A Cave Temple associated with Luri Gompa in Upper Mustang, Nepal
by Gary McCue
June 18, 2001
(Mary Slusser, in an article on this same cave temple, wrote in 1999 that other scholars "had sought (this temple) in vain following an American trekking guide's signal sometime after 1992, the year Mustang was opened to foreigners." (Slusser and Bishop, 1999, p. 20) Gary McCue was that guide, and this is his account of the cave temple)
In October 1992 I was the leader for a commercial trekking group which visited the Upper Mustang region of Nepal. We were on what was called an "exploratory" trek with a fourteen day itinerary, allowing us to visit most of the monasteries and temples in Mustang. From the walled city of Lo Monthang my group and I trekked down to the village of Dri at the bottom of the Kali Gandaki river gorge, then we followed the Puyon Khola, a tributary of the Kali Gandaki (see 1:125,000 Jomsom to Mustang map, Mandala Trekking Maps, Kathmandu), up to the village of Yara. The following day was set aside for a hike to the cave temples of Luri gompa, a few hours walk above Yara.
Access to Tashi Kabum is quite difficult, involving a steep scamble with precarious hand and footholds. None of my group were willing to climb up through the crumbling layers of packed earth and loose conglomerate rocks, deposits from millions of years ago when this area was under an ocean. One of my Sherpa staff led the way and I followed behind. Above the steepest part of the climb is a flat ledge with a small cave immediately to the right. The ceiling here is blackened from use and the floor inside is littered with fresh goat pellets. I was surprised to find several pieces of clothing and the bedding of a herder who had obviously used the cave recently despite the difficult access route.
The entrance to the Tashi Kabum cave temple is a low, narrow tunnel to the left of the ledge and the smaller cave. After crawling on my belly through a short passage barely the width of my shoulders, I stood up in a small enclave that appears to have been the original entry room and leads into the cave temple. I assume at one time a facade or stairway on the cliff face allowed easier access to this entry room. The low tunnel cut into the wall of this entry cave seems a recent addition and is now the only approach.
The Tashi Kabum cave is almost a twin of the Luri cave in dimension, layout and design. These domed, rounded grottoes are about four to five meters across, four to five meters tall, and hand carved into the mountain. Both caves originally had a single entryway and both have one small window overlooking the valley to the left of the entry. In Tashi Kabum a new passage tunnel has been crudely cut into the wall opposite to the original entryway, opening into an empty, adjacent cave that has lost its entrance due to erosion of the cliff. The walls and ceilings of both cave temples are covered in plaster and are attractively painted. In the center of each cave is a beautifully crafted chorten surrounded by sufficient floor space for circumambulation. The chortens are very similar in size and shape and vary primarily in decorative details. Unfortunately Tashi Kabum cave has been vandalized and the chorten is only in fair condition; the upper dome has been broken open, many of the bas-relief decoration pieces encircling the base of the dome are damaged or missing, and prayer text folios from inside the chorten are now lying scattered on the cave floor. The base of each chorten is approximately 2.5 meters across, consisting of a series of staggered 12-cornered tiers. The terracotta spire of the Luri chorten rises about three meters from the floor and is crowned by a canopy. The Tashi Kabum chorten probably stood as tall with a similar terracotta spire. The Luri chorten is more ornate with small paintings around the different tiers of the base and four larger frescoes on the upper dome. The Tashi Kabum chorten has no paintings on the dome, and although the tiered levels of the base are damaged, they appear to have had no paintings or decorations. The exterior of the chortens is covered with an unusually smooth and hard ceramic-like glazing, unlike any chorten I've seen in Nepal, Tibet or elsewhere in my travels in the Himalaya.
The broken dome of the Tashi Kabum chorten reveals it was built with earthen bricks, covered in a mud plaster and sealed with a glazing. The central blessing pole remains standing inside the chorten, and a silk offering scarf had recently been attached to it prior to our arrival, another indication that some locals still visit this site. The sgo-nyer informed us that when he had last been in the cave the chorten was still intact.
The religious frescoes and decorative background art in the Tashi Kabum and Luri caves are stylistically very similar and remind me of certain Newari thangkas I have seen. The artwork in both caves is unique in Mustang, painted in flat earthen and ochre colors, and bearing little resemblance to the religious art in cCong-gzhi-rang-byung cave or the more detailed tempera frescoes found in the temples of Lo Monthang and Tsarang, or in Lo Gekar gompa.
Both caves have similar-styled floral patterns filling the ceiling space between the lower wall panels and the paintings in the dome. The Luri cave is more elaborately painted, with a mandala almost a meter across filling the apex of the dome surrounded by frescoes of eight teachers. The upper ceiling in Tashi Kabum is less detailed, with a circular arrangement of the eight Tibetan auspicious symbols in the apex surrounded by a series of attractive concentric patterns.
The numerous similarities in the layout, design and artwork of Tashi Kabum and Luri cave temples suggest that the two caves are probably contemporary, though I am in no position to guess their age. The sgo-nyer knew only that the caves are 'very old.' (both Mary Slussser and Helmut Neumann agree that the temples date from the 13-14th c. See Slusser and Bishop, 1999, and Neumann, 1994, 1997). These same similarities also suggest that the two caves are closely related, lending truth to the legend that there were five or seven other cave temples with chortens in this area. The Luri cave temple appears to be more important than Tashi Kabum, perhaps the first of the cave temples built in this area. The interior of the Luri cave is more detailed, and the complex of associated caves nearby is considerably larger. Luri also has a temple and adjacent rooms built onto the cliff face near the cave entrance, though it is possible Tashi Kabum may also have had an adjacent temple, or other rooms or enclosures built onto the cliff, but long ago crumbled away from their moorings.
The legend of a group of cave temples suggests there may be other caves with chortens among the hundreds of unexplored cave sites scattered throughout this region in the cliffs near Yara village, near Luri gompa and in the Puyon Khola canyon. These massive ramparts of ocean sediments have undergone extensive erosion, destroying whatever access routes there were, removing the facades if they had any, and leaving most caves inaccessible, stranded high above the valley floors. Only the Himalayan griffon vultures which presently occupy these caves know what they contain, and it will be many years before their secret is shared.
all text & images © Gary McCue
is a freelance trekking guide based in Kathmandu.
He is the author of Trekking in Tibet: A Traveler's Guide, The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, USA, 1999.
Mary Slusser and Lila Bishop, 1999 "Another Luri: A Newly Discovered Cave Chorten in Mustang, Nepal," Orientations, February 1999, pp. 18-27
Helmut F. Neumann, "The Wall Paintings of Lori Gompa", Orientations, November 1994, pp. 79-91
Helmut F. Neumann, "Paintings of the Lori Stupa in Mustang", in Tibetan Art: Towards a Definition of Style, London, 1997, pp. 178-185