Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Himalayan caves hold ancient secrets

Broughton Coburn to present discoveries and expedition

A vast system of caves dating to 2,000 B.C. in the Annapurna region of Tibet know as Mustang is the subject of a Broughton Coburn’s presentation “Secrets of Shangri-la: The Ancient Caves of Mustang” at the nexStage Theatre. Photo by

Broughton Coburn is as close to being a real-life Indiana Jones as any adventurer could be. A Harvard graduate and author and editor of seven books, including two national bestsellers, Coburn is a premier authority on the culture and environment of the Himalaya, where he lived for two decades.

Coburn has been drawn to the Himalaya for a variety of reasons, but his most recent visit was an archeological mission on the border of Nepal and Tibet for a National Geographic-funded expedition to a series of human-excavated cave cities that date to 2,000 B.C. He will share his findings and expedition stories in a presentation on Thursday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m. at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum. Tickets are $15 at the door.

The caving expedition took place in the Annapurna region of Nepal. The area is called the Mustang district, and was once its own kingdom. Because it is a conservation area, trekking in the region requires government permission. For more than six months of the year, Mustang is buried in snow.

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, the night before Coburn's talk, Idaho Public Television will air three programs, "Secrets of Shangri La," "Lost Cave Temples of the Himalaya" and "Mustang: Journey of Transformation," about the scientific discoveries within the difficult-to-reach and vast cave system. The programs will begin at 8 p.m.

They will present a history of the remote region of the Himalaya, which has previously been off-limits to outsiders. The show will reveal Coburn and a team of explorers and scientists climbing, for the first time, into human-carved caves thousands of years old. Inside the caves, the team discovered priceless 14th-century wall paintings, ancient human remains and a centuries-old hidden library of sacred texts that may reveal some secrets about Shangri-la.

"The project was conceived when I was working for the American Himalayan Foundation," Coburn said. "I was curious about a near countless cave system that perforated the valley of the Annapurna region."

Joining Coburn on the expedition was Pete Athans, a veteran climber who seven times reached the summit of Mount Everest.

"It was an international expedition to explore the caves and begin to understand who excavated them and what for," Coburn said. "They appear to be used but they have been uninhabited for centuries and even a millenium. I wanted to know more."

Coburn said the caves include marvels such as a mural painting with 55 panels depicting a lineage of great yogis with mystical powers dating back to the 13th or 14th century. He said the murals were executed in exquisite detail.

Coburn said the expedition is gathering a comprehensive inventory and documenting discoveries through multimedia techniques that include shooting video, creating drawings, taking photographs and using 3-D digital mapping.

"I will be showing a fast-paced visual program that will provide behind-the-scene glimpses of the project," Coburn said. "I will also talk about the films and the ongoing research, conservation and inventory effort for this project."

Sabina Dana Plasse:

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