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The ancient Himalayan hill state now generally known as Mustang was, historically, an independent kingdom within the sphere of influence of the western states of Tibet. Its original name was Lo, as it is still known to its people, the Loba, who speak a dialect of Tibetan. The main seat of its rajas, or kings, now its administrative center, is the town of Monthang (sometimes spelled Manthang), now often referred to as Lo Monthang. The name "Mustang" is a derivation of that word, apparently a Nepali or perhaps a British mispronunciation, unrelated to the name of a certain type of horse.

Much of the geographic territory now recognized as Nepal formerly consisted of a number of small hill states and petty kingdoms, the state of Lo among them. Lo was the gateway to one of the easier pass routes to Tibet, and its kings grew rich collecting taxes on the trade of salt and wool from Tibet, and tea, rice, and other goods from what is now southern Nepal and from India.

In the late eighteenth century, Lo fell to a neighboring state, but both were soon afterward annexed into Nepal when Prithvi Narayan Shah, king of one of the hill states, conquered the others and unified them to create the nation of Nepal. The Tibetan border is only a few miles from Lo Monthang. Safe on the Nepali side of the line, Mustang's art and culture remained unscathed during the ravages of the Chinese invasion and the Cultural Revolution.

The wealth it gained from its control of the trade route between Tibet and the south enabled the royal house of Lo to commission the building and adornment of the two great gompas, Thubchen and Jampa. For this, master artists and craftsmen, many of them Newari, were brought to Lo. The Newaris, the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, were highly trained and exceptionally gifted, famous for their skill in painting, carving, building, and metalwork, their handiwork broadly recognized and admired throughout a wide region. They achieved a status comparable to that of Florentine artists in renaissance Europe, although Himalayan artists (Newari, Tibetan, Kashmiri, and others) did not customarily sign their work but remained almost always anonymous. (One Newari artist and designer, however, achieved exceptional personal fame: Arniko [Aniko], who in the thirteenth century was brought to the court of Kublai Khan, then emperor of China, and placed in charge of the imperial craftsmen.) The artist was a medium rather than a creator, whose function was to transmit or reproduce, not invent, the correct representation of a deity. Only correct representation could serve as a passage for the true transmission of a spiritual essence.

After Lo fell to the neighboring state of Jumla, it lost its control of the trade route and the revenue of its taxes. Mustang became poor and fell into obscurity, yet paradoxically, this may have saved its art treasures. Frequently and even customarily in the Tibetan cultural world, faded gompa murals in a state of deterioration were overpainted. Mustang's later poverty may have preserved the original wall paintings.

The first modern scholar to view the paintings of Thubchen and Jampa was the great Tibetologist, Giuseppe Tucci, who was allowed to visit Mustang in 1952. He wrote of his fear that, due to their deteriorating condition, "in a few years only the ruins will remain of these imposing buildings which belong to the best period of Tibetan art." Their paintings, he wrote,
"are stricly [sic] related by style and composition to the zin k'ams `paradises' of the sKu abum [Kumbum] of Gyantse. This means that they were the work of the same schools of painting which flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Sa skya monasteries, the richest and most influential, at least until then, not only in gTsan but also in the adjoining provinces." (Giuseppe Tucci, Preliminary Report on Two Scientific Expeditions in Nepal, Rome, 1956.)

Concerning the history of Lo and its two great temples, mere scraps of data have survived amid a welter of myth and legend. Of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma-pa, Sakya-pa, Kagyu-pa, and Geluk-pa), the Sakya-pa were predominant in the fourteenth and into the fifteenth centuries. (It was the Sakya-pa who converted Kublai Khan to Buddhism, in effect "taming" the Mongols.) One of the greatest of Sakya-pa lamas was Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (in Tibetan, Ngorchen Vajradhara Kun dga' bzang po, 1382-1456), who developed the triple activity of teaching, composition and debate, and who founded the great Ngor Gompa (Ngor E-wam Chos ldan) in Tibet in 1429. Exemplifying the cloud of legend that swirls around this period, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo's coming to Tibet was said to have been prophesied by the Buddha in several sutras. Under Ngorchen's leadership, Ngor Gompa became the pre-eminent Sakya cultural center and one of Tibet's great artistic treasures. Ngorchen apparently visited Lo three times, upon invitation from the king of Mustang.

According to Khenpo Tashi Tenzin Rinpoche, the abbot of Lo Monthang, Jampa gompa was built by King Amapal (A me dpal) and his son, A mgon tshe dbang bzang po, in accordance with instructions given by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo.

Due to the kindness of the compassionate great Dharma king
A mgon bzang po, father and son, etc., the second Jina Vajradhara,
ngorchen Kun dga' bzang po was invited and the Great Buddha,
(Buddha) Vajradhara and the Great Maitreya temple were built.

Text in Tibetan:

bka' drin pa chos rgyal chen po A mgon bzang po yab sras mams
kyi sku drin la rgyal ba rdo rje `chang gnyis pa ngor chen kun dga'
bzang po spyan drangs/thub chen rdo rje `chang byams chen gsum
gyi gtsug lag knamg bzhengs//

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