The Mysterious Sky Caves of Nepal

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The Sky Caves of Nepal, also known as the Mustang Caves, refers to 10,000 artificial caves constructed in the Mustang District of Nepal.

The region was formerly the Kingdom of Lo, with the capital located at Lo Manthang, until the kingdom was annexed by Nepal during the 18th century AD.

The caves were carved into a steep cliff face 155 feet above the valley basin, overlooking the present-day village of Samdzong near the Kali Gandaki River in Upper Mustang.

 

Who built the Sky Caves and when the caves were first constructed has eluded archaeologists and academics, with one theory suggesting the caves date as far back as 8-10,000 BC, but the caves have been divided into three distinct periods of occupation.

Image Credit : Jean-Marie Hullot

The earliest period dates from around 1000 BC, with the caves being used for human burials (evident by the discovery of partially mummified human remains and skeletons). Some later burials, dating from 3rd to the 8th centuries AD shows evidence that may be related to the Buddhist practice of sky burials (a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose while exposed to the elements or to be eaten by scavenging animals).

During the 10th century AD, the region saw a period of instability due to localised conflicts, and numerous dwellings were carved into the cliff face for protection, with some of the burial caves being repurposed for habitation.

Image Credit : Jean-Marie Hullot

By the 12-15th century AD, the caves were used as meditation chambers, with archaeologists discovering several Buddhist paintings, sculptures, artefacts, and manuscripts containing writings from both the Bon religion and Buddhism.

Recent DNA studies has shed some light on the mystery of the first cave builders, suggesting that early inhabitants came from the East-Asian populations of the Tibetan plateau and closely resembles the genetic profile of the modern-day Sherpa and Tibetan populations that inhabit the region of Mustang today.

Header Image Credit : Grace Marcella Norman

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