John Vincent Bellezza
All aboard another Flight of the Khyung! Ancient art is our theme again this month, spurred on by the successes of recent expeditions. In the last two years, I have taken thousands of pictures of art from the cliffs and boulders of Upper Tibet. This rock art, located in what were once the Sumpa and Zhang Zhung kingdoms, conceals many mysteries and is a wonder to behold. I am hoping to begin compiling a comprehensive inventory of Upper Tibetan rock art this year. In the meantime, Flight of the Khyung will continue to bring you some of the most intriguing pictographs and petroglyphs of the Tibetan upland.
On January 8, I delivered a lecture to a full house at the Explorers Club headquarters in New York City. I am pleased to report that the talk appears to have been very well received. Being held in the Explorers Club, the lecture focused on the themes of exploration and adventure, which were woven into an overview of my research work.
Figures from foreign lands?
In the rock art record of Upper Tibet there are a number of compositions that stand out from the rest. This art is strange in form and execution – nothing like what the ancient Tibetans were usually painting and carving. These images contrast with the typical figurative and iconic representations, and with the religious, economic, social and political themes usually presented in Tibetan highland rock art. Exotic influences appear to be at play here. These atypical subjects may possibly be the handiwork of visitors to the uplands or they may have been created by indigenous artists documenting foreign peoples and customs. In this newsletter we’ll look at a few examples of pictographs that seem to intrude upon the artistic landscape.
The three figures are located in an eastern Changthang cave with other eccentric images that appear to have been inspired from afar. In one scene an individual leads two Bactrian camels, clearly documenting a Central Asian form of transportation (more on camels next month). Non-Tibetan ciphers or pictograms cover another rock panel in the same cave. Although it is only a hunch, I am persuaded to see our trio as of foreign origin as well. My two main reasons for this hypothesis are as follows:
1) The shorter sleeves of the garments and that they appear to have been made from a textile (note the stripes on the robe on the right). Tibetans certainly have cloth garments in this general style but their depiction in the Changthang seems idiosyncratic.
2) The manner in which the middle figure appears to sport either hair coiffed in one high bunch or a tall narrow headdress positioned on the rear of the head (yes, I think these are probably representations of male figures).
To initiate a debate, I shall put forward that this composition may depict Sogdian traders, who visited the locale (an important pilgrimage site) en route to or from Lhasa. In any case, they belong to a privileged social class or so I would think. From what is visible in the pictograph, I know this attribution is a big stretch but one must begin somewhere. If you the readers have any ideas as to the identity of these figures or comments on any other rock art featured in the newsletters, please do not hesitate to let me know. I shall highly value any reasoned input.
Pillars marking the ages
In 1999, I documented a row of eight pillars in northwestern Tibet. Six of these standing stones are integrated into a corral (still used on a seasonal basis). These pillars have proven convenient structural supports for the west wall of this corral. During the first visit, I could only shoot a few pictures, as film in the field was at a real premium. In 2011, however, I could take digital photos to my satisfaction.
My survey of many dozens of locations with pillars standing inside quadrate stone fences shows that they were erected unadorned. That the petroglyphs made on the funerary pillars we have examined are not original features, but rather later modifications, seems to furnish us with valuable clues as to when the original functions of the standing stones began to change. The same basic observation can be made for the few stelae at other walled-in pillar sites adventitiously carved with chortens and swastikas. From the stylistic indications we have examined above, this only began to occur in the early historic period.
That the pillars had a preexisting sacral or ritual status is strongly suggested by the motifs selected for carving: chortens and swastikas. This might be expected of monuments raised for the dead. The addition of this rock art seems to tell us that religious traditions were undergoing change in the early historic period, and that the funerary pillars needed to be brought into the new religious order. Buddhism began making a large impact in Tibet in the imperial period, the upper regions of the Plateau being no exception. Of course it was in that period that the Upper Tibetan kingdoms of Sumpa and Zhang Zhung were absorbed into the expanding Tibetan empire. The chortens carved on pillars appear to be emblematic of this changed political and religious landscape. Unadorned pillars of an earlier age being altered in such a way signal that a certain cultural obsolescence regarding them had set in as early as the 7th century CE. This seems to imply that the walled-in pillar monuments were no longer being built by that time.
In earlier publications, in the absence of any direct dating, I hold out the prospect that wall-in pillars may have been constructed as late as the 10th century CE, as an anachronistic funerary tradition. I now think that such a late date is unlikely. Given the rock art evidence, my current position is that the walled-in pillars were probably not raised after the close of the protohistoric period (100 BCE–650 CE). The same line of thinking can be extended to the concourses of pillars appended to temple-tombs: we can be fairly confident that they were not being built after the protohistoric period.
A new online archaeological inventory
It has only recently come to my attention that a broad inventory of archaeological monuments in the Mongolian Altai has been published online by the University of Oregon. This project to document archaeological sites on the surface was carried out by Esther Jacobson-Tepfer and her team. Those interested in Tibetan archaeology will find it rewarding to compare the ancient pillar monuments and other funerary structures of Upper Tibet with those of the Mongolian Altai. There are a number of general morphological correspondences that are worth further consideration. Professor Jacobson-Tepfer’s excellent work can be found at: http://oregondigital.org/digcol/maic/
Flying high: Horse racing in Upper Tibet
Just for fun let’s finish this issue with a few pictures of an autumn horse racing festival that took place in Ruthok, in 2011. I snapped these shots quickly between other assignments.