An American woman's horseback sojourn in Buddhist Mustang, where villages are protected by god-ponies
The door to Mayala’s house swung open, though nobody answered my greetings. I could see the old man upstairs, where he sat repairing a bridle.
“Meme,” I called, “Raju’s horse is sick, feverish. We rode in the rain all yesterday afternoon. Please come look at him.” The old man made no move to answer me. “Grandfather, Mayala, please. The horse is not mine.” Again, no reply. I headed home, frustrated, confused, and worried about Raju’s gelding. Later that day, when I told Chandra about my unsuccessful visit to Mayala’s, my friend burst out laughing.
“Mayala is difficult. If I had asked him, he couldn’t have refused. But you’re just an outsider to him,” said Chandra, embarrassed. He has seen enough foreigners—tourists and researchers alike—pour in and out of Mustang. Our friendship aside, this was to be a teaching, if not an initiation.
“Mayala has taken care of horses for nearly forty years,” continued Chandra, shedding his smile. “All that work with blood and fire, iron and disease, sometimes death has exposed him to much pollution [grib].” I imagined this terse and rugged bodhisattva, his acts of compassion, if not inverted, rendered impure by the elements from which they sprung.
“Mayala is old and superstitious. He wants to retire, but villagers still come to him and he must help them.” Chandra sighed. “Don’t worry. I’m sure the horse will be fine.”
By the time I returned to Chandra’s to check on the horse that evening, Mayala had visited and prescribed twelve black hay beetles, ground live and mixed with grain to quell the fever; juniper incense; and a protection ritual (Rta-srung) performed by a village lama to reach the horse’s mind, the root of its disease.
IF IT HADN'T BEEN for the vultures, perhaps Gyatso and I wouldn’t have noticed the corpse and instead ridden on toward Lo. But Gyatso spotted the body and we rode up to investigate. The horse’s frame lay unmoved. A lump on the horizon, this dead horse did not draw attention to itself, but instead receded into the Mustang landscape: ruins, desert wildflowers, and suede-colored hills. The animal must have died no more than forty-eight hours before. Although only tufts of dried grass remained where there had once been tongue and nostrils and tail flesh, the horse’s skeleton was mostly intact. Yet the skull, once a web of delicate lines, had been smashed as an invitation to vultures to feast on the body. Such sky burials in Tibetan are known as “giving to the birds.” Since vultures do not kill their prey, their presence at the sight of a death is considered cleansing, both physically and karmically.
Gyatso guessed the horse was about thirteen. Its teeth hinted at scars—from a bit—and, therefore, mounted training. Its hooves bore no shoeing marks. This horse, like countless others of its kind, had spent its life walking through this river valley, carrying loads. A sunken rib cage suggested a death brought on by slow starvation, internal parasites, and perhaps the dreaded “hot” disease that Lobas attribute to winter migration south—a shift in transhumance patterns necessitated by the closing of the Nepal-Tibet border.
I wondered if a local lama had read the bum chung as this horse was laid to rest. Literally “concise vessel,” the bum chung text is a short summary of the Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of Wisdom”) scriptures. This text helps guide the dead towards auspicious gateways of rebirth, and can be read for the benefit of humans and animals alike.
“If the bum chung is not read, beings dead to this world can wander toward realms of hell and hungry ghosts,” explained Gyatso. Sometimes a Loba will even place his dead horse’s head on the roof of his house to ensure that his wealth and property, embodied by horses, do not “die” with the animal. If the dead horse had been a prized mount, the exposed burial ground might have been scattered with remnants of a ritual: charred incense, grains, dabs of butter, the smell of spilled chang (barley beer). As it was, there was only heat and dust, wind, thin mountain air, and a trail littered with hoofprints leading north.
By late July, Lo Monthang’s fields blazed with cadmium mustard flowers and pale pink buckwheat when Gyatso and I arrived. The Loba were busy directing irrigation canals, passages without which their villages—oases of cultivation—could not exist. Water ran clear these days, pure as medicine. Each year at this same time in late July, Mustang’s horses are bled from their noses and bathed in streams running high with new glacial melt. This shedding of “old” blood is a ritual of renewal that prepares horses to move to high summer grasslands. Spilled blood is mixed with grains and fed back to the horses. Life force reborn as sustenance.