Geo-Joint: Mustang Caves

People have always sought to have places free from intervention by enemies, robbers, or prying eyes. Building something large and seemingly impregnable, like the pyramids, is one way, or you can do it by stealth, creating a space hidden from view in a distant place. Another way is to find a place so difficult to get close to that almost nobody would even try. The Ancient Puebloan people of the American Southwest, formerly called the Anasazi, left behind cliff dwellings, some of which are built in broad caves or overhangs high on the sides of steep rock canyon walls. They accessed some of these places by means of ladders which they could pull up if invaders came to call. That concept of finding a hidey-hole in a cliff has been used worldwide, but one of the most extreme examples is in Nepal.

Mustang is a region along the north central border of Nepal, on the southern edge of mountainous Tibet, in China. The culture of Mustang is Tibetan though it has been governed by Nepal since the 1780s. The history of the inhabitants is steeped in mystery, but somewhere along the way, they undertook a staggering project. This is a landscape of very tall mountains, and steep river-cut valleys at relatively lower elevations. There are places where rapid tectonic uplift and vigorous downcutting by rivers has created vertical canyon walls cut through fairly crumbly conglomerate rock. Excavating caves into this loose rock hundreds of feet up the canyon walls would make for a very secure space. And so they did. These were no minor hollows scraped into the dirt and rock. In some places whole complexes of caves are lined up like apartments along a single floor, dug into a less resistant layer of the tall sedimentary cliff face. There are whole rooms going far back into the cliff, connected by passageways as well as fronted by cliff-face walkways where one false step would send you to a fatal fall.

The Kali Gandaki Gorge sits below towering peaks, and holds thousands of caves, some visible at lower right.

Exploring the caves is an adventure in itself. To begin with, Mustang is a remote and difficult terrain. Once arriving there, one finds the caves are not only high on the cliff sides, but cut into “rock” that is not like the reliable granite of Yosemite. Rather it is a loosely constructed melange of eroded cobbles, pebbles, and sand, cemented together by hardened clay. While such material would still present a challenge to anyone trying to dig out a room within it, it does not make for safe climbing. Indeed, intrepid climbers have experienced injuries ranging from a broken back to a dented skull resulting from falls, and loose material raining down. There is nothing easy about studying the mysteries of this place, but the challenge of understanding what went on here motivates these scientists.

Caves high on the cliff face.

The quantity of these caves is astounding—over 10,000 can be found in the gorge of the Kali Gandaki River, and some are over 150 feet off the canyon floor. Some were accessed by digging down from the the clifftops but many just go straight in, and no one knows how ancient people got to them, let alone dug them. With modern climbing equipment it is a fairly straightforward, although as mentioned, a harrowing feat to reach the caves, and archaeologists doing so have been finding amazing things. These caves, seemingly so inaccessible, were actually lived in. There is evidence that people built fires in them, stored grain, and had sleeping areas. Some of the caves were for the dead, rather than the living. Mummified remains and bones that are in excess of 2,000 years old have been found, some decorated with jewelry. The burials span many centuries, and some of the bones from around 1,500 years ago have cut marks on them. Scientists deduce that these dead may have undergone “sky burial,” where the flesh is cut away from the bones and left out for vultures to eat. It is a custom that is still observed in some isolated parts of the region. Over time, it is thought that the caves served in turn as burial places, living spaces, and then ultimately as secure locations for the practice of meditation and worship. Some larger caves were made into monasteries, their walls decorated with paintings of a religious nature.

Caves dug into the crumbly rock hold bones, manuscripts, artwork, and jewelry.

Unfortunately, it is evident that many of the caves have been plundered for whatever valuables may have been placed with the deceased. Much insight about these ancient peoples has thus been lost to tomb robbers. With so many caves to document and the difficulty of access so high, it is likely to take many years to fully unravel what gave ancient people to go to such lengths to create these secure and strange spaces.

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Caption: The Kali Gandaki Gorge sits below towering peaks, and holds thousands of caves, some visible at lower right.
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Jean-Marie Hullot (CC-by-2.0)
Caption: Caves high on the cliff face.
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Jean-Marie Hullot (CC-by-3.0)
Caption: Caves dug into the crumbly rock hold bones, manuscripts, artwork, and jewelry.
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Min Kumar Sharma (CC-by-4.0)

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