Riding in the Rain Shadow

Sienna Craig

An American woman's horseback sojourn in Buddhist Mustang, where villages are protected by god-ponies

I left Monthang at daybreak and headed for the king’s yak pastures. All thirty of his horses had been brought there the day before, as the bloodletting and baths would begin at first light. The king, Pema Ngotug, and a handful of helpers were soaked, their pants stained by grass and blood by the time I arrived. All but the king’s favorite horses had been bathed, bled, and let out to pasture. I sat watching as one musclebound beauty followed another into the water, through this ritual. It was, no doubt, the finest showing of horses I had seen in Mustang.

riding feature image summer 1998Until the final horse. It seemed a bit unusual that the king would save a dingy-looking two-year-old for last; but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this animal was more than just a horse. For months now I had been hearing about a god-horse (lha-rta) said to be one emanation of Dung Mar, the king’s protector deity. Considered Dung Mar’s mount, this horse is never ridden, but instead roams free. After the horse dies, a new incarnation must be quickly named by the king. Any gap in the Dung Mar lineage could disrupt the balance of this living landscape.

Such god-horses surface as protector deities and village guardians throughout the Tibetan-speaking world. Perhaps the most famous of such god-horses is Kyang Go Karkar, the mount of Gesar of Ling, Tibet’s famous warrior-king, whose life is recounted in epic song across central Asia. As the story goes, a tulku (reincarnate lama) was sent from the realm of the gods to become Gesar’s mount. Endowed with the wisdom and compassion required of dharma warriors, this pair fought many battles against evil, illusion, and ignorance, emerging victorious in what must be seen as a brilliant expression of both Tibetan Buddhist precepts and the banditry and fierce, mounted combat that is as much a part of Tibetan history and culture as butter tea. After all, four centuries before the great Mongol hordes swept central Asia, Tibetans on horseback had established a vast empire across much of the same territory.

I stared down at the valley below—a place of cavernous rock, caves, and the ruins of fortresses—thinking of Gesar, seated beside a benevolent king from a different age. The king of Lo glanced toward where the young Dung Mar was grazing. Though this half-grown stud bore the markings and color demanded of these horses—red body with white socks and blaze—he seemed no match for his previous incarnation. Most Loba recall the last Dung Mar as a fearless beast, deep chestnut in color, who led the procession at a yearly harvest festival saddled in gilded silver and turquoise, coral and gold. Though riderless, the horse would prance and sweat, moving with the conviction and grace of a god.

The young Dung Mar leapt across marshy tundra and refused to be caught that summer morning. The king, not one for sloshing through bogs, handed Pema Ngotug a rope and sent him off to fetch the colt.

“The last one,” said the king, gesturing toward the young horse, “was surely Dung Mar. This one, well . . .” He paused. “I’m actually still looking for the next real Dung Mar, but this horse will do for now. He has to.” The king looked east. I followed his gaze toward Samzong, a village at the outer reaches of his kingdom.

“Samzong used to be the richest village in Lo” the king mused. “People there had water, fields, plenty of pastures. Dung Mar horses were born there for at least five generations. The horse that died two years ago was the last to come from Samzong. Now those pastures have turned to desert, the river is drying up, Samzong is the poorest village in Lo, and this two-year-old is nothing compared to his forefathers.”

Pema Ngotug returned with the special colt in tow, coaxed the animal into the river, and bathed him. The animal—faith manifest in horseflesh—was not enough of this world, however, to be bled. Half wild, Dung Mar leapt out of the river and galloped off, pausing only to shake water from his mane and nicker at the king. Here was the pulse of Mustang's landscape: a world skittish and strong as this young colt, but haunted by the ghosts of greatness.

Sienna Craig lived in Nepal as a researcher, writer, and Fulbright scholar in anthropology. She currently resides in Berkeley, California, and plans to enter a Ph.D. program in medical anthropology at the University of California.

Image 1: Author on the trail. Photo © Dana Jinkins.

Image 2: Map © Dana Jinkins/Courtesy of Concepts Publishing, Inc.

Image 3: A veterinarian grinds medicine to use in setting broken horse bones. Photo © Sienna Craig.

Image 4: Tshampa Ngawang, an amji, or doctor, who treats both animals and people, performs a protection ritual for horses. Photo © Sienna Craig.

Image 5: A folio of Tibetan text describing a horse protection ritual. 

Image 6: A silver inlaid saddle. Photo © Sienna Craig.

Image 7: Ritual bloodletting and bathing of horses at the king's yak pastures near Lo Monthang. Photo © Sienna Craig.

Image 8: On the roof of the King's palace in Lo Monthang stands a shrine to the god-horse Dung Mar, the king's protector deity. Photo © Macduff Everton.

Image 9: The current incarnation of Dung Mar. Photo © Sienna Craig.

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