Myths are stories that are based on tradition. Some may have factual origins, while others are completely fictional. But myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures. Myths are sacred tales that explain the world and man's experience. Myths are as relevant to us today as they were to the ancients. Myths answer timeless questions and serve as a compass to each generation. The myths of lost paradise, for example, give people hope that by living a virtuous life, they can earn a better life in the hereafter. The myths of a golden age give people hope that there are great leaders who will improve their lives. The hero's quest is a model for young men and women to follow, as they accept adult responsibilities. Some myths simply reassure, such as myths that explain natural phenomena as the actions of gods, rather than arbitrary events of nature.
The subjects of myths reflect the universal concerns of mankind throughout history: birth, death, the afterlife, the origin of man and the world, good and evil and the nature of man himself. A myth taps into a universal cultural narrative, the collective wisdom of man. An excellent illustration of the universality of these themes is that so many peoples who have had no contact with each other create myths that are remarkably similar. So, for example, cultures worldwide, from the Middle East to the distant mountains of South America have myths about great floods, virgin births, and the afterlife (more examples of these archetypal themes are in the Myths & Archetypes section of the website).
Unlike fairy tales, myths are not always optimistic. True to the nature of life, the essence of myths is such that they are as often warnings as promises; as often laments as celebrations. Many myths are instructive and act as a guide to social norms, taking on cultural taboos such as incest, fratricide, and greed.
Myths are also pervasive in the arts and advertising, for a very simple reason. From film to cars to perfume, advertising uses visual metaphors to speak to us. While artists of every generation reinterpret myths, the same basic patterns have shown up in mythology for thousands of years. A name, phrase, or image based on a familiar myth can speak volumes to those who have been absorbing these mythic tales since birth. When we hear the expression, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" or when we see a television commercial featuring a wooden horse full of soldiers, we recognize the reference to Odysseus, who tricked the Trojans into admitting an army into their city this way.
When Jacqueline Kennedy referred to her husband's tenure as a new Camelot, we understand that she meant it was a golden age, like that of King Arthur. When the Greek government dubbed a campaign to rescue ethnic Greeks from behind the walls of the Iron Curtain "Operation Golden Fleece," we understood that they were invoking an ancient name to communicate that these people belonged to them. Each generation of storytellers adds another layer of fact and fiction to the myths, such that the themes and characters of myths are timeless, and endlessly relevant, as they are reinvented and reapplied to the lives of each new generation.
Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, and particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. In the novel Lost Horizon, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance. The word also evokes the imagery of exoticism of the Orient. In the ancient Tibetan scriptures, existence of seven such places is mentioned as Nghe-Beyul Khembalung. Khembalung is one of several beyuls ("hidden lands" similar to Shangri-La) believed to have been created by Padmasambhava in the 8th century as idyllic, sacred places of refuge for Buddhists during times of strife (Reinhard 1978).
Some scholars believe that the Shangri-La story owes a literary debt to Shambhala, a mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which was sought by Eastern and Western explorers.
The phrase "Shangri-La" most probably comes from the Tibetan ཞང་,"Shang" - a district of Ü-Tsang, north of Tashilhunpo" + རི, pronounced "ri", "Mountain" = "Shang Mountain" + ལ, Mountain Pass, which suggests that the area is accessed to, or is named by, "Shang Mountain Pass".
In China, the poet Tao Yuanming (陶淵明) of the Jin Dynasty (265–420) described a kind of Shangri-La in his work The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring (simplified Chinese: 桃花源记; traditional Chinese: 桃花源記; pinyin: Táohuā Yuán Jì). The story goes that there was a fisherman from Wuling, who came across a beautiful peach grove, and he discovered happy and content people who lived completely cut off from the troubles in the outside world since the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE). In modern China, the Zhongdian county was renamed to Xiānggélǐlā (香格里拉, Shangri-La in Chinese) in 2001, to attract tourists. The legendary Kun Lun Mountains (崑崙山) offer another possible place for the Shangri-La valleys.
A popularly believed physical inspiration for Hilton's Shangri-La is the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan, close to the Chinese border, which Hilton visited a few years before Lost Horizon was published. Being an isolated green valley surrounded by mountains, enclosed on the western end of the Himalayas, it closely matches the physical description in the novel. The Hunza Valley, however, lacks Tibetan culture and the Buddhist religion, so could not have been Hilton's cultural inspiration for Lost Horizon.
The cultural representation of Shangri-La is most often cited to be northwestern Yunnan Province, China, where National Geographic explorer Joseph Rock lived and traveled during the 1920s and early 1930s and wrote several articles in National Geographic magazine that are richly illustrated with superb photography. This coincides with the time when James Hilton would have been writing Lost Horizon, but there is no direct evidence to support this claim. The evidence points to another set of explorers. In a New York Times interview in 1936, Hilton states that he used "Tibetan material" from the British Museum, particularly the travelogue of two French priests, Evariste Regis Huc and Joseph Gabet, to provide the Tibetan cultural and Buddhist spiritual inspiration for Shangri-La. Huc and Gabet travelled a roundtrip between Beijing and Lhasa in 1844–46 on a route more than 250 kilometres (160 mi) north of Yunnan. Their famous travelogue, first published in French in 1850, went through many editions in many languages. A popular "condensed translation" was published in England in 1928, at the time that Hilton would have been getting inspired for — or even writing — Lost Horizon.
Today, various places claim the title, such as parts of southern Kham in northwestern Yunnan province, including the tourist destinations of Lijiang and Zhongdian. Places like Sichuan and Tibet also claim the real Shangri-La was in their territory. In 2001, Tibet Autonomous Region put forward a proposal that the three regions optimise all Shangri-La tourism resources and promote them as one. After failed attempts to establish a China Shangri-la Ecological Tourism Zone in 2002 and 2003, government representatives of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and Tibet Autonomous Region signed a declaration of cooperation in 2004. Also in 2001, Zhongdian County in northwestern Yunnan officially renamed itself Shangri-La County.
Television presenter and historian Michael Wood, in the "Shangri-La" episode of the BBC documentary series In Search of Myths and Heroes, suggests that the legendary Shangri-La is the abandoned city of Tsaparang in upper Satluj valley, and that its two great temples were once home to the kings of Guge in modern Tibet. It is speculated that Sang-la, Chitkul in Sangla valley near Indo-Tibet Border is Shangri-la. La in spiti/Kinnauri like in Tibetan Language is word for Mountain pass. Kamru Village in Sangla was the ancient capital of Bushahr which was a Buddhist state until conquered by Gurkhas.
American explorers Ted Vaill and Peter Klika visited the Muli area of southern Sichuan Province in 1999, and claimed that the Muli monastery in this remote region was the model for James Hilton's Shangri-La, which they thought Hilton learned about from articles on this area in several National Geographic magazine articles in the late 1920s and early 1930s written by Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock. Michael McRae unearthed an obscure James Hilton interview from a New York Times gossip column where he reveals his cultural inspiration for Shangri-La and, if it is any place, it is more than 250 km north of Muli on the route travelled by Huc and Gabet. Vaill completed a film based on their research, "Finding Shangri-La", which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.
On December 2, 2010, OPB televised one of Martin Yan's Hidden China episodes "Life in Shangri-La", in which Yan said that "Shangri-La" is the actual name of a real town in the hilly and mountainous region in northwestern Yunnan Province, frequented by both Han and Tibetan locals. Martin Yan visited arts and craft shops, local farmers as they harvest crops, and sampled their cuisine.
Shangri-La is often used in a similar context to "Garden of Eden", to represent a paradise hidden from modern man. It is sometimes used as an analogy for a lifelong quest or something elusive that is much sought. For a man who spends his life obsessively looking for a cure to a disease, such a cure could be said to be that man's "Shangri-La". It also might be used to represent perfection that is sought by man in the form of love, happiness, or Utopian ideals. It may be used in this context alongside other mythical and famous examples of somewhat similar metaphors such as El Dorado, The Fountain of Youth, and The Holy Grail.
Various states, geographically and politically isolated from the West, have been termed Shangri-Las. These include Bhutan, the Han Dynasty outpost DunhuangMongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, the Tocharian Tushara Kingdom of the Mahābhārata, and Tuva.
1. Shrestha, Dr. Tirtha Bahadur; Joshi, Rabindra Man and Sangam, Khagendra (July 2009). The Makalu-Barun National Park & Buffer Zone Brochure. Makalu-Barun National Park.
2. LePage, Victoria (1996). Shambhala: The Fascinating Truth Behind The Myth Of Shangri-La.
3. Chandra Das - Tibetan English Dictionary
4. Yutang, Lin (translator). "The Peach Colony by Tao Yuanming". Retrieved 2011-11-19.
5. "Shangri-la Valley". Adventure Tours Pakistan. June 20, 2006. Archived from the original on 2006-06-15. Retrieved 2006-07-29.
6. Michael McRae. 2002. The Siege of Shangri-La: The Quest for Tibet's Sacred Hidden Paradise. New York: Broadway Books.
7. B.R. Crisler. 1936. Film gossip of the week. The New York Times, July 26, section 9, page 3.
8. Evariste Regis Huc. 1850. Souvenirs d'un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet et la Chine pendant les annees 1844, 1845, et 1846. Paris.
9. Beatrice Mille. 1953. A selective survey of literature on Tibet. American Political Science Review 47(4): 1135–1151.
10. Evariste Regis Huc and Joseph Gabet. 1928. Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China, 1844–46. Edited and translated by William Hazlitt. London: Routledge.
11. "Could This Be the Way to Shangri-La?" by Timothy Carroll, Electronic Telegraph, London, July 29, 2002.
12. "Planetary Names: Albedo Feature: Shangri-La on Titan". Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. Retrieved 2012-01-27.
The tale of an earthly paradise is among the most enduring myths in the world. From Sumerian epic to the 'islands of the blest' in Celtic literature, it has been a recurring theme through many bodies of literature and for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, then, modern people have also been drawn to the dream of a lost paradise where the ravages of time and history have been held back, where human beings live in harmony with nature, and where the wisdom of the planet is saved for future generations. In other words, to a Shangri-La.
The story of Shangri-La itself is a modern one, told by the English novelist James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon (1933). Set in the troubled years before World War Two, the book tells of a community in a lamasery (a monastery for Tibetan lamas), in the lost Tibetan valley of Shangri-La, cut off from the world and from time. All the wisdom of the human race is contained in this place, in the cultural treasures stored, and in the minds of the people who have gathered here in the face of an imminent catastrophe.
Hilton's tale struck a chord. The book enjoyed great popularity, and even the retreat of the US president at Camp David was called Shangri-La, after the paradise described in it. And when the novel was turned into a Hollywood movie by Frank Capra, it was an instant success. These days, the name is part of the language, used everywhere from Nepali airlines and Chinese hotel chains to holiday cottages in Florida and Torquay.
Lost Horizon was a tale for its times. In the increasingly pessimistic 1930s, when Western civilisation seemed bent on a path to self-destruction - and when, as Carl Jung put it, 'the smell of burning was in the air' - the story of a kind of earthly paradise had an irresistible appeal. And Tibet in the 1930s was still a land of mystery, one of the last unmapped places, a forbidden and insular country. Nowadays, of course, the choice of the location of the tale seems all the more poignant, given what happened in Tibet some years after the book was published, with the Chinese invasion of 1949, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
Tale of 'Lost Horizon'
Mt Kailash, the most sacred mountain in Tibet--travellers must pass it to reach the ancient Gu-ge Kingdom. In the novel, a group of Westerners is rescued by plane from war and chaos in Central Asia, only to crash-land in a remote valley surrounded by the highest mountains in the world. The location of the fictional lost valley is never precisely pinpointed, but on its last fateful flight the plane appears to be heading northeast from Afghanistan across the Karakorum mountains, part of the Himalayan range, and Hilton clearly imagined that it landed somewhere in the then unexplored far west of Tibet. It was a repository of all the cultural treasures of the planet, and its inhabitants were opposed to all violence and materialism.
He tells us that in the valley there was a lamasery, headed by a 200-year-old Capuchin lama. It was a repository of all the cultural treasures of the planet, and its inhabitants were opposed to all violence and materialism. This lamasery stood in the shadow of a magnificent white mountain, 'the loveliest mountain on earth ... an almost perfect cone of snow, a dazzling pyramid so radiant, so serenely poised that it scarcely seemed to be real'.
But on what older tale was this exotic story based? Did Hilton have an actual place in mind? Was there indeed a real Shangri-La? And why does the myth of an earthly paradise seem to have such a hold on the human imagination?
The tale of a lost kingdom in the region of the Tibetan mountains first came to Western attention nearly four centuries ago. And like many a tale of hidden treasure, it starts with a mysterious map - this one lost, then rediscovered a hundred years ago in Calcutta. It was part of a remarkable manuscript that contained the autobiography of a 16th-century Western missionary at the court of the Moghul emperor Akbar.
At Akbar's time India still reigned glorious at the centre of the civilised world, but the winds were changing and the great power of Asian lands was just beginning to reduce, under pressure from the modernity of Europe. In partial response to this shifting world, Akbar gathered scholars of all races around him, hoping to find the common basis of all religions, in order to remove the sources of religious conflict for the good of humankind. As he put it:
It now becomes clear ... that it cannot be right to assert the truth of one faith above any other ... In this way we may perhaps again open the door whose key has been lost.
Thus in his court congregated Hindus, Yogis and Sadhus from all corners of his empire, as well as visiting Christian monks and pilgrims from western lands. This was the moment when Westerners first heard accounts of what lay beyond the Himalayan mountains, the very first time that Tibet entered the consciousness of Europeans.
One visiting Jesuit priest summarised the strange stories he heard at the court of Akbar in an essay, and sketched an accompanying map. On his map the area of Tibet is depicted as a great white blank, except for one place, labelled 'Manasarovar lacus' (Lake Manasarovar), with next to it a tantalising scribbled note saying, 'Here it is said Christians live'.
The priest who penned the map was old, and incapable of undertaking a dangerous mission across high mountain passes in search of an obscure community of Christians. But his successor, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary named Antonio Andrade, was galvanised by the tale, and determined to go in search of these people.
Andrade set out from Akbar's court, armed with the map, and at first followed yogis and wandering pilgrims on the road across the mountains. The terrain soon became hostile, but Andrade did eventually find an impressive and wealthy kingdom - although no Christians lived there - and his account of his adventurous journey was rediscovered in Calcutta in the 19th century. It was republished in 1926 under the title Discovery of Tibet, and Hilton's Lost Horizon obviously owes much to this work.
This idea of a lost kingdom somewhere in the Himalayas has also circulated in Tibetan Buddhist teaching for centuries, and may well itself have been told at the court of Akbar. The name Shambala first appears in a text known as the Kalachakra tantra - or Wheel of Time teaching. The Kalachakra doctrine belongs to the highest level of Buddhist Mahayana teaching, and those who follow it can reach enlightenment in just a number of years rather than a whole lifetime.
In this doctrine, the place named Shambala appears as a mystical conception, a spiritual rather than a geographical goal. (Curiously, although the tale is known now as a Tibetan myth, it seems that it was first recorded in AD 966 in India.) The Buddhist Kalachakra tale tells of a land behind the Himalayas, ruled by a gracious King Sucandra, who was the first to learn the Kalachakra doctrine from Buddha Sakyamuni himself.
In Shambala, the people lived in peace and harmony, faithful to the principles of Buddhism, and the concepts of war and sorrow were unknown. Shambala is a magic land, unlike any place on earth, and rests in the shadow of a magnificent white mountain. As one commentator on the Kalachakra tantra puts it:
The land of Shambala lies in a valley. It is only approachable through a ring of snow peaks like the petals of a lotus ... At the centre is a nine-storey crystal mountain which stands over a sacred lake, and a palace adorned with lapis, coral, gems and pearls. Shambala is a kingdom where humanity's wisdom is spared from the destructions and corruptions of time and history, ready to save the world in its hour of need.
The prophecy of Shambala states that each of its 32 kings will rule for 100 years. As their reigns pass, conditions in the outside world will deteriorate. Men will become obsessed with war and pursue power for its own sake and materialism will triumph over all spiritual life. Eventually an evil tyrant will emerge to oppress the earth in a despotic reign of terror. But just when the world seems on the brink of total downfall and destruction, the mists will lift to reveal the icy mountains of Shambala. Then the 32nd king of Shambala, Rudra Cakrin, will lead a mighty army against the tyrant and his supporters and in a last great battle, they will be destroyed and peace restored.
As we have seen, the tale of Shangri-La is a modern tale, with a powerful appeal for today's world - but its roots lie deep in much older times. We live in a period when global problems threaten to overwhelm us, and instil us with fear. The appeal of the tales of Shambala and Shangri-La lies in their connection with this fear - both recognising it and alleviating it - and this appeal is universal. The stories reflect our desire that something of our world will survive, and that our connection with our past will not be entirely erased, even as we move faster and faster into an uncertain future. These are tales that we still need to believe in today.
Lost Horizons by James Hilton
Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia 1603-1721 by C Wessels (Book Faith India, 2002)
Tibet Handbook by Gyurme Dorje (Footprint Books, 1999)
The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Govinda (Hutchinson, 1966)
Tibet in Pictures by Li Gotami Govinda (Dharma Publishing, 1979)
A Mountain in Tibet by Charles Allen (Abacus, 1982)
The Search for Shangri-La, 1999 by Charles Allen (Abacus, 1999)
The Way to Shambala by Edwin Bernbaum (Anchor Books,1980)
In Search of Shangri-La by Elaine Brook (Jonathan Cape, 1996)
The Tibet Guide by S Batchelor (Wisdom Publications, 1987)
In an attempt to unravel a mystery, a team of internationally renowned climbers and explorers join forces with archaeologists, anthropologists and art historians to climb into unexplored cave complexes that humans had not entered for hundreds if not thousands of years. What they find inside will rock the Himalayan world and re-write the history of this remote and mystical region.
The story takes place in the legendary Kingdom of Mustang, a hidden corner of the Himalayas previously off-limits to outsiders. Hundreds of caves punctuate the sacred landscape and little is known about why they were carved out, how they have been used, and what lies inside the mysterious caves. Just a year earlier, during their scout, the team discovered a rare library of ancient Tibetan texts, thousands of hand-inked folios in dust-laden piles inside the caves. Their aim now is to return to the caves and rescue the texts from the crumbling landscape and retrieve them before looters get to them. The texts are adorned with beautiful "illuminations," small paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars on the international art market. As they prepare to climb up into the caves, a group of youth from a nearby village try to stop them. What ensues is an intriguing set of events that involve the King of Mustang, the highest lama of the land, and indeed the divinities that reside in the nearby cliffs.
The texts are from the pre-Buddhist religion known as Bon. This little-understood faith is the indigenous faith of Tibet, upon which Tibetan Buddhist culture is founded. Yet the religion has suffered persecution over the years and has been nearly wiped out. To find an ancient treasure-trove of both Buddhist and Bon texts, some completely unknown, is of high value to the remaining Bon practitioners and anthropologists like Charles Ramble from Oxford University's Oriental Institute: "These caves are probably the most reliable indicator of the continuous history of this area because they've always been used. The kinds of things we find in there, from the archaeological record, to perhaps the richest literary repository we've found means that these really are the places on which we need to focus if we want to establish as full as possible a picture of the history and culture of the Himalaya."
As they explore further caves, the researchers uncover priceless wall paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries that have been hidden from view for hundreds of years due to the inaccessibility of the caves. The paintings are relics from the past that are as valuable as uncovering an unknown Rembrandt, yet adorning the walls of crumbling caves. The question of whether this mystical land could be Shangri-La is answered both by the experts and the locals in this cinematically stunning film.
On their final days of exploration, the team uncovers the holy grail of archaeology in this region: ancient human remains. Inside secret caves, skulls, vertebrae, and pelvises, confirm the team's hypothesis that the extensive human-carved cave systems of Upper Mustang were carved some 2700 years ago for funerary purposes. "We do strange things when it comes to venerating our dead," remarks Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, archaeologist from the University of Arizona. "Look at the Pyramids of Egypt and the practices of the Maya."