The Mysterious Caves of Mustang, Nepal

Mar 7, 2016 3 comments

The Kingdom of Mustang, bordering the Tibetan plateau, is one of the most remote and isolated region of Nepalese Himalaya. Once an independent Buddhist kingdom, Mustang was annexed by Nepal at the end of the 18th century, but retained its status as a separate principality until the 1950's when the area was more closely consolidated into Nepal. Because of its sensitive border location, Mustang was off-limits to foreigners until 1992. The relative isolation of the region from the outside world has helped Mustang preserve its ancient culture which is more closely tied to Tibet than to Nepal.

The landscape is also unlike anything that is to be found anywhere else in Nepal —deep gorges carved by the Kali Gandaki River, and strangely sculptured rock formations. The cliffs’ face are pitted with an estimated 10,000 ancient cave dwellings, some of which are perched more than 150 feet above the valley floor. No one knows who dug them, or how people even scaled the near vertical rock face to access them. Some of the caves appear almost impossible to reach even to experienced climbers.


Photo credit: National Geographic

Most of the caves are now empty, but others show signs of domestic habitation —hearths, grain-storage bins, and sleeping spaces. Some caves were apparently used as burial chambers. The several dozen bodies that were found in these caves were all more than 2,000 years old. They lay on wooden beds and decorated with copper jewelry and glass beads.

In other caves, skeletons dating from the 3rd to the 8th centuries, before Buddhism came to Mustang, had cut marks on the bones that may have been inflicted during the practice of sky burial, where the body’s flesh is sliced into small pieces and left to be eaten by vultures. Sky burial is still practiced in many remote regions in the Himalaya.

Archeologists believe that the caves in Mustang were used in three general periods. They were first used some 3,000 years ago as burial chambers. Then around 1,000 years ago, they became primarily living quarters, perhaps to escape battles and intruders into the valley. Finally, by the 1400s, most people had moved into traditional villages and the caves became places of meditation. Some of these caves were turned into monasteries such as the Luri Gompa, the Chungsi Cave monastery and the Nyiphuk Cave Monastery, all of which were built around and inside the caves.

Luri Gompa is one of the most famous in Mustang. The monastery is set on a ledge, at least a hundred meter high from the ground, in one of the many natural pillar like sandstone structures. A winding footpath climbs all the way from the bottom of the valley to a single entrance door that leads into two interconnecting chambers. The outer chamber contains a shrine, while the inner chamber —the main treasure of Luri Gompa— is beautifully decorated with a series of paintings depicting Indian Mahasiddhas — saints who were said to have achieved siddhi, or extraordinary powers by meditation. No documentation pertaining to this mysterious gompa or monastery has been found, but the wall paintings appear to be have been made in the 14th century or even earlier.


Photo credit: National Geographic


Photo credit: National Geographic


Photo credit: National Geographic


Photo credit: National Geographic


Photo credit:


Photo credit: David Rengel/Washington Post


Photo credit: National Geographic


Luri Gompa. Photo credit: Bob Witlox/Flickr


Photo credit: Bob Witlox/Flickr


Photo credit:


Frescos in the ceilings of Luri Gompa. Photo credit:

Sources: Nat Geo / /


  1. It looks like very soft sandstone, so maybe there used to be steps and paths on the outside that have eroded away now.

  2. The most likely explanation is that they used rope and/or wood ladders which were removed so that there's no trace left of them now.

    It's not exactly rocket science.

  3. What is the name of the nearby monastery where documents taken from the caves by British archeologists finally were placed?


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