Nyeshang is that part of the upper Marshyangdi valley from Pisang to Manang. It lies North West of Lamjung District – the gateway to Annapurna circuit. The valley is surrounded by the mighty Annapurna I, II, III and Gangapurna mountains. The average elevation of Nyeshang is around 3500 meters above sea level. Nyeshang is also known as the valley behind mountains. Formerly extraordinarily inaccessible and until 1977 forbidden to tourists, it is a potential Shangri La. Such valleys are reputedly accessible only by narrow passes known only to the inhabitants.
This well known Westernized Buddhist Himalayan legend tells of a high Tibetan valley, hidden from outside influences, where people still live in harmony with nature, where the earth is still fruitful and where consequently people are happy and healthy and most importantly, practicing Buddhism to transform oneself toward achieving a meaningful life. Nyeshang was certainly relatively inaccessible until late this century.
The Gurung migrants, whose religion remains Bon-Po, must have left Tibet, before or at the time Tibet became Buddhist in the 11th century. This date corresponds with the earliest mention of Nyeshang, as a part of the kingdom of Serib in the 12th century. The Gurung were pastoralists, herding yaks and goats.
The next wave of migrants to Nyeshang were the Ghale, who outgrew Phugaon to the north and arrived in Nyeshang by way of the Kang La pass, north of Ngawal. Now the Ghale were agriculturalists who succeeded in establishing farming on the river terraces between Manang and Pisang. The Ghale gradually became economically dominant, forming an aristocratic class within the Gurung.
They must have maintained their ancestors’ wanderlust, for the Nyeshangte have travelled the whole of south East Asia as international traders. Uncovering the details of this, even from academic anthropology journals is not easy.
According to our source, there was an occasion when 21 Nyishang-te were in Vietnam during the war time where most of the group members came in between crossfire and died.
The history of how these subsistence farmers became a force in international trade is fascinating. Back in the 12th century, even the Ghale were unable to support themselves on the produce of this barren land for more than 7 or 8 months a year. They were obligated to find off-farm activities to provide for themselves and their families. The Nyeshangte traded in mountain products such as dried medicinal mountain rhubarb, certain mountain ‘herbs’ and something called ‘rock sweat’. Now this ‘rock sweat’ was researched by W.H. Tilman. Silajit, as it is also known, was described by Hamilton in his ‘Account of the Kingdom of Nepal (1819)’ as a substance with the appearance (only!) of thin honey, it oozes from cracks in the cliffs. It is thought to be formed by water trickling through deposits of guano, or bat shit (to give it its scientific name).
Thus, the Nyeshangte historically traded in lightweight, compact, high value goods which by their nature were easy to transport. The arrival of the modern Nepalese state in 1786 could have damaged their trading activities, by inflicting taxation. Although the nearby Thakalis in the Kali Gandaki were taxed, it is remarkable that by 1825, the Nyeshangte had established a tax free status with the Kathmandu government. This remarkable deal involved the Nyeshang people accepting the authority of Kathmandu (which Kathmandu could not have practicably enforced) in return for freedom from taxes (which the Kathmandu government probably considered would have been negligible from such an apparently poor backwater, even if it could have collected them). This deal turned Nyeshang into a tax haven with a status not unlike Hong Kong under the British.
The Nyeshang traders gradually moved from wholesaling their own local product to buying other similar product in other mountain areas for sale in large cities beginning in Kashmir, then Delhi, Calcutta and Singapore.
They diversified into precious stones such as Burmese rubies, precious metals and similar goods. A great boom took place in the 1950s and 1960s and some of the people of Ngawal, Manang, Braga and Pisang became very wealthy owning homes in Pokhara, Kathmandu and overseas.
Many of the mountain people of Nyeshang are better travelled and more cosmopolitan than their visitors. Its future lies as a Shangri la for tourists. Enjoy it while you can.
Tentative program for the festival
12th July- The festival commences after people start gathering at Teen Dhara. They sing a song while riding over their horses. Then from there, they move to the Thang where the race is held. They hold some races and come back to Manang. At around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, both the youngsters and adult gather again at the Teen Dhara, sing a song and head down to the Thang and hold race again and go back.
13th July- Same ritual is followed as of first day excluding morning part.
14th July- The day’s program begins at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The villagers go to the Pocho Gompa and light the butter lamps. After lighting the lamps, they head to the Thang and race. Then they go back either to home or gompa. At around 8 to 9 o’clock in the evening, the villagers are divided into two groups and one group is led to Pocho gompa and the other to Karki gompa. Then Oley dance is performed at both the gompas.
15th July- Villagers gather at Pocho Gompa in the afternoon as usual and go for a race at Thang. After completing the race, they come back to Manang.
16th July-Youngsters dance on top of the roof of the Gompa at Manang Village and concludes the festival.
Compiled by – Bodrig Punda Team and Tashi Gurung