A town full of horses

PHOTO: KARMA TSHERING GURUNG

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 has now been lost in the past, 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 where annual competitions are organised—and horsemen take turns on the track, often in pairs, to race, show tricks and flaunt the power/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.

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—documentary/archival project Fuzzscape: Manang, directed by the photographer, is slated for release in December. For more details visit fuzzscape.com

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