There is a near perfect new contender for enlistment among UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS). If the site enters the vaunted list, it would be fifth WHS form Nepal. The four sites already on the list, all enlisted back in 1979, are Kathmandu Valley, Sagarmatha National Park, Chitwan National Park and Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. In fact, the effort to get a fifth Nepali site on the list is well underway. The Department of Archeology (DoE) has been pushing for the inclusion of Lo Manthang, the capital of former Kingdom of Lo currently located in Mustang district, in the WHS list since 2008. Most of the ancient settlement of Lo Manthang was constructed, archeologists believe, in or around 15th century on a plateau 3,800 meters above sea level.
The man-made caves in the Lo Manthang, dubbed “sky caves” by the US-based NGO Skydore Foundation, have been a source of great intrigue for Nepalis ever since excavation works started in 2008. The relics found in the area suggest that a rich culture once flourished inside these caves more than 1,400 years ago. The most remarkable thing about the caves is that their layout closely resembles that of modern apartment buildings. This is remarkable when we consider that research suggest the earliest of these caves were being used as tomb sites as early as 600-700 AD; with the culture of digging residential caves thought to have started around 1,000 AD.
But these caves are by no means the only remarkable monuments inside the Lo Manthang settlement. Also located within the high walls are 15th to 18th century monasteries, some of whose structures, again, match the genius behind the most immaculately designed modern buildings. We believe these remarkable aspects make a strong case for Lo Manthang’s inclusion in the WHS list, despite UNESCO’s strict selection criteria. Take, for instance, some of the top UNESCO criteria for a possible WHS site, which should, among other things, represent “a masterpiece of human creative genius” and exhibit “an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.” Lo Manthang, we believe, meets both these criteria.
Earlier, a team of German researchers from the University of Cologne had explored five accessible caves in lower Mustang between 1992 to 1997. In the process they had unearthed a treasure trove of ancient relics. But real excavation work to establish the true identity of early settlers and work out their mode of life has only just begun. The world deserves to know how a rich ancient kingdom flourished in what was once thought as barely habitable place, and amidst all its attendant handicaps.
Lo Manthang deserves a place among the most important ancient settlements in the world, for even what little excavation has been carried out thus far indicates that Lo Manthang is only just starting to reveal its copious secrets of a rich civilization that once flourished in the region