Though I have visited Muktinath twice–once crossing from the Thorong La and another walking from Beni–I did not fully grasp the significance of this place until a friend proudly posted photos of himself there: “A life dream,” he had written.
I knew I needed to learn more.
Muktinath (3,710 meters) is a religious site for Hindus and Buddhists. Followers of both religions believe this is one of the few places where all five elements are found: fire, water, sky, earth, and air. The area is layered with tokens of worship: trees hold photos of departed loved ones, candles flicker inside temples, monasteries house nuns who watch over the land.
The name Muktinath evolved from the Sanskrit words mukti, meaning nirvana or salvation, and nath, master. For thousands of years, travelers have traversed the arid, dusty landscape to reach this part of the upper Kali Gandaki River Valley. A small town accommodates pilgrims from across South Asia and welcomes visitors from a variety of budgets and backgrounds.
Also known as Mukti Kshetra, the place of liberation, Muktinath is one of 108 important Vishnu temples, the central shrine named one of the top eight most sacred in the world. Pilgrims come year around — regardless of the weather! — dipping themselves into pools under 108 running fountains. The water is believed to be purifying, offering renewal and salvation to those who have traveled to dip beneath spigots shaped like bulls.
The number 108 is believed to represent the entirety of existence, a number found repeatedly in nature: The distance of the Sun to the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Sun; 108 pressure points have been identified on the human body; Indian medicine has pointed 108 energy lines throughout the body; at 108 degrees Fahrenheit a human’s vital organs overheat. In Hindu astrology, twelve zodiacs and nine planets lead to a total of 108 potential combinations, and the prayer beads you’ll see in the hands of Hindu priests are made up of 108 beads. Yoga practitioners perform nine rounds of sun salutations, each twelve postures each, to align mind and body. These aren’t just found in Asia; the circle of stones laid at Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter.
Tibetan Buddhists also claim Muktinath as a special place, one of 24 tantric locations and home to dakinis, supernatural beings. Tibetan Buddhists have named Muktinath Chumig Gyatsa, translated as 100 waters. They have noted that the father of Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Padmasambhava, meditated here before making his way to Tibet.
Regardless of background or belief, visiting a place where different religions and values coexist is a gift in itself.
Things to do:
Watch people. From families to trekkers, locals to sadhus (Hindu priests), travelers to Muktinath represent South Asia and beyond.
In addition to the main shrine, Muktinath is home to several temples and monasteries of interest. Notice the woodwork and intricate carvings at the most recently renovated monastery, or climb to the statue slightly outside of the main village area. The grounds is a peaceful place for contemplation or rest, or to simply stare off into the distance at Dhaulagiri’s south face.
The Gandaki riverbed is full of Shaligram stones, symbols of worship for Hindu god Vishnu. In fact, Muktinath was once called Salagrama, a tribute to these black fossils. You’ll see tables lined with the spirals of varying sizes, their shells black and smooth. These prehistoric creatures are visual reminders of the history of this place.
How to get there:
Trekkers pass through Muktinath on their way across the Thorong La Pass. Those with Muktinath as their destination can fly to Jomsom and rent transportation. Bus and jeep tours for travelers of all ages and physical abilities are widely advertised. Chartered flights are also possible for those with higher budgets.
Some of the nearby settlements are charming. If you’re trekking, note that there are two ways to walk from Muktinath to Kagbeni. I recommend forgoing the main road used by jeeps and buses and taking the path that winds through villages and a more desolate landscape instead. You’ll add a bit of time to your trek, but to enjoy the unique setting and culture found in this area of the world, so it is well worth your effort.
Where to stay:
Whether you’re a backpacker or a pilgrim, reserve your preferred accommodation in advance. The times I have found myself in Muktinath, I have had to hunt to find an available room. A few of my recommendations:
Hotel Grand Shambala – It’s clean, comfortable, and friendly, everything you want from a guesthouse. The staff will make sure you’re well-fed and taken care of, and extra blankets are placed in the rooms to keep guests warm.
Hotel Bob Marley – Even if you don’t stay here, the lively atmosphere is worth a visit. The bustling guesthouse serves delicious food in a comfortable dining area with indoor and outdoor tables, perfect for late afternoon beers or an early breakfast. I make it a point to order one of their thick, flaky slices of apple pie when I visit.
Dream Home Hotel – I have never stayed here because it’s always packed, but the guesthouse has an earthy vibe and offers a sauna (yes, really!) for guests. Cheese is made from yak milk, and a beautiful terrace overlooks the town.
Bon Community Homestay: Bon Community Homestay is a mission to influence local youth about the tourism Industry in their long-forbidden kingdom. The Host Families are hosting guests from all over the world which is helping to strengthen the local economy and exchanging the ideas. These Families are also keeping their unique culture and tradition intact in the community to pass along to the generations.
Top image: Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr