19.08.2013 - UNESCO Office in Kathmandu

‘Lo Manthang has an exceptional value’ says Maie Kitamura in UNESCO interview

©UNESCO -Maie Kitamura

Maie Kitamura, a heritage architect from France, visited Lo Manthang earlier this year as part of a research project that aims at comparing the ancient earthen walled city in Upper Mustang with similar sites in South Asia. She undertakes her research work as part of the UNESCO project “Strengthening the protection of Lo Manthang”, which supports the Government of Nepal to prepare a nomination of Lo Manthang as the fifth World Heritage property in Nepal. Lo Manthang is an outstanding sanctuary of a disappearing urban, religious, artistic and living culture, Kitamura says in an interview with the UNESCO Office in Kathmandu.

UNESCO: You had first visited Lo Manthang in 2005. How has it changed since then? 

Maie Kitamura: Since 2005, Lo Manthang has gone through a number of changes, among which is the construction of the road linking Koralla pass on the Chinese border and Jomsom.The road with its trucks, jeeps and tourists is already coming to Lo Manthang. The travel has become relatively short compared to the situation before (1 day instead of 3 or 4) but the road itself is unpaved and still quite difficult and uncomfortable.The city itself kept the same character and one can still feel the same sense of awe meandering through the city. Inside the walls, the changes are still marginal in terms of urban morphology and architectural traditions. But, the urban development that was already visible eight years ago outside the walled city has intensified. More and more houses have been built and are still being built outside the walls of the city. The new factor is the use of concrete for the constructions of both houses and religious structures such as chortens and mani walls. Other changes are related to the impact of climate change, with extreme weather conditions in winter (animals dying by hundreds due to heavy snow) and water shortage issues (some villages are being relocated for the lack of water). The recent political changes in Nepal also seem to have brought changes in Lo, especially in the Chorog village down the river, where traditional activities such as mills and blacksmiths have been abandoned in the last two to three years. Such activities are associated with “lower social classes”, and as a result, are progressively being rejected. 

UNESCO: What did you observe as the main challenges of preserving the city, for example from risks related to the increased accessibility of the place by road and the impact of climate change? 

Maie Kitamura: One of the main challenges in preserving the city is linked to the easier accessibility through the road connecting Jomsom to Lo Manthang and further to the Kora-la pass. Loaded trucks come from as far as India to deliver their goods including cement bags and other construction materials. Due to fast execution made possible by cement concrete, its use is preferred in new constructions, thus contributing to rigid and inappropriate features to the architecture and threatening the integrity of Lo Manthang’s built heritage. Climate change is also a factor affecting the city.  For instance, Lo Manthang is normally an arid and dry land, but is now subjected to more and more rainfalls during the summer.  As a result, the traditional mud flat roofs face water leakage problem, which further encourages the use of concrete for better waterproofing by the inhabitants. 

As the use of concrete is new, people are not yet aware that it is not suitable for the harsh and extreme climates of Mustang.  Concrete keeps the houses cold in winter and is not sustainable in the long run, especially in a region with high temperature differences between summer and winter (more than 40°C).  And, consequently severe cycles of frost / thaw burst through the concrete. 

Another challenge is the reluctance of some of the local people in preserving their heritage. They see tradition as an obstacle to the modern life they are seeking, without realizing that sustainable development does not mean getting rid of 600 years of history and stopping continuous transmission of their culture through generations.  On the contrary, the real path to a modern and developed society is a harmonious link from the past to the future, respecting our ancestors’ heritage and building a future based on our traditional and unique culture and society. “Development”/”modernization” without the basis of or without real links to our own particular culture will be a superficial one: it will be modernization without a soul.

UNESCO: You went this time to Lo Manthang within the framework of the nomination process of the site as the fifth World Heritage property in Nepal, in particular to help prepare a study comparing the city to others in the region. What makes Lo Manthang so unique?

Maie Kitamura: Lo Manthang can be considered unique firstly because it is the only fortified city in Nepal. As such, it bears a unique testimony to a particular physical and symbolic element of Nepalese medieval history and culture. Furthermore, it seems to be the only fortified city in the Tibetan culture to contain within its walls royal power (palace), religious authority (four temples and a monastery) as well as secular houses, which has been so well preserved and conserved.  

Lo Manthang is concentrated with artistic monuments of extraordinary value, such as Thubchen and Champa temples housing some of the most precious 15th century wall paintings in the Himalayas. The palace, also from the 15th century, is one of the last palaces of the Tibetan world to be still used and inhabited by the local sovereign, the pömbo of Lo. 

Finally, there is no place like Lo Manthang which retained the Tibetan traditions in such an integral and authentic way. Indeed, other ancient cities of the Tibetan culture seem to have gone through irreversible changes, while fortunately, Lo Manthang has so far been barely untouched by “modernization” or outside influences. It can be considered to be a precious sanctuary of an otherwise disappearing urban, religious, artistic and living culture. 

UNESCO: At present, Lo Manthang is being seen as a cultural site. Do you think that this view adequately reflects its overall significance or should we take a broader approach also taking into account the landscape and the cultural elements that surround the city?

Maie Kitamura: Lo Manthang is a cultural jewel set in an extraordinary landscape, showing that the site was carefully chosen on a geomantic level in accordance to Tibetan tradition. The value of Lo Manthang strongly relies on this ordered landscape: the mountains as the pure domain of gods, the land and hills for the human beings, and the rivers housing water deities of the infra-world. The site of Lo Manthang is marked by religious landmarks such as chortens and mani walls, which sanctify the protected area and define its boundaries. Lo Manthang cannot be fully apprehended without the surrounding fields outside the city that define the habitable space and the Chorog village down the river which had been a home to blacksmiths, butchers and other traditional professions subordinate to the city.  And as such, Lo Manthang owes its existential significance to this balance between cultural and natural dimensions, and should be considered in a broader perspective than merely a cultural site. 

At an even larger scale, the whole of Upper Mustang contains outstanding sites and places, such as Lo Gekar, considered by many to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the Tibetan culture, or Tanggye with its stunning series of chortens and vivid cultural traditions, or the priceless network of caves adorned with paintings. In the future, the protection of Lo Manthang should include all Upper Mustang area, which bears treasures that are unique in the world and is dramatically threatened today by the lack of protection (resulting in destruction and illicit trafficking).

UNESCO: How do you think the linkage between tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Lo Manthang should be considered in the future management of the site?

Maie Kitamura: The exceptional value of Lo Manthang is justified not only by its tangible heritage (monuments, urban fabric, landscape), but also by its living traditions and beliefs. The city itself has been shaped by religion, every monument and cultural elements are sacred in nature. As a protected site, Lo Manthang has to be managed through an integrated approach between tangible and intangible elements. At a religious level, the festivals and ceremonies performed throughout the year should be maintained, documented and protected. But, efforts should also be focused on traditional craftsmanship, such as weaving, traditional carpentry and building techniques. These skills should be valued and preserved through sustainable maintenance system. The city constantly “over-writes” its heritage by replacing some houses, but maintaining the spirit of the place through its building traditions. 

It is also by conserving and restoring the tangible heritage that the tradition may continue to exist. For example, the restoration of Thubchen temple and its paintings has brought back life to the temple, where Lopas come to worship and where religious ceremonies are now performed anew, after decades of abandonment. Therefore, the link between tangible and intangible cultural heritage has to work in both ways, in a symbiotic relation. 

UNESCO: In your opinion, what is the best way to involve the people living in Upper Mustang and Lo Manthang in the nomination process?

Maie Kitamura: The local community should of course be fully involved in the nomination process. To do so, the local traditional authorities, who have maintained their influence over the community for centuries should be consulted and involved in one way or another in the process, including the Pömbo (sovereign of the former kingdom of Lo) and the Khenpo (head of the monastery). 

But the main challenge resides in the reluctance of a small part of the community, who succeed in convincing the population of the "burden" created by World Heritage protection, especially in regards to the limitation of their building "liberties". Therefore, a careful and long-term awareness raising campaign has to be undertaken within the community, among whom the majority is already convinced about the unique value of their heritage. The main objective would then be to dissipate their fears about World Heritage protection, showing its benefits for the community on a mid- and long-term scale, and putting in this perspective, their short-term, individual or categorial advantages and profits. Consultations, at intervals, could also be carried out to address the inhabitants' problems and concerns, in order to integrate their needs within the future management plan. The plan may gain from being evolutionary, flexible, dynamic and adaptive. 

And for a real democratic and indubitable choice, why not organize a local referendum on the listing of Lo Manthang as a World Heritage Site, as suggested by the religious authorities. A suggestion box could also be set up to allow everyone to express his/her ideas freely.


The first phase of the comparative analysis was funded from the Oriental Cultural Heritage Sites Protection Alliance, Paris, France.


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