Hidden inside a narrow cave of just five feet high and six feet deep in the Lo Manthang/Mustang) region was a tomb which was formed by digging a shaft into the ground and then expanding it into a chamber. Located at Samdzong in Upper Mustang, the shaft tomb was just one among many of such mortuary caves veiled in the mystical kingdom.
In 1987, when a tunnel was being built for a small-scale hydroelectric project in Chokhopani in Mustang, a burial cave was exposed by accident. The project in fact led to a distinct discovery of 2,000 to 3,000-year-old human corpses.
[beak]In Mebrak of Lower Mustang, a corpse of a mother and an infant in a sleeping position that dated back to 450 BC was also revealed. The discovery was part of an excavation project by German researchers from the University of Cologne in Germany along with the Department of Archaeology (DoA) of Nepal.
Anthropologist Mark Aldenderfer says that it was hard for his team to believe what they found during their excavation project. “The German Nepali team had found human burials and we also expected to find the same thing in the early caves but we were stunned to know about the way the early dwellers of Mustang treated the dead bodies.
“The death ritual included stripping the flesh off the bodies of the dead and putting the skeletons in the burial chamber. The practice was followed for everybody, including children,” says Aldenderfer who is also the Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts at California University, Merced, US, and a part of the research team of the excavation project of the US-based Skydore Foundation, initiated in 2008.
Human remains from Samdzon, Mustang.
As long as 3,000 years ago, the earliest Mustang caves were used as burial chambers. Such caves were not used for housing, and in reality, Aldenderfer explains that they are better seen as shaft tombs, not caves per se. The team found such caves at Samdzong in Upper Mustang where they uncovered ten different tombs.
In one of the burial chambers, the team found more than twenty different corpses inside. While this practice was prevalent for all commoners, he explains that in case of a prominent person, conceivably a local leader, there was a culture of putting the corpse inside the coffin-like wooden box along with all the valuable things that he owned.
The most interesting aspect of the research at Samdzong, which Aldenderfer says, was the discovery of the mortuary caves, and in particular, the elite burial system.
“The elite burials had in them expensive presents that were transported from long distances, like glass beads from sources in Pakistan, South India, and Sassania, which is now in modern Iran. We think other objects, like silks, are from very distant places.”
Though wood was found to have been used to make coffins for the prominent people, Mohan Singh Lama, Research Officer at DoA who was part of the exploration, says that Mustang, bearing a desert-like landscape, it was particularly hard for the residents back then to find wood to cremate the dead. “This is why there was a culture of burying the dead in the cave itself. The cemetery basically used to be on the upper chamber of the caves.”
Lama explains that there was even the tradition of sky burial, a practice where a human corpse is incised in certain locations or placed on the mountain top, exposing it for vultures, followed by the prayer recitation from the Lamas. This practice is followed even now by the residents of Mustang.
“As part of the death ritual, the other practice includes cutting a few parts of the body while keeping the whole body intact. The neck is then tied to a rope and the body is hung on a platform at a height between 2,800 to 3,000 meters for the vulture to devour it. The main idea is not to let the vulture take away the whole flesh of the body,” says Lama.
Human remains from Zhong Kyore, Mustang.
He explains that the death ritual of the person was based on the date and time of the birth of the individual which was determined by Tibetan astrology. On that basis, Lama explains that there would be four kinds of death rituals and either one of it would be followed. The first was cutting the flesh and leaving it for vultures to feed on, the second ritual was to bury the body in a chamber, and the third was to incinerate the body, and lastly, the ritual included cutting the flesh of the dead body and floating it in the rivers.
According to Lama, the whole community that lived in one single cave complex used to share one common burial chamber during the ancient cave culture. The first person who died used to be buried on the lowest part of the chamber which would be covered with a pile of mud. Then the second person who would die would be placed on top of that body, and this tradition would continue.
“In such burial chambers, there would be less oxygen and the mud would be dry. But the condition of the environment itself preserved the body naturally.”
Talking about the excavation project in Mustang, Lama says, “We’ve heard about Mustang’s history from literary sources but this project has changed what we know about the place. The study has shed a new light on the history and of archaeology in the country as well as the rich history of the Mustang region.”
Prakash Darnal, archaeologist at DoA, is of the opinion that the human corpses found in the study can also help determine the human race of the world.
“It’s said that Ramapithecus, the earliest fossil primate which many anthropologists believe to be a direct ancestor of man, lived about 12 to 14 million years ago. Similarly, the Peking Man, a group of fossil specimens, is supposed to be 680,000 to 780,000 years old. The human remains found in Mustang can prove to be equally important in the context of the world as well,” explains Darnal.
Anthropologist Aldenderfer mentions that Mustang has a very rich, impressive history, one that is being explored by archaeologists and historians, among others.
Skull found in Samdzong, Mustang
“Our work is showing that Mustang was a lively, vibrant place some 3,000 years ago, and was connected to the wider world in very significant ways. The whole region itself is a treasure in Nepal, and we hope that its history and culture will be preserved in the future.”
Forensic anthropologists were also part of the Skydore team and they are currently studying the human corpses found in the burial chambers. The project, which will run for another five years, intends to study more of what the ancient caves of the Forbidden Kingdom Mustang has to offer.
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