Genesis 1:31 versus managing the devout: on the spiritual and religious use of karst

Kevin Kiernan, Senior Geomorphologist, Forest Practices Board, Tasmania


The religious and spiritual significance of some karst phenomena is an important factor in the management of karst in the most populous countries within the potential regional catchment of ACKMA. The implications of religious significance for environmental managment are probably dependant upon the exent to which landforms and their contents are considered to have intrinsic value as opposed to their merely being instrumentally important to humans as a place to worship. Some traditional societies attach considerable intrinsic value to physical features in the natural environment, such as caves and prominent limestone hills. Religious use of karst is particularly prominent in Buddhist and in some Hindu societies, and is less well developed although not entirely absent from Christian societies. Some karsts in Thailand, China and Nepal are briefly described and some interpretation is attempted regarding the extent to which the spiritual or religious significance of particular sites has contributed to their present condition. It would appear that while religious significance based on instrumental value may aid in preventing outright destruction of some sites, it commonly also implies significant impacts including major visitor pressures - in some cases religious significance has even made karst sites a prime target for political opponents of the worshippers. Attribution of intrinsic value appears to result in more complete protection. While it is not common for intrinsic values to be openly championed in Christian countries, such an approach would be consistent with how many western environmental advocates appear to regard the natural environment.


"And God saw everthing that He had made, and behold, it was very good" - Genesis 1:31
"Morally speaking, we should be concerned for our whole environment" - Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

The corollary of Genesis 1:31 is that the cosmos and its components, the Earth and its diversity, have intrinsic value, that they are important in their own right, not merely in terms of what opportunities they may offer humans (Nash 1990). That is not a connatation that has generally been acted upon by the various political renditions of how the Judaeo-Christian faiths should be practiced, but it is inescapable nonetheless. Given different circumstances this statement might well have assumed the prominence of the instruction that Man should "subdue and have dominion" and the interpretation that "dominion" meant something other than stewardship. But this notion of intrinsic worth has not been foresaken by some faiths to which countless millions of people adhere. Particularly among some traditional societies and adherents among two mainstream faiths in Asia, a perception that aspects of the natural environment are sacred remains strong. It has major implications, both positive and negative, for nature conservation. What are the implications for cave and karst management?

ACKMA styles itself as the AustralASIAN Cave and Karst Management Association. But while some interest has been shown from some countries outside Australia and New Zealand, the perspectives and membership of the organisation remains firmly those of the developed western countries from which our Association arose. If the ASIAN in Australasian is to have any real meaning beyond some sort of hopeful karstic imperialism, we need to acknowledge and redress some major gaps in our perspectives. I would contend that one of those gaps is the fact that for the vast majority of nations in our association's potential catchment one of the prime considerations in cave and karst managment is the religious and spiritual significance of some caves and karst. The handful of people who manage karst who have gathered in this room for this conference have considerable technical expertise and can apply it readily in the cultural context within which we work in Australia and New Zealand. We can try to sell technical and intellectual solutions to the problems posed for local karsts by the tiny percentage of the Earth's population that our two nations contribute. But for populations of individual countries in our region that are sometimes orders of magnitude greater than that of our combined nations in this southern outpost of western European thinking, its not necessarily just about technical problems and money, but about tradition and the human spirit. Its not just about the best wattage lightglobe to minimise lampenflora, but about communion with God.

We may be able to sell our technical expertise to interests in Asia developing the odd cave in order to help separate tourists from their money, but there are thousands if not tens of thousands of other karstic places where the natural values we focus upon in the west effectively come second to cultural values. Those cultural values are important in their own right, and they may either contribute to, and detract from, the conservation of natural values. Natural heritage conservation might be improved with the application of some technical expertise, provided we can adequately explain why it matters or where the contradictions lie. That is unlikely to happen unless we get more in tune with cultures external to our own. Our own perspectives will have to be more compatible with the way local people think if we are to have any hope of improving the compatability between the conservation of natural and cultural values, if that is what we wish to see. In the process, perhaps we might also open up a little more of ourselves.

In this paper I'd like to introduce a few karstic holy sites from three Asian countries with which not all may be familiar, and to float a few ideas, albeit ones generated from my own blinkered western perceptions of what I have seen, before contemplating briefly some of the issues posed for karst management.


From the archaeological record contained in caves now below sea level in central America and Europe, to the worship of the limestone summit of Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the Earth, Sagarmatha or Mt Everest, call it whatever your culture has taught you, it is evident that limestone landscapes have been the subject of awe and worship since time immemorial. Both management attitudes and visitor behaviour at sites of spiritual or religious significance are likely to be influenced by just how visitors perceive a karst landform as being important. Is it intrinsically sacred, because of its very nature and existence? Is it a God in its own right, or merely the dwelling place of a God? Is it important not because it is a God, but because it belongs to a God or was made by a God? Is the feature itself an ancestor, part of an extended kinship system? Or is it sacred by virtue of an event that happened there, in mythology or in history? Or has a cave gained religious significance simply because it once offerred shelter to a monk, or because some feature within it resembles a religious icon? In many cases it is difficult if not impossible to unravel these strands. But they imply that while in some cases karst phenomena may be regarded as being important in their own right, in others it implies merely an instrumental value to humans, offerring a place to worship just as it might a place to earn tourist dollars or a place to quarry limestone for industrial purposes. Religious use of karst does not necessarily imply that its features are considered as being intrinsically valuable, or at least it does not demand that they be treated so.

Hindu peoples have commonly adopted caves as shrines, linked to a perception of the earth as the source of all things, and recognising phallic connotations of speleothems (Dunkley 1994). Hence sites such as Amarnath Cave in the Kashmir Himalayas are venues of pilgrimage, where the old and the sick in quest of healing are among those who make the two day trek to worship the sole ice stalagmite, and also among the thirty or so deaths that occur each June (Waltham 1974). Similarly, the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur are important to the Hindu peoples of that area. Here until 1981 an ACKMA cave manager may not have shared his Kashmiri colleagues' concern for visitor safety so much as a concern about the limestone mining that over the years since the first proclamation of a public recreation reserve in 1931 saw that reserve progressively revoked (Hamilton-Smith 1989). But with such large visitor numbers as these caves attract, what managment issues arise? Does the religious value of the cave result in visitor behaviour more likely to safeguard its natural values, or is any fervour otherwise directed?

Caves and karst are also important in the Buddhist faith, reaching its peak in the cave temples of Thailand. There is probably more than one reason for this prominence (Dunkley 1994). Firstly, events in the life of Buddha have probably been important. During his Noble Quest, Buddha visited Rajagaha on the southern side of the Himalayas in India, there seeking a guru among the ascetics and hermits living in the caves. Later in his life he received the Prime Minister of Magadha State in one cave, and after the death of Buddha his followers are said by some to have gathered there. There are ongoing links with karst in the Ramakien, a very influential piece of classical Thai literature. A further factor is likely to be the rules that govern the behaviour of monks, who must forego worldly goods and who are not permitted to ask even for shelter. Caves have provided useful shelter, and solitude for meditation was available in rugged karst (Dunkley 1994). Buddhist use of caves is also prominent in Burma, where statuary and other relicts occur in numerous caves, such as Pindaya Cave, Shwe Ohm-min Cave and Mimehtu Cave in southern Shan state, and the Bingyi Caves and Kogun Cave near Moulmein (Dunkley et al. 1989). Other Buddhist cave temples exist in Vietnam, Laos and elsewhere. Although the practical focus of Buddhist compassion is most conspicuously on the living and sentient, its theory extends more widely: "Just as we should cultivate gentle and peaceful relations with our fellow human beings, we should also extend that same kind of attitude towards the natural environment" (Dalai Lama 1988).

While Christianity may be the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen (White 1967), rejecting animism and pantheism and adopting a monotheistic outlook instead, karst is not entirely irrelevant to Christianity either. For instance, each year around 3 million people visit the grotto at Lourdes where the Virgin Mary is said to have revealed herself to a peasant girl, Benadette Soubiros, in 1858. Other caves significant to Christians include Covadonga Cave in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain and La Balme in southeast France, where a chapel has been constructed in the entrance to a show cave (Waltham 1974). For the most part, however, Christianity is more divorced from nature, including karst and caves, than the faiths of Asia. For 2000 years the biblical gift of dominion over the Earth has generally been interpreted as licensed despotism rather than trusteeship (Nash 1990), although not all Christians agree with this interpretation of their basic text (Settler 1954, Santmire 1975, White 1978, Wilkinson 1980). Whether they profess Christianity or not, the perspectives of our own political leaders have evolved in an ethical framework that derives from the Christian faith, and the decisons they make on the environment or anything else reflect that influence.


Some 95% of the Thai population professes Buddhism. At least 200 caves are currently used for worship, meditation or retreat. Some caves have been used by Buddhists for religious purposes for 1000 years, and even today the religious use of caves continues to be initiated on the frontiers of settlement (Dunkley 1994). Victoria's caving priest, Ken Bolan, has coined the very apt term "monastic karst" to describe such places.

The karsts of Thailand have formed primarily in limestones of Permian age, and less conspicuously in Ordovician limestones and in some other carbonate formations. The longest known cave, the 12.6km long Tham Mae Lana (tham=cave) lies in the impressive mountain karsts of Mae Hong Son in the northwest. The limestones and dolomites of the northwest and west extend into Burma and represent essentially the same formations as those in which such celebrated Burmese karst as that at Moulemein has developed (Kiernan 1991, Dunkley 1995). Very spectacular tower karst occurs in some parts of Thailand, the best known being around Phangnga in the south of the country where some of the towerkarst has been drowned by postglacial sea level rise to produce a stunning landscape of improbable islands up to several hundred metres high (Kiernan 1994).

Early evidence of karst sites having spiritual significance to the population of what is now Thailand is to be found in the many cave burial sites that have been recorded in the mountains of the country's northwest. Here split and hollowed log coffins up to several metres long have been stashed in caves that generally are difficult of access due either to their physical setting or to high levels of CO2 in the cave atmosphere. The age of these coffins is unconfirmed but they probably date from the last two millenia. The Shan and hilltribe communities who currently live in these mountains do not use caves in this way and do not seem to accord the burial caves any particular respect, but nevertheless refer to them generically as "spirit caves" (Kiernan 1986, Kiernan et al, 1988). Even so, the present mountain population persists with animist beliefs, respecting some sites with karstic connections, such as some curiously shaped rock outcrops.

For the most part, only the most robust components of the cave environment appear to have survived the use of caves as Buddhist religious sites. At caves such as Tham Chiang Dao in northern Thailand the cave entrance has been transformed totally through construction of an impressive flight of roofed steps that leads to an equally impressive cave. However, here as in many other such caves visitor traffic is not confined to fixed routes, and spelothems have suffered considerable defacement. Or so it might seem to our western eyes, but in the eyes of the local community the purpose of these caves is more for worship and making money than nature conservation. In some Thai caves stalagmites have actually been carved to enhance their likeness to a seated Buddha, although for the most part the sometimes very abundant statuary has been imported to the cave.

Some of these temple caves linger in the memory for their tranquility, and for the smell of incense wafting among the stalactites. One of my favourites is Tham Chombung near Ratchaburi, a most attractive cave that ends in a large chamber that contains an 8m long reclining Buddha, lit from a daylight hole in the roof. A large population of monkeys finds sanctuary around Tham Chombung, highlighting how some of the karst and cave temples provide sanctuary for wildlife. Expansive forest wats (wat=temple) play the most important role in this regard.

In some cases extractive industry becomes a remarkably close bedfellow of cave temples. At Tham Phra Ek near Ratchaburi, the small cave lies in a hillock seemingly inundated by Buddhas yet bearing a limestone quarry on one side. In some cases it is possible that shrines have been built at caves to which visitors were attracted for other, sometimes commercial, reasons rather than having been holy sites from the outset. This may influence the degree of protection that is considered warranted.

Development has completely overwhelmed the original character of some sites. Perhaps the most striking example is Koa Noi in Ratburi province. On a small limestone hillock lies a major temple complex which I first visited during its development in 1985. The development includes pavilions and expansive stairways, two pagodas several storeys high, and a large Buddha statue with a conveyor belt that carries the finacial offerings of the devout high up to the the bowl that rests upon the Buddha's lap. It took me some time to locate the original focus of the site, two tiny grottoes just a few metres across, lost amid the concrete and construction that has removed all trace of the original karst in the immediate surrounds of the grottoes.

The roots of nature conservation in China lie in three influences evident in chinese gardens: a stress on the simple and ancient that flows from Confucianism; the view of humanity as being in constant search for unity with the universe that flows from Taoism; and the Buddhist perception of summits as sacred places (McLaughlin 1982). Some caves have also been viewed as sacred places. Eastern religions are less focussed on individual rights than is the case in the west, there tending to be submersion of the individual as part of the whole. Intrinsic rights have been perceived as extending to the limits of the universe. The divine power or spirit such as the Tao permeated all things and beings, animate or inanimate. A purpose, a potential or significance resides in all of Taosim's "Ten Thousand Things" (Nash 1990). Against this stands the imperative of survival in an impoverished, overpopulated society: if it moves, eat it. Recreational and aesthetic perspectives have tended to predominate when land has been set aside for reserves. The sites selected for more scientific purposes reflect the same biocentric preoccupation and disregard of geodiversity as has tended to be evident in the west .

Exposed karst extends over ~910 000 km2 in China, and if covered karst is included the total extent is ~3 400 000 km2 or roughly 33% of the country (Lu Yaoru 1986). China is the world's most populous nation and about one fifth of the earth's human population are Chinese peasants, millions of whom live in karsts. Karst occurs at all altitudes from sea level to the summit of the highest mountain on Earth, from subtropical forests to deserts. Its best known manifestation lies in the specacular tower karsts so prominent in Guangxi province and elsewhere. I have seen only a tiny proportion of China's huge area of karst, populated by only a tiny fraction of the many nationalities, at least 55, who have long lived in intimate association with karst landscapes and some of whom have developed spititual connections with it.

My own observations have been confined to parts of Guangxi province, where frescoes 2000 years old sensitively depict the karst mountains and rock formations. There the internment of human remains in burial urns placed in caves is still common in some areas, and there is use of caves and karst towers by Buddhists and others, notwithstanding the supression of religious activity following the advent of Mao. Some festivals that probably have religious roots are still conducted in pagodas high on karst towers, such as a festival of homage to the age I once witnessed on a visit to Yangshui in Guangxi province.

Some of the perspectives that have grown from religious roots have augured both well and badly for karst management. The construction of gardens and temples has meant the modification of some karst hills, though I have seen nothing in China that has so thoroughly suppressed the local surface karst as has happened at Koa Noi in Thailand. But in many cases the landscape transformation at the broader scale has been fairly moderate, and the gardens and temples have probably served to protect some karst towers to some degree from more damaging forms of development, such as limestone quarrying.

The perception of some caves as being sacred has probably helped safeguard them from deliberate destruction, although the carving of statuary has sometimes led to considerable modification of outcrops and caves. Inscriptions on the walls of caves in the hill that includes Reed Flute Cave in Guilin span 77 different dynasties with 93 incriptions form the Sung dynasty alone. White Dragon Cave near Yishan is also notworthy for ancient inscriptions, Buddhist carvings and statues. Despite these artefacts being located in an area where visitors assemble, they remain unvandalised and appear to be treated with great respect, having survived even the cultural revolution. In Laojing Cave near Yangshui where a factory has been built in a cave, presumably for military purposes, its walls were kept a few metres distant from Taoist inscriptions 800-1000 years old. However the massive numbers of visitors attracted to some caves, and the failure to confine the traffic to defined routes, has led to a huge impact on the underground environment (Kiernan 1991, White 1993).

More than 200 statues 50-200cm high have been carved into the limestone outcrops of Western Hill in Guilin City, dating from the spread of Buddhism into southern China in the Tang dynasty. While many were defaced by the mindless vandalism that was part of the cultural revolution, many remain intact. The advent of a more capitalist perspective in China probably augurs well for their future, since they are now seen as being of interest to tourists, and hence as potential contibutors to the winning of foreign exchange. The same might be true of what little remains of some karstic religious sites in occupied Tibet, otherwise annihilated in a bid to annihilate the culture and spirit of the local people whose nation the Chinese over-ran, but now potentially worth money. Similarly, the significance of the tourist dollar seems largely to have taken over from the earlier religious significance of some caves in Guangxi.


Although cave temples are not as highly developed in Nepal as in Buddhist Thailand, religious use of the Nepalese karst is given additional interest by the manner in which sites and even festivals are shared between faiths. The two principal religions of Nepal are Hinduism and Buddhism, accounting respectively for 89.5% and 5.3% of the population, hence, the predominance of Hindus in Nepal is almost as great as that of Buddhists in Thailand. Buddhism arrived in Tibet in the seventh century and was absorbed by the B'on faith, the resident animist belief in many gods. Tibetan Lamaism is a mixture of the old animism which involves mysticism, magic and demonaltry, overlaid by Buddhism (Boardman 1982).

Limestone is widespread in the Nepal Himalayas, extending to the top of Sagarmatha. Its presence has given rise to some speculation among cavers that cave systems of considerable depth might exist - indeed, the Goons once proposed climbing the world's highest mountain from the inside. However, the prospects for caves aren't actually that good, due both to the nature of the limestone and also to its setting. The summit pyramid of the "Goddess Mother of the Earth" is formed from the Sagarmatha Formation, ranging in age from Carboniferous to Permian and comprising greyish sandy limestones, often dolomitic or shaley, with crinoid debris. This formation is banded due to the alternation of pure limestone with sandy layers, both several millimetres thick. The base of the Sagarmatha Formation is the "Yellow Band" immortalised in mountaineering literature, 120m thick and consisting of shaley clay, silty and sandy limestones. Some 50m beneath it is the lower yellow band, part of the Nuptse-Lhotse Formation and consisting of metamorphosed silty rocks with some clayey sandstone and limestone (Harris 1980). Added to this abundance of relatively insoluble interbeds is the occurrence of this limestone in an environment where precipitation is predominantly in solid rather than liquid form, mass transfer downslope occurs more by avalanche than by meltwater, and mechanical rather than chemical weathering is dominant. Hence, the prospects for large karst caves are not good.

Some of the limestone summits have long been revered as the dwelling place of gods, indeed the abbott of Tengboche told a returning Hilary and Tenzing that they obviously hadn't trodden the summit of Sagarmatha since they hadn't met the gods. Nor, presumably, have those who have trodden there since, yet as recently as 1971 villagers of Beding in the Rolwaling Valley petitioned Kathmandu to keep the summit of their sacred Gauri Sankar untrodden. But as the New Zealand anthropologist Elsdon Best (1954) remarked "the lot of people of the higher culture plain, when brought into contact with those of an inferior grade, is not to cultivate their sense of the abstract, but to curb it". Today as the influence of the west spreads through these mountains one hears little of such gods, though the beliefs may still dwell quietly within the villagers.

The only functioning commercial tourist cave in Nepal at present is Mahendra Gupha (gupha = cave) which comprises a couple of hundred metres of mostly muddied passage, formed in detrital limestone and located ~50m from the edge of a terrace above the Kali Khola, north of Pokhara. I saw no evidence there of significant religious relicts, nor at another nearby cave (Oderibuwan Gupha or Chameri (=bat) Gupha), apparently discovered only five years ago following clearing of the jungle that was previously tiger habitat. This cave contains a large population of bats. But another large population of bats may have suffered due to the religious use of Nepal's largest cave (and possibly the largest cave in the Indian subcontinent) Patale Chhango (Harpan River Cave). This cave engulfs the Mardi Khola, the outflow stream from Phewa Tal (tal = lake), the large lake beside which Pokhara has developed. The stream channel upstream of the cave, up to 20m wide and 15m deep, carries little water prior to the onset of the monsoon, but overflows with its arrival. Some 3 km of passage has been explored via several entrances. The most spectacular entrance is a popular tourist site known as Devi's Falls, reputedly named after a young British women who was taking a romantic swim with her boyfriend in the pools just upstream of the 38m deep shaft when the floodgates on the dam at the lake were opened. A park with walkways has been developed around the waterfall by the local Chhorepatan High School which continues to manage the park and charges 5 rupees admittance. Current development for visitors of another entrance to the cave, one previously filled with garbage, has included the construction of a shrine with a fireplace in a chamber reported previously to have housed a large bat population (Pavey 1976), the fire elevating the cave temperature and depleting atmospheric oxygen.

The Seti Khola (khola=river) near Pokhara flows through a spectacular gorge at least 1 km long and up to ~80m deep that forms a natural barrier to communications but which has the potential to be a significant local tourist attraction. Even in the dry season prodigious volumes of water pour down this narrow gorge, which is roofed totally in one or two places. Small scale karstic subsidence and collapse sometimes seen in the unlined culverts around Pokhara reaches its most emphatic expression where the main Pokhara-Kathmandu highway has had to be relocated following failure of the foundations of the former Seti Khola bridge. But according to my local informants the gorge itself is also a highway, albeit one avoided by the locals especially after dark, since its travellers are souls passing from the mountains to the lowlands.

The greatest limestone valley of all is perhaps so vast as to hide its size from those within it. Between the summit of Dhaulagiri (8167 m) to the west and Annapurna 1 (8091 m) 34 km to the east the floor of the Kali Gandaki in the Larjung-Tukuche area lies at ~2500m altitude: the valley here is thus 5600 m deep or roughly three times the depth of the Grand Canyon, albeit that this deep reach is much shorter. The western side of the valley descends from 8167m on Dhaulagiri to 2500m at Larjung in a horizontal distance of only 10 km, then ascends eastwards to 6839m at Nilgiri South within another 12 km. In his mountaineering classic Annapurna, Herzog (1952) records small caves near the Miristi Khola, a tributary of the Kali Gandaki that drains the area between the Nilgiris and the Annapurnas. Small caves are known in the Nilgiri Limestone near Tukche, and a limestone pavement is present at Dhaulagiri Meadows. Small caves formed entirely in tufa are known at Kursangmo, west of Larjung (Waltham 1971). I have also seen large tufa accumulations perched rather incongruously on the arid northern side of the Jhong Khola (Khola = river) between Kagbeni and Dzong in the Mustang area, a northward projection of Nepal into Tibet.

Tufa accumulations are common in the moister Marsyandi Valley that drains the eastern side of the Annapurnas, one example lying on the north bank of the Khangsar Khola ~1 km upstream from its confluence with the Jhargeng Khola to form the Marsyangdi River. The slope angles on some of the moraine walls in this area are staggeringly steep, as exemplified in the moraines of the Gangapurna Glacier south of Manang. These steep moraine slopes may be due, at least in part, to the abundant carbonate providing a degree of cementation, coupled with the generally arid conditions. The only caves I have been in anywhere in the Annapurnas are some non-karstic rock shelters, one of which overlooks Manang and has been developed as a small gompa and residence for the local lama, and some caves formed in snow and ice: the impressive terminal ice cave of the Gangapurna Glacier itself; some short but spacious caves in old avalanche debris along the Modi Khola that flows from the Annapurna Sanctuary; and some rubble-filled holes in the South Annapurna Glacier. Some glacier caves in the Himalayas are of religious significance and pilgimage, especially where they are the source of sacred rivers. For example, the Ganges combines the waters of the Bhagirath River, which issues from two outflow caves in the snout of the Gangotria Glacier at 4200m in the Central Himalayas, with the Alakanada River, which discharges from a glacier cave in the next valley (Holmes 1965).

At these altitudes, and particularly given the arid conditions that apply, chemical weathering tends to be overwhelmed by mechanical weathering. Erosional landforms produced by dissolution of limestone are generally uncommon, notwithstanding the presence of rounded subsurface karren at altitudes of up to ~4700m at Thorung Phedi at the head of the Jhargeng Khola. Karst towers occur at 5200m in nearby Tibet (Zhang 1980, Lu 1986). However, the karst of southern Tibet is characterised by frost weathered pinnacles with mechanically-derived rock debris between them. The caves there are mostly small, sometimes phreatic glacial meltwater caves (Sweeting et al, 1988).

The principal karstic religious sites around the Annapurnas lie in the Kali Gandaki Valley. Gupteswary Cave at Kusma, 29 km west of Pokhara, is a famous Hindu shrine. Formed in calcareous till, it is a two-level resurgence cave, well decorated but only 100m long (Waltham 1971). The most famous site is Muktinath, which lies at the foot of the Thorung La, a high pass that gives access to the upper Marysangdi Valley. Muktinath is situated at ~3800m altitude at a karstic spring complex. The springs emerge at several points downslope of a limestone bluff, but the bedrock conduits are inaccessible due to a thick mantle of frost shattered rock debris, in a similar manner to the mantling of springs by frost-weathered debris in nearby parts of southern Tibet (Sweeting et al, 1988). The source of the springs at Muktinath is presumably meltwater derived from the glaciers and snowfields upslope towards the Thorung La (5416m) and on the slopes of Khatung Kang, or Thorungtse, (6484m). These slopes are themselves heavily mantled by frost shattered debris while at the summit of the Thorung La the only surface sculpturing the rocks is glacial gouging that is being revaled as the Khatung Kang glaciers recede. Liquid water persists as melt lakes amid the moraines. Muktinath is an oasis of trees draped in hundreds of prayer flags andsurrounded by stone walls: with its collection of temples and sacred fountains, it is overlooked by the glaciers of the Himalayas, and yet gazes across virtual desert into the deepest valley in the world; it is truly an extraordinary place. All this is capped off by one other very special aspect of Muktinath, to be found behind the curtains beneath the altar in the Buddhist gompa, where emerging natural gas burns in the darkness beside the emerging spring waters. Downslope of the holy site at Muktinath the spring waters are used for the generation of hydro-electricity.

Indian nationals predominate among the pilgrims who venture to Muktinath, but according to local people to whom I spoke other foreign nationals prominent among the pilgrims include Germans, Americans, Thais, Japanese, Taiwanese and Australians. Many fly to Jomson, a days walk or horse trek downvalley, but some walk the whole distance from India. These pilgrims compound the pressure on already severely over-stressed local firewood resources. Severe deforestation has resulted, but for the sacred forest around the shrines, followed by severe wind erosion of the soils. The pressure on firewood supplies increased when the area was opened to western trekkers in 1976 (Rowell 1980). Muktinath is shared between the Buddhist and Hindu faiths and there seem major differences between the management of the two sectors. The Buddhist sector contains a basic gompa and residence, and abundant chortens, the largest being graves, that seem almost to mimic the naturally craggy landscape amid which they are set. However, the gompa is less well kept than appears to have been the case in the past, perhaps because much more time must now be spent seeking firewood from distant forests. A sponsored tree-planting scheme is now also underway at Muktinath, where two newly-planted trees bear the names of my own children. This scheme appears mostly focussed in the Hindu sector. The Hindu sector is much more highly developed than the Buddhist sector, and the character of the landscape quite different, with more ornate temples and accomomodation facilities for pilgrims. My own interest in Muktinath was first sparked by an evocative photograph and description by the American photographer Galen Rowell (1980), but more recently Rowell has lamented that it is no longer possible to duplicate the photographs he first took due to insensitive placement of an ugly accommodation block (Rowell 1993).

Karst features in various other parts of Nepal also have religious significance. Pickering (1994) records another cave that contains a Hindu shrine south of Pokhara in the Mahabharat Hills. Further south at least one small roadside grotto in a village beside the Siddartha Highway contains a small Hindu shrine. The Siddhartha Highway links India to Pokhara, linking at the same time the birthplace of Buddha at Lumbini in southern Nepal to the Kali Gandaki. It passes through another impressively deep limestone valley, part of the Andhi Khola Valley.

Karst is also known in the Kathmandu Valley, the most readily accessible lying just a few kilometres outside the city at Chobar, where the Bagmati River passes through a short limestone gorge. The main set of caves at Chobhar are known as Chakhu Bhakhu Pwa (Sparrow-Pigeon Caves) (Pavey 1976). Developed pathways lead to the entrances, all small and requiring crawling, and giving access to ~100m of passages. Although Munthe et al (1975) record the presence of statuary that possibly implies at least some religious significance, it has not prevented the site being highly degraded: it appears unkempt and unappreciated, while the mouth of the short gorge in which the caves occur has been greatly modified by limestone quarrying. An important Hindu temple, Jal Binayak, occurs at the gorge outlet, but like the rest of the vicinity has a somewhat neglected appearance, largely through being covered in dust from an adjacent cement works. Nanak (1994) suggests that this cement factory is a significant contributor to the legendary air pollution of Kathmandu. While there has been recent public debate regarding the image problems the city suffers as a result of garbage in the streets, Nanak argues that the quality of the air is of far greater consequence, and is critical that the cement works has poured dust into the atmosphere for nearly 20 years with no public or bureaucratic protest, and with no wet scrubbers fitted. Another case perhaps, of how far reaching the implications of karst management can be. As Nanek made his protest, an unfortunately timed advertising campaign for white cement saw large billboards around the city bearing the slogan "Snowfall in Kathmandu".

Several kilometres further south in the Bagmati Valley lies Gorakhnath Cave, but I have not seen it. A local tourism publication records that the shrine of Shekha Narayan "stands on a hillock, beneath a stalactite rock". Another Nepalese cave of religious significance is Halesi Gupha, located in the crest of a ridge on the east bank of the Dudh Kosi-Sun Kosi confluence. This comprises a 30m passage that leads to a chamber 45m high, used for religious festivals on the birthday of Ram. Shivaji Gupha, Bhojpur, is also used for religious purposes (Waltham 1974, Munthe et al, 1975).


The spiritual and religious significance of these caves and karst has probably contributed to their preservation in the face of some potential threats posed by extractive industry or other causes, but has often generated other management problems in the process. The religious significance of karst sites can have deleterious impacts on the environment above ground as well as below it, as evident from the unsustainable pressures that have developed around Muktinath. The sight of pilgrims gathering the sacred waters from the springs and fountains of Muktinath recalls the images of devout Christians collecting holy water from Lourdes. In 1988 the holy water at Lourdes was found to be polluted by a rubbish tip 7 km distant. In some cases the religious fervour appears to have been directed in such a way as to permit the original character of the site to have been erased utterly by the extent of development that has occurred. The virtual inundation beneath concrete of the original Buddhist grotto at Koanoi, and the very similar overwhelming of the grotto at Lourdes by Christian cathedrals and tourist stalls, have much in common.

In the case of some larger caves in southeast Asia, religious significance has sometimes meant the advent of visitor pressures that have led to major degradation of the internal cave environment. In many cases local cave temples begin by seeking a small donation and progress to charging a small fee. As the cave becomes better known and attracts increased attention all the usual problems of a tourist cave begin to develop, without the management having either the technical capacity to respond or the resources to cope with the magnitude of the impacts that can be inflicted by visitor numbers on an Asian scale: I have seen as many people pass through China's Reed Flute Cave in a couple of hours as pass through Tasmania's most popular tourist cave in an entire year.

Religious significance is not necessarily a plus in cave management terms unless that significance derives from the nature of the place itself rather than merely from its associations, and even if the former should be the case just how well the site fares depends on the philosophy. In some cases caves have been left as little more than empty tunnels, having about as much resemblance to a karst landform as does a dirty subway. That may appall an ACKMA member from Australia or New Zealand, but it is not inconsistent with what is perceived as being the function of the cave in that culture. There is little doubt that damage to the natural heritage of some caves could be reduced using technical solutions. But such solutions are unlikely to be sought if no inconsistency is perceived between what is happening to the cave and the ethical responsibilities implied by the faith, just as western theology seems generally disinterested in recognising or responding to the inconsistencies some perceive to exist between the Word and the practice.

Another of the downsides when caves and karst have religious significance is obvious from some instances in China. Just as the tradition of Christmas trees may have had its origins in campaigns by early European Christians to lay waste to the sacred groves of northern Europe that harboured animist spirits, allegiance to which they sought to overthrow (Nash 1990), so too have some religious symbols of China's past suffered under the fanaticism of new regimes. While a place may be sacred to some, to their political enemies its symbolic value may make it a target for deliberate attack. This is as evident from the fate of many religious sites in China and Tibet when Mao's Red Guards were in their ascendency, as from the fate of a celebrated 2000 year old Huon Pine that towered above the limestone hillside in Tasmania until hacked and burned by a resentful "Black Guard" from among the defeated aspirants of damming the Lower Gordon and Franklin rivers. While some karst sites of religious significance in China have been deliberately vandalised for political reasons, so too has deliberate military action inflicted damage to at least one karstic religious site, albeit for different reasons. In 1969 an unmarked but probably American aircraft fired a single rocket into Tham Phiu in Laos, but the damage to the cave pales into insignificance beside the killing of 400 villagers who had fled into its sanctuary. However, while it may be difficult to cope with the unpredictable arrival of Mongol hordes, the actions of less conspicuous but more pervasive Philistines may ultimately cause the greater damage to the karst environment. Maybe the treatment of karst here in our own European outposts offshore from Asia is a fair reflection of where lies the true faith of our societies.

Genesis 1:31 could have been interpreted by Christians as an indication that all parts of our environment have an intrinsic value that should be respected. It might have provided a basis for retaining nature in mainstream Christian faith as Asian faiths have retained it, but for 2000 years the Bible has not been so interpreted (Nash 1990). The animist traditions of many native peoples and the co-fellowship with nature evident among the indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand (Best 1954, Flood 1983) contrasts sharply with conventional interpretations of the Bible. In one biblical myth God instructed Noah how "the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the field, and upon every bird in the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground". Or as modernised by lawyer Harry Reicher, advocate for the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania during the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests Commission of Inquiry when he responded to the news that 35 000 rare or unique species of insects and invertebrates might exist in the area: "When most people think of these flies, worms, grubs and bugs, they think not in terms of World Heritage value, they think in terms of Mortein" (Times on Sunday 22 November 1987). Interpreting the biblical mythologies as they have been interpreted, the western Christian tradition has had little need for rites to placate a Tane before trees are chopped down, as was the case in pre-Christian New Zealand. In Aboriginal Australia every major topographic feature was once endowed with mythological significance, there was a system of kinship with both the animate and inanimate (Ling Roth 1899, Flood 1983). As Flood (1983) remarks "the places where Aboriginal people gather for the great ceremonies are not marked by formal structures - the land is their cathedral", while as Nash (1990) remarks, if wild places are one's church, why not defend them on ethical grounds?

In Australia the spiritual dimension of land management seems to me somewhat repressed, intellectualised into uneasy submission. Perhaps it lingers in the Madonna and Child stalagmite clusters that seem to creep into the spiel of every cave guide, and in the Cathedral Chambers that are a feature of so many of our tourist caves. Flowstone cascades named as the Organ Pipes, and sometimes even recorded hymns, are not unknown from our tourist caves. Church services have been conducted in caves such as Mass Cave at Bungonia, NSW (Nurse 1972), and Marakoopa Cave at Mole Creek, Tasmania. The consecration as a church of one cave at Jenolan also hints that the extent to which religious perspectives on karst within our own culture and those of some of our Asian neighbours may not really be so many worlds apart as first impressions might suggest. But in our present society, seeking as it currently does to resolve environmental issues by means of technical arguments and processes, and which rejects or even ridicules people's personal feelings on issues as being too emotional to take into account, considerations of the human spirit tend to be relegated to at best an almost embarassed token word or two, some lines from a social scientist theorising about how people feel, or a few scraps tossed to the New Agers. All buried among the technical figures and interpretations. Or so it is at least among the Europeans who dominate our two lands: it does not appear to have been so to the indigenous inhabitants whose home and whose dreaming we have over-run and supressed. Perhaps we wouldn't have the votes if we were to also count the raised hands of the dead, stretching back for 50 000 years before the recent arrival of our presumptuousness and our cult of science. And long before cave managers said display lights must not be coloured, and even before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had to be described instead as a cluster of speleothems formed from calcium carbonate. There is plenty of intellectualism in eastern societies too of course, but the underlying assumptions and the starting points are often very different.

Kshirsagar (1991) records the strong coincidence in India between sites of geological and geomorphological interest, and sites that are considered sacred and which become places of pilgrimage. He goes so far as to suggest that the declaration of geologically interesting places as pilgrimage sites, and therefore sacred, is actually demanded by Indian culture! I cannot help but wonder whether a feature as singularly prominent as Mt Etna would have been quarried in a Buddhist land? Would a culture that would hold sacred the lakes of Gosainkund, making pilgrimages that demanded days of travel on foot through steep and unrelenting mountain trails, have destroyed a Lake Pedder, or dismissed its location a mere three hours walk across a flat button-grass plain as making it a place so remote as to be unusable other than by a minority so tiny and so selfish that it should be discounted? Would caves such as those at Flowery Gully in Tasmania where aboriginal relicts were found, have been so readily removed from the face of the Earth by a society that believed in an extended system of kinship with landforms? I suspect not, but I also suspect the values that might have saved these places would probably have also given rise to what ACKMA would perceive as major management problems related to visitor pressures. Nevertheless, visitor pressures are at least problems capable of resolution, whereas the total removal of significant caves and karst phenomena by, say, limestone quarrying, is not resolvable.

At any rate, perhaps it all boils down to our being faced with two paths. One path involves seeking protection of karst values beyond our shores through developing our understanding and respect for cultures external to ours. The other path has more to do with our advocacy for caves and karst at home. I am sure that all of us here feel that caves and karst have intrinsic value, that they do not need to have some instrumental value to humans to justify their continued existence. Is it really appropriate that the principal advocates for cave and karst management in this part of the world should continue to go along with our societies' silence about the intrinsic value of such places, not arguing for what I suspect all of us believe, even if to date we haven't been game to say it? Why should we let the Philistines continue to get away with their bluff? If we don't speak up who will? And I guess that second path may also be about opening up ourselves, for how many of us, however committed to what we see as our scientific views of the world, will really go to the grave with total eqanimity, and when at last devoid of the protective shells we have worn throughout our lives, feel totally secure that we've got it right?


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