A shortened version of this article was published in the Nepali Times on December 23, 2016.
One Thursday last month, not much before noon, I was walking through a forest steeped in snow, in rural Vermont. Sun came and went between the clouds. It was quiet, spare. Crystalline light reflected off the frozen surface of a nearby pond. The world felt peaceful, filled with grace and presence, even as it was marked by absence: the bareness of birch trees, the pale winter light.
I did not know it at the time, but as I was walking, at what was the first hour of Friday December 16, in Kathmandu, Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, the King of Lo, or Upper Mustang, was leaving the shell of his body, his consciousness released. He was 86 years old, and had ruled his kingdom for more than half a century with equanimity. I had the good fortune to have known him, in some small way, for the last twenty years. We shared an affinity for horses and a love of the landscape he called home. It is fair to say that meeting him altered the course of my life.
Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista was known by many names. In Nepali, people referred to him as the Mustang Raja, one of four “petty kings” – including local rulers in Bajhang, Salyan, and Jajarkot – who retained regional power even as their territories were incorporated into the emerging nation-state of Nepal in the mid-18th century. These “petty kings” were recognized by Nepali law from 1961 until 2008, when Nepal transitioned from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic.
In Tibetan, Bista was called Lo Gyalpo, or the King of Lo, evoking a sense of respect and deference akin to the titles given to kings of neighboring Bhutan and Sikkim. The fact that Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista had been officially stripped of his raja title by the Nepali state did little to affect his importance in the lives of Loba, people from upper Mustang. To them, he was far from “petty” in his influence.
To Loba, he was often called Kundun. This Tibetan word means “presence.” It is the same term of address that is often used by Tibetans to refer to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This gives one a sense of just how important this person was to the people of Mustang. He helped to define and defend a people, a place, a way of life, and a sense of belonging to the high pastures and valleys, the canyons and plains, the monasteries and villages of this Himalayan enclave.
Bista was 25th in a lineage of rulers that dates back to the late 14th century, and the founding of the kingdom by a western Tibetan leader named Amepal. In 1964, when he was in his mid-thirties, Bista assumed the title of Lo Gyalpo after the death of his father. He was his father’s youngest son.
Bista married Sidol Palwar, a refined, elegant woman who traveled from Shigatse, Tibet, to Lo as a bride in 1950, before the political upheavals of 1959. They had no living biological children, but the couple adopted their nephew, Jigme Singe Palbar Bista, as son and heir.
Over the past half-century, Bista ushered his community through massive political-economic and sociocultural transitions: the stationing in Mustang of Chushi Gangdruk, the Tibetan Resistance Army, from 1961 until 1974; opening Lo to foreign tourists in 1992, after Nepal’s first jan andolan, or People’s Movement, in 1990; the decade-long People’s War (1996-2006) and its attendant impacts on all aspects of life in rural Nepal, even in a district that saw minimal direct conflict; the end of the Nepali monarchy in 2008; the recent completion of a motorable road that now links Mustang with the Chinese border to the north and Pokhara to the south; and the earthquakes of Spring 2015.
Bista also lived to see the impacts of climate change on Mustang’s environment, a complex social ecology that balances irrigated agriculture, pastoralism, and trade. As an example of this, two of Lo’s villages have been relocated in recent years as a result of water shortages as some of Mustang’s glaciers shrink and headwaters run dry. This, in addition to the recent discovery of uranium deposits in upper Mustang, bring to light some of the environmental and geopolitical crucibles facing this region. On top of all of these shifts, Bista bore witness to profound internal transitions within Mustang’s communities, brought on through education- and economically-driven outmigration. Today, the population of Loba in cities in urban Nepal and India as well as those making homes in Queens, New York, rival Lo rivals those who live in Lo.
When I picture the Lo Gyalpo, I see his stately dignity. He had expressive lips which formed words of advice or considered action for his people and, especially in recent years, shaped the syllables of Buddhist prayer with humility and devotion. He was a beautiful, intense presence. During our meetings, be they formal audiences at Khar, the palace and his residence in the walled city of Lo Monthang, or over quiet cups of tea with his family in recent years in Kathmandu, I remained in awe of him. He could be serious, even stern, but then his expression would open up into a broad, friendly smile, his gold-plated tooth glinting brightly.
One of my most cherished memories of the king was traveling with him and his entourage up to the summer pastures north of Lo Monthang for days of sheep shearing, yak wrangling, picnicking, and ritually bathing his horses in a glacial stream. It was here that I saw him as a man at work, a man filled with purpose. I will hold on to that memory, and the one of him and his male companions walking kora early each morning, circumambulating the wall that runs around Lo Monthang, which means “plain of aspiration.” There was also deep purpose in such moments: of conversation, of communion.
The king’s heir, Jigme Singe Palbar Bista, along with others who belong to this generation of Mustang nobility, are invested in the future of upper Mustang. The family remains very important to the social life of Lo, even without continued recognition by the Nepali state of the local monarchy. And yet the death of the king marks the end of an era.
One of the Nepali news reports that came out in the wake of his death reported that his last words to his family members were, “Never migrate from the village and the district.”
While I have no way of confirming the veracity of this statement, I believe in its essence. Bista loved his home fiercely, with his whole being. I am also certain that, despite the challenges and changes facing Mustang, those who bear his lineage will do all they can to honor his wishes as they work to protect and thoughtfully transform their culture.
Om Mani Padme Hum.