Tibet's Lost City Atlantis in the Himalayas

Bruno Baumann left Munich in search of the Buddhist Shangri-la and happened upon the true cradle of Tibetan culture -- the silver palace of the Shang Shung kings. Fierce warriors and bloodthirsty shamans ruled this remote mountain realm more than 2,000 years ago.

By Jürgen Kremb


The Silver Palace in Tibet's Garuda Valley: walls lined with agate and gold.
Bruno Baumann

The Silver Palace in Tibet's Garuda Valley: walls lined with agate and gold.

The region, in the southwestern Tibetan plateau, doesn't look particularly spectacular at first glance. The only human settlement shown on satellite maps of the area is the tiny village of Kyunglung, embedded in a valley.

Bruno Baumann carefully guides his canoe through the raging waters of the Sutlej River. Suddenly he can hardly believe his eyes: a huge labyrinth of caves appears behind a gate-like formation in the middle of the rock face of the cliffs. Along a stretch of the river extending for several kilometers, a lost city of crumbled monasteries, temples and walls, glinting in reds and silvers in the afternoon sun, rises up to 400 meters (1,312 feet) above the river valley.

Baumann, an Austrian living in Munich, is considered one of the foremost experts on Tibet in the German-speaking world. He has written about a dozen books and produced several films on the icy region in southwestern China. After Beijing reopened Tibet to foreigners in the mid-1980s, Baumann, an ethnologist by profession, began spending months at a time on the rooftop of the world.

But what he now sees in the valley near Kyunglung outshines everything he has seen so far. "This is what it must look like, the paradise of Shangri-la, that dream world where time stood still," Baumann says. Could it be that he has found the holy grail of Tibetans?

But the Munich ethnologist -- who bares a strong resemblence to mountain-climbing legend Reinhold Messner  and spends most of his time living in a small tent in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world -- has little time to stop and think about the discovery. The small village lies in a restricted military zone near the Indian border. He takes a few photos before an officer of the Chinese People's Liberation Army chases him away.

That was three years ago. Meanwhile, even those in the academic world are talking about the sensation. Experts believe that the true cradle of Tibetan culture lies in the valley Baumann discovered -- the center of a legendary realm whose kings controlled large parts of the Himalayas and central Asia, long before Buddhists arrived in the country.

The road to this realization was long and arduous. Back in Munich, Baumann discussed his find with Michael Henss, a Tibetologist based in Zürich, Switzerland. Henss encouraged him to continue his search in Tibet. After all, he told Baumann, the name of the village where the caves are located, Kyunglung, translates as "Garuda Valley." Perhaps, Henss conjectured, Baumann had found the "silver palace in the Garuda Valley," the palace of the last Shang Shung kings -- a place scientists had previously thought was nothing more than an imaginary Atlantis in the Himalayas.

Baumann spent months pondering the mysteries of early Tibetan culture, working his way through university archives. But he didn't expect to glean much information from tibetologists. Less than a dozen scientists worldwide have ever even addressed the issue. Besides, most records on the region were destroyed during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. However, travel reports from the early 1900s did prove to be helpful. At that time, Tibet was still a remote theocracy shielded from the rest of the world and ruled by the 13th Dalai Lama, his monks in their red robes and the court aristocracy in the capital, Lhasa. The theocracy, then three times the size of modern-day Germany, was a de facto independent country. Nevertheless, foreigners were not allowed to enter it.

Only a handful of adventurers and scientists, usually disguised as pilgrims, brought the West news from the secretive snow-covered country. The best known was probably Sven Hedin, a Swede who, in his book "Transhimalaya," was the first to describe the mysterious Tibet and the form of Buddhism that prevailed there, Lamaism, to a wider audience. In 1930, Russian scientist Nicholas Roerich claimed that he had discovered the enigmatic Buddhist kingdom of "Shambhala" in Tibet. But Roerich offered no geographic data to support his claims.

Providing that kind of evidence would have been difficult, because "Shambala" is in fact a mythical realm that, according to legend, is home to those who will save mankind when the world is beset by war and destruction. But it was precisely this tale that seemed to spark the fantasies of Western readers.

When British author James Hilton portrayed four Western travelers stranded in the paradise-like valley of "Shangri-La" (which was apparently nothing but a distortion of Shambhala) in his novel "The Lost Horizon," his story became a bestseller and was twice made into a movie. From then on, the made-up world Shangri-la became a symbol of Far Eastern mysticism and meditative peace.

Tibet in the era before Buddhism

Although none of this was helpful to Baumann, he did discover a treasure trove in the diaries of Italian Tibet researcher Giuseppe Tucci. During a trip through western Tibet in 1935, Tucci pitched his tent in the Kyunglung valley, but his report on what he had found there ended up gathering dust in the archives.

Map: Tibet Autonomous Region
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Map: Tibet Autonomous Region

But Tucci did leave behind a trail. During the 1960s, the researcher invited the still young Tibetan Lama Chogyal Namkhai Norbu to his institute in Rome. Today, Namkhai Norbu is not only considered one of the world's most important teachers of Buddhism, but also one of the leading experts on the Shang Shung dynasty and the Bon religion.

In Tibet, the Bon cult exists in the shadows. In the distant past, its followers are said to have engaged in bloody rituals to expand their consciousness. French orientalist Alexandra David-Néel, a contemporary of Tucci, reports on how monks had themselves locked into chambers with corpses so that they could tear out their tongues -- which were then used as talismans in battles with demons.

According to Namkhai Norbu, now 68, these rituals go back to a time long before Buddhism reached the roof of the world. The Bonpos were the high priests in the "silver palace of the Garuda Valley."

So it was clear that in order to understand the Shang Shung kingdom, Baumann had to follow the trail of the Bon cult. In May 2005, he embarked on another expedition, during which he wrote his most recent book, which was published in Germany this week.

The trip began in the Nepalese capital Katmandu, a sort of ersatz center of Tibetan culture. After Beijing's People's Liberation Army occupied Tibet in 1950, forcing the 14th Dalai Lama to flee into Indian exile, thousands of Tibetans chose Nepal as their new home.

This time Baumann headed straight for Thiten Norbuche, a Bon monastery in west Katmandu. The images in the monastery's prayer hall depict a landscape nestled between four rivers, with a prominent mountain rising at its center, the holy Mt. Kailash.

"That was our Shambhala," says Lopon Tenzin Namdak, the monastery's head monk. "It's a part of the lost Shang Shung kingdom, which ruled Tibet for many years."

Three days later, Baumann and his expedition team boarded a plane for the hamlet of Simiot in western Nepal, once the terminus for Tibetan salt caravans. Pilgrims also used the high-altitude footpath that begins just behind Simiot's runway and winds its way through the narrow valley of the Karnali River before traversing the Nara La Pass, at an altitude of about 4,500 meters (14,760 feet), near the Tibetan-Nepalese border.

After a grueling, six-day trek, the men, now on the heavily guarded Chinese side of the border, board a Chinese-made "East Wind" truck. After a day's drive on unpaved roads, the breath-taking, ice-coated pyramid of 6,714-meter (22,022 feet) Mt. Kailash appeared on the horizon.

The first time Baumann circumnavigated the holy mountain on the "Kora" pilgrim path was in 1987, just after Beijing had reopened the region to tourists. Since then, he has joined the faithful, who turn their prayer wheels as they walk and constantly mumble the mantra "Om mani padme hum" ("Hail the jewel in the lotus"), 27 times on the pilgrimage around Mt. Kailash.

In the past, Baumann had always perceived the pilgrimage as a purely Buddhist ritual. But this time he recognized the Bon code from the forgotten Shang Shung culture, a culture this landscape has kept hidden for thousands of years.

At an altitude of more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), large settlements protrude from barren cliffs. The structures, made of pounded clay, cannot possibly be dilapidated Lama temples. "The cradle of Tibetan culture doesn't lie in Lhasa," says Baumann, as he descends from Mt. Kailash, "but in the distant past of the Shang Shung kings."

Is everything we know about Tibet wrong? 

Tibetologist now agree with Baumann's conclusions, which essentially call the entire framework of their specialty into question. They also contradict both Beijing's and the Dalai Lama's interpretation of history.

According to the Tibetan Diaspora, the first organized state arose in Tibet under King Songtsen Gampo (620 to 649). Gampo supposedly introduced Buddhism as one of the pillars of his kingdom. Tibetan armies later became so powerful that on several occasions they laid siege to or even stormed Chang'an, then the capital of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618 to 907). Today, Beijing justifies its claim of sovereignty over Tibet with the fact that the Tang emperor gave one of his daughters to the wild ruler in Lhasa as his wife.

But what both sides in the dispute downplay is that Songtsen Gampo was forced to marry off his sister, Sadmarkar, to a powerful adversary in the West -- Shang Shung king Ligmigya -- as a tribute. Ligmigya's armies also invaded Gampo's realm, expanding the Shang Shung kingdom from northern India to the central Asian deserts.

In 1908, French orientalist Paul Pelliot found a letter in a hidden chamber in the "cave library" of Dunhuang that described life at the Shang Shung court. In the document, Queen Sadmarkar describes the great riches in the palace, which she calls the "Kyunglung Ngulkar Karpo" (Silver Palace in the Garuda Valley). The palace contained hundreds of rooms, and its walls, she writes, were studded with gold and agate.

But the queen was unhappy with her husband. Was it because she abhorred the bloody rituals of the Bon cult and had long since become a Buddhist sympathizer, or because King Ligmigya, as a traditional folk song suggests, failed to fulfill his matrimonial duties? Most historians agree that the queen probably lured her husband into an ambush so that Songtsen Gampo's soldiers could brutally assassinate him.

The murder was followed by a decades-long, bloody religious war. "There is no doubt," says Baumann, "that Buddhism also came into Tibet carrying the sword, and that it erased the indigenous culture in much the same way that the communists later wiped out the Buddhists."

The last decisive battle was probably waged in the Garuda Valley. The fact that Baumann actually found the place involved no small measure of explorer's luck. The only thing that was clear to Baumann was that it had to be near the tiny village of Kyunglung, west of the holy Mt. Kailash.

Once again, Baumann received his confirmation from an old monk. After a two-day journey in a Jeep along the Sutlej River, the narrow valley suddenly widened into a giant amphitheater, just as Tucci had described in his report. High up on the cliff wall, a hermitage clings to the rock like an eagle's nest. Reachable only by ladders, it bears the name Yungdrung Rinchin Barba Drub Phug -- the cave of the gleaming swastika jewel. The swastika is a Bon religious symbol.

Lama Tenzin Wangdrak, who is at least 80 and who returned to the hermitage a short time after the destructive madness of the Cultural Revolution, lives in the cave, where he works as an herbal healer. As it turns out, Wangdrak was the student of a Lama with whom Tucci spoke. When Baumann asks him whether he knows where the "Silver Palace in the Garuda Valley" is, he begins laughing uproariously. "You are already there," says the old man. "It's here on these cliffs."

The next morning, in an icy wind, Baumann sets out to climb the cliffs. At an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,120 feet), every step is torture. But, as it turns out, the old man wasn't making up his story. From the top of the cliffs, Baumann realizes that the settlement must have been only part of an enormous, ancient city. At the end of the valley, which stretches for 15 kilometers (9.3 miles), Baumann can just make out the cave settlement he discovered during his canoe trip three years earlier.

The remnants of ancient foundations are everywhere, and the remains of ramparts extending several hundred meters line the top of the cliff. Locals call the mountain "Khardong," or "In the View of the Palace."

This, Baumann realizes, must have been where it all began, the cradle of Tibetan culture, in a bleak, high valley settled by nomads, at least 1,000 kilometers (622 miles) from Lhasa.

"The Silver Palace of Garuda: The Discovery of Tibet's Last Secret," by Bruno Baumann, is published this week by Verlag Malik in Munich.

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