A town full of horsesYarthung—Manang’s horse-riding festival—was celebrated on the fourth week of July this year. The festival, which has its roots in Tibetan horse festivals, is celebrated annually wherein members of the community—the men, mostly—celebrate by riding their horses, eating, drinking and relaxing.
Photos: Karma Tshering Gurung
Text by: NHOOJA TULADHAR
Yarthung—Manang’s horse-riding festival—was celebrated on the fourth week of July this year. The festival, which has its roots in Tibetan horse festivals, is celebrated annually wherein members of the community—the men, mostly—celebrate by riding their horses, eating, drinking and relaxing. Although the history of the festival’s origins has now been lost, Yarthung might have connections to Litang, Yushu and Nagchu horse festivals celebrated in different parts of Tibet around the same time of the year. Yarthung in Tibetan means “the end of summer,” and sees the community celebrating the end of plantation work. Yarthung is also celebrated in neighbouring district Mustang; the festival there is scheduled to be held in the last week of this month.
Like every year, Yarthung this time too, was celebrated for four days. On the first day, the horsemen from Neshyang Valley rode on the path to check for safety and if the tracks were maintained. And from the second day on, the races commenced. The riding in the district is non-competitive—unlike in Mustang—and horsemen take turns on the track, often in pairs, to race, show tricks and flaunt the power and agility of their horses along with the decoration that they have worked on. The horses are given a wash, the saddle and the carpets cleaned, the hair of the horses braided and tied with coloured ribbons. Traditionally, women of the village, too, rode with the men, but there are hardly any women involved these days.
Along with riding, participants also take time out to gather in monasteries and sing traditional Yarthung songs and dance to the beat of traditional drum tangtu. Although the people of Manang have their own language—one that belongs to the Tamangic branch of the Sino-Tibetan group of languages—all the songs sung during the festival are in Tibetan language, further confirming the origin of the festival itself.
Unfortunately, though, the community members fear that the tradition of singing will be lost as there are very few who understand Tibetan. Also, the number of participants in the festival has declined in the last decade. Locals say that many have lost interest these days; some discredit modern technology, especially motorcycles, for this. The fact that a considerable population of Neshyangbas are now living in Kathmandu, and other parts of the world, adds to the decline in numbers. The community of youth have, since the past few years, started penalising families who are not represented in the festival. This made considerable improvement in numbers as there were close to 100 participants last year. This year, though, many riders couldn’t take part due to the loss of family members. There were about 50 riders participating.
After the end of the festival, the horses are taken back to the stables in the hills. Manang’s local rule doesn’t permit riders to rear their horses in the village. Until next summer, the horses—once an inseparable part of Neshyang’s history and culture—will have to be kept away. Motorcycles and 4-wheeled drives will frequent the paths that the animals so elegantly trot along during Yarthung.
The photographer Karma Tshering Gurung, originally from Manang, travelled to Neshyang Valley to attend the Yarthung festivities this year along with the Fuzzscape project team. The photo story is curated by Prasiit Sthapit and the documentary project "Fuzzscape: Manang" is slated for release in December. For more details visit www.fuzzscape.com
Rider shows stunts during the festival. Just like in horse festivals in different parts of Tibet and in Mustang, in Manang too, young men show tricks on their horses to flaunt the strength and agility of the horses along with their own skills.
A rider accepts chhyang in a kare that is offered to the riders before the commencement of the day’s riding. The men are offered alcohol as they wait for all the riders to join in on the journey to Chirkyung where the race is held. They sing Ta Khilpa Khoy (Horse Gathering Song) in the beat of a tangtu (drum)while they wait.
Riders form a circle and sing and dance to the beat of a tangtu in Bojo Gumba.
A woman watches from her terrace as riders gather for the festival. Every day of the festival, riders from Manang Village and Tenki Manang gather near Manang Gumba before they head out to race. While there is an old tradition of women to get on the backs of the horses, behind the men, the culture is hardly in practice now.
Karma Tashi Gurung with horse Ajay. Riders wear their traditional attire and decorate their horses for Yarthung.
Two women take a break from their rock breaking schedules to observe the horse riders as they trot out of Manang towards Chirkyung, on the first day of the festivities. Many people from neighbouring districts travel to Manang during summer for work. They are mostly involved in renovation and construction work, which prepares Manang for the tourist seasons. Photo: Nhooja Tuladhar
Locals of Manang Village wait for the ceremonies to commence.
A horse decorated with ribbons. Showing off the beauty—along with strength and speed— of one’s horse is an important part of Yarthung culture. Riders make sure the horses are cleaned, groomed and decorated before the start of the festival.
Participants run a tight race. Yarthung attracts riders anywhere from 16 to 60 years of age.