In the Tibetan belief system, beyuls are hidden valleys in the Himalayas that can protect the faithful during times of crisis. As spaces consecrated by Guru Padmasambhava himself, these are places of material abundance, spiritual harmony, and eternal life.
Indeed as one travels in the Himalayas, whether to Beyul Kyimolung or Beyul Khembalung, one cannot help but think if the stories are really true. You feel a stillness of the mind when you get there, and you find that Himalayan Tahr will practically feed off your hands. You also find that people seldom complain despite the extreme ruggedness of the terrain and are always eager to crack a joke. And, as you see untold varieties of flowers in the alpine landscape, you cannot help but think how many of them are medicinal?
One cannot help but wonder if we moved there, could we actually slow down aging?
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Is beyul just like Shangri-La and Shambhala?
While there is some overlap in the concept of Shangri-la, Shambhala, and beyul, they are very different from one another.
Shangri-La is a fictional land popularized by British author James Hilton in his book The Lost Horizon, for starters. While the Shangri-La is also imagined to be this mystical and hidden land where people live forever in utopian harmony, the author envisions Shangri-La to be located at a ‘single’ place somewhere to the west Kunlun Mountains.
Beyuls, on the other hand, are neither fictional nor entirely geographical. To the followers of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, beyuls have protected them from the Mongol invasion, countless internal strifes, and the communists. As such, beyuls are as real as real gets. Also, while most of the beyuls lie to the south of the Himalayas, they are more than a geographic concept. As a matter of fact, a person can enter a beyul and yet be oblivious to it. Unless you have the correct perception, you will probably remain blind to a beyul’s presence. And lastly, unlike Shangri-La, there are many beyuls.
Shambhala is perhaps the inspiration for James Hilton’s Shangri-La. In both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Shambhala is understood to be a ‘source of happiness.’ Both traditions also believe that when materialism reigns worldwide, Shambhala will be the last refuge for spirituality. And it is from here, under the reigns of a noble leader (Kalki in Hinduism / Maitreya in Buddhism), that spirituality will again prevail over the world. However, the exact location is subject to debate, ranging from Himachal Pradesh in India to Belukha Mountains in Russia.
However, just like beyul, Shambhala also has both physical and spiritual dimensions. Despite the many similarities, they are different as beyul is simply a refuge and not a staging point for mass enlightenment.
While Shangri-La and Shambhala are closer to the concept of heaven that is universal to many religions, beyul is a more nuanced idea that has both physical and spiritual elements to it. Let us try to understand some of the motivations for the origins of the concept:
How did beyuls come about?
To understand the origin stories of beyul, it is necessary to first look at the geography and history of Tibet.
Tibet is, in essence, a high-altitude desert. Dry, windswept with very little vegetation, etching out a living in Tibet is not fun.
Tibet is also lacking in natural boundaries and fortifications. This has led to invasions by the Mongols, Chinese, Nepalese, and even the British.
Add to this the internal rivalries between the different sects of Buddhism and the fact that the Nyingmapas never enjoyed political power like those of the Sakya and Gelug sects.
All this lead to the concept of beyul, which essentially is
A geographical aspiration
Most of the beyuls lie to the south side of the Himalayas. This means better soil, a temperate climate, and plentiful rainfall. This, of course, means a lot more crops, medicinal plants, and livestock. Compared to Tibet, it isn’t perhaps a stretch to say that in a beyul, food is always plentiful, people are healthy, and toils are meager.
A political affirmation
Given that most of the land to the south of the Himalayas was already inhabited by indigenous people, beyuls make encroachments legitimate. This becomes especially compelling once you consider that beyuls are discovered by tertons (treasure finders) that find terma. Now terma or ter are teachings hidden by Guru Padmasambhava in these lands way back in time. As such, when a Nyingmapa terton finds them, he is simply reclaiming the land on behalf of the Guru.
As such, a discovery of land already inhabited by people was possible because of the concept of beyul.
A spiritual expression
But above all, beyuls are the ultimate spiritual expression of the Nyingmapas. As the oldest sect of Buddhism in Tibet, Nyingmapas have a history of incorporation instead of conversion. They incorporated local beliefs, animistic deities, and cultural conventions into a larger framework of Buddhism. For example, the animistic deities of Khumbu Yul-Lha and Chomolungma exist together with Manjushree and Chenrezig in Beyul Khumbu.
In many ways, it is like they simply add a layer to what was already there.
And one of the most essential components of that layer is harmony. As one walks from Philim to Serang in Beyul Kyimolung, one cannot help but notice that wild animals gradually lose their fear of people as you enter the beyul. While gorals will run away from as far as hundred meters in Philim, at Serang Gompa, the Himalayan Tahrs will practically feed off your hands.
How were beyuls discovered?
If you think of discovering a beyul on a physical plane, there isn’t much to it. You cross the Nathu La, and there you are in Beyul Demoshong, you cross the Nangpa la, and you are in Beyul Khumbu.
However, beyuls are more profound than what the eyes can see. To begin with, we have to understand that when Guru Padmasambhava was spreading Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayas in the eighth century, he didn’t force it down anyone’s throat. If he felt a place wasn’t ready to fully embrace Buddhism, he just let it be.
Rather than try to change the situation, he simply hid termas or treasure scrolls at these places and in the mind of one of his disciples.
The idea was that the disciple would be born again as a terton at an opportune time. After being reminded of the way to the beyul in a vision, he would find the hidden termas. And if the time and the company were right, he would eventually open the gates to the beyul.
Why and how to visit a beyul?
For us in this modern age, the reason to visit a beyul is a no-brainer. The stunning beauty of these lands is enticing enough to detach you from the trappings of modern existence. Lack of wifi and telecommunications in a lot of these lands helps a lot to truly disconnect. You will perhaps see clearly how incomplete the web of rationality is and perhaps reassess what is truly important in life.
However, most people simply just walk through a beyul and, in their hurry in getting from point A to point B, never really get to appreciate the true essence of a beyul.
They will perhaps see Tibetan Snowcocks foraging a few feet away but never really imbibe the compassion behind the fearlessness of these wild birds. They will perhaps see the simplicity of life in these lands but never truly understand the cycle of desire, anger, and ignorance.
Rather than why visit a beyul, the more important question to ask is how to visit one. While we are not going to pretend we have all the answers, we understand that being a prisoner of time and ambition is not the most fruitful way. You are not there to take a picture, win a race, or get a blue ribbon to brag about. You are there as a pilgrim. You are there to surrender.
List of beyuls
As a place beyond the duality of geography and fantasy, beyuls are a bit difficult to place. It is most definitely not as simple as dropping a pin on a map.
There isn’t an exhaustive list and depending upon the account, the number of beyuls range from seven to twenty. Religious texts that detail the way to a beyul are not always present, and even when they are, they can be equivocal. For example, northern Bhutan, Arun Valley, and Everest Regions are all candidates for Beyul Khembalung.
Rather than become a prisoner of facts, we have been very accepting while creating the following list. Perhaps the utility of a beyul, if there is one, lies in acceptance and bliss rather than certainty and logic.
Beyul Kyimolung – The Hidden Valley of Happiness
With the Nubri Monastery (also called Serang Gompa) at its center, Beyul Kyimolung is located in the Manaslu Region of Nepal. And what a location it is in! Protected by two hanging glaciers on either side, twin peaks of Shringi Mountain above, and a raging canyon below, this place is lovely.
Michael Aris, who visited the beyul with a young lama in 1972, recounts a touching episode, “The peasants came up to their young lama, picked a wildflower growing nearby and, bending low, presented this to him. Throughout Tibetan Buddhist areas, offerings are made in terms of cash or kind, their quantity being prescribed by traditional codes of behavior, but a flower is surely the purest symbol of offering. In fact, the word used to signify offerings of cash or kind to a high religious personage is the word “flower” (me.tog).”
Other nearby sites relevant to the beyul are the Paksang and Bukhur Caves, the Dupchu eternal waterfall, and the footprints of a Dakini on stone. Also important are the Tsum Valley and Phungen Gompa in the greater Manaslu Area.
Beyul Khembalung – Hidden Valley of Artemisia
There is some disagreement about the exact location of this beyul. While Michael Aris locates this beyul in Bhutan, most recent research has shown that Kembalung is located in the Arun River Valley in eastern Nepal.
The central feature of this beyul is a cave about eleven kilometers from the Arun River close to a place called Dobatak. Other essential features of the beyul are a cave called Dubitar and twin caves called Shengi Duka and Sheci Duka (locally known as Shiva Dhara and Parvati Gufa). The last feature is close to the Makalu Base Camp and is at least 6 days’ march from the main cave.
Beyul Namgo Dagam – Heavenly Gate of Half-Moon Form
Given the hidden nature of most beyuls, it will come as a surprise that Beyul Namgo Dagam lies on the popular Langtang trekking trail.
This beyul is said to have been discovered by Terton Renzin Nyida Longse in 1680. He confirmed the location of the beyul after seeing two caves used by Guru Padmasambhava.
Another story relates to the accidental discovery of this land. Once upon a time, there was a yak bull (lang) and a yak cow (bri). The people who owned these animals were planning to slaughter them for a ritual the following day. Little did they know that the yaks had supernatural powers, and learning the owners’ plan, fled during the night. The cow later vanished in the ground at a spot that became Bridim. The bull went further up the valley and, once it found an excellent grazing spot, retired there happily. Once the terton and the yak owner found the bull, they realized that this was no ordinary yak. It was actually the Guru’s messenger to help the terton find Beyul Namgo Dagam.
The land from there on also came to be known as Langtang (lang- yak bull/tang – happily relaxed)
Beyul Yolmo – Secret Valley screened by Snowy Peaks
Located in the Helambu Region, close to the capital city of Kathmandu, Beyul Yolmo is perhaps one of the most accessible of the beyuls.
Even though this place has a history that goes back to the time of Milarepa in the eleventh century, the place’s beyul aspect is said to have been discovered by Shakya Zangpo, a disciple of Rigzin Gödem. As legend has it, he discovered this beyul after following an antelope horn he threw into the air. The horn, of course, fell on the beyul, and at the exact spot where the horn fell, a colossal juniper tree came about. Close to the spot, Shakya Zangpo founded Chiri Ghyang, the first Buddhist monastery in the area.
Other important sites in the area are Milarepa’s Meditation Cave, Guru Padhmasambhava’s Cave, and the protector deity of Mount Ama Yangri.
Beyul Khandro Rolwaling – Playful Ground of the Dakinis
This beyul is located west of the Everest Region and east of Kathmandu in a valley right below Mount Gauri Shankar (Tserigma in Tibetan). It is located on a side valley along the traditional route from Kathmandu to Tingri.
The most important site in this beyul is the cave used by Guru Padmasambhava, also called Urgyen Dubkhang. It is situated close to the settlement of Na. A few hours away from the settlement lies another important site, the Milarepa Cave. Some other holy sites here are the Na Gompa, Bedding Gompa, and the rock of Guru Rimpoche and Khandro Yeshe Tshogyal.
Beyul Khumbu is perhaps the most visited of the beyuls as it coincides with the Everest Region. However, most of the important spiritual sites in Beyul Khumbu are not on the busy Everest Base Camp Trek.
Legend has it that after achieving immortality in the Maratika Caves, Guru Rimpoche came to the Adkar Cave on the slopes of Khumbi Yul-lha mountain. After meditating there for a few days, he is said to have predicted that one day someone will rediscover the beyul he has hidden in the region.
Indeed as the place became a refuge for Tibetans in the fifteenth, nineteenth, and then again in the twentieth century, the Guru’s prophecy has come true. It is also interesting to note that despite the volume of visitors in the area, the Himalayan Tahrs and Himalaya Snowcocks are still very tame.
Some essential sites in the region are the Nangkartshang Cave, Pangboche Monastery, Lawudo Cave Retreat, Thame Monastery, and Gumela Monastery.
Beyul Demoshong – The Great Hidden Valley of Rice
Despite having a rather utilitarian name, this beyul is perhaps one of the oldest ones to have been opened. Lying parallel to western Sikkim with Tashiding as the spiritual center, this beyul was discovered by the greatest Lingpa that ever lived, Rigzin Godemchen. As the Lingpa lived from 1337 to 1409, Beyul Demoshong must have been founded sometime in the mid-fourteenth century.
Interestingly, despite the early opening, there have been numerous other later openings. About two centuries after Rigzin Godemchen, three lamas opened three gates protecting the beyul. Even as recently as 1962, another famed Lama, Tulshuk Lingpa, perished while trying to open one of the gates to Beyul Demoshong.
While western Sikkim is an integral part of the beyul in some interpretations, not everyone agreed. Actually, for many lamas, Beyul Demoshong is located along the southern slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga.
Beyul Pemako – Hidden Land Shaped like a Lotus
Pemako is perhaps the most famous of the beyuls. To begin with, its location at the region where the mighty Brahmaputra River (Tsangpo) pierces the Himalayas on its march towards the ocean is absolutely stunning. Featuring bottomless canyons and the serpentine Tsangpo, this beyul is located in the Arunachal Pradesh of India and the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Also, as legend has it, the entrance to this beyul is by way of a huge waterfall, just like in James Hilton’s Shangri-La. No wonder this beyul has caught the fascination of the western audience. Indeed a huge 108 feet waterfall was found by a National Geographic Expedition in 1998, and many called it the finding of the Shangri-La.
However, it was only the first time that someone had measured the fall. Previously sometime after the invasion of Tibet, Kanjur Rinpoche is said to have found the waterfall and entered it to find a valley filled with rainbows. Other holy sites in the area are Buddha Tsepung, Pemakii Chung, Rinchenpung, and Kondii Dosern Potrang.
Some other places that are said to be beyuls are Rongshar, Pemaling Tsho and Tsari in Tibet, Chorten Nyima in Sikkim, Lapchi and Dolpo in Nepal, and Langdra in Bhutan.
Further Reading and References
Aris, Michael (1975). Report on the University of California Expedition to Kutang and Nubri in Northern Nepal in Autumn 1973. Link
Baker, Ian (2004). The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise. Link
Bishop, Peter (1989). The Myth of Shangri-La. Link
Chan, Victor (1994). Tibet Handbook – A Pilgrimage Guide. Link
Lim, Francis Khek Gee (2004). Zombie Slayers in a “Hidden Valley”: Sacred Geography and Political Organisation in the Nepal-Tibet Borderland. Link
Orofino, Giacomella (1991). The Tibetan Myth of the Hidden Valley in the Visionary Geography of Nepal. Link
Reinhard, Johan (1978). Khembalung: The Hidden Valley. Kailash -Journal of Himalayan Studies, Volume 6, Number 1, 1978. Link
Shor, Thomas K (2012 ). A Step Away from Paradise A Tibetan Lamas Extraordinary Journey to a Land of Immortality. Link
Spoon and Sherpa (2008). Beyul Khumbu: the Sherpa and Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal. Link
Torri, David (2020). Landscape, Ritual, and Identity Among the Hyolmo of Nepal. Link