As with many things in my life, I discovered about the Mustang Caves often known as Sky Caves of Nepal when I happened to come across a documentary being televised on The National Geographic Channel a few years back. I was so engrossed in it and to see the sky caves and to think that was the first time ever, after the collapse of the civilization that anyone was attempting to go there and see what’s there.
Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist along with climber Pete Athans and adventure photographer Cory Richards joined together for the exploration of these sky caves which were astonishingly carved by humans 155 feet high up into the soft sediment of a wall from the ground in Mustang district were allowed for the first time to enter the restricted area.
While exploring these mysterious caves in Mustang, the researchers found priceless 14th-century wall paintings which included a 55 panel depiction of Buddha’s life, almost 3000 years old ancient human remains and centuries-old hidden library consisting of 8000 text pages describing Tibetan Buddhists doctrine to legal matters and even sacred texts most of which dates back to the 15th century. They also uncovered that there were a collection of 10,000 caves inside the valley which were all man-made and what seemed like were in use as living quarters by the ancient civilization. Sometimes the sky caves, they explored had layers of caves tacked upon the other and had 9 storeys.
Studies have been ongoing since the research and exploration of these ancient caves in Mustang started back in 2008 A.D. and many new and interesting discoveries have been made shedding some lights on these magnificent caves and the ancient civilizations. During the exploration of the sky caves in 2010 A.D. accompanied by Nepali archaeologists, they found 27 human remains in two of the biggest caves in Samdzong which on close inspection revealed to be from 3rd to 8th century. The fairly intact remains must be due to the cold climate and being undisturbed and undiscovered.
However, the human remains showed signs of cutting on their bones like the ones found in dead bodies when people cut chunks of body parts into small portions. It’s actually a part of ceremonial funeral or disposing the death’s body in similar fashion to feed the parts to the predatory birds still practiced today in Buddhist communities living in Mustang. This shows that either the funeral practice hasn’t changed in thousands of years or has evolved from such rituals to date. In the words of archaeologist Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, “We do strange things when it comes to venerating our dead. Look at the Pyramids of Egypt and the practices of the Maya.”
These sky caves in Mustang are said to be one of the World’s Greatest Archaeological Mysteries. The studies so far leads us to believe that as with every civilization with the passage of time and the state of the area, the caves were utilized for several purpose like initially it was used as burial grounds by the people who used to live in nearby villages that is supposed to have happened in 1000 BC (even before the Christian Era), then people themselves moved into the quarters digging more caves from above as their villages were ravaged by wars forcing them to leave their homes and into the safety of the caves in the 10th century. Finally, by the 1400s, after the wars subsided, people moved back into their homes leaving only empty caves which again came alive with the monks seeking solitary place for meditation, thus turning the caves into a sort of monastery or a library at that time.
Even after the discovery and finding a little bit more about these caves many questions remains unanswered like “Who built them? Who lived there? What was the purpose of building them so high off the ground? How did they get inside the caves if it is so hard for the explorers to get to even with the help of modern equipments?”
For all these questions many people have their own theories and my imagination goes into overdrive thinking about the possibilities of an ancient world and what could have happened. People who lived there couldn’t have just got up and left. Their descendants must be around only if we could find substantial evidences. Did they use some sort of rope-ladders or was there some sort of lake or river that reached up there seeing as ‘Kali Gandaki River’ flows way down some 60+ feet below from where these caves are situated? Or did they built it during war times and built it so high to protect themselves from their enemies or just to get away from some kind of predators? How did they live their? What was life like living in the caves? Why were there so many caves all 10,000 of them in that particular part of the country? Why is there a library with sacred texts? Does this mean the caves were nothing more than some sort of monastery for the ancient monks who sought for enlightenment and needed complete seclusion from the rest of the world? Does it have anything or everything to do with the ancient Silk Road? See what I mean by OVERDRIVE!
For many years Upper Mustang was off limits to all trekkers and foreigners. But, since 1992, the area is open for everyone. Once a forbidden kingdom, now allows trekkers into this remote and rare part of the world but, in limited numbers that is 1000 trekkers per year to prevent any damage that may cause to the culture and the delicate archaeological finds and its unique architecture.
The artifacts, jewelries and utensils among many other discovered in the sky caves are in care of the village leaders of Samdzong. Mustang Eco Museum also has some displays of beads, pendants, jewelries and human remains brought back from the caves. This museum is just 15 minutes walking distance from Jomsom Airport in Mustang, Nepal. So, if you are going for Upper Mustang trekking it won’t be just for the magnificent views of the Himalayas but it will be accompanied by the rich cultural heritage of Upper Mustang. When you are in the area be prepared to be amazed by the gorgeous sky caves of magnificent Mustang!