A tale of two gompas

Features Issue 131 Sep, 2012
Text and Photo By Pat Kauba

Most people travel the barren wind-swept road to Muktinath in Nepal’s Mustang region for one of two reasons: trekking around its peaks and passes or going as a Hindu pilgrim to visit Lord Vishnu’s—the King of Gods’—abode. However, there is something of great interest to those of Buddhist persuasions to be found along the last portion of the moonscape’s road.

Above the airport town of Jomsom, passing the Kali Gandaki River’s floodplain is the ancient fort city of Kagbeni. Though its walls are crumbling and its king has gone to memory, there is still the particularly special gompa or monastery of Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling to see. It is a dominating tall mud and stone building belonging to the Sakya lineage of Buddhism, sitting right in the town’s centre.

Kagbeni with its ancient narrow streets and alleys is recognized as being a place where Tibetan Buddhist life continues in ways not found even in Tibet. It sits nestled at the foot of Upper Mustang, surrounded by huge rounded sandstone hills. Straddling the riverbed of the Kali Gandaki River, the town’s ancient walls and hued tones blend themsleves harmoniously into its surrounding environs. Wandering around its streets, against hordes of goats and horses gives one a feeling of complete disorientation in time and location. It’s Nepal, but is it?

From early morning until late evening the locals are out doing their kora or rounds around the town and gompa, which resonate throughout the day with the haunting sounds of a Mahakal protection ritual. It’s a tantric ritual, one that has gone on every day for centuries, led by the monastery’s monks.

Local Power

The gompa was started by the revered Tibetan scholar Tenpai Gyaltsen more than 580 years ago and built by the locals to be their spiritual center. In its heyday, it was populated by hundreds of monks from 12 surrounding villages. But today’s numbers have dwindled to about 40. Even the Rimpoche—the highest figure and teacher—lives in India; yet its rituals continue.

A visit to the ritual room in the middle of the monastery’s three floors is a must. Within it you will find the main golden Buddhist idol as well as many items such as tantric masks adorning the walls. The ceiling is painted in intricate manadalas or cosmic roadmaps to life, used for meditations. From the gompa’s roof you can catch commanding views of the crumbling city and the surrounding hills and mountains; perfect for Kagbeni’s famed multi-hued sunsets.

Around the monastery as with all Tibetan places are the ubiquitous prayer wheels for spinning when doing your kora. But a rather unique addition are fist-sized ceramic conch-like items tucked in behind the wheels, which I am informed encase items from past rituals such as grains of rice.

As evening fell we wandered into all the little hidden corners; there was no escaping the power of the Mahakal ritual emanating into the surroundings. The monastery was abuzz with the construction of new and improved buildings for the monks, while elderly locals did their rounds mumbling incantations, spinning wheels and turning their prayer beads.

To The Top
When one begins ascending from Kagbeni to Muktinath Temple in the village of Rani Puwan, travelling along 17Km of sloping road—carrying you a kilometer upwards in altitude to 3,700m—the whole area surrounding you turns into a barren desert of grays, reds, yellows and purples. Again that feeling of changing country takes over until finally you reach the top and grasp its dominating views in all directions upon mountain ranges like Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri.

Muktinath is predominantly a Hindu pilgrimage with devotees coming from around the world to bathe in the cold mountain water from its 108 water spouts before giving their respects to Lord Vishnu. However a number of red-robed Buddhist monks and nuns can be seen mixed amongst the Hindu devotees, their numerous sadhus and always some trekkers and tourists.

Just a few minutes walk from the grind that can be Muktinath Temple is a small single storey inconspicuous gompa built of rocks, mud and painted in the simplest of whites. It is an Ani Gompa: Ani meaning nun and its named Jella Mukhi Ani Gompa. Though maintained by Buddhist nuns it is a place where people of all faiths are allowed freely, because simply what it embodies goes beyond religion. This is one of the few places on earth where all the five natural elements of life are present at once.

Within the simple unassuming building a humble blue natural gas flame flickers, while under the floor flows a stream exiting out of the gompa’s wall; adorned with a bronze cow-head fountain. The sun sits above and wind blows around you, which is all experienced upon the last element—earth.

The nunnery itself has been in existence for over 1070 years and today the small Ani-gompa is home to 25 nuns of varying ages, all belonging to Buddhism’s Nyingma sect.

Although the area of Muktinath is inhospitable for most of the year due to rain, wind and biting cold, it is hard to avoid feeling that it and the nunnery are special places. And whether you came here by jeep, bike or walked, there is no escaping the idea that you have gone on pilgrimage and witnessed something special that all living creatures can recognize and respect.