The Great Plunder

How antiquities stolen from the Himalayas end up in museums and private collections around the world.

By Steve Chao for 101 East

Climbing 3,000 metres above sea level, the road to Mustang, Nepal, is steep and difficult. In fact, calling it a road is overly generous.

“Hold on,” says Tashi Bista, our local guide. “This section gets a bit tricky.”

About a decade ago, when reporter Steve Chao first made the trek to Mustang with Tashi, this was a narrow walking path and everything had to be carried in on pack horses.

Mustang is now connected to the outside world. While that has brought lots of benefits, it also brought problems.

Experts estimate that as much as 80 percent of Nepal’s antiquities have been plundered from the country.

In this monastery, a collection of ancient Buddha statues are hidden out of view. But Tashi still worries that they may fall into the wrong hands.

"For us, it’s the religious value" says Tashi. “A treasure like this if taken away would be an absolute disaster.”

Lo Manthang

Chime Gurung is a Tibetan spiritual leader. He is one of the guardians of a sacred relic kept in this monastery. This room is normally off limits to outsiders.

“There is something here I want to show you,” says Chime Gurung.

“It’s a very important script.”

This 700-year-old manuscript was rescued from a neighbouring stupa - which houses sacred scriptures - after a break-in. But another one has already been stolen.

Protecting the gods

We travel on horseback with Chime Gurung to one of the region's most remote monasteries. He wants to check if the ancient statues they've kept there are safe from thieves. To protect their treasures, we keep the location a secret.

The altitude takes its toll as we climb up the cliffs to the monastery built into the hillside.

“To many people outside of Nepal, they see them as works of art,” says Tashi. “But for us, they are living gods - gods that are being taken from us.”

Sadly, we’re too late.

The idols have had their bases cut open and the treasures inside stolen.

The hidden rooms of the Gongkang

Through a narrow tunnel, we reach a special room. The deities residing here are meant to protect the monastery and the neighbouring villages.

But these days, the deities themselves need protection.

High on the mountain, Chime and the monks pray to keep Nepal’s ancient treasures safe for the future.