The Mustang Archives:
Analysis of Handwritten Documents via the
Ethnographic Study of Papermaking
Traditions in Nepal


Funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
Principal Investigator: Dr. Agnieszka Helman-Ważny, University of Hamburg
In collaboration with Prof. Charles Ramble, École pratique des hautes études, Sorbonne, Paris

This project aims to identify and classify, through microscopic study, the paper varieties of previously catalogued and dated documents from local villages and family archives in Mustang, Nepal. It also contributes to reconstructing the history of paper in the very special environment of Mustang. Overall, it aims to build, via scientific analysis of the paper on which the texts are written, a solid geographical and periodical catalogue and database that covers the last two centuries, and provide data for earlier works as well.

Of the group of dated documents, all together two hundred papers were selectively sampled and examined from the archives of the communities of Lower and Upper Tshognam, Gelung, a private collection in Jharkot, Lubrak, Lo Monthang, and Tshug. These works are mostly of a secular nature, letters, community documents, etc. Data were recorded according to the codicological template developed by previous work of Agnieszka Helman-Ważny on manuscripts from Central Asia. Information gathered from the manuscripts were compared with book production practices still used in the region, using secondary literature and interviews with craftsmen. Active places of book production, papermaking, and printing were researched during fieldwork in Mustang and neighbouring areas. Papermaking technology and methods, tools, and materials being used were documented. Papermaking plants and other resources on book culture were mapped.

This interdisciplinary project, combines both textual and codicological analysis of archival documents with ethnographic and botanical fieldwork and exploration of manuscript cultures in Mustang. The resulting chronological typology of paper is organized into database which will soon be accessible. And finally, we hope that for the local people of Mustang, this project has the potential to change perceptions of Tibetan writing and techniques of documents and book production, as well as to make a major contribution to our understanding of the cultural history of the once-independent kingdom of Mustang.


Tshognam Archive

Tshognam is the name of an area in the Shöyul enclave of Baragaon, in the southern part of Nepal’s Mustang District. 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”. 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 of Mustang, which is at a higher altitude and closer to the former centre of political power.
Tshognam consists of three small clusters of building, with stupas on the path that connects them. Between the upper and the lower two houses there is an invisible line that can be traced between certain boulders across the valley floor. These boulders mark the territorial boundary between two large villages: Te, upstream to the east, and Tshug, downstream to the west. Tshognam, then, in spite of its small size, straddles the territorial boundary of two major settlements, and the two halves are conventionally divided into two parts, “Lower” and “Upper” Tshognam. “Middle” Tshognam, represented by a single house on the Tshug side of the border, seems never to have been occupied by a priestly family. Lower and Upper Tshognam each contain an archive, comprising respectively 31 and 47 documents, and the provenance is indicated in the name of each. The documents preserved there were for the most part locally produced and cover a century and a half, from 1816 to 1964. These archives are preserved in wooden or metal boxes or bamboo baskets as a loose assemblage of folded sheets of paper. To get access to the documents we needed to ask for permission from the owners of the respective houses.

Table of results (PDF) | expandShow research scene photos


Jharkot Archive

The village of Jharkot (Dzar in Tibetan) is located in the Muktinath Valley of south Mustang. It became one of the capitals of Baragaon, the name given to a constellation of eighteen villages, when the enclave broke away from the kingdom of Lo in the 17th century. The archives, comprising documents in both Tibetan and Nepali, are kept in the house of Hrewo (“the nobleman”) Palgön, the direct descendant of the Pöndrung Trogyawa, the minister who had come to the area in the 15th century as the representative of the king of Mustang. After Baragaon seceded from Lo, this family continued to rule the enclave as an autonomous dukedom. The documents in the collection, which date mainly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, deal with affairs of the village of Jharkot as well as of the enclave of Baragaon as a whole.

Table of results (PDF) | expandShow research scene photos


Gelung Archive

Gelung (also known as Geling) is a large settlement in the northern part of Mustang District. It was once a part of the kingdom of Lo that was established in the 14th century, and was in fact the place where the first king, Amepal, resided when he first arrived in the region prior to settling further north in Lo Monthang. Baragaon, the southern half of the kingdom, seceded in the 17th century to form an autonomous dukedom, and Gelung broke away shortly afterwards, but without becoming a part of Baragaon. The settlement was therefore not just a village but practically a miniature state. While most of the official documents relating to the communities under the rule of Lo Monthang are kept in the palace of the latter itself, Gelung has its own archive, which is kept in the house of a young man named Ngawang Tsering. The latter belongs to the fifth generation of a lineage that came to Gelung from Lubrak, a small village of Bonpo priests in Baragaon. The first member to come – in the second half of the nineteenth century – was given special privileges by the king; for example, one of the texts in the collection specifies that the household may let its horses graze in the village fields, a privilege it enjoys to this day. As the residence of the hereditary headman, this house became the repository for the community’s archive, which consists of documents in both Nepali and Tibetan. The household’s collection therefore contains private documents concerning the household, as well as documents of a public character concerning the whole community. Most of the documents range in date from the time of the arrival of the first headman, around 1870, to relatively recent times. The oldest document is an edict, in Nepali, issued by the king of Jumla, and may date from the late seventeenth century.

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Lubrak Archive

With only fourteen households, Lubrak is one of the smallest settlements in Mustang District. However, the community archive is disproportionately large, with around 200 documents. The reason is that Lubrak is a community of hereditary priests, with a high level of literacy. In addition to the fact that the village has kept a written record of more minor disputes than other settlements, it also has a arge number of religious ceremonies for which administrative documents are kept.

Table of results coming soon


Papermaking Traditions in Mustang and Nepal

In this part of our project, we have two main sources of information that mutually support each other: 1) the documents themselves—by looking at fragments of the actual documents I was able to reconstruct via fibre analysis a history of papermaking; and 2) from the living tradition of papermaking that still exists in various areas of Nepal and which could potentially be related to traditions in Mustang.

The questions that arise from the recorded raw materials mentioned above concern the provenance of particular types of paper: what type of paper was locally produced in villages where archives were established, and what kinds were traded from longer distances. Taking into consideration that villages under study are located in the heart of the Kali Gandaki valley corridor, which was a highway for travellers, traders, monks, and an obvious route for the dissemination of new ideas and technologies between Central Asia and India, we have two natural directions from which paper could be traded – north and south.

On the basis of both interviews with papermakers, and studies conducted on the paper used in the archival documents, our results suggest that paper was often traded along the Kali Gandaki corridor in both directions, while the raw material was usually collected in the vicinity of papermaking workshops. Since the majority of documents in our sample are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we were able to link our results to the living tradition of papermaking in Nepal (information collected from interviews), and to support all this with the picture obtained from the content of the Mustang archival documents.

Research carried out on the living tradition of papermaking in Nepal indicates that Myagdi and Baglung Districts, south of where most of the studied archives were located, are currently also the location of many small paper manufactories, and the region is known for paper production. Daphne and Edgeworthia plants are still the main materials for this purpose in the region. Information collected from craftsmen interviewed suggests that these manufactories do not usually exist for more than a couple of years: unlike European paper mills these workshops do not have a long continuous history. However, it seems that whenever one factory closed, another soon started to operate in the vicinity. The fact that the region is known for the production of good quality paper, and that tools, facilities, and skilled papermakers existed there, may also have contributed to the ease with which new workshops were established and the sale of products assured.

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