Lubra, the Hidden Bon Village of Lower Mustang
The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular trekking routes in the world. In 2017, a total of 158,000 international tourists visited the Annapurna Conservation Area, including a record 27,000 foreign trekkers. However, semi-arid Lubra village (also called Ludak), nestled deep in the Panda Khola gorge of Lower Mustang on the south side of the Lubra Pass (roughly 4000 m.) from Muktinath, has until recently been seldom visited.
After the motor road was completed on the western bank of the Kali Gandaki River up to Muktinath in 2007, the Annapurna Alternative Trekking Trail has been developed, in conversation with local communities, including Lubra. The idea behind the new trail was to provide a foot trekking route away from the road traffic, in order to sustain tourism in the villages along the traditional Annapurna Circuit. Although most villages above Jomsom have road connectivity, Lubra still remains mostly unconnected, which allows visitors to enjoy the quiet sounds of the river and the village uninterrupted by the noise of motor vehicles.
The people of Lubra, who believe the village was founded in the late 12th century, have preserved their traditional way of life. This includes practice of the ancient Bon religion. Lubra, a village of just fourteen families, is one of the few fully Bon villages in Nepal. According to local legend, the Bon Lama Yangton Tashi Gyaltsen came from Tibet via Dolpo and subdued the unruly local spirits, allowing the area to become suitable for human settlement. He planted a walnut tree as a divination to determine whether a village would flourish there. The ancient, gnarled walnut tree survives to this day.
Once tamed, the most powerful spirit among them hollowed out a sunny meditation cave on the hillside opposite the Panda Khola from modern-day Lubra as an offering to Yangton Tashi Gyaltsen, so he would have a suitable place for his practice. The name ‘Lubra’ refers to uniquely textured cliffs on that side of the Panda Khola, which look like snakeskin, spread out and frozen in time on the rock face. Serpentine naga spirits are known as ‘lu’ in the local Mustangi dialect of Tibetan, and ‘bra’ (also pronounced ‘dak’), means rock cliffs.
Traditionally, the people of Lubra built their houses with combined techniques of stacked foundation stones and rammed earth walls, topped with earthen roofs. As in other Baragaon and Thakali villages, they plaster the outer walls with red and white clay for decoration, and store firewood on the top edges of their flat roofs. Lubra belongs to one of the nineteen villages of the Baragaon region of Lower Mustang, which is commonly misunderstood to mean the “twelve villages” that lie above Jomsom and below Lo Manthang (now referred to as Upper Mustang). Baragaon is a Nepali mispronunciation of the Mustangi word Bar Gun, which means “the area in between,” referring to the region sandwiched between Lo Manthang above and the Thak Khola Valley below.
As all over the Himalayas, climate change has altered the water cycle, and overgrazing on the slopes above the Panda Khola has reduced the capacity of the mountainside to retain water, resulting in the loss of top soil due to erosion and more intense higher-level flooding. In the past five years or so, glacial runoff has been increasing rapidly, eating away at agricultural fields along the river bed. Nowadays, during flash floods, the river violently carves away at the banks below the village, causing field edges to be lost to the torrent. During the summer monsoon of 2017, dozens of square meters of farmland were washed away, along with a 70-year-old chorten, an important local religious monument.
Recently, the families of Lubra organized a community homestay project called Mustang Bon Homestay Village, to support the preservation of the unique culture and traditions of Mustang, which are slowly being lost due to the pressures of modernization and emigration abroad. By offering visitors homestay accommodations in the village, the community hopes to create an economic incentive for young entrepreneurs to both remain in the village and maintain local cultural and agricultural practices by involving visitors in unique local experiences. Examples of such experiences include participating in local dancing, mask dancing, cultural songs, and learning alongside traditional agricultural practices, which include planting and harvesting buckwheat, barley, maize, millet, potatoes, and other vegetables, kidney beans, fruit trees such as apricots, walnuts, and apples, and animal husbandry with goats, horses, cows, sheep, chickens, and dzo, the common cross between a male yak and cow, which is more suited to the altitude and climate.
In the center of Lubra village stands Yungdung Phuntsok Ling, an ancient Bon monastery with unique wall paintings and statues, where a five-day masked dancing festival occurs every September or October, depending on the lunar calendar. There are other Bon monasteries in Lower Mustang, such as in Kobang and Naurikot, but none are maintained in the ancient traditional way of hereditary priesthood such as in Lubra, where the eldest son of every family must strictly perform ritual duties and participate in prayers on auspicious days throughout the year. Due to this system, the local traditions have been well maintained in a way that is uncommon in the modern Himalayas.
When visiting Lubra, one should make time to sit in the small Bon temple on the mountainside above the village, called Gon Phuk, which means “winter cave.” It is the site of one of the natural meditation caves where the founder of Lubra village spend many years in meditation retreat, which was later developed into a temple. From the temple, one can climb to see ancient meditation caves on the rock cliffs above the village, which are seldom visited.
As a side hike from Lubra, on a roughly two-hour walk north along the Panda Khola from Lubra village on the opposite side of the trail down from Lubra Pass, visitors can see the ruins of a Tibetan Khampa army camp, from where guerrilla operations were conducted against the Chinese in the 1960s. From Lubra, there is also a challenging shortcut to Tilicho Lake that is used by locals, accessed from the northwest by walking along the Panda Khola to its glacial source high in the Muktinath Himal on the north side of the Annapurna massif.
Whether visiting Lower Mustang by foot, bicycle, motorbike or flight, as a part of one’s pilgrimage to the holy temple of Muktinath, an interesting side trip to the hidden Bon village of Lubra is well worth it.
Article by Michael D. Smith and Yungdung Tsewang Gurung