National Geographic : 1965 Oct
hills. Women spin and weave goats' wool (pages 600-601) while men-especially in the winter months-twine yak wool into thick strands to make their knee-high boots. Wherever I went I was escorted by curious onlookers, many of whom had never before seen a foreigner. All marveled at my alumi num pots and pans, even the texture of my tent; grownups would fight over the empty tin cans I threw away. Matches are unknown; everybody has his own flint and steel. Mustang, I discovered, is above all a sacred land. The very name is derived from the words sMon Thang, meaning "the plain of prayer." Some 600 of the land's 8,000 inhabi tants are monks. The state religion is Tantric Buddhism of the Sakya-pa sect, very similar to the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama. In Mustang stand some of the most re markable monasteries left outside Tibet; at least two had been served in the past by as many as 1,000 monks. Three of the monaster ies were cut into vertical cliffs, accessible only by ladders and tunnels hewn in the rock. Demons Haunt the Mountain Kingdom Twelve dukes, 60 monks, 152 families, and eight practicing witches sleep every night within the great sheltering walls of Lo Man tang. With the town's only gate tightly shut, I expected that everybody would slumber quietly. This is not so; the entire population goes to bed in fear. It is neither the Chinese soldiers nor the Khambas that worry the townspeople, but the 416 demons of land, sky, fire, and water. Thousands of expedients have been em ployed to fend off these evil spirits that cause the 1,080 known diseases as well as the five forms of violent death. Butter lamps burn before altars in the private chapel of every residence; monks, dukes, and peasants recite prayers throughout the day; thousands of prayer flags flutter on poles; prayer wheels and prayer walls clutter every open space. But still the spirits prowl, especially at night. Even the intricate demon traps set on every house (page 596), and the horse's skull secretly buried below each doorstep, cannot stop them. When the sun sets behind the eter nal snows to the west, no resident is truly safe. On the first day of the fourth lunar month of the Tibetan calendar (May 10, 1964), I was awakened by the shrill sound of a whistle. The noise came from a flute made of a human leg bone-an instrument frequently used by monks. From the flat roof of my house, I gazed down upon a ceremony unfolding in the town 594 square. It was to last three full days, filling the air with the chilling sound of cymbals and the morbid drone of drums, some made from human skulls. This was the annual "chasing of the demons," usually held at the beginning of the New Year, but delayed for some reason last year (pages 586-9). The square had the appearance of a mon astery. Monks sat on red carpets, and more than 60 of them assisted the High Lama of Lo Mantang, who officiated dressed in a vivid brocade gown with a hat representing two dragons and human skulls. A sturdy "police man" monk patrolled the crowd of onlookers; in his hand, instead of a night stick, he carried a sheaf of peacock feathers. On the third day the ceremony reached its climax. A mighty shriek ushered in three dancers dressed as devils. Brandishing swords, they cast their spells about the assembly. Suddenly, as if panic-stricken, everybody rose and rushed screaming for the town gate. Outside the walls, the lama shot a sacred ar row into a symbolic offering representing one of the evil dancers. The crowd cheered as the arrow hit its mark, and away ran one of the demon dancers. The operation was repeated with sling and stone, and another demon fled. Then 15 men with old muzzle-loading mus kets fired at the third offering, and the last of the demons disappeared. Sharing a Room With a Corpse Had I died in Mustang, I could have chosen from quite a variety of funeral services. Fol lowing Tibetan Buddhist custom, I could either have been cremated, thrown into a river, buried, or I might have been chopped up into small squares and fed to the vultures, thus disappearing into thin air. In this man ner the human body is believed to return to the four elements of which it is composed: fire, water, earth, and air. To the four traditional ways of disposing of the dead, Mustang adds a fifth method re served for a man who dies leaving neither sons nor grandsons. His body is preserved in salt and then enclosed in the walls of his house. When finally, in the third generation or beyond, a boy is born, the dead body is taken out at night and secretly carried to a nearby hill, where the corpse is "traded" to the evil demons against a guarantee of long life to the newborn male heir. To my discomfort, I learned one day that a body lay within the walls of the private chapel in which I had been sleeping as the honored guest of a noble family in Lo Mantang.