Hidden Treasures Discovered in Mustang

Lying on the Tibet-Nepal border, the region of Upper Mustang is a restricted area of Nepal which only a limited number of outsiders are permitted access to each year. In 2007 a team led by a local shepherd, and including seasoned mountaineer Pete Athans and US Himalayan expert Broughton Coburn, reached the caves and had some time to explore its ancient hidden treasures. The shepherd had apparently discovered the caves quite by chance some decades ago when he took shelter from a rainstorm. At the time he didn’t grasp the significance of his discovery, but later mentioned it in passing to some scientists working in the area, setting the wheels in motion for one of the most exciting discoveries ever made in this remote and mysterious region of Nepal.

As reported by National Geographic, the team discovered ancient Buddhist shrines in the network of caves. These had been intricately decorated with painted murals, the most outstanding of which is a 55-panel mural detailing events in Buddha’s life. In 2008 another expedition was undertaken and this time several human skeletons were found, which are believed to be at least 600-years old, as well as reams of manuscripts, some of which contained small paintings referred to as ‘illuminations’. Experts agree that these sacred treasures have significant similarities to descriptions said to be found in the so-called ‘hidden valleys’ of Buddhists, referred to as ‘Shambala’, which was the inspiration for the fictional Shangri-La of the 1930s novel ‘Lost Horizon’ by British writer James Hilton.

Sadly, over the centuries looters and souvenir hunters have damaged some of the ancient texts and even some of the cave walls. Nevertheless, researchers have retrieved valuable ancient manuscripts which have been remarkably preserved by the cool, arid climate of the region. These reveal a wealth of religious writings from Buddhism, as well as from Bön, which was an earlier faith of native Tibetans before converting to Buddhism. The writings suggest that Bön may have continued as the primary belief system of the people in the Mustang area for more than a century after the eighth century conversion of Tibet to Buddhism. While no-one knows for sure why these historical religious treasures were hidden in the caves, the general consensus among experts is that the kings of Mustang may have hidden the Bön sacred texts rather than to destroy them, as a sign of respect. Ongoing research will no doubt bring to light more interesting facts about this remote region of Nepal and the people who lived there.