Broughton Coburn, Secrets of Shangri-la: The Ancient Caves of Mustang – Event April 15

In the illustrated program, “Secrets of Shangri-la: The Ancient Caves of Mustang,” best-selling author Broughton Coburn will recount the challenges and discoveries of a National Geographic-funded expedition to explore and protect the ancient, human-excavated  caves of Mustang, in northern Nepal — while unraveling the pre-historic, religious, cultural, and artistic legacy of this enchanted landscape. The formerly forbidden, medieval kingdom of Mustang, shines as a pristine relict of Tibetan culture, history, and art. Two National Geographic TV specials on this project, directed by Emmy award winning filmmaker Liesl Clark, aired in November 2009 to near-record ratings.

The event, sponsored by the Center for South Asia and co-sponsored by the Cultural Heritage Preservation Research Circle and the Department of Anthropology, will be held on Thursday, April 15 at 7 p.m. in room 335 of the Pyle Center. It is free and open to the public.

For more information about this lecture or future events sponsored by the Center for South Asia, go to: or call (608) 262-4884.

Q&A with best-selling author Broughton Coburn

Broughton Coburn, a New York Times bestselling author, graduated from Harvard College in 1973, then fulfilled a destiny with the Himalayas where he has worked two of the past three decades. He has developed documentary films and has overseen environmental conservation and development efforts for the World Bank, UNESCO, World Wildlife Fund, and other agencies.

Brot Coburn - Photo by: Edgar Boyles/Sky Door Films
Brot Coburn - Photo by: Edgar Boyles/Sky Door Films

In the following interview, Coburn answers a few questions about his work in Nepal and the 2008 exploration of the Mustang Caves

Why are the Himalaya so often at the center of your work and speeches?

I went there originally in 1973 as a Peace Corps volunteer, which I joined out of a desire to be of use in the world. I was idealistic, then, and wanted to be of service to mankind in  some sort of tangible way—partly because I had been disillusioned by material, Western society. What also drew me to Nepal were the mountains — I am from the Pacific Northwest, and Himalaya reminded me of the Cascades. Beginning in the Peace Corps, worked on developing an unusual, energy-saving technology in which  methane gas is captured from cow manure and used as a cooking gas. The initial success of that project and the interest generated from development agencies leapfrogged me to other projects in the Himalayas.

Why do you think it is important to bring the stories of these people and places back to the US?

We all live through our stories. And our stories live beyond us,  they define us as individuals. Storytelling has a rich tradition in the developing world, especially in Nepal where the legends of great saints, yogis, mystics and miracle workers populate the imaginations of the local people. The more I heard and experienced there, the more I wanted to share with others the richness of this sometimes magical place. I feel that rural, traditional, subsistence people of Asia have lessons to teach all of us.

What led you to participate in the 1998 expedition of the Mustang Caves?

Photo: Brot Coburn/Sky Door Films
Photo by: Brot Coburn/Sky Door Films

I had been working in Nepal for a couple of decades, already, and in the 1990’s I was working for the American Himalayan Foundation. While overseeing projects in Mustang, I became abundantly curious about the large number of human-excavated caves that perforate the cliffsides that rise above valleys that drain into the Kali Gandaki River. Oddly, even though extensive written histories and religious texts exist from the 12th century, virtually nothing has been written about the caves, and there are few oral legends. Because they were largely inaccessible, the local people didn’t really enter the caves, though from ground level you can often see dividing walls, granaries, wall paintings and ornamentation inside the caves. So I teamed up with veteran climber Pete Athans (7-times Everest summiter) and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Liesl Clark to assemble a team of scholars, explorers and adventurers, and our expedition in August of 2008 was the result.

What is one of the most memorable experiences you had on the expedition?

The discovery of what we call the Snow Leopard Cave, at 15,000 feet, was remarkable. The hillside where we found this cave was in an impossibly remote, dry, and harsh landscape near the top of a ridge, and to reach it we had to rappel over an abutment. We had been directed to this cave by as sheep herder who had taken refuge there from the rain some years earlier. In the cave we encountered a twenty-five foot wide mural with fifty five panels taken from a sequence of mahasiddhias, or great mystical yogis. The only indication of any previous entry in the cave was the footprints of a snow-leapord that traversed the back of the cave near the base of the mural.

Photo by: Brot Coburn/Sky Door Films
Photo by: Brot Coburn/Sky Door Films

What will happen to the Mustang Caves?

A proposal has been submitted to the NSF to conduct archeological research into additional care systems. At the same time, a caves conservation project is being initiated to protect the more accessible caves, particularly from environmental damage, earthquakes, erosion, pillagers, and souvenir collectors. Despite the fact that the area where the caves are found is isolated — protected by virtue of its remoteness — a motor road is currently being dug from Tibet through the Mustang, to join into another road that is arriving from down in the valley. This will bring economic forces and people from the outside, which could present a serious threat to the conservation of this cultural heritage.

What was it about the Mustang Caves expedition that compelled you to make this the central topic of you presentation here in Madison?

UW Madison is  pre-eminent in South Asian Studies, and I hope that this presentation will generate further interest, discussion and questions about the Mustang Caves. Indeed, I hope it will inspire students and scholars to study other Himalayan regions, as well, and motivate them to help protect its precious cultural sites and natural environments.

By Nina Gehan, Division of International Studies