and invoking the gods. The second day depicts the forces of good and evil, and the last is the final exorcism. There is a cadre of monks who are the “orchestra” and sit under the thanka with symbols and long horns, providing music for the monk/dancers. Then, costumed, and sometimes wth masks, about 8 monks perform a series of ritual dances, led by a monk who is the embodiment of Guru Rimpoche. He has actually spent the last three weeks in solitary meditation in preparation for the festival.
When each dance ends, the monks sit in two lines facing each other and are served tea.
Lining the square in front of the palace, hanging from roof tops, sitting on top of one another is the audience – a blend of locals and foreigners. The foreigners are all wearing photo passes, bought for Rs. 375/day. Kids are teasing each other, pulling pigtails, rolling around, women are crowded together on the cobblestones, and everyone is jockeying for a good position. Luckily, I met one of the store owners at the school, and she offered me her stoop with a small Tibetan Carpet to soften the stones!!
After the day’s dancing ended, I rushed back to clean up and dress for dinner. I had brought my Sherpa dress and the apron that is particular to this part of the world, and dressed like the locals.
This time, we were invited to the palace! Now, Tibetan style houses all have narrow and very steep stairs that lead from one floor to another; but, to get to the main floor of the palace, in total darkness, we had to climb four of these staircases! Aside from an excercise in courage and gymnastics, it was also a breathing excercise.
Know that the first time you meet people in Nepal, you are guests and everyone is restrained and polite. The second time, you are friends and joking and fun are par of the course. People sat on carpet-covered benches that lined two walls in the room. The third wall was a buffet dinner and the last held a beautifully carved chest painted with gold color. Jigme served wine, beer and assorted hors d’oeuvres until everyone was suitably happy. Then we all ate dinner – not as good as ours – but just fun to be there. The biggest debate of the night was over education and how to get your child into the best schools, particularly if you are not a celebrity.
Today was the key day for READ. We awoke at 6 and were ready to go the the library for the dedication by 8. Things were late, of course. The monks had to finish praying and purifying the place and many people were let inside the courtyard area. Sanjana and I were both dressed in local clothes, as beautifully as we could. When it was time, Gyapcho came by and we walked the back way to the palace. There were special local drummers, dancing up and down and the library committee dressed in full Tibetan dress and the wonderful tall, furred silk hats. As we arrived, Jigme descended the stairs, dressed in a long Tibetan sort of coat, and hat. He and I together walked towards the library, preceeded by the drummers and followed by Sanjana, the READ staff and the library committee.
Outside the palace confines it was amazing. Children of all sizes and shapes lined the pavement holding Kataks, parents would lift up their little one so he could drape the katak over my or someone’s shoulders, the crowds were huge – a scene out of some medieval movie, a Lhasa apso was running around barking at everyone, and goats were peeking out around corners. In front of the library on one side were a group of older girls dressed in white Tibetan dresses, and on the other, a group of boys in male dress. They sang and danced for us. Opposite was a tiny boy in full Tibetan dress, with a hat as big as he was on his head, holding a plate of butter. There were two girls, one with wheat and one with tea. I watched as Jigme took some butter, dipped in in the wheat and took some and then threw it in the air. Next he took a drop of tea with the 4th finger of his hand and dropped it on the ground for the gods.
I was handed a huge key for a huge lock, and, fortunately helped to open the door. We entered to find the courtyard packed, and students all along the uppper part of the library. Taken to our seats, I sat in front with Jigme on one side and Sanjana on the other. Behind us, on the upper level, monks blew their horns, cymbals clanged and water was thrown to purify the area. Then we were given bowls of rice and dried fruits. After prayers, we had to eat some, so that the ceremony could begin. Next, we all took a small handful of Tsampa flour and barley in our hands, turned around, and, at a signal from the monks, threw it at the prayer flag, while muskets were fired from the roof.
The next step was for me to pull the curtain on the plaque, describing the date and key innauguration information.
Turning around, we sang the national anthem, and the program began. Basically, local dances alternated with speeches – a budget report followed by Tibetan dancing, a committee comment, followed by kids in masks. Many of the speeches were in Tibetan, so even Sanjana could not follow. In this world, the most important speeches were last. Sanjana gave her speech, and then read Allison’s speech to everyone in both Nepali and English (there were many foreigners).
After dancing, I went next, talking in Nepali, something that works very well with the locals. There were also quite a few tourists, allowing for an English description of READ and what it does. Several left donations and left me with their names.
The final speech was that of Jigme, basically a thank you to all. Following a group photo, we all went outside to greet, as Jigme said, the “people”. It was mind-boggling – old ladies, cripples, men, their faces lined with the dirt of the area or age, more children and animals. The people were all trying to give kataks, touch our faces or feet, or stick out their tongues in a gesture of friendship. In Tibet, to show that you were not evil with a black tongue, it became a custom to greet people by sticking out your pink tongue!!
We all walked very slowly past this assembly of incredible well-wishers, preceded by the drummer, back to the palace door. Then Jigme headed back and this incredible morning was over.
I wish there were time to truly give a better sense of the colors, faces of the people, the clothes. Let me just say that I have dedicated probably more than 35 libraries over the years. This was the most unbelievable, medieval, ritual, humbling, exhilerating dedication, in one of the most remote, most unique communities not just in Nepal, but in the world.
Toni Neubauer, President of Myths and Mountains & Founder of READ Global