In an attempt to unravel a mystery, a team of internationally renowned climbers and explorers join forces with archaeologists, anthropologists and art historians to climb into unexplored cave complexes that humans had not entered for hundreds if not thousands of years. What they find inside will rock the Himalayan world and re-write the history of this remote and mystical region.
The story takes place in the legendary Kingdom of Mustang, a hidden corner of the Himalayas previously off-limits to outsiders. Hundreds of caves punctuate the sacred landscape and little is known about why they were carved out, how they have been used, and what lies inside the mysterious caves. Just a year earlier, during their scout, the team discovered a rare library of ancient Tibetan texts, thousands of hand-inked folios in dust-laden piles inside the caves. Their aim now is to return to the caves and rescue the texts from the crumbling landscape and retrieve them before looters get to them. The texts are adorned with beautiful "illuminations," small paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars on the international art market. As they prepare to climb up into the caves, a group of youth from a nearby village try to stop them. What ensues is an intriguing set of events that involve the King of Mustang, the highest lama of the land, and indeed the divinities that reside in the nearby cliffs.
The texts are from the pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon. This little-understood faith is the indigenous faith of Tibet, upon which Tibetan Buddhist culture is founded. Yet the religion has suffered persecution over the years and has been nearly wiped out. To find an ancient treasure-trove of both Buddhist and Bon texts, some completely unknown, is of high value to the remaining Bon practitioners and anthropologists like Charles Ramble from Oxford University's Oriental Institute: "These caves are probably the most reliable indicator of the continuous history of this area because they've always been used. The kinds of things we find in there, from the archaeological record, to perhaps the richest literary repository we've found means that these really are the places on which we need to focus if we want to establish as full as possible a picture of the history and culture of the Himalaya."
As they explore further caves, the researchers uncover priceless wall paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries that have been hidden from view for hundreds of years due to the inaccessibility of the caves. The paintings are relics from the past that are as valuable as uncovering an unknown Rembrandt, yet adorning the walls of crumbling caves. The question of whether this mystical land could be Shangri-La is answered both by the experts and the locals in this cinematically stunning film.
On their final days of exploration, the team uncovers the holy grail of archaeology in this region: ancient human remains. Inside secret caves, skulls, vertebrae, and pelvises, confirm the team's hypothesis that the extensive human-carved cave systems of Upper Mustang were carved some 2700 years ago for funerary purposes. "We do strange things when it comes to venerating our dead," remarks Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, archaeologist from the University of Arizona. "Look at the Pyramids of Egypt and the practices of the Maya." To learn more about the discoveries made in the caves of Mustang, watch Secrets of Shangri-La a National Geographic Special on PBS.
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