The ancient apartments of Mustang

Small holes on a weathered cliff are the first impression one would make of the human-dug caves in the Lo Manthang/Mustang region, now dubbed “sky caves” by the US-based NGO Skydore Foundation, which initiated the Mustang excavation project in 2008.

The relics discovered inside the caves, however, suggest something very profound – that a rich culture once flourished inside these caves, some even dug as high as 70 to 100 meters off the ground surface, that too more than 3,000 years ago.

The caves are notable for their distinctive features, as they closely resemble modern apartment complexes. Some caves are even located on a single windswept rock and some were discovered to have been dug in such a way that it connects an entire neighborhood.

Recent research in Mustang reveals that the earliest of these caves, however, were limited in its use as tombs until 600 to 700 AD; but around 1000 AD, the culture of digging residential caves had begun.

Photo courtesy: Mark Aldenderfer

Talking to The Week, anthropologist Mark Aldenderfer, one of the research team members, says he’s intrigued to see the sense of architecture the people had even back then, as the cave complexes stand out as an example of their good sense of design and layout.

“I don’t think that they had mathematical principles or were making some sort of calculations but when you look at it, it was very systematic and organized, and they did have a design sense about how to make apartments,” says Aldenderfer who is also the Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts at California University, Merced, US.

Another striking feature of these sky caves, besides the design and layout, is that they weren’t natural structures but manmade, and as such, the extensive neighborhoods of caves dug in cliffs must have definitely required tools. The discoveries of tool marks on the walls and ceilings of the excavated caves indicate just that. And researchers hint that it could be metal tools, although there is no archaeological evidence of that yet.

In some of the caves in Mustang, evidence has now surfaced with the discoveries of cuts or holes on the cave walls, which could have been used to place beams or wooden supports for scaffolds. In other cases, there is evidence of slightly shallower depressions cut into the walls of the rock in order to provide a position for footholds and handholds to support climbing inside the caves.

Photo courtesy: Mark Aldenderfer

Aldenderfer explains that the cut marks of tools on the walls of the caves which are 2-3cm in width which have been made either through iron, copper or bronze tools.

“The pick-like tools were flat and weren’t pointed blades which they literally used to cut the caves and make chambers. We know they used metal tools. Although we haven’t recovered an archaeological example, we can see tool marks on the walls and ceilings of the caves,” says Aldenderfer. “Similar tools have been used to make footholds as well.”

New discoveries also reveal that in some of the caves, the ancient dwellers had even constructed earthen ramps. The foundation of a ramp was discovered at the base of a cliff whereas some caves had bases of rock at the lowest level from where one could move all the way up to the system. And in some cases, it seemed that dirt had been piled up to reach the lowest entrance of the cave and even scaffolds were dug atop it.

“The caves were tunneled which would lead the way to other compartments or caves. So basically it was all connected like an apartment building.”

And although a tunnel was one way to climb into the caves, the other way was with indentation, which was simply cut into the cave itself, like a carving on the rock that functions like a ladder.

Earlier, the mysterious caves of Mustang had been the subject of attraction for a team of German researchers from the University of Cologne in Germany who had researched the Lower Mustang region which covers Jomsom, Kagbeni, and Muktinath of the lower valley along the Kali Gandaki River. The researchers explored five accessible caves from 1992 to 1997, unearthing a treasure trove of ancient wealth.

Photos: Department of Archaeology

“The excavation projects that led to some findings put Mustang in light for a while due to the German project called High Mountain Archaeology in Nepal but we got the chance to work more on the Mustang excavation project. The most important thing is that many people have the idea that Mustang is isolated and far away. But it was a very important place for much of its history.”

Skydore Foundation has recorded some 500 caves and so far the team has explored more than 40 caves in places like Samdzong, Lupra, Chaile, Samar, Ghiling, Charang, Chhoser, and Dhe of Upper Mustang, the former Himalayan kingdom of Lo, which is located north of the Annapurna region on the Nepal-Tibetan border.

And the exploration hasn’t been easy, to say the least. It’s a daunting task for the explorers who, with the support of ropes and harnesses and all kinds of gadgets, accessed the caves located at such great heights.

“Some caves were very small with hardly any space and we had to stoop our way to get inside.”

At an average altitude of 4,000m, the air is thin, and along the route, fragile rocks break off easily while abseiling the challenging cliffs to reach the caves, which are already on the verge of collapsing due to soil erosion.

And although Aldenderfer and his team used ropes and harnesses to explore the caves, he brushes off the idea that the ancient dwellers could have descended from ropes to construct these caves.

“In some cases there are ramps or ladders that may have been used to get to a level, and then the flats themselves. Inside the caves, vertical shafts have been found that connect the upper and lower levels together, and these likely had wooden ladders in them.”

The residential caves also had kitchen areas, storage rooms with built-in containers, and rooms probably used primarily for sleeping.

Photos: Department of Archaeology

“Although most of the artifacts that were once in them are long gone, we can tell that certain areas were used for kitchens by the presence of hearths and carbon soot or staining on the walls and ceilings.

“It’s become important for our team to trace back the origin of the caves to learn about who inhabited the caves, which is why the project has been extended for another five years.”

Research Officer at the Department of Archaeology (DoA), Mohan Singh Lama, who also was part of the exploration earlier this year, explains that during the cave culture, a whole community lived in one single cave complex. The caves that resemble apartment complexes were dug several meters upward from the basement and were divided into several flats and rooms.

Mustang is historically known for its location along a route that connects the Indian Subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau. Historian Roberto Vitali, author of the recently published book, “A Short History of Mustang,” which covers events from the 10th to 15th century, says that back in its heydays, the region was ruled by Tibetans coming from the north of the Kailash area, so their origins goes into very deep antiquity. They weren’t pastoralist, so being real nomads they migrated in search of other lands.

Vitali says that there is scant evidence of Mustang before the 10th century.

“Mustang was famous for one great dynasty of rulers, and from the 14th century onwards, it was the golden period of the kingdom which lasted from the second half of the 14th century until 1505, and we have a clear dynastic history of who the rulers were and what they did.”

Tibetan nomads inhabited Mustang during that period, and the history of Mustang until the beginning of the 16th century is a diary of clans, families and ethnic groups.

Mustang was, in ancient times, one of the easiest areas for trade and a place for the exchange of nomadic products like cotton, wool and butter between the lower and higher lands.

Photos: Department of Archaeology

“The rulers politically controlled all the western parts of the Tibetan Plateau, and Mustang is the only nomadic kingdom in the Himalayan range in all of Tibet.”

According to Vitali, in Mustang we have valleys with cave complexes and there’s one theory that says that it was inhabited by people coming from the lower lands.

“Our study is trying to understand the origin of the people of Mustang. Most of them have argued that they came from the south while some say they were from the plateau down below. But we’re trying to determine how many times the population moved back and forth in this area by studying the ancient DNA and learn about the origin of the people in Mustang,” says Aldenderfer.

With many caves almost impossible to abseil, the question that has concerned the research team right from the beginning is how the people back then successfully dug caves in a systematic way. And now with new discoveries, there are all sorts of new questions, ranging from climate change to features of crop cycles.

Science and further explorations could probably decipher who these architects of the ancient cliff apartments of Mustang were and what transpired to its current situation. Whatever little research that’s been carried out so far already reveals that there’s more than what meets the eye in the sky caves of the forbidden kingdom of Lo Manthang.

Source: The Week

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