See the Upper Tshognam archives here.

See the Lower Tshognam archives here.


Lower and Middle Tshognam


Tshognam is the name of an area in the Shöyul enclave of Baragaon, in the southern part of Nepal’s Mustang District. The settlement is divided into three sections, each corresponding to an estate (Tib. grong pa): Tshognam Og (Tib. ’og), Tshognam Barma (Tib. bar ma) and Tshognam Nyama (gnya' ma): Lower, Middle and Upper Tshognam. The religious overtones of the name (Tib. tshogs rnams), which means “Accumulations [of virtue and merit]”, is appropriate to the fact that Upper and Lower Tshognam have for their entire history been inhabited by families of hereditary tantric lamas (sngags pa) belonging to the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism. The community is not an independent entity; it has no land of its own, but straddles the territorial boundary of two major settlements: Te, upstream to the east, and Tshug, downstream to the west. Lower and Middle Tshognam stand on Tshug’s territory, and Upper Tshognam on Te’s. The Middle Tshognam estate, which is now empty, was never home to a priestly family, and will play no further part in the present work.

Upper and Lower Tshognam each contains an archive comprising works in Tibetan and Nepali. The two archives were first photographed in 1993 by myself and Nyima Drandul. The catalogue name of each document contains four sets of information:

1. HMA: an abbreviation of NGPHMA, the acronym of the project within which the documents were photographed;
2. The provenance of the particular archive: in the present volume either LTshognam or UTshognam, for Upper and Lower Tshognam respectively;
3. Tib.: to denote that the document is part of the Tibetan, rather than the Nepali, collection of the archive;
4. The number of the individual document. As a general rule, the number is attributed on the basis of chronological order, as far as it is possible to determine their dates.

In 2015, with the assistance of Nyima Drandul and Kemi Tshewang, Agnieszka Helman-Wazny was able to obtain access to the Upper Tshognam archives and took digital photographs of the documents. The following year, in 2016, she and I travelled together to Upper Mustang, with Nyima Drandul and Kemi Tshewang, and were able to re-examine and photograph the Lower Tshognam archive. Our interest in re-photographing the collections was primarily codicological; these photographs included close details and backlit images, revealing features that were not apparent in the original monochrome documentation. The results of this study are published separately.

While it was found that a number of documents from Lower Tshognam had been lost in the intervening years, both visits resulted in the discovery of previously unseen items: five in Upper and seven in Lower Tshognam. Six of these documents have not been published in the present collection, since they add little or nothing to our understanding of the social history of Tshognam: they include, for example, copies of prayers or ritual procedures and, in one case, extracts from the Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. A number of others, by contrast, are related to fiscal issues, debt, inheritance and the economic organisation (as opposed to the religious content) of ceremonies, and I have therefore decided to incorporate these here. The recent discovery of these documents has resulted in an idiosyncratic numbering scheme that deserves some explanation. First, because these documents were not photographed within the framework of the Nepal-German Project on High Mountain Archaeology, they do not bear the tag “HMA”. Secondly, their numbering does not indicate a chronological order: not only were they photographed and examined at a time when this volume was close to completion, but several documents in the original collection have been cited in published articles with reference to their existing numbers; to change these labels now would result in considerable confusion. The numbering therefore simply follows the order in which they were photographed.

Tshognam’s place in southern Mustang

Tshognam from the west, with Te at the head of the valley



The communities of Te and Tshug, on whose territory Tshognam stands, form part of a constellation of five villages known collectively as the Shöyul, literally the “Low-lying communities” (see map). Since none of the settlements in question is below 3000 metres above sea level, the name must have been bestowed by the inhabitants of the more northerly area, which is at a higher altitude and closer to the former centre of political power. The names of the other three villages are Taye, Tsele and Gyaga.

The Shöyul are part of a larger enclave called Baragaon, a Nepali word meaning “the Twelve Villages”. Although the name features commonly in both Nepali and Tibetan documents (in the latter case, in forms such as bha ra gung, for example) the oldest recorded occurrence is a synonymous Tibetan term, Yul kha bcu gnyis (Schuh 1994: 43). In fact, Baragaon comprises not twelve but nineteen settlements. Several possible explanations for this may be advanced. For example, it could be that the name was coined at a period when there really were only twelve members of the enclave, and that a further seven villages were allocated to the constellation at some later period. Alternatively, the number twelve in such a context may have a figurative significance of “fairly large number”, in the same way that the number nine in certain Tibetan expressions may denote “a very large number” or even “all”.

The five Shöyul are different from the other villages of Baragaon for several reasons, but most obviously in terms of language: while the majority of Baragaon is Tibetan-speaking, the communities of the Shöyul speak a Tibeto-Burman language closely related to Thakali, which belongs to “the Gurung Branch of the Bodish Section of the Bodic Division of the Tibeto-Burman Family of Sino-Tibetan languages” (Mazaudon 1978: 157, citing Shafer). In spite of their location in the territory of two Seke-speaking communities, the lamas of Tshognam are Tibetan-speakers who use Seke as a second language.

The two settlements of particular relevance for the present study are, as stated above, Te and Tshug, since Tshognam stands on their territory. Extensive accounts of both these communities (and especially Te) are given in Ramble 2008a, but a few words may be said here about the significance of certain toponyms in Tshug, since these appear in a number of documents contained in the Tshognam archives. Tshug, comprising a total of more than sixty full households or estates (grong pa), is divided into three distinct units: north of the Narshing Khola is Tangma; south of it is Braga, and west of Braga, toward the Kali Gandaki, is Cikyab. These locations are referred to by Tibetan-speakers respectively as Kyangma, Dragkar, and Tsekyab. The community is further divided into four sectors (tsho), corresponding to the three main settlement areas, with Kyangma/Tangma being divided into two parts, Jowo Shartsen Gyalpo (Jo bo Shar btsan rgyal po) and Jowo Lhaptsen (Jo bo lHa btsan). These names signify clan gods (respectively, of the Khangtö and Rele clans), who are now also revered as territorial divinities.

The lamas of Tshognam

From the perspective of social history, the particular value of the Tshognam archives is that they enable us to reconstruct the lives of five generations of the family that occupied the two households in which they are preserved. Before examining the content of the archives, and discussing the features of the documents that comprise them, it may be helpful to provide a certain amount of social context by sketching the the history of the priestly family in which they were produced.

The name by which the family is referred to nowadays is Drenjong Gyalpö Gyupa (Tib. ’Bras ljongs rgyal po’i brgyud pa), the Clan of the Kings of Sikkim, but I have found no documentary or oral elaboration of such a suggestive title. The first member of the clan to settle in Tshognam was a certain Lama Chöying (or Chönyi—the name varies in the documents) Rangdrol. It is not known when he arrived but he is named in three later accounts that review the family’s activities in Tshognam. One of them refers to a gift of two female yaks that that was made to him by an unidentified king of Lo (LT/09).

The first member of the lineage in Tshognam who unequivocally occupies an ancestral position in the clan was a certain Tshewang Angyal, who was “invited to move in on the strength of his excellent priestly qualities” because “the old temple and its residence had for a long time had no priestly occupant” (UT/26). The descendants of Tshewang Angyal are said to be the heirs of Chöying Rangdrol (LT/06), but we have no documents that make this connection explicit. For the time being, then, it must remain an open question whether the Clan of the Kings of Sikkim was preceded in Tshognam by another priestly family that died out. Nevertheless, the available documents enable us to reconstruct the following genealogy.

Tshewang Angyal had a younger brother called Ngawang Dorje, who, as is usual in the case of priestly families, did not undergo the religious training received by his senior. The brothers contracted a polyandrous marriage to Yeshe Angmo, a woman from Tshug. Yeshe Angmo bore two sons, Rigden and Rangdrol, and a daughter, Phurba Angmo. Both Rigden and Rangdrol received a religious education, probably from their senior father (LT/15; UT/26). Tshewang Angyal, Ngawang Dorje, and Yeshe Angmo died while the children were still quite young, but before their death they willed that if the three got on well they should remain together, but if they did not they should divide the property up as follows: the [older] father’s books and other property should go to the sons, while the mother’s jewellery should go to Phurba Angmo. The estate—apparently two houses and some land—should be divided up among the three (UT/27). Precisely how it was to be divided up became the subject of a dispute that was sorted out, amid much acrimony, only three generations later.

Rigden and Rangdrol did not marry polyandrously. Rigden, the elder brother, “became fed up of worldly life and went to live separately” (LT/15) and remained unmarried. Rangdrol married a noblewoman from the nearby Muktinath Valley. The couple’s children included at least two boys: Tshewang Bumpa and Döyön. Lama Rigden lived in a house called Magön, the “mother temple”, the principal building of the estate. Rangdrol and his wife lived in Zurkhang, “the house on the edge”, which was later destroyed in a flood. Phurba Angmo lived apart from her brothers in another dependent building (UT/26).

Rigden and Rangdrol were not on the best of terms, and the Duke of Baragaon was required to intervene in a dispute between the brothers over the inheritance of the main house. The outcome of the case was that Rigden would be allowed to occupy it until his death, after which it would pass to Rangdrol’s son (LT/01).

Phurba Angmo never married, but did have a protracted relationship with a salt trader from northern Mustang named Pema Tshewang, by whom she had two sons. Pema Tshewang later abandoned her, and her elder son died, leaving her alone with the younger boy, Ösal Dorje. There is some uncertainty over the name of the older brother. In one text he is identified as Ul Temba (’Ul bstan pa, LT/19), and in another as Nyagdo (Nyag rdo; LT/27); the latter is likely to have been his nickname. Her brothers were under no legal obligation to let her occupy the house; Rangdrol wanted to evict her, but was prevented from doing so by Rigden, the senior member of the family.

Lama Rigden’s death in 1856 (LT/05) put Phurba Angmo and her son at the mercy of the new master of the estate, her nephew Tshewang Bumpa, and his father, Lama Rangdrol. She asked a group of intermediaries to intercede on her behalf with a plea that she be allowed to remain on the estate, and after an initial refusal her brother and nephew agreed to let her occupy the house until her death. According to the terms of the agreement, she was not allowed to sell any household goods without giving the owners first refusal. Furthermore, after her death her son should vacate the house, which would then revert to the main estate (LT/05).

As the natural son of a commoner, Phurba Angmo’s son, Ösal Dorje, did not belong to the priestly line of the Clan of the Kings of Sikkim. Nevertheless, someone in the family—perhaps his mother and her brother Rigden—decided that he should train to become a lama. This was certainly a wise decision: as the illegitimate son of a landless dependency that he would not inherit, his prospects were very slender indeed. While he may have received some preliminary education from his uncle, most of his training took place in a Nyingmapa community in northeastern Lo near the temple of Luri (Klu ri; LT/15). By 1876 he was using the title tshampa (Tib. mtshams pa, “anchorite”), signifying that he had undergone the statutory period of retreat lasting three years, three months, and three days. His late uncle had given him usufruct of one of the estate’s fields, but even this was contested by his cousin until a government court decreed that he could use the field until his death (LT/05). Ösal Dorje managed to make a living by performing rituals for a few patrons in Te, and was invited to occupy a small house in Upper Tshognam, on Te’s side of the border with Tshug (LT/15). He made his first acquisition of agricultural land in 1875, when he purchased four small fields in Tshug for six bushels of grain. Between 1875 and 1914, he made about a dozen recorded purchases. All the fields except one were in Tshug, but it is clear from the contracts that a certain amount of this land had belonged to people in Te. The only land in Te itself that he bought was his very last purchase, in 1914, when a Tepa owner sold him a field near the riverbed, close to Tshognam itself. Ösal Dorje soon became wealthy enough to supplement his earnings by lending goods and cash, and in some cases increased his landholdings by acquiring fields that had been put up as security by defaulting debtors (UT/09, UT/12, UT/14).

Ösal Dorje’s son and the rest of the family were residents of Te, but it appears that they were still occupying the house in Lower Tshognam. Although the available written evidence suggests that the house and its accompanying fields should have reverted to the main estate after the death of Phurba Angmo, ownership of the property remained contested. The dispute over the house continued into the generation after Tshewang Bumpa and Ösal Dorje. Their respective sons, Orgyan Rangdrol and Namkha, never came to an amicable arrangement. In 1907, Tshewang Angyal and his family evicted the occupants, Namkha and his family, and appropriated the contents of the house (Karmacharya n.d. 3.55; UT /27). A court case that was held in the administrative centre of Kag, half a day’s walk south of Te, decided in favour of Namkha, but following an appeal by Tshewang Angyal the decision was reversed. The final decision seems more consistent with the original arrangement—of which the Kag court may not at first have been aware—in which Namkha’s grandmother had agreed that the house should revert to the main estate after her death.

The descendants of Phurba Angmo had lost their footing there and withdrew to Upper Tshognam and the secure patronage of Te. The main lineage of Lower Tshognam continued for only another two generations. Tshewang Angyal’s son, Lama Buchung, died in the mid-1970s. He had several wives but only one son, Tamdrin, by a woman named Pema Dechen of Chongkhor, who was born in 1936. In 1964 Tamdrin married a noblewoman named Chorten from Lo Monthang (LT/24), but the marriage was childless, and after his death in 1992 the male line of the Clan of the Kings of Sikkim came to an end. The cadet branch of the family in Upper Tshognam was extinguished even sooner. Like his father, Ösal Dorje, Namkha married a woman from Te, and had a son who was named Mönlam. While the boy was still young, Namkha died, and Mönlam’s priestly training was entrusted to a lama, called Phurba, from Chongkhor. Mönlam is not named in any of the documents of Tshognam, an absence that is itself indicative of both his youth and the fact that he never came into conflict with his neighbours. He was barely an adult when he died, unmarried and heirless, in 1938.

In the same year, the people of Te drew up a contract with a lama from the Muktinath Valley, a certain Anchorite (mtshams pa) Namgyal, granting him and his descendants the right to occupy the heirless priestly estate of Upper Tshognam in perpetuity. However, since only four documents pertaining to this family – the Shari Pöngyuta – have found their way into the Tshognam archives, the story of this clan lies beyond the scope of the present study.

Tshampa Tamdrin, the last member of the Clan of the Kings of Sikkim, from a photo found in the ruins of his former house. Photo: Agnieszka Helman-Wazny



Hremo Chorten, from a photo found in the ruins of the family house. Photo: Agnieszka Helman-Wazny



The Tshognam archives: an overview

The Tibetan diplomatic tradition recognises a large number of categories of documents. One of the main differences between archives from Central Tibet under the Ganden Phodrang government on the one hand, and those from Mustang on the other, is that the former include almost no documents concerning dealings between villagers; the overwhelming majority of them consist of different categories of communication from institutions or individuals in positions of authority to lower-ranking members of the population, such as the peasantry. In archives from Mustang the opposite is true. In the case of the Tshognam archives, with the exception of a few letters from the King of Lo and from local dignitaries, most of them concern dealings inter pares. (As members of the priestly stratum the lamas of Tshognam occupied a higher social rank than the commoners on whose territory they lived, but this did not place them in a legally superior position of authority.)

Most documents in the Mustang archive belong to the category known as gan rgya, a term that may be translated as “contract”, “covenant” or “written obligation” according to the context. In view of the wide-ranging application of the gan rgya genre, it would be more useful here to group the Tshognam documents into ad hoc categories based on their actual function and the identities of the parties involved. For the sake of convenience, we will begin with documents that deal with external affairs, before turning to those that have a direct bearing on the priestly family itself.

External affairs

Although the word gan rgya itself does not appear frequently in these documents, the two earliest items in the collection identify themselves by the closely-related term chod tshig, signifying a written agreement. In other collections we encounter terms such as chod yig and chod gan, which may respectively be contractions of chod tshig yi ge and chod tshig gan rgya, both of which are also attested. One of the documents to be discussed below (LT/08) contains the term chod rgya, which we may also understand as an abbreviation of the latter.

Like village lamas throughout the Himalayan region, the priests of Tshognam not only had a religious function but acted as physicians, astrologers and scribes for the communities—Te and Tshug—on whose territories their residences stood. Although other communities in the five Shöyul also had priestly families, those of Tshognam seem to have had parishes that extended beyond their immediate communities to embrace neighbouring villages. The first two documents (LT/01, LT/02), written sixteen years apart (in 1816 and 1832) are similar insofar as each is a record of a plenary gathering of the five communities, and the overriding concerns they share are the integrity of their alliance and the need for secrecy and vigilance in their dealings with the outside world. It is possible that they are the minutes of meetings that were held at regular intervals (probably less than sixteen years). In any event, the explicit statement in one of them that the document “should be offered to the lamas of Tshognam” suggests that the priestly family at the time were the trusted repository of the secret proceedings of meetings among the Shöyul. In view of the fact that they are significantly earlier than the other documents in the archives, it is possible that they date from a period preceding the arrival of the Clan of the Kings of Sikkim. A later document from 1892 also records a plenary meeting of the five Shöyul in Tshognam for the purpose of appointing officials from each of the communities (LT/26).

The Shöyul were a part of the larger enclave of Baragaon, and it is probably in its capacity as the representative of the Shöyul that Tshognam received a communication, written in 1886, concerning the successful prosecution of the aristocratic coterie that administered the enclave on behalf of the government for levying double taxes on the villages in their charge (UT/13). The document is identified by the Nepali term ra’ zhigs pha rag (Nep. rāji-patra), a “voluntary letter” declaring the acceptance by the commoners of Baragaon of the formal apology issued by the guilty parties.

While these three documents concern the affairs of the wider community, Tshognam was also clearly regarded as a neutral point of articulation for contracts drawn up between individuals from different communities, notably Te and Tshug. Where contracts are concluded between individuals of the same community, it is considered sufficient for each of the two parties to have a copy of the document. (In the case of loan contracts, only the creditor need have a copy bearing the signature, or some other endorsement, of the debtor.) With dealings between members of these two different villages, however, it was apparently considered necessary to involve a third party. Three documents in the collection record the sale of fields by Tshugpas to Tepas (UT/02, 03, 07); two concern loans by Tepas to borrowers from Tshug, one of these being notice of the forfeit of a field that had been put up as security (UT/10, UT/24). In one case (LT/18) a Tepa and a Tshugpa agree to exchange two designated fields for a period of ten years, probably because of their relative proximity to the houses of the respective parties. In a few cases we cannot be sure whether both parties to a contract are members of the priestly family of Tshognam or not. As mentioned earlier, certain individuals who evidently do belong to the family make a single appearance in the archives, but the documents in question give us insufficient information to be able to situate them in the genealogy. This is the case with a loan contract from 1904 (UT/22) in which a nun agrees to let a pair of brothers take her turn to collect a rotating fund. The interest is not specified, but a number of fields and a poplar tree are listed as security. The two borrowers are from the priestly village of Chongkhor, but we do not know whether the lender was a nun from Tshognam or another community.

Land acquisitions

In the case of most of the documents in the archives, the Tshognam lamas are not just mediators but are directly involved, either with outsiders or with other members of the family. Sixteen documents are related to the acquisition of land in the village of Tshug. It is interesting to note that, without exception, these acquisitions were made by Lama Ösal Dorje. We may recall that, as the natural son of Phurba Angmo, the sister of Lamas Rigden and Rangdrol, Ösal Dorje received no inheritance, and clearly felt it necessary to have an agrarian economic base to supplement the income he received from performing rituals and from lending money and grain. There are nine contracts for the outright purchase of fields, the first in exchange for grain (UT/04) and all the others for cash (UT/06, UT/08, UT/09, UT/12, UT/19, UT/21, UT/28, UT/34). But the lama may also have acquired a certain amount of land by claiming the security on loans from defaulting debtors. There are five loan receipts (UT/16, UT/18, UT/20; LT/11, LT/12), one of which (UT/20) incudes a confirmation that the borrower is also ceding a field to the lama in lieu of the repayment of 10 rupees.

Inheritance disputes

To judge from the documentary evidence, the primary cause of tension with the family in every generation was the question of inheritance. The documents that deal with this matter are of various sorts, and it is worth examining them briefly to consider the terminology used. What may be one of the earliest items in the collection (LT/23, possibly from 1854 or 1842) concerns the inheritance by Yeshe Angmo, the wife of the first lama in the lineage, of a house in her natal village of Tshug, in the face of opposition from rival claimants. This document is referred to simply as ’chod ’tshig (< chod tshig). Disputes over the priestly estate in Tshognam itself arose in the following generation, between Yeshe Angmo’s two sons and, subsequently, between her younger son and her daughter. In or around 1860 the two brothers, Lamas Rigden and Rangdrol, came to terms over the matter of who should inherit the estate in the generation below them, and recorded their agreement in a document described as a ’dum khra, a “dispute resolution” (LT/04). In 1871 there was a disagreement over the ownership of a house by two people in Tshognam whose relationship to the main family is unclear. The matter was investigated by the Duke of Baragaon, who declared that he was “giving the mark of his seal” (phyags [phyag] rtags gnang) to the party in whose favour he had found. In this case it seems that they term phyag rtags— “seal mark”—is being used as a metonym for the certificate itself.

LT/08 is a valuable document for our understanding of the tensions in the family since it contains copies of two earlier documents, from 1876 and from 1866 (in that order), of which the originals have been lost. Both sections are agreements, the first part concerning the terms of Ösal Dorje’s usufruct of a field given to him by his uncle, and the second detailing the terms of his mother’s occupancy of a house on the estate. The first part refers to itself as a cham yi ge—a document of accord or resolution—and the second section as a chod rgya, a term mentioned above as a probable abbreviation of chod tshig gan rgya. UT/05, another confirmation of Ösal Dorje’s usufruct of the same field, opens with the declaration that it is “a document that accomplishes a reconciliation” (cham ’thun bsgrubs gyis yi ge) between two previously antagonistic parties.

As we have seen earlier, in 1890 the elderly Phurba Angmo transferred the ownership of her house to her son, Lama Ösal Dorje. Interestingly, the declaration of the transfer does not use the term kha chems, the usual term for a will, perhaps in tacit acknowledgement of the fact that legal ownership lay with the main estate to which it was meant to revert following her death (although this was later disputed by her grandson). The term that is used is the vaguer phog sprod, which may be glossed as “transfer” or “bestowal”. In contrast to this “transfer”, the archive contains the will of a nun, who may or may not be a member of the priestly family. This document does use the term kha chem (< kha chems), but in fact it is only the moveable goods of two households of which she is the sole heir that are at issue. The heirs to the estates themselves are not specified, and it therefore probable that they were simply to be inherited by her closest relatives.

When the ownership of Phurba Angmo’s house in Lower Tshognam was contested by the two main branches of the family in the next generation, Ösal Dorje’s son, Tenpa Gyaltsen, submitted a legal petition to the government court (UT/31). As one might expect, Nepali legal terms become increasingly frequent as time passes, and this document, which dates from around 1912, is introduced as a ba ti i sar (Nep. bādi ijhar), denoting a legal petition. Similarly, a reaction to a petition in what may be the same case (LT/19; since the dates of these documents are uncertain, we do not know if this is a direct riposte to UT/32) is identified as a phirād patra, a formal rejoinder.

However, the adoption of Nepali terms is by no means ubiquitous, and a legal petition submitted at the same time and in the same case by someone who is either the plaintiff’s brother or the plaintiff himself under a different name, contains no generic designation in either Tibetan or Nepali (UT/33).

One of the documents related to this dispute (UT/32) is particularly difficult to read because of the many deletions and interlineal insertions, but it is a valuable piece since it tells us something about how the author, Tshewang Angyal, constructed his argument. The rough draft – which is what we suppose this to be – shows that his claims for ownership initially included numerous daring assertions that he omitted in the version that was later submitted to the court, presumably because he decided that they would not stand up under legal scrutiny.

Relations between the lamas and their neighbours < Level 2 >
While conflicts within the family were mainly about inheritance, disputes with parties other than close relatives were more varied in character. Lama Ösal Dorje was the defendant in an interesting case that was brought against him in 1907, when a man called Trogyal from Dzar, in the Muktinath Valley, accused him and several others of beating him up, robbing him and threatening to kill him and destroy his household by means of black magic (UT/25). In a formal response (UT/26-27) the lama vigorously defended himself against the charges, and issued a counter-accusation against Trogyal and others for making an unprovoked attack on him and his son. The case was examined at the government court in Lower Lo—probably in Kag—but since neither of the documents is signed, it is likely that the versions used in court were in Nepali; both the documents that are available to us are probably copies of the Tibetan originals that were submitted for translation for official use. The outcome of the case is not recorded.

UT/31, which dates from 1910, is ostensibly a declaration by a blacksmith that he will cease to pester the Lama Ösal Dorje and his son Tenpa Gyaltsen for the return of property he had deposited with them. However, the narratio section of the document reveals the background to this undertaking. The blacksmith, named Kuka Hrithar, had borrowed 10 rupees from Ösal Dorje, for which his father left seventeen coral beads and a rosary of black crystal as security. It is not clear whether the blacksmith repaid the loan or defaulted, but whatever happened the lamas denied having received the valuables, and Kukar Dorje brought a case – bha sti for Nep. bādī – to the effect that the security had been worth ten times the sum that had been borrowed. Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen reciprocated with a formal response (spar sti, for Nep. prati) categorically denying that the stones were in his house.  The possibility that the case went to a government court is supported by the use of the Nepali legal terms, and also the assertion that a formal legal investigation was undertaken (ka khrim dar zhin mdzad < bka’ khrims brdar shan mdzad). However, it appears that the parties subsequently decided to come to an out-of-court settlement after seeking the mediation of a prominent or respected local figure (bha bla ha rdi mi [Nep. bhalādmi] nang grigs [< ’grigs] zhus nas), and thereby came to a resolution (bar dum). There is evidence in other documents from Mustang that government courts were sometimes used strategically to initiate legal cases, perhaps because of the initial unresponsiveness of the accused to the demands of the accuser, whereas the disputes themselves were then settled informally with the mediation of a third party.


By the time the blacksmith brought this case against him, Ösal Dorje had already had the salutary experience of pursuing a case through the court to its conclusion. In the 1880s he initiated proceedings against the community of Tshug to contest their claim that he owed them sixteen years’ worth of unpaid taxes. To our great good fortune, he kept a meticulous account of all the costs he incurred throughout the duration of the case (UT/14), itemising his expenditure for the nine months the case was in court over a period of three years, either beginning or ending in 1888. The expenditure amounted to 91 rupees—a very substantial sum at that time—in addition to which he lost the case and had to pay the taxes demanded by the village. The document is an excellent example of why, whenever possible, people preferred to resolve their differences through mediation rather than by formal legal action.

The fiscal status of the lamas of Tshognam is the subject of three other documents. One of these (LT/10) is a letter from the King of Lo to Lama Tshewang Bumpa. The lama apparently claimed that he and his brother Doyön were not liable for the payment of trade tariffs when travelling through Lo on the grounds that they, and not the king, were the owners of their priestly estate. However, the king rejected the assertion that they were the owners, citing the restoration sponsored by an earlier queen as the basis of royal ownership. He nevertheless acquiesced to the Tshognam lamas’ exemption from tariffs, not on the basis of their ownership of the estate but on the grounds of their priestly status and activities. In 1910—by which time Lama Ösal Dorje had moved to Upper Tshognam on Te’s territory—the community of Tshug seems to have called into question the exemption of the remaining priestly family from certain taxes. The lama—probably Tshewang Bumpa—made a convincing case for tax exemption, invoking a precedent in which a local duke had once excused the family from corvée duty on the grounds of its priestly status, and Tshug agreed to perpetuate these and other privileges (LT/17). The fiscal status of the Lower Tshognam estate is raised in the incomplete draft of a legal petition (LT/27), dating from around this time (perhaps 1912?) and probably written by Tshewang Angyal as part of his legal battle with his cousin Namkha. Namkha, it is suggested, had befriended powerful people in Baragaon who had helped him to win his claim that the house he inhabited was rightfully his, and should not revert to the main estate. Tshewang Angyal—who may even have been imprisoned during the proceedings—argues that the estate is not private or government property that can be divided up, but belongs to the category of religious cooperative known as guṭhi. In support of the argument, the document mentions certain categories of tax paid by the estate that are evidence of its guṭhi status.

Religious affairs

We should not be surprised that, in spite of the fact that these archives belong to a priestly family, religious affairs do not feature prominently. After all, documents of this sort deal mainly with legal and administrative issues, not spiritual concerns. There are, however, a few items of relevance to religious matters, although they are almost all concerned with organisational aspects. Na rag is an important ceremony in many Nyingmapa Buddhist communities, and in 1887 it was either established or augmented in Tshognam. Shortly before her death an elderly woman initiated a fund for the regular performance of the ceremony. The list of other donors begins with two lamas from Tshognam and one from the now-abandoned temple of Tshaldang, which is located in a gorge to the west of Tshug. The sums of money collected, and the various duties of the patrons and their families, are recorded in a document (LT/09). The text is in the form of a small booklet, consisting of sheets of paper folded along a horizontal axis and stitched along the fold to create a form that is relatively common for longer documents with numerous entries, such as local lawbooks and endowment registers.

The lamas of Tshognam were Nyingmapas, but the dominant school of Buddhism in Mustang for many centuries were the Sakyapas, and particularly the Ngorpa branch of this school. The parent monastery in Tibet, Ngor Ewam Chöden (E wam chos ldan), was divided into four colleges, and it was from one of these, Ngor Khangsar, that the Tshognam family commissioned rituals for the transfer of merit to Lama Tshewang Bumpa following his death around the turn of the century. The archives contain two receipts (LT/13, LT/16), one for cash and the other for an item of jewelry as the fee for the transference of merit (bsngos rten) for the deceased lama.

On a hill that rises above the west bank of the Kali Gandaki, directly opposite Tshug, stands a ruined temple. This is the now-abandoned nunnery of Kunzang Chöling, popularly known as Gompa Gang, “the convent ridge”. The archives of this nunnery are preserved in Tshug, and will be the subject of a separate study. Gompa Gang seems originally to have served all five of the Shöyul, but over time the communities ceased to send their daughters here. The first to do so may have been Taye, after one of the nuns from their community is said to have drowned while attempting to wade across the river to reach the convent. Tensions arose between the nuns from Te and the other members at the beginning of the twentieth century. The reasons for this are not clear, but there are indications that the lamas of Tshognam and of Chongkhor were manoeuvring to bring the Tepa faction under their control. Matters came to a head in 1906 when the Te nuns were expelled from the convent, and signed a document to the effect that, thenceforth, they agreed to be under the tutelage of the lamas of Tshognam (UT/23). There are only three other documents in the Tshognam archives concerning nuns. In 1915 the nuns of Tshug (who may have been the only ones left in the convent by that time) agreed that they would take collective responsibility for a theft that had occurred (UT/35). The following year, the community of Te agreed to offer the second of any three daughters born in a family to be a nun under the authority of the Lama of Tshognam (UT/36). The last document, probably from 1927, records an attempt by the declining body of nuns in Tshognam—there were only three at this stage—to preserve their ceremonial activities by redistributing the financial responsibility (UT/38).

The present volume contains two other documents that are concerned with specifically religious matters. The first (LT/15) is a short account of the sacred imagery in Traduntse (Pra dun rtse), a famous temple located in Tibet to the north of Mustang and believed to have been built in the time of Songtsen Gampo. The particular value of this document lies in the fact that it may be the only existing description of the temple to have been written before it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The other (UT/40) is a thob yig, a list of spiritual teachings and initiations received by Lama Tenpai Gyaltsen from a hierarch of the Sakyapa school in Tibet.

The Shari Pöngyuta family

In 1938, some time after the death of Anchorite Mönlam, the priestly estate in Upper Tshognam came to be inhabited by another Nyingmapa family, the Shari Pöngyuta (Shwa ri dpon rgyud pa), from the Muktinath Valley (Ramble 2008b: HMA/Te/Tib/34). The family were, and continue to be, renowned as both lamas and doctors (am chi). The first member to come to Te was a certain Amchi Tshewang, who in 1893 was invited by the Tepas to take up residence in a free-standing house to the east of the village in an area called Baza. The favourable terms on which he and his family were allowed to occupy the property are set out in the contract that was drawn up (UT/37). In 1895 we see Amchi Tshewang acquiring land from a defaulting debtor, and lending more money to a third party (UT/20). Tshewang’s son and heir was Namgyal, also a lama and a doctor, who married a woman from Lower Tshognam. She bore one son before dying at an early age, reputedly of smallpox. Her natal family sold her private inheritance—a field, some jewelry and some clothes—but in 1916 Namgyal was able to recover them from the purchasers, insisting that they be held in trust until his young son was old enough to inherit them (UT/16). The last of the four documents relating to the family is a short letter, apparently written in some haste, addressed to “the learned doctor Namgyal”. The undated letter (UT/39) was sent by someone whose elder daughter was in the advanced stages of smallpox, and who was trying to take measures to save his younger daughter from the same fate.