The Sky-Caves of Mustang Valley

Note: this entry was written after reading this article in the current issue of National Geographic magazine, curiously left in the cabin by my seat on the way to Singapore.

The Mustang Valley of Nepal is a remote but once thriving region hidden deep amongst the northern Himalayan passages. It’s early inhabitants were producers of fine Buddhist art and writings, but the major economic vein that helped it thrive thousands of years ago was salt, trading up and around the Chinese border and beyond. What the now desolate region is known for most these days however, are it’s vast, mysterious, and nearly impossibly complex system of man-made caves, one of the great archaeological mysteries of the world.

Some were dug into cliff sides, some tunneled from far above. Some are in groups stacked up to nine tall, with connecting arteries 6 foot in diameter, leading deep into the soaring cliffs. The methods of just how these man-made caves were created remains unknown, but the number of them is estimated to be an impressive 10,000.

Pete Athans is the leader of an interdisciplinary team of mountaineers and archaeologists that have spent their most recent and most passionate efforts scaling the dangerous, crumbling walls of the Mustang Valley, discovering incredible preserved artifacts amongst the ancient caveways–murals, bowls, documents (religious, legal, mundane), but most interestingly to scientists and archaeologists (and me), ritual burial sites. The greatest find of the recent excavations came near the village of Samdzong, just south of the Chinese boarder by Mustang.

While a local elderly Buddhist lama burned juniper twigs and chanted a traditional protection liturgy, Athans and his team excavated a funeral site, a remarkably ornate one, filled with foreign woods, bowls, beads, glass, and remarkably, placed upon the 1,300-1,800 year old high-status corpse buried in a funeral box, a stunningly painted gold funerary mask Pete Athans deemed “the best thing ever found in Mustang. Period.” Whoever’s corpse this was was exceedingly influential in the Mustang Valley.

Also placed in the sky-high mausoleum were the scattered skulls and bones of ritualistically sacrificed animals; goats, cattle, and horses. Delicately laid next to the funeral box was the curled up corpse of a young child. “I don’t want to characterize the child as any kind of sacrifice or slave because I really don’t have a clue,” said Mark Aldenderfer, a University of California (getting homesick just writing that) scientist working at the site. “But a child in there does suggest a complex ritual.

This kind of stuff reverberates the web of human culture and evolution, where we’ve come from versus how we behave today. It is certainly a presumption to assume that the child was sacrificed for the high-ranking burial ceremony, but there is plenty of historical evidence of humans engaging in these sorts of rituals around the globe.

A few weeks ago, I read a recent story about a Nepalese man attacked and bitten by a cobra, who in turn grabbed the snake himself and bit it to death. A cobra. He bit it to death. This is the Nepal that I’m on my way to.

This is the Nepal that I’m going to build houses for. These are people from a hard, old, and foreign land and culture, one which I’m going to do my best to try to understand. It’s not exactly going to be a piece of cake.

**as a side note, listening to SWANS ‘The Seer’ record while reading Christopher Hitchens ‘Mortality’ while flying high through turbulent darkness over the Pacific Rim is hella trippy.


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