In 2004, two years after he climbed Mt Everest for the seventh time, American mountaineering legend Peter Athans took part in a charitable cataract operation project in northern Nepal that changed the lives of nearly 300 beneficiaries. Today, the event has led to a stupendous discovery that, once fully understood, could throw light on one of the oldest religions in the world, its link with India and the connection between Tibetan and Zoroastrian death rites.
"I made a lot of friends during the eye camp," says Athans, better known worldwide as 'Mr Everest' for his ascents as well as efforts to rescue endangered climbers during the black year of 1996, when 15 people died while attempting the world's highest peak. Some of them took me to a cluster of (man-made) caves that remain hidden from the human eye due to the height and the difficulty to get inside... There was no knowledge of who created the caves and I thought this was an intriguing mystery, worthy of further research and discussion," Athans said.
In 2008, the government of Nepal and the Department of Archaeology signed an agreement with Sky Door Foundation, an NGO started in Nepal by Athans, to explore the caves and make an inventory. Two years later, the exploring team came across major finds in the network of caves in Mustang, a remote mountainous district in northernmost Nepal that was once part of an ancient Tibetan kingdom.
The expedition has found caves designed at different levels, much like an apartment block, with the lower levels usually used as granaries and the uppermost being burial sites. In between, the space contains murals that though now fading and crumbling down are still exquisite, two immense libraries containing almost 10,000 ancient manuscripts in old Tibetan script, some of which are beautifully illuminated, and the remains of 27 people, the oldest of whom dates back to 100 years before the birth of Christ.
The manuscripts, which are being translated, are mostly about the Bon religion, one of the oldest religions in the world that grew in Tibet pre-dating Buddhism and yet showed many similarities with it, especially about the life of its founder Tonpa Shenrab.
Like the Buddha, Shenrab too came from a royal family but renounced the royal life and worldly pleasures when he was 31 to seek enlightenment. The folios also carry illustrations of many Bon leaders whom researchers are struggling to identify due to the paucity of information about the religion.
The cave artefacts show a fusion of Tibetan and Indian religious art. Some of it shows the influence of the art that prevailed in India during the Gupta empire of Hindu kings who ruled from 320-480 AD.
"Some of the murals have images of men and women who were Indian mahasiddhas (yogis with supernatural power)," says Leisl, Athans' wife, who records the expeditions through documentaries. "Each image has a quatrain as caption, the first line giving the name of the mahasiddha, followed by biographical details."
The human remains, many of which DNA analysis indicated belonged to people from northwest India, could prove a link between Zoroastrianism, born in Iran before the 6th century BC, and the ancient Tibetan practice of sky burials that still exists in Nepal and China.
"While the earlier skeletal remains are unmarked, the 5th century remains show cut marks," says archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer. "Nearly 67 percent of the bodies were de-fleshed, after which the bones were deposited inside the cave tombs. This mortuary practice could be a link between the Zoroastrian way of disposing of a dead body by offering it to the vultures in the Towers of Silence and the more stark way in the Tibetan plateau, where the bodies are chopped up and then left for the vultures and other animals," he said.