Kagbeni, a fortified village in the Lower Mustang region of Nepal, is 2800 meters above sea level. This little town is located on the Annapurna Circuit Trek and serves as an entrance to the protected Upper Mustang region. Kagbeni is a two-word phrase. In the local dialect, “kag” signifies center, while “beni” means the confluence of two rivers.
Kagbeni sits on the deepest Kali Gandaki gorge in the world and lies on the banks of the confluence of Kali Gandaki and Jhong River. Once part of the ancient silk route, Kagbeni is the last village in Lower Mustang and guards the entrance to Upper Mustang (visible across the Kali Gandaki River bed). To the south of the riverbed is Annapurna massif. To the western side of the Saligram filled riverbed is Dhaulagiri, Nilgiri, and Tukuche.
With its narrow alleyways and tunnels, this ancient, partly ruined citadel village provides a glimpse into a unique way of life. Kagbeni welcomes you with irrigation canals, green fields of barley, and Tibetan-influenced architecture. A short walk from the village leads to a group of caves where Buddhist monks used to meditate.
Kagbeni is home to one of the most prestigious Shakya Pa sect monasteries in the region, Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery . The renowned Shakya scholar Tenpai Gyaltsen of Tibet founded the monastery in 1429. Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling translates as "monastery of the place to stop and develop concentration on teachings of lord Buddha".
Learn about Tibetan culture and practices at the monastery.
The Sacred Kali Gandaki River flows through the village. The sacred river contains saligrams or fossilized shells. These saligrams are revered by Hindus as the divine symbol of Vishnu, representing many of his incarnations. As a result, Indians will flock to this village before proceeding to Muktinath, a Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage site. The Narayana temple, located at the banks of the Gandaki river, attracts visitors from both India and Nepal.
Fossilized seashell stones are called saligram and serve as a non-anthropomorphic symbol of Lord Vishnu. People collect saligrams from river beds or banks of the Gandaki River.
Hindus from India and Nepal come here to perform last rites behind the small temple complex along the banks of river Gandaki.
Life in Kagbeni
As romantic as it may sound, life in the village is harsh, especially during the testing winter season. The town wears a deserted look at that time of the year. Residents relocate to lower-lying areas or travel to India for trade opportunities. Yaks, goats, sheep are a common sight in the village. Yaks and sheep are treated as family members by the villagers. Domestic animals play a significant role in surviving the harsh dry winter season. Despite the difficulties, native people greet you with a warm smile. They are happy and content in their lives, which is a lesson for us city dwellers.
Walking around Kagbeni, you will see children playing and women going about their daily chores such as washing clothes, carrying their child on their back, or simply relaxing in the sun. Pass through narrow walkways and passageways to experience Tibetan architectural prowess from a bygone era.
The distinct red color on the doors is a prominent feature, showcasing Tibetan influence in the village. The main entrance of most houses has a double door arrangement to counter strong winds.
The belief in spirits and ghosts is very prevalent. The village is gated with only low entrances to protect the villagers from ghosts. Animism was practiced here long before the advent of Tibetan Buddhism.
Windy days give way to silent nights with clear skies and glittering stars. Due to strong winds, it was a huge challenge to keep the camera steady on the tripod. Good luck keeping your camera system dust-free in these conditions.
Where to stay
Kagbeni has good number of comfortable guesthouses, most of which serve delicious coffee and baked treats. It would be an intelligent choice to book early as the most popular accommodations are reserved in advance by tour guides and travel agencies.
The popular Redhouse Lodge has comfortable rooms and houses a private monastery that houses a huge clay idol of Maitreya. It is the second-highest Buddhist statue in the Mustang region (the largest is in Lo Manthang).
Trekkers favourite Hotel Yac Donalds is brightly colored in the center of town. Rooms are simple and clean, with modern updates catering to travelers.
A quiet tea house called Shangrila lodge right beside Chorten (Tibetan style stupa) which is somewhat ironically called the Chorten of Kagbeni. It is believed by the locals that if you pass underneath it then all your sins will be removed.
Things to do in Kagbeni
- Wander through the narrow cobbled streets and watch the locals do their daily chores and business.
- Take pictures and immerse yourself into the old world charm of the ancient trade town.
- Visit ‘The Red Monastery’, at the village Gompa, built-in 1429. Kindly pay a small entrance fee . Take prior permission for taking pictures Inside the monastery. Spend time at the local monastery to learn about Tibetan culture and practices.
- Take two and half hours walk to Lhungfu Cave, a holy cave visited frequently by Buddhist Pilgrims.
- Visit and/or stay at ‘The Red House Lodge’. There is a small private monastery here that houses a huge clay idol of Maitreya
- Relax, eat, drink and enjoy the spectacular panoramic view of the mighty rugged mountain scenery.
- Experience strong dry winds especially during the day time. Watch the rhythmic dance of the stars up in the sky. Feel the silence of the surroundings in the night.
- Wander through the narrow streets to find Cafe AppleBee’s. It’s one of the last buildings you get to before departing the village for Upper Mustang.
- Savor smoky flavor of traditional dal bhat. Interact with locals, learn about local culture and food practices.
- Go fossil hunting in sacred river Gandaki. Shaligram–round shell-like fossils–are representations of the Hindu god Vishnu.
If you allow yourself to surrender to mother nature, a rugged landscape far away from the chaos of big cities heals you from the inside out.