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"Shangri-La" Caves Yield Treasures, Skeletons

James Owen
for National Geographic News
November 17, 2009
 
ON TV Lost Cave Temples of the Himalayas and Secrets of Shangri-La premiere Wednesday, November 18, on PBS (check local listings.).

A treasure trove of Tibetan art and manuscripts uncovered in "sky high" Himalayan caves could be linked to the storybook paradise of Shangri-La, says the team that made the discovery.

The 15th-century religious texts and wall paintings were found in caves carved into sheer cliffs in the ancient kingdom of Mustang—today part of Nepal.
(See pictures of the "Shangri-La" caves and their treasures.)

Few have been able to explore the mysterious caves, since Upper Mustang is a restricted area of Nepal that was long closed to outsiders. Today only a thousand foreigners a year are allowed into the region.

In 2007 a team co-led by U.S. researcher and Himalaya expert Broughton Coburn and veteran mountaineer Pete Athans scaled the crumbling cliffs on a mission to explore the human-made caves.

(Get Coburn's impressions of the challenges of reaching the Shangri-La caves in the December/January issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine.)

Inside the caves, the team found ancient Tibetan Buddhist shrines decorated with exquisitely painted murals, including a 55-panel depiction of Buddha's life. (See a picture of one of the Buddhist murals.)

A second expedition in 2008 discovered several 600-year-old human skeletons and recovered reams of precious manuscripts, some with small paintings known as illuminations.

Watch video from the 2008 expedition in a preview of Secrets of Shangri-La



The sacred hoard seems to match descriptions of treasures to be found in Buddhist "hidden valleys," which served as the basis for Shangri-La in British writer James Hilton's popular 1930s novel Lost Horizon.

Hidden Texts Show Religious Mix

Looters have raided the caves over the centuries, cutting valuable artwork from the ancient texts. In addition, religious pilgrims have damaged the cave walls to collect souvenirs.

Still, the researchers were able to collect and document manuscripts from about 30 volumes, which were then moved for safekeeping to Mustang's central monastery.

Preserved by the mountain region's cool, arid climate, the ancient manuscripts contain a mix of writings from Buddhism and Bön, an earlier, native Tibetan faith, Coburn said.

This combination suggests that Bön beliefs survived for at least a century or two in this region after the Tibetan conversion to Buddhism, which began in the eighth century, Coburn said.

The team suspects the kings of Mustang abandoned the Bön sacred texts in the caves as a respectful alternative to destroying them.

Mark Turin, of the Digital Himalaya Project at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., also thinks this was a possibility.

But it's also possible the finds tie in with the Tibetan tradition of deliberately hiding religious texts, said Turin, who wasn't involved in the National Geographic Society-funded expedition. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"There's a real sense of discovery in Tibetan tradition," he said. "People discover hidden texts, or they discover hidden cultural knowledge that is lost or secreted away."

Today Mustang is depicted as "the end of the world" and is culturally isolated from Chinese-occupied Tibet, Turin added. (Explore how Tibetan traditions have endured under Chinese rule.)

The new discoveries now show that Mustang was "for many, many hundreds of years absolutely central—a vibrant, dynamic, culturally rich, and religiously diverse settlement."

Paradise Found?

The unusual treasures have led Coburn and his team to suggest that the Mustang caves could be linked to "hidden valleys" thought to represent the Buddhist spiritual paradise known as Shambhala.

"Shambhala is also believed by many scholars to have a geographical parallel that may exist in several or many Himalayan valleys," Coburn said.

"These hidden valleys were created at times of strife and when Buddhist practice and principals were threatened," Coburn said. "The valleys contained so-called hidden treasure texts."

Elaine Brook, author of Search for Shambhala, said the hidden valleys of Mustang indeed "have some of the characteristics of the mythical land of Shambhala."

For his 1933 novel, Hilton used the concept of Shambhala as the basis for his "lost" valley of Shangri-La, an isolated mountain community that was a storehouse of cultural wisdom.

But Brook, like the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, thinks that "nowadays, no one knows where Shambhala is." Shangri-La or not, the Mustang caves are in dire need of preservation, according to Coburn, Athans, and their colleagues.

Besides looters, Coburn said, the 6,000-year-old caves face threats from souvenir collectors, erosion, earthquakes, and infrequent but torrential rains.
 

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