Rock of Ages

By Viraf Mehta 1

Petroglyphs—carvings and etchings on stone—provide a fascinating account of the history of early man. The Himalaya holds many still-undiscovered treasures, says Viraf Mehta

Lungnak river Petroglyph sites at Zamthang and Char villages line the river

Lungnak river Petroglyph sites at Zamthang and Char villages line the river

On my tenth visit to Ladakh I literally stumbled into my first encounter with trans-Himalayan
rock art. The passage of time since, and another 30 visits to most corners of Ladakh in all seasons, has not diminished my passion for petroglyphs in the slightest. This karmic opportunity brought together three distinct predilections and longings: the desire to put my anthropological training to good use, exploring the earliest human cultural and artistic activity; to do so in the remote high-altitude trans-Himalayan wildernesses of Ladakh; and to be blessed by a personal audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Shara and Sasoma Petroglyph sites

Shara and Sasoma Petroglyph sites

All of these, and more, were granted by my first encounter with Ladakh’s rock art on May 30, 2009 at the Petroglyph Park in the Military Camp at Kharu, about 45km south of Leh on the main highway along the Indus river. The park contains over three dozen medium to large brown and weathered boulders on whose surface are carved recognisable motifs such as animals, hunting scenes, handprints, swastikas, suns and moons, and even a unique depiction of a chariot. The Petroglyph Park, which opened in 2006, is a laudable initiative by the Indian Army, and it is hoped it can be replicated in other parts of Ladakh.

After taking a few pictures on that first day at Kharu, I visited a bookshop in Leh and came across, in what seemed a miraculous sign, a book in French by Martin Vernier, describing a decade-long (1996–2006) exploration and documentation of rock art sites in Central Ladakh and Zanskar. Despite my inability to read French with any fluency, I devoured its contents and gleaned sufficiently that Ladakh and, particularly, the banks of the Indus was a treasure trove of rock art in the form of petroglyphs (carvings, etchings and abrasions on stone surfaces, as distinguished from painted pictures or pictographs). Their “discovery” is credited to a Moravian missionary, AH Francke, who published his findings more than a century ago. While reading Vernier’s book, I decided to devote my fullest attention and resources to visiting as many of the over hundred rock art sites listed by Vernier as possible, and to “discover” new ones in the Nubra, Changthang and Kargil regions of Ladakh.

Alchi, A petroglyph of a man hunting ibex

Alchi, A petroglyph of a man hunting ibex

I set about familiarising myself with the latest developments in the rock art field internationally and in India, as well as in the neighbouring regions of Tibet and Pakistan. It is a little-known fact that the Indus, in its 375km journey downstream from Nyoma to Batalik, boasts over 50 easily accessible rock art sites located on its banks, or close to them.

I set about familiarising myself with the latest developments in the rock art field internationally and in India, as well as in the neighbouring regions of Tibet and Pakistan. It is a little-known fact that the Indus, in its 375km journey downstream from Nyoma to Batalik, boasts over 50 easily accessible rock art sites located on its banks, or close to them.

Alchi (L): Drawings over prehistoric carvings Domkhar (R): Hunting is a dominant theme of Ladakh's rock art

Alchi (L): Drawings over prehistoric carvings || Domkhar (R): Hunting is a dominant theme of Ladakh’s rock art

From my home base in Leh, a room at the family-run Padma Guest House, I spent my first year in solitary travel to places visitors seldom visit, learning how to find or be found by rock art. Anyone who knows Ladakh will appreciate the obvious challenges of exploring its hard terrain from endless days in the blazing dehydrating heat radiating out of rocks, to the icy silence of winter and its endless nights. Add to this the slow but essential process of acclimatisation to high altitude levels (3,000–5,500m). Mistakes caused by a lack of respect for the rules of high-altitude travel can be fatal. There were several instances of my having to retreat from an expedition because the risks were too high: perhaps the route was beyond my climbing skills, the stream too deep, the ice insecure, the weather too unstable, supplies too short, or the disputed international border too close.

It is a truism that local people don’t necessarily know about everything local, and all of us who belong to the small band of rock art researchers can testify to the numerous occasions where villagers or shepherds who live in close proximity to rock art claim to never have noticed them before. When shown the images, they are surprised, and enquire with a charming innocence: Who made them? Why? When? And what do they mean? The short, honest reply is that we do not yet have adequate answers to these simple questions!

Gya Chu (L): A rare depiction of the sun Tangtse (R) A predator chasing its prey, in the Central Asian steppe style

Gya Chu (L): A rare depiction of the sun || Tangtse (R) A predator chasing its prey, in the Central Asian steppe style

We do know, however, that the rock art of Ladakh displays characteristics unique to the contexts and geographies of different regions—Changthang, Zanskar, Nubra, Sham, Purig. Overall, the pre-Buddhist rock art is characterised by predominantly animal depictions, and within these, the iconic ibex, yak, deer, horse, snow leopard, dog and Bactrian camel are featured. Unsurprisingly, the commonest theme depicting humans and animals is hunting, primarily with bow and arrow. There are also several symbols, such as swastikas, suns, moons, hands and footprints, as well as some truly mysterious “mascoids”, giants and other unusual shapes and depictions that are yet to be deciphered
or explained.

Most of what was known about rock art until Ladakh was opened for tourists in 1974 drew from Francke’s pioneering work in the early 1900s, and this amounted to about 30 sites. Recent contributions have been made by individual researchers, including Martin Vernier, Tashi Ldawa, Laurianne Bruneau, Quentin Devers and Sonam Wangchok. In the past two decades, the number of identified rock art sites has risen to over 300, and there is good reason to believe that this figure could exceed 400 or even 500 with further exploration, especially in the restricted border areas.

A tragic modern reality is that the rock art of Ladakh is being destroyed at an alarming rate by development infrastructure and other projects that are devoid of any social or cultural impact assessment. Rock art does not yet receive any legal protection in Ladakh, but it will ultimately be up to aware and concerned local citizens—with the blessings of the Dalai Lama—to protect their heritage.


Illustrations: Tashi Ldawa Thsangspa

This essay is published in April-June 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is The Himalaya and writer Stephen Alter is the guest editor of the issue.


One Comment

  1. Syed Muhammad Abbas Kazmi November 3, 2017 at 8:58 am - Reply

    A good subject to unearth the human history & religion of by gone history. I m a writer-researcher based in Skardu (Gilgit Baltistan) Pakistan controlled Kashmir. My articles on Culture are being published in monthly STAWA & Heritage Himalaya which have been approbate by readers. I m interested in to send my article on “The Mandala carvings-Buddha Rock i Skardu. Pl let me know. Thanks

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