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Shangri-la Caves Yield Treasures, Skeletons

November 24, 2009

James Owen
The National Geographic
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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