Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Kyung

January 2018

John Vincent Bellezza

Flight of the Khyung would like to wish all readers a Happy New Year! May 2018 bring you much peace and contentment. This month’s issue presents the third and final portion of a monograph on ancient shrines in the rock art of Tibet. These depictions chart the religious development of uppermost Tibet in the first millennium CE. From archaic cults to the dawn of Buddhism and Yungdrung Bon, important new archaeological findings are presented here for the first time.

A Comprehensive Survey of Stepped Shrines in the Rock Art of Upper Tibet: With Archaeological, Cultural and Historical Comments

This monograph is organized as follows:

Introduction to the stepped shrine rock art of Upper Tibet (November 2017)

List of rock art sites with stepped shrines

Part I – The origins of stepped shrines in Upper Tibet (November 2017)

Elementary stepped shrines

Part II – Typological illustrations and data on stepped shrines in Upper Tibetan rock art (December 2017)

Key to typological inventory
Group I: elementary two-tiered shrines
Group II: elementary three-tiered shrines
Group III: elementary four-tiered shrines
Group IV: elementary multi-tiered shrines
Group V: elementary segmented shrines
Group VI: elementary shrines with spatulate or crescent-shaped finials
Group VII: elementary shrines with multi-foliate finial
Group VIII: elementary shrines with tricuspidate finial
Group IX: idiosyncratic elementary shrines
Group X: shrines with small bulbous upper section
Group XI: twin shrines sharing common base
Group XII: simple style chortens
Group XIII: chortens with forked finial
Group XIV: chortens with cross-piece spire
Group XVI: flat-topped chortens
Group XVII: chortens with simple spires
Group XVIII: intricate non-Buddhist chortens
Group XIX: intricate chortens of Brag gyam
Group XX: Buddhist chortens

Part III – Cross-cultural influences acting upon stepped shrines in Upper Tibetan rock art (January 2018)

Northern Pakistan

Conclusion (January 2018)

Bibliography (January 2018)

Catalogue of photographs of stepped shrines in Upper Tibetan rock art (January 2018)

Part III – Cross-cultural influences acting upon stepped shrines in Upper Tibetan rock art


Elementary stepped shrine forms occur in rock art in a contiguous belt extending from the eastern Byang thang to northern Pakistan. The distribution of cognate rudimentary stepped shrines in Upper Tibet, Spiti, Ladakh, and northern Pakistan reflect the diffusion of a set of non-Buddhist artistic elements throughout the wider region in the Protohistoric period. This part of the monograph examines potential mechanisms of transfer and the cultural implications behind the pervasive reach of elementary stepped shrines.

There are also chortens in the rock art of Ladakh, Baltistan, Indus Kohistan, Gilgit, Chitral, and Wakhan with design traits recalling those in Upper Tibet, including forked finials (some with a pointed or rounded element in between the prongs), pyramidal and cigar-shaped spires, squat vases, and wide terraced bases. Accompanying Tibetan inscriptions brand some of these northwestern chortens as Buddhist-inspired monuments while the religious orientation of others appears to be non-Buddhist.

In the Tibetan historical tradition, the introduction of Buddhism in Upper Tibet is chiefly linked to the efforts of the so-called dharma kings (chos rgyal) such as Srong btsan sgam po and Khri srong lde’u btsan or powerful saints like Gu ru rin po che and Śāntarakṣita. As I shall show, the assemblage of rock art chortens in far western Tibet indicates that lands to the northwest played a crucial role in the appearance of Buddhist artistic traditions in western Tibet in the Early Historic period.*

It must be noted that no demonstrable archaeological, artistic or epigraphic evidence for the spread of Buddhism to Upper Tibet before the 7th century CE has been forthcoming. This squarely contradicts the theory that the religion of the region in the pre-7th century CE era was a type of Central Asian Buddhism. Upper Tibetans of the Protohistoric period must have been aware of Buddhism through trading partners, emissaries, pilgrims, invaders, etc., but this religion was not widely adopted by them at that time.


S1. Petro (MP-C), Spo thang kha (Spiti), 12 cm

S2. Petro (DP-C), Sa skal thang (Kinnaur), 16 cm / Note: Based on its form and physical condition, this highly eroded specimen appears to date to the Protohistoric period.

S3. Petro (MP-C), La ri ting mjug (Spiti)

S4. Petro (MP-C), Gyur mo (Spiti), 38 cm

S5. Petro (MP-C), Shel la rtse (Spiti), 58 cm

Not surprisingly, the region with elementary tiered shrines most closely matching types in Upper Tibet is Spiti, adjoining its western flank.* Traditionally, Spiti enjoyed geographic access all year round to Gu ge Chu mur ti in Upper Tibet.† Only petroglyphic stepped shrines are found in Spiti rock art, while pictographic varieties are common in the eastern Byang thang. Many of the more than 30 stepped shrines I have documented in the rock art of Spiti are stylistically and technically analogous to Upper Tibetan Groups II (see specimen S1), III, IV (S2), X (S3, S4), and XVIII (S5).‡ Given parallels in style and the lack of Tibetan inscriptions, Spitian examples appear to have a non-Buddhist or possibly a syncretic religious identity.

On these depictions in Spiti, see Bellezza 2015a, figs. 47–70, Thakur 2008, pp. 30 (fig. 8), 31, 33 (fig. 15). Thakur (ibid.) characterizes these archaic stepped shrines as “bon po”. I have also previously used the decidedly generic term ‘bon’ to identify the non-Buddhist religious orientation of analogous rock art chortens in Upper Tibet. See Bellezza 2002, pp. 128, 129.

On geographic access between Spiti and Gu ge, see Bellezza 2015d.

There are also what appear to be shrines and other ritual structures in the early rock art of Spiti not seen in Upper Tibet. For examples of these peculiar forms, see Bellezza 2015f, figs. 11.50–11.54, 14.68.

Unlike Upper Tibet, some stepped shrines in Spiti feature prominent overhanging tiers, creating cross-shaped patterns, a design trait shared with Ladakh. In Ladakh overhanging tiers or platforms are common in various types of stepped shrines. We might expect, therefore, that the overhanging tier motif seen in Spiti was probably introduced under Ladakhi influence.

Assigned to the Protohistoric and Early Historic periods, the historico-cultural source of non-Buddhist stepped shrines in Spiti is likely to be native ritual constructions of the Western Tibetan Plateau.* Just as in Upper Tibet, these were potentially influenced by elementary forms from the northwest in the Protohistoric period. Also, the reverse may possibly be true: Upper Tibet and Spiti may have played a role in the uptake and form of stepped shrines in northwestern regions. During Tibetan imperial expansion, the diffusion of stupa art and architecture from Ladakh or Central Tibet had little impact on the designs of stepped shrine rock art in Spiti. The elaborate chortens of Ladakh and far western Tibet of that time are not seen in Spiti.

As noted in the Introduction, the ‘Western Tibetan Plateau’ includes Upper Tibet Spiti, Ladakh, Baltistan, Dolpo, and Mustang, etc.

Chorten rock art in Spiti mainly consists of simpler styles comparable with Upper Tibetan groups XII and XVI. Only three chortens carved on one boulder are accompanied by Tibetan inscriptions that appear to have been made in the time frame, corresponding with the Early Historic period or perhaps somewhat later (2015a, fig. 68). These short inscriptions include Oṁ A huṁ, ka kha ga, and a few poorly formed letters. Like Upper Tibet, relatively few rock inscriptions dating to the Early Historic period have been documented in Spiti (although some have been destroyed in recent years), and virtually all of them are in Tibetan.* As in Upper Tibet, most rock inscriptions in Spiti date to the Vestigial period and are mantric in character (e.g., ma ṇi, A, Oṁ). It appears that the exchange of stepped shrine styles in the rock art of Upper Tibet and Spiti continued until the Vestigial period. Buddhist examples comparable to Upper Tibetan chortens are represented at sites such as Jo-mo phug and ’Phel-dar thang.†

For two enigmatic non-Tibetan inscriptions or pseudo-inscriptions in Spiti, see Bellezza 2015e (second article), figs. 2, 3.

On this Spitian rock art see Bellezza 2015e, figs. 21.1–21.18, 22.1. There is a more intricately carved Buddhist chorten in Ta po also dating to the Vestigial period. It shares certain design features in common with Upper Tibetan Group XIX. See Bellezza 2015g, fig. 18.37.


A comprehensive survey of stepped shrine rock art from Ladakh has not yet appeared in press.* Nonetheless, through academic publications covering aspects of the topic as well as unpublished materials,† elementary stepped shrines and chortens of Ladakh can be both likened to and contrasted with those from Upper Tibet. Ladakh rock art is almost entirely comprised of petroglyphs,‡ and much of it constitutes a distinctive body of rock art. There are various types of stepped shrines, especially more complex stylistic varieties, which are unique to Ladakh. Some chortens in this region are accompanied by inscriptions in Tibetan.§

This would be a huge undertaking. The art historian Rob Linrothe (1999: 60, 61) writes that he has seen “hundreds – perhaps thousands – of petroglyphs of stupas all over Zangskar and Ladakh”. Bruneau (2010b: 262–265) documented 1066 stepped shrines in Ladakh that she denotes as stupas, dividing them into five types and dating them to the 8th to 11th century CE. This contrasts with Upper Tibet (an area approximately ten times the size of Ladakh), where no more than 250 stepped shrines predating the 11th or 12th century CE have been discovered in the rock art. As of September 2017, more than 300 rock art sites have been documented in Ladakh (Devers et al. 2017).

Thanks to the generosity and graciousness of my colleagues Laurianne Bruneau, Martin Vernier, Quentin Devers, and Viraf Mehta, I have been supplied with hundreds of digital photographs of Ladakhi rock art. Among them are dozens of stepped shrines from across the region.

A few pictographic (red ochre) chortens have been reported in Zangskar (Zangs dkar) and in the Ladakh Byang thang.  Linrothe (1999: 60, 61) describes a site in Zangskar comprised of no less than six neatly executed chortens in a row. These were almost certainly painted by Buddhists and appear to date to the Early Historic period. Recently, Quentin Devers documented a highly eroded red ochre stepped shrine depiction between the villages of Pibsha and Shila in Zangskar. In Steng rtse (Ladakh Byang thang) a large but heavily damaged chorten painted on a prepared stucco surface affixed to a cave wall has rows of small chortens inside the tiered base. This site was visited by Quentin Devers through information received by Martin Vernier. The Steng rtse specimen with its miniature chortens is comparable to carved specimens found at Rgyal la lding in Gu ge (Bellezza 2014e) and Jo mo phug in Spiti (Bellezza 2015e, figs. 21.7, 21.9). Recently, another carved example of this type was documented by Quentin Devers in Spa-dum, Zangskar. These adroitly made chortens can be dated to the Vestigial period.

See Bruneau 2010a, pl. 53; and numerous examples in Linrothe 2003; Takeuchi 2012; Orofino 1990; Denwood 1980. According to Bruneau (2010b: 265), of the 127 Tibetan inscriptions documented at A-lci, 79 have chortens engraved on the same stone surfaces and many of these appear to have been made together.

The epigraphic status of Ladakh, especially the western and central portions, is very different from Upper Tibet. Inscriptions in the Kharoṣṭthī, Brāhmī and Śarādā scripts are found in the region, many of which accompany chortens.* The use of Indic scripts indicates that the region enjoyed sustained cultural contacts with the Indian Subcontinent, particularly with adjacent regions like Kashmir and Gilgit, and probably with the Tarim Basin where Indic scripts were also used. Economic and cultural ties of a wide geographic purview in Ladakh are reflected in Tocharian, Arabic, Chinese and Sogdian inscriptions encountered there.† No such foreign language inscriptions have been discovered in Upper Tibet, indicating that it was far more insulated from cosmopolitan forces affecting its western neighbor. Yet, even non-mantric Tibetan language inscriptions dating to the Early Historic period are much more common in Ladakh than they are in Upper Tibet.‡ This reinforces the view that Upper Tibetan stepped shrines of that time were carved and painted largely by those at a preliterate stage of cultural development.

For a review of early Indic inscriptions in Ladakh, see Bruneau 2011; also see Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, pp. 8, 21, 22, 30, 81.

See Bruneau 2011, pp. 179; Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, pp. 21, 22, s.v., bibliography (for studies of Ladakhi inscriptions in non-Bodic and non-Indic languages).

My observations concerning Upper Tibet epigraphy are based on a reconnoitering of many hundreds of boulders and rock formations carried out on 20 different expeditions to the region, yielding more than 550 ancient rock inscriptions (see Bellezza forthcoming). On Tibetan inscriptions in Ladakh of the Early Historic period, see Francke 1906; Orofino 1990; Denwood 1980; Denwood 2007; Denwood and Howard 1990; Takeuchi 2012. The invention of the Tibetan alphabet occurred ca. 630–650 CE (on this subject, see, for example, Hill 2010, p. 110 Takeuchi 2013, pp. 3, 4.). The occurrence of dozens of non-mantric Tibetan inscriptions in Ladakh but relatively few in Upper Tibet, supports the theory that the Tibetan alphabet was directly inspired by scripts such as proto-Śarādā, which existed in Kashmir, Gilgit and Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) in the 7th century CE (Bellezza ibid.). Similarly, marshaling an array of textual, epigraphic and paleographic evidence, van Schaik (2011) settles upon a Late Gupta script of northern India as the most likely model for the development of the Tibetan script. Nevertheless, if a script of the Gangetic plains was the sole prototype, a better developed epigraphic tradition might be expected for Upper Tibet, one comparable to Ladakh, which is farther away from the scribal and literary production centers of Central Tibet. The timing of epigraphic developments on the Western Tibetan Plateau raises crucial historical questions. According to the Old Tibetan Annals, the defeat of the Zhang zhung kingdom occurred ca. 644 CE, while it is widely agreed upon that the Tibetan conquest of Ladakh took place in the early 8th century CE. Therefore, Upper Tibet had about 50 years longer than Ladakh to hone its Tibetan epigraphic tradition, an opportunity largely missed. From these observations, it can be concluded that a resolution of the Subcontinental locations involved in the invention of the Tibetan alphabet is still pending. For an Upper Tibetan epigraphic perspective on the geographic sources of the Tibetan alphabet, see Bellezza ibid.

Even rock art shrines comparable to Upper Tibet typological groups often possesses motifs peculiar to Ladakh (some are also incorporated in the rock art of northern Pakistan). Among the most conspicuous of these sui generis motifs in Ladakh are forked finials with a squared form; sizable circular finials; elongated masts; and overhanging upper tiers, constricted middle sections and wide bases, creating cross-shaped and semi-cruciform outlines.*

Mock 2013 discusses two modified cruciform chortens with Tibetan dedicatory inscriptions located in Darkot (Yasin) and Wakhan, which can be dated to the Imperial period. Also see Mock 2016, p. 133; Denwood 2007, p. 45; Francke 1928. Ranging over a contiguous mountainous expanse stretching from Ladakh to Wakhan, this chorten form is indicative of cultural and artistic interplay facilitated by Tibetan imperial expansion. Cf. Mock 2013, p. 135, 136; Jettmar 1990, p. 808. This linguistically diverse region contains Bodic, Indo-Aryan, Dardic, and Eastern Iranian languages as well as the language isolate Burushaski.

L1. Petro (MP-C), Tirsa Tso, Nubra (Ladakh)

L2. Petro (MP-C), Laidoh (Ladakh)

L3. Petro (MP-C), Kaltse Zampa (Ladakh) / Note: Situated on same boulder as specimen L4.

L4. Petro (MP-C), Kaltse Zampa (Ladakh)

L5. Petro (LP-C), Panamik (Ladakh)

Elementary stepped shrines corresponding to those in Upper Tibet are common in Ladakh. Some of the strongest design and style parallels are with Upper Tibetan Groups III and IV (L1, L2).* Like Upper Tibetan examples, many of the Ladakhi shrines are attributable to a non-Buddhist or archaic cultural milieu. Others may be rudimentary representations of Buddhist chortens. There are also affinities between Group X and Ladakh stepped shrines (L3, L4, L5), another class of monuments largely belonging to a non-Buddhist cultural context.†

For a few Ladakh specimens see Francke 1902, pl. 1 (5a); Bruneau 2010a, fig. 86, pl. 114; Aas 2009, figs. 4.6; Linrothe 2003, item no. 83166; Takeuchi 2012, pp. 62 (pl. 19), 67 (pl. 51). Bellezza in press-a, fig. 4b. Other examples comparable to Groups III and IV are found at Mulbek, Ladoi, Panamik, Tirsa Tso, and Murgi Tokpo.

Ladakhi versions are located at the Mulbek and Panamik rock art sites, etc.

Based on the association of elementary stepped shrines with sun symbols and counterclockwise swastikas in Dardic speaking regions of Ladakh, Aas (2009: 29, 34) attributes them to a pre-Buddhist religion.* In other areas of Ladakh, as well as in Spiti and Upper Tibet, we find stepped shrines carved together with counterclockwise swastikas and animals. While some are not pre-Buddhist in a historical sense, many of these elementary stepped shrines reflect religious traditions at variance with Buddhism. That Upper Tibet, Ladakh and Spiti share a corpus of elementary stepped shrines of comparable age and form indicates a certain degree of intercourse between these regions in the Protohistoric period and Early Historic period. Other widely diffused artistic traditions suggest that the symbolism and ideology underlying common rock art subjects traveled far, giving rise to non-Buddhist groups in communications with one another across the Western Tibetan Plateau.†

Similarly, Francke (1902: 398, 399) notes that stepped shrines with flags and tridents [and counterclockwise g.yung drung] in close proximity are different from standard forms of chortens. Francke (1903: 362) opined that such rudimentary stepped shrines were probably made by an illiterate people.

Patterns of interregional distribution are also seen in older genres of rock art such as chariots and mascoids of the Late Bronze Age and Eurasian animal art of the Iron Age. See Bellezza in press-a; 2015a; 2008, pp. 189–199; Francfort et al. 1992; Bruneau and Bellezza 2013. Also see infra, Conclusion.

More intricate stepped shrines that can be classed as chortens in the rock art of Ladakh also share stylistic affinities with Upper Tibetan rock art, especially with Groups XII and XIII.* Some of the Ladakh examples are clearly Buddhist depictions, as indicated by accompanying inscriptions and rock art.† As we have seen, the largest and most complex styled chortens of the Early Historic period in Upper Tibet are located at Brag gyam (Group XIX),‡ a site situated on the southeastern border of Ladakh. This is one of only two sites where such chortens are found in Upper Tibet.§ Moreover, Brag gyam is also the only place in Upper Tibet with an unambiguous chorten dedication inscription.

Citing a few examples will suffice for our purposes. For affinities to Group X, see Takeuchi 2012, pp. 68 (pls. 55, 56), 69 (pl. 4). These are likely to be non-Buddhist types of stepped shrines. For affinities to Group XII, see Francke 1905, pl. 8 (upper terrace); Takeuchi 2012, p. 66 (pl. 48); Francfort et al. 1992, fig. 28. Many of the examples from Ladakh, however, have long masts and different style finials. The chorten in Francke (ibid.) is accompanied by an inscription transcribed in the article. It appears to have been made by a non-Buddhist or an individual practicing a syncretic religious tradition, as it refers to the chorten as a “castle of the swastika doctrine” (g.yung drung bstan pa’i mkhar). For certain affinities to Group XIII, see Francke 1903: pl. 1 (figs. 1, 2); Mani 2001, p. 96; Denwood 1980, p. 157 (fig. 83); Vohra 2005, figs. 7–9, 11. For comparable specimen in Baltistan, see Jettmar 1990, p. 809 (fig. 8). Also, chortens with long masts intersected by a series of short perpendicular lines (comparable with our Group XIV) have been documented by Viraf Mehta in Tirsa Tso and along the road to Saser La.

For example, see Francke 1905, pl. 7 (no. 4). The inscription is located inside the chorten and reads “dkon mchog”. If this chorten and inscription were carved by the same hand, it positively establishes a Buddhist identity. Also see Bruneau 2010a, pl. 89, which depicts a ritual thunderbolt (rdo rje) between two chortens that otherwise resemble our Group XIII. All three subjects appear to form an integrated composition and can be thus identified as Buddhist. On Buddhist rock inscriptions in Ladakh, also see Bellezza forthcoming.

For affinities to Group XIX in Ladakh, see Francke 1902, pl. 1 (no. 4); 1905, pl. 7 (no. 3); Mani 2001, p. 96; Takeuchi 2012, p. 69 (pl. 5); Vohra 2005, figs. 6, 8, 9, 15. There are other examples of the same general forms in Takeuchi 2012 and Vohra 2005, but these specimens have ladders (lha ’babs type), as does one in Francke 1906, pl. 2 (no. 8) and many others in Ladakh, whereas only four in Group XIX (19b, 19n, 19o, 19r) and one in Group XVII (17d) carry this motif.* Even where present in far western Tibet, the ladder motif is often attenuated. On lha ’babs chorten rock art in Ladakh, also see Mani 2010, p. 40 (fig. 4); Phuntsog Dorjay 2010, p. 47 (fig. 7); Denwood 1980. As Pema Dorjee (2001: 79) surmised, the ‘descent from heaven’ type of chorten played a major role in the dissemination of chortens in Ladakh. Hauptmann (2007: 35 (fig. 28), 36) states that three stupas in a worship scene of a fresco discovered in Chaghdo, Baltistan, were rendered in Tibetan style. These chortens (includes one lha ’babs type) are attributable to styles of rock art found in Ladakh. For a lha ’babs type from Chilas I dated to the 6th or 7th century CE, see Ebert 1994, pl. 27.

There are two actual lha ’babs type chortens with a ladder structure dating to the Early Historic period in the cave temple of Chu ro, in Gzhung smad. In addition to the chortens, there are pictographs in the cave, including four chortens (18f, 18j, 18n, 18o). All these appointments appear to be non-Buddhist or syncretic in religious make-up. See Bellezza 2013e. During and after the second diffusion of Buddhism, depictions of descent from heaven type chortens are well represented in the fresco art of far western Tibet (Tucci 1932: 51, 52) and Ladakh (Ebert 1994: pls. 5, 6).

The other chorten was carved on a pillar (rdo ring) erected inside a stone enclosure also located in western Ru thog. This pillar belongs to a class of funerary ritual monuments predating the Early Historic period distributed across much of Upper Tibet. This example is known as Nag khung rdo ring and is one of the most westerly examples of funerary pillars surveyed in the region. See Bellezza 2014b, pp. 43–45. On the adventitious carving of stepped shrines on such pillars, see Bellezza 2012b.

L6. Petro (MP-C), Bde skyid (Ladakh).

L7. Petro, A-lci (Ladakh). / Note: The Tibetan inscriptions reads; blon tsen gyis bzhengs su gsol (“Established as supplication by the powerful minister.”). Blon tsen (probable equivalent of blon rtsan) appears to be a conventional epithet for an individual of ministerial rank. For other occurrences of this term in Ladakhi rock inscriptions, see Takeuchi 2012, p. 40 (nos. 51, 52). This inscription reveals no indication of the maker’s religious affiliation.

Illustrated above are two of many dozens of comparable examples of complex chortens from various sites in Ladakh. As with elementary stepped shrines, there are regional variations, seen particularly in the style of finials. For example, the bifurcating finials of Ladakh are sometimes angular while those of Upper Tibet are almost always curved. Despite these minor differences, the sheer numbers of examples in Ladakh indicate that it was the center of gravity for complex types of rock art chortens, which spread south slightly beyond the current border of Tibet. Most Brag gyam and Ladakh specimens probably date to the Early Historic period, the chorten being a cosmopolitan religious monument of that time, while others may belong to the Vestigial period.*

A chorten of this style appears as a figure on a concluding folio of a Tibetan manuscript from Ta-po monastery, Spiti. See Scherrer-Schaub and Bonani 2002, p. 191 (fig. 21.2b). According to the system of typological classification, based on text-internal evidence devised by the authors, such “Type 1a” manuscripts can be dated from before 950 to 1100 CE (ibid., 203, 210). It could not be confirmed that the chorten is an integral part of the manuscript, however, the form suggests that it was drawn along with or not too much after the composition of the manuscript. Verification of information pertaining to the manuscript discussed here kindly came from Cristina Scherrer-Schaub in personal communication.

A finial of the Early Historic period strongly reminiscent of the conjoined the sun and moon motif is found in Ladakh and Upper Tibet (Groups XVIII and XIX).* It appears to have served as the prototype or inchoate form of the conventional sun and moon finial of the post-1000 CE era. The sun and moon crown is also seen in more highly refined stupa rock art of Indus Kohistan, which predates examples with accompanying Tibetan inscriptions in Ladakh.† The art historical and epigraphic evidence suggests that northern Pakistan was the artistic source of the conjoined sun and moon finial, which spread first to Ladakh and then to Upper Tibet in the Imperial period. No such finials are depicted on Upper Tibetan stepped shrines dating to the Protohistoric period. In terms of design, there is a continuum of finial types in Ladakh and Upper Tibet ranging from forked ones to the sun and moon style, with many permutations discernable between them.

For an example from Ladakh (accompanied by a dedication of an individual holding the rank of stong pon), see Takeuchi 2012, p. 62 (pl. 23); Linrothe 2003, item no. 83141; also see modified cruciform chorten in Denwood 1980, p. 159 (fig. c); Linrothe 2003, item no. 83116. The inscriptions accompanying the chortens in Takeuchi (ibid.) and Denwood (ibid.) provide no indications as to the religious affiliation of the carvers. Denwood (1978: 176) opines that sun and moon finial in Ladakh can be attributed to bon po. For example, this appears to be true of a chorten in the central Byang thang that also has a counterclockwise swastika (specimen 18p). Nevertheless, as we have seen, some inscriptions accompanying chortens in Ladakh identify these depictions as Buddhist or syncretic in religious composition. On early rock inscriptions in Ladakh containing Buddhist vocabulary, see Bellezza forthcoming.

For Ladakh examples see, Bruneau 2007, pp. 68 (fig. 19), 69 (figs. 20, 21). Thewalt (2002; 2008) and Ebert (1994) attribute such stupas based on style and accompanying Indic inscriptions in northern Pakistan to the 6th and 7th centuries CE. Fussman (1986: 50 [n. 40]) dates an early example of a stupa with the sun and moon finial in Indus Kohistan to the 1st century CE.

Another motif common to Brag gyam (specimen 19t) and Ladakh is an eye ornamenting the vase of chortens.* Chortens embellished with lotus petals in the base, a popular Ladakhi decorative feature, are also encountered in Brag gyam (specimens 19n, 19p, 19r, 19t).

See rock art chorten in Ladakh that can be dated to the Early Historic period or perhaps somewhat later: Linrothe 2003, item no. 83116. This chorten was carved in a typical Ladakhi style with a ladder, semi-cruciform outline and a band of lotus petals in the base. Two later chortens in a mural painted inside a chamber of a chorten near Nyar ma, Ladakh, have an eye in the vase (Kozicz: 2014: 155). For an eye in the vase of an elaborately carved chorten in far western Tibet (Rgyal la lding, Gu ge) dating to the Vestigial period, see Bellezza 2014e, figs. 19, 20. Recently, Quentin Devers documented a bichrome pictographic specimen of comparable form to Group XIX with two eyes in the vase in Steng rtse, Ladakh. Next to it are two ma ṇi mantras datable to the Vestigial period or possibly somewhat earlier.

The engine for the transmission of complex chortens to western Tibet appears to have been the Tibetan military conquest of Ladakh and the concomitant expansion of this rock art south and eastwards. As noted, there are types of chortens with Tibetan inscriptions in Ladakh unseen in Upper Tibet. Thus, Tibetan writing accommodated itself to different regional genres of chortens through the geographic transfer of an epigraphic tradition, probably from an area of high expression in Ladakh to one of low expression in far western Tibet. The movement of Buddhist religious doctrines from Ladakh to Brag gyam in the Early Historic period, however, is poorly represented in the rock art of the site, and diffusion of Buddhist rock art symbols and inscriptions farther east onto the Byang thang is even more minimal. Thus, Upper Tibetans appear to have adapted the chorten for use in to their own non-Buddhist or syncretic religious traditions.

The filtering of rock art chorten designs south and eastwards into western Tibet beginning in the Imperial period is also seen in a single bell-shaped specimen found at Ru thog rdzong (specimen 9c). Like Brag gyam, the Ru thog rdzong example documents a Buddhist presence, something hardly encountered in Byang thang tracts to the east. Two such bell-shaped chortens have been documented in Ladakh,* while there are many examples in northern Pakistan.† In the case of this form, the artistic and cultural springboard appears to be northern Pakistan, with Ladakh serving as an intermediary link in the diffusion of the bell-shaped chorten to Ru thog.‡

These are located on the same stone surface at a site called Digar Kharpoche. See Bruneau and Vernier 2015, p. 18.

On bell-shaped chortens in northern Pakistan, see Bruneau’s (2007: 65) typological groups, 1, 2, 5 and 7.

Denwood (2008: 8, 9) notes that Ru thog linked what he calls the ‘Byang thang Corridor’ to the Shyok, Indus and Nubra valleys, which served as egress points into northern Pakistan. It is along such western geographic lines that the bell-shaped chorten ultimately reached Ru thog rdzong. According to ’Phrin las mthar phyin (2001: 209), the citadel of Ru thog rdzong had three underground tunnels for water and hundreds of houses for commoners (mi ser), and was a trading hub for grains, salt, wool and goods moving between Mnga’ ris and Ladakh. Thus, in ancient times, Mnga’ ris was on a kind of silk road (dar gos lam bu) (ibid.). On Ru thog rdzong, also see Bellezza 2001, pp. 102–104; 2014a, pp. 152, 153.

Archaeological, textual and epigraphic evidence indicates that Upper Tibetans with notable exception largely eschewed Buddhism until the late 10th century CE (Bellezza forthcoming).* This holds true for the eastern and central portions of the Byang thang as well. As in western Tibet, the inhabitants of Gnam mtsho, G.yag pa and Nag tshang borrowed the chorten shorn of most Buddhist artistic and doctrinal elements. The chortens of the eastern Byang thang are likely to have been introduced from proximate Central Tibet, a region that embraced Buddhism earlier and more wholeheartedly than Upper Tibet. As we have seen, the complex pictographic chortens of the eastern Byang thang in Group XVIII and those of Groups X and XIII are non-Buddhist in character. They belong to a religious tradition in which the counterclockwise swastika was the most common symbol of affiliation.

In a highly informative article, Scherrer-Schaub (2002: 271–275) holds that Buddhism was not only practiced in western Tibet in the late 8th century CE but that this region may have been a center for textual translation. Her assertion, based on Tibetan and Chinese references, fits the artistic and epigraphic evidence present in Ladakh better than it does Upper Tibet. Indeed, as she notes (ibid.), in an account mentioning Buddhism on the northwestern part of the Tibetan Plateau, written by the Chinese pilgrim Huichao in the early 8th century CE, the term Hu appears to be an ethnonym for an Iranian population, not for the people of Zhang Zhung. Thus, we can conclude that the toponym ‘Yang-t’ung’ in Huichao’s text probably denotes part of Ladakh and not Upper Tibet. On the identification of Yang-t’ung in Huichao’s account, also see Bellezza forthcoming.

In the Byang thang hinterland there are hardly any stepped shrines. Only one primitive stepped shrine datable to the Protohistoric period (3a) and two complex chortens of the Early Historic period (18p, 18w) have been documented in this vast expanse (see map in Part I). This restricted distribution is likely to be an indicator of the flow of trade through the region in Protohistoric period and Early Historic period. * The paucity of stepped shrines in the middle of Upper Tibet supports the assertion that they were introduced to its eastern and western flanks from Central Tibet and Ladakh respectively (this bipolar distributive pattern is also seen in rock inscriptions). As with prehistoric mascoid and Eurasian animal style rock art, chortens underwent a process of indigenization in Upper Tibet to integrate them into the native cultural milieu of the region.

According to Howard et al. (2014: 96) and Denwood (2008: 11), a ‘Byang thang Corridor’ or ‘Musk Route’, running along the southern band of the Byang thang from Ladakh to Dang ra g.yu mtsho, Gnam mtsho, Nag chu ka and onward to northeastern Tibet, was an avenue for trade in high value goods like musk, precious stones and precious metals. However, any such exchange route in the Imperial period did little to spur on the dissemination of stepped shrines and inscriptions in the vast heartland of the Byang thang. While Ru thog was an important node on the interregional exchange network of the Early Historic period, the distribution of rock art chortens and epigraphs suggests that the Byang thang was not a main conduit of material and intellectual movement at that time. That few rock art chortens or epigraphs appeared in the vast hinterland of the Byang thang suggests that most exchange in the Early Historic period occurred along the lower elevation western and southern periphery of the region. As Denwood notes (ibid.), an east-west trade corridor through the Byang thang is likely to have developed well before the Imperial period when the environment of the region was more favorable to human habitation. The spread of chariot rock art in far western Tibet and in the western and central Byang thang supports a vector of cultural, technological and economic transmission along these lines. However, mascoid rock art of the Late Bronze Age and animal style rock art of the Iron Age and Protohistoric period never moved east beyond the confines of far western Tibet, calling into question the strength and extent of cross-Byang thang exchange. On trade and exchange patterns in Upper Tibet during the Protohistoric period, see Bellezza 2016b (first article); 2017c.

Northern Pakistan

Let us now turn to the rock art of northern Pakistan to explore its role in the adoption of stepped shrines in Upper Tibet and Ladakh. Like Ladakh, there is a huge supply of rock art in the northern areas of Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan territory).* This rock art includes a great many stupas as well as inscriptions in Kharoṣṭthī, Brāhmī and proto-Śarādā, Sogdian, Bactrian, Tibetan, Chinese and Hebrew, as well as a rich variety of Buddhist iconographical images (Buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc.; Thewalt 1985: 779).† The oldest stupa inscriptions in the region are in Kharoṣṭthī, which pre-date the 4th century CE (Neelis 2000: 906). Ebert (1994: 269 [n. 6]) reports that there are approximately 1000 stupas and other stepped shrines in the rock art of northern Pakistan. According to Thewalt (ibid.), the oldest depictions of stupas resemble those in Sanci and Bharhut in Central India as well as Gandhāran examples. The highly elaborate stupas of Chilas were engraved by very adept artisans. Thewalt (ibid., 782) opines that many of these craftsmen received artistic training in the great monasteries of Gandhāra.

Harald Hauptmann estimates that there are more than 50,000 carvings and 6000 inscriptions in northern Pakistan, the majority around Chilas. See Internews Report 2011.

Tibetan inscriptions are found in Shigar (Baltistan) and along the Gilgit river (Hauptmann 2007: 35). They also occur near the confluence of the Indus and Shyok rivers (Jettmar 1990: 808, 809).

Of special interest to this study are unrefined stupas and other kinds of simple stepped shrines that share stylistic affinities with Upper Tibetan rock art. Jettmar (1982: 29) attributes the most roughly rendered stupas of Indus Kohistan to the possible existence of a folk religion that co-existed with Buddhism. Jettmar (1985: 767-770) opines that some of these carvings may represent “Bon” sacred mountain symbols.* By the use of the term Bon in his work, Jettmar subscribes to the existence of widely distributed religious and cultural traditions at variance with Buddhism, but he does not consider what degree of institutional and ideological coherence these traditions may have had. Some irregularly executed stupas in the region are found in conjunction with crude Brāhmī inscriptions, while others are connected to those in proto-Śarādā (Jettmar 1982: 18, 20). These stupas and inscriptions appear to be datable to the 5th to 8th centuries CE (Hauptmann 2007: 34).†

Mount Ti se is often likened to a crystal chorten in Yungdrung Bon and Buddhist literature. For example, in the La dwags rgyal rabs, Gangs ti se shel gyi mchod rten is invoked in an account of the political foundations of Tibet (Haarh 1969: 198). Also see Norbu 2009, p. 24; Tucci 1980, p. 219. On various sacred mountains envisioned as chortens, see Dkon mchog bstan ’dzin and ’Phrin las rgyal mtshan 2007, pp. 219–222.

For a study of Brāhmī inscriptions in northern Pakistan, see Neelis 2000.

Regarding the rock art stupas of Indus Kohistan, Thewalt (2008: 63, 64) notes that a precise chronology is not yet possible due to discrepancies in styles and in the re-patination of the carvings. Based largely on epigraphic evidence, Thewalt (ibid., 63–65) divides the stupas into two separate phases: 1st and 2nd centuries CE, as seen in carvings at Chilas II and Chilas III; and 6th and 7th centuries CE, as represented in specimens from Chilas I, Thalpan I and other sites. According to Thewalt (ibid., 64), there was a large gap (3rd to 5th centuries CE) in stupa carving between these phases. Very few carvings were made after the 10th or 11th century (ibid., 64), which is also true of Upper Tibet and Ladakh.*

A somewhat different chronological scheme for rock art stupas in northern Pakistan based on prominent motifs such as cupolas and niches has been proposed by Ebert 1994. This author divides them into seven groups ranging from the 1st century BCE to the 11th to 13th centuries CE.

Generally speaking, the rock art stupas of Indus Kohistan are closest in form and style to those in other regions of northern Pakistan and Ladakh. Most types in Indus Kohistan do not have Upper Tibetan parallels. Some stupas engraved on stone surfaces in northern Pakistan are unparalleled for their technical sophistication and artistic brilliance. Upper Tibetan chortens are crude imitations in comparison, but such esthetic parallels are somewhat misleading. Different cultural and religious formations were responsible for their creation, each serving localized functions and embodying varying sets of semantic and symbolic structures.

It cannot be overstressed that the rock art stupas of northern Pakistan and Ladakh were produced in a multilingual environment, one that attracted divers peoples from distant lands for trade, pilgrimage, conquest and other purposes. The sheer numbers of carved stupas in northern Pakistan and Ladakh, betoken the importance of this religious emblem, at least to a portion of the native populations. These carvings were informed or inspired by Buddhist practices and architectural traditions carried from northern India. Monolingual Upper Tibet (as regards its early epigraphic record) did not imbibe so heartily from the Buddhist font of religious expression. The far fewer chortens in that region assumed alternative meaning and significance, a more distant fallout from the Buddhist cultural and religious explosion set off in northwestern lands.

NP1. Chilas I (after Thewalt 2001, fig. 8:1)

NP2. Gakuch (after Jettmar and Sagaster 1993, pl. 8)

NP3. Gakuch (after Jettmar and Sagaster 1993, pl. 10)

The stupas of Indus Kohistan that most resemble Upper Tibetan varieties are rudimentary in form and execution and have particularized designs. Most importantly, they appear to portray constructions belonging to peoples practicing non-Buddhist or hybridized religious traditions. These stupas are characterized by a minimum number of graduated tiers, a small vase, and a three-pronged finial often squared in form and resembling a trident (NP1, NP2). Other rudimentary stupas have finials more in keeping with Upper Tibetan types (NP3).* Although these kinds of stepped shrines recall those of Upper Tibet, they are most closely related to specimens in other areas of northern Pakistan and Ladakh.

There is also a stupa carving in Wakhan with a double curved horn-like finial cradling an orb (Mock 2016: 132 [fig. 8]), a motif that recalls counterparts in Upper Tibetan groups XVIII and XVIII.

There are chortens and accompanying Tibetan inscriptions in Gakuch (Punyal area of Gilgit) recorded in Jettmar and Sagaster 1993.* Like many counterparts in Indus Kohistan, Swat and Ladakh, these are rather simply designed chortens and frequently have three-pronged or forked finials with a teardrop shaped central element.† Some of the illustrated specimens have ladders as well. Eight different Tibetan inscriptions (mostly fragmentary) are transcribed in ibid. Photographs of most of these inscriptions are included in their work, but they are black and white reproductions and not especially clear. The inclusion of Tibetan ranks (blon chen, gung blon chen) indicate that the chortens and inscriptions were made by those belonging to the Tibetan administrative and military apparatus and are best dated to the Imperial period. The prominent Tibetan clan Bra (Dbra) appears to be mentioned. According to Jettmar and Sagaster (ibid., 130, 131), two or three of the inscriptions have characteristics of Bon spells and ritual functions.‡ Fussman (1994: 61) concurs with this identification, stating that the chortens with Tibetan inscriptions at Gakuch are perhaps attributable to the bon po, part of a cultural pattern embodied in stupas with much wider regional ramifications, extending as far as Tibet. Application of monolithic religious labels notwithstanding, it is clear that non-Buddhist cultural traditions are reflected in these kinds of stepped shrines and inscriptions.§

According to Denwood (2007), this site was probably a Tibetan military camp, and referring to various historical sources, holds that it was active from around 720 to 747 CE, and again in the late 8th century and first half of the 9th century CE. As Denwood (ibid.) suggests, the paleographic and orthographic features of the Gakuch inscriptions support an Imperial-period attribution.

These kinds of finials were also used in Xinjiang. A wooden model of a stupa with prominent three-pronged finial, conical spire and tall base with rounded top was discovered in a Buddhist monastery at Tumšuq, Xinjiang, and dates to sometime after the middle of the 7th century CE. See Maillard and Jera-Bezard 1994, p. 182 (fig. 15).

These include Rock 6: na ma pu’u da (or nam pu’ud) sta / mo myig rtsa /; Rock 8: srog gcad rku dang g.ye / m[a?] pa dang ’dod pa rnams (?) / dang chags /; Rock 5: ja ya ma ni (?) ja ya ja ya ma /. I am unable to verify the accuracy of the transcriptions furnished by Jettmar and Sagaster 1993. The inscription on Rock 5 exclaims victory in Sanskritized Tibetan (ja ya = jaya) as part of what appears to be an invocation to the goddess of victory (Ja ya ma). Rock 6 may include the Sanskritized prelusive na ma (= nama) often used in mantras, but sans a subscribed a chung. This inscription may have to do with a prognosis on military affairs. Rock 8 seems to express a resolute desire for the murder of someone or a group. Rock 2 includes the following fragmentary three lines: srid kyi gung blon / chen po’i (?) bd(ud) / ’dul /. Reading the legible parts of this inscription as shown above yields: “The gung blon (type of Tibetan minister) of the regime/political order, the great destroyer of demons/obstacles”. Looking at these bits of evidence one can make out a decidedly traditional Tibetan ritual character in them pertaining to military struggle and victory. However, identification of the religion of their makers is elusive. The use of Sanskritized Tibetan words in ritualized contexts demonstrates an awareness of the lingua franca of Buddhism in that time and place. While this does not preclude an archaic or bon religious identity (but certainly not the later Lamaist religion of Yungdrung Bon), a more syncretic sort may be indicated, as part of the evolving Tibetan religious scene. For the use of Sanskritic spells (sngags) by Tibetan bon and gshen priests in destructive magic rites of the post-Imperial period, see Bellezza 2014g.

As pertains to Wakhan, Mock (2016) notes that there are nine stepped shrines in the rock art of Chap Dara. Six of these shrines are accompanied by dedicatory inscriptions in the Old Tibetan language. Additionally, there are eight other Old Tibetan inscriptions documented in Wakhan (ibid.). The five stepped shrines illustrated in Mock’s article possess cruciform shapes and are unlike those in Upper Tibet. There are no explicit indications that any of the stepped shrines or Tibetan inscriptions of Wakhan recorded in Mock’s work have a Buddhist identity. Thus, non-Buddhist and syncretic affiliations must also be considered. In times of great political upheaval, religious identities tend to become more diverse, negotiable and mutable. The Imperial period and its almost continuous military campaigns in northwestern territories may have acted as an impetus for such religious complexity in Wakhan and other northwestern holdings of the Tibetan empire.

NP4. Chilas I (after Thewalt 2001, fig. 4:3)

NP5. Chilas I (after Thewalt 2001, fig. 41:19)

NP6. Chilas I (after Thewalt 2001, fig. 41:12)

NP7. Chilas I (after Thewalt 2001, fig. 90:7)

NP8. Chilas I (after Thewalt 2001, fig. 11:1)

NP9. Kot-kafir 2 (after Olivieri and Vidale 2006, p. 95 [fig 38])

At Chilas I and II sites there are rudimentary stepped structures closely related to those in Upper Tibetan Groups II, IV and XIII.* At their simplest, the stepped shrines of Indus Kohistan consist of just three platforms (NP4). Other types have three to five tall tiers and a simple mast (NP5, NP6), while some elementary stepped shrines have crescent finials (NP7). The shrine with the segmented body (NP8) shares design affinities with our Group V. Thewalt (2008: 51, 52) characterizes these simple stepped shrines as derivatives of stupas and depictions of temples and other kinds of stone buildings that once stood in Gilgit and Kashmir.† However, as Thewalt (ibid., 52) observes, many of these portrayals do not have doors or windows. Thewalt (ibid.) holds out the prospect that some examples may be depictions of obos or other kinds of cairns.

For other examples of simple shrines from Indus Kohistan close in form to Upper Tibetan types, see Thewalt 2001, figs. Chilas I 5:1, Chilas I 32:3, Chilas I 41:18, Chilas I 90:7.

There are elementary stepped shrines characterized as primitive forms of stupas or stupa derivatives found in the rock art of Chilas, Hodur and Hunza, which appear to date to the 9th and 10th centuries CE, a period that also saw the creation of the last canonical Buddhist engravings in northern Pakistan. These late tower-like structures are crowned by banners and tridents and are not accompanied by inscriptions. These carvings and other rock art characteristic of the same period are attributed to warlike local tribes. See Hauptmann 2007, pp. 34 (fig. 27), 35. Jettmar (2008: 67) sees the tower-like stepped shrines as representations of vertically oriented cosmological models, the output of an aggressive people who rose to prominence.

While certain stepped figures with peaked tops found in the rock art of Indus Kohistan are possibly depictions of buildings, those that concern us do not appear to be so. Like parallel forms in Upper Tibet and Ladakh, they are identifiable as stepped shrines, and do not necessarily owe their existence to stupas. The simple tiered shrines of Chilas were the handiwork of peoples professing non-Buddhist or syncretic religious traditions. Due to difficulties in dating the rudimentary stupas and elementary stepped shrines of Indus Kohistan, the chronological as well as the cultural relationships between them are unknown to us.

Stepped shrines painted in red ochre, whose form is more in accordance with elementary types than chortens, have been documented at the Palwano and Kafir-kot 2 sites in Swat (NP9).* They include two and three tiered specimens with narrow masts and sometimes branching finials. The stepped shrines of Swat are comparable in form (save for the finials) with our Group II. According to Olivieri and Vidale (2006: 128, 134), stupas at Kafir-kot 1 and 2 are depicted with architectural traits of the 2nd or 3rd century CE, a period of Buddhist cultural domination in Swat (lasted from 100 BCE to 400 CE). The Kafir-kot specimens are surrounded by archers on horseback, exhibiting a recurring theme of opposition between Buddhist architecture and mounted warriors (ibid., 134). Filigenzi (2015a: 35) suggests that the simple red ochre tiered shrines of Kafir-kot were either made under Buddhist inspiration by Kafir-Dardic tribes (generic label for prominent peoples of the region) that interacted with the dominant Buddhist culture, or by those with an entirely different creed. Filigenzi (2015b: 125, 126) adds that these so-called Kafir-Dardic tribes probably had economic ties to Buddhist settlements, which acted as an impetus for the creation of the tiered shrines.

See Olivieri and Vidale 2006, pp. 94 (fig. 34), 95 (fig. 38).

Other red ochre stepped shrines of two to four graduated tiers at the Nokkono Ghwand site in Swat have a series of cross-pieces on the spire, and are associated with archers and other anthropomorphic figures (Khan 1994). These elementary shrines are somewhat reminiscent of specimens in our group XIV. Both the Upper Tibetan and Swat stepped shrines can be ascribed to non-Buddhist or nominally Buddhist peoples of their respective localities. Filigenzi (2015b) discusses evidence indicating that in the Late Antique period (ca. 500–1000 CE), Swat and the upper Indus were part of a realm of cross-cultural communications, which was polycentric in nature.


According to scholarly estimates, the earliest stepped shrines in northern Pakistan appeared around the start of the Common Era. On epigraphic and artistic grounds, the same might be said of those from Ladakh. As we have seen, some elementary shrines in the rock art of Upper Tibet are attributable to the Protohistoric period and are of comparable age. Moreover, the repoussé golden funerary mask from Gu ge (pl. 6) with depictions of three stepped shrines dates to around the beginning of the Common era (an early phase in the Protohistoric period).

By virtue of the oldest elementary stepped shrines in the rock art of northern Pakistan, Ladakh and Upper Tibet of seemingly equal antiquity, it is not yet possible to ascertain which region may have been first to produce them. Nor is it known how stepped shrines diffused in the greater region.* Unless they were developed independently by each people who adopted them, an unlikely prospect, interactive processes were involved in conveying information (architectural, ritual, mythological, social) about them to various peoples and places. This sphere of interactivity may have stretched from Gnam mtsho in the east to Gilgit and beyond in the west.

According to a heavily mythologized historical tradition, Tibet was instrumental in the import of Bon culture to northern Pakistan. Hoffman (1969: 138-142) supplies a translation of a religious history (bstan ’byung) written by the great religious scholar Kun grol grags pa (born 1700 CE), which places Bon in the western countries of Bru sha, Tho gar/Thod dkar and O rgyan long before the Imperial-period invasion of the region. Set in the time of an epic battle between the gods and demons, the text claims that the gshen of the Ya ngal, Mtshe and Gco lineages established Bru sha gnam gsas as the capital of Bru sha (Hunza-Nagyr, Gilgit, Yasin and probably adjoining areas). The king of Bru sha, Sad wer, is said to have introduced Bon throughout the wider region. A later king of Bru sha gnam gsas is recorded as having a son named Lha bu gsas khyung and his son was Mtshe btsan skyes. The text tells us that four of the nine sons of this king migrated to Mnga’ ris and Gtsang at the behest of the Tibetan emperor (btsan po). Hoffman (ibid., 143) speculates that Bru sha may have been a part of Zhang zhung before this kingdom was conquered by Central Tibet (Spu rgyal). The account by Kun grol grags pa is probably based on earlier sources and may in a fashion preserve a memory of prehistoric cultural interactions between Upper Tibet and northern Pakistan. However, it so full of tropes and mythic narratives (e.g., war between the gods and demons, the three founding priests) that confirmation of any historicity is beyond our current capability.

Given the evidence presented in this monograph, it can be concluded that one stream of cross-cultural communications in the greater region was distinctly non-Buddhist in makeup. This is evidenced in certain types of stepped shrines in Upper Tibet, Ladakh, Indus Kohistan, Gilgit, and Swat. This corpus of cognate subjects and styles in rock art serves to define an interrelated artistic and ideological ground of significant depth. For some researchers this signifies bon. Provided this term is applied generically to denote customs and traditions that circulated throughout the wider region, in contradistinction to Buddhist ones, it carries some analytical weight. However, prior to the Imperial period there is no substantive archaeological or artistic evidence for a singular religion extending from Gnam mtsho to Gilgit and Wakhan. To the contrary, it appears that there were many languages and self-identified polities and cultural formations in this gigantic territory, as in more recent times. As evidenced in the diverse archaeological records of the broader region, it is hardly possible that they all possessed the same non-Buddhist religion in what is called the Protohistoric period in this work. Rather, it appears that there was an ideological and artistic substratum underpinning the cultural mosaic of northern Pakistan and the Western Tibetan Plateau in that time.

This trans-cultural bequest of common artistic and ideological elements is embodied in what might be called archetypal rock art subjects of Upper Tibet, Ladakh and northern Pakistan, including swastikas, sunbursts, and archers hunting large wild ungulates like ibexes, wild sheep and wild yaks. Among the most compelling evidence for cross-cultural linkages in Upper Tibet, Ladakh, northern Pakistan and the Pamirs is Eurasian animal style rock art and bronze, silver and gold objects.* Like stepped shrines, the earlier dispersal of Eurasian animal art cut across numerous ethnic, cultural and linguistic lines in this geographically diverse region. The Eurasian animal style entered northern Pakistan and the Western Tibetan Plateau as early as the early Iron Age (its origins seem to lie in the steppes and the Altai), and persisted on the Western Tibetan Plateau well into the Protohistoric period. The cultural, demographic and environmental forces behind the adoption of the Eurasian animal style set the historical tempo for the cross-cultural uptake of stepped shrine rock art. Reaching even farther back in time is cognate chariot and mascoid (anthropomorphic visage in emblematic form) rock art of northern Pakistan, Ladakh, Upper Tibet, and Spiti (mascoids only).† Conventionally dated to the Late Bronze Age, these subjects are among the oldest artistic manifestations of the entwining of cultural and technological traditions in the broader region.

There is a wide range of works on Eurasian animal style rock art and artifacts in Upper Tibet, Ladakh and northern Pakistan and other regions of Inner Asia. For example, see Sher 1992; Francfort et al. 1992; Bruneau and Vernier 2010; Li Yongxian 2001; Lü Hongliang 2010; Bruneau and Bellezza 2013; Bellezza 2014h; 2014i; 2015a; 2016a; Jettmar 1991; Litvinski 1993.

On these chariots and mascoids, see Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, pp. 32–45; Bellezza 2008, pp. 195–199; 2016e; 2016a; 2011a; 2011b; 2010b.

Thus, the adoption of stepped shrine rock art in northern Pakistan and the Western Tibetan Plateau was proceeded by Late Bronze Age and Iron Age artistic forms, antecedent emblems of cultural interchange extending across this large and varied territory. In the Protohistoric period, the corpus of trans-cultural rock art subjects was joined by elementary stepped shrines, as another example of widely circulating models that transcended the geographic bounds of individual cultures. This infiltration and rearrangement of the cultural mosaic augmented resonances between its constituent parts. Like the spread of older archetypal rock art subjects, stepped shrines served as symbolic agents that connected far-flung areas to create a sphere of cultural and technological interactivity extending from the Hindu Kush to the Byang-thang.

The character of this sphere of cultural and technological interactivity in the Protohistoric period remains difficult to assess. Most basically, it entailed the construction of elementary tiered structures or artistic simulations for religious and/or ceremonial purposes. Whatever common religious and ceremonial elements are incumbent in stepped shrine art and architecture, these were particularized to fit the proclivities and exigencies of each people that assimilated them. Cultural groups in the Upper Tibet, Spiti, Ladakh, and northern Pakistan exploited this interregional currency to express their own ritual, mythic and belief patterns.*

On matters regarding the complicated question of the ethnic and linguistic composition of the WTP in antiquity, see my comments in Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, p. 79 (n. 256).

Elementary stepped shrines must have also acted as focal points for ideas and practices flowing between cultures. If indications from the Tibetan textual tradition are applicable to the territory as a whole and to earlier strata of cultural development, these shrines may have served as cosmological microcosms and as ritual instruments for the propitiation of local deities. Ethnographic and historical sources intimate that trans-cultural beliefs, customs and traditions may have included juniper incense and the horns or wild ungulates for invoking deities; white-colored ancestral and cosmogonic figures; spirits in the guise of wild yaks, wild sheep and ibex; and the depiction of sunbursts and swastikas in religious observances. These are just a few examples among a host of potential cosmological, ritual and mythic traits that could have assumed a trans-cultural purview encompassing Upper Tibet, Ladakh and northern Pakistan.

The historical and geographic origins of elementary shrines in rock art remain to be determined. They may ultimately have been inspired by the Indian stupa or they could have sprung up indigenously as prototypic modes of representation. Or perhaps an entirely different source must be considered? In any case, these facsimiles of religious constructions were well established in Upper Tibet, Ladakh and northern Pakistan ideologically and esthetically speaking; so much so that they appear to have become a natural or unremarked cultural prop of the peoples who embraced them.

The origins of stupa rock art seem more straightforward than those of the elementary stepped shrines. The largest and most sophisticated concentration of engraved stupas is in northern Pakistan.* This hothouse of stupa rock art surely had a big impact on Ladakh, as analogous stupa forms and inscriptions in a variety of languages indicate.† As already explained, it is from Ladakh that carved chorten art probably entered largely non-Buddhist western Tibet and Spiti in the Imperial period.‡ On the other hand, the pictographic chortens of Gnam mtsho may be of Central Tibetan inspiration.

Questions concerning Buddhist sources for the stupa rock art of northern Pakistan are beyond the scope of this monograph. Clearly major Buddhist centers were involved; viz., the Kushan empire, Gandhāra and later Kashmir. According to Davidson (2002 158), the Kaniṣka stupa in Peshawar, probably the most important and largest of its kind, was a religious focal point for Buddhists from Gandhāra, the Karakorum and the upper Indus valley, informing stupa figures in the rock art of northern Pakistan and stupa art farther afield.

Recently, a sample taken from the wooden axis pole of a ruined chorten at Tirisa (Nubra valley) was subject to radiocarbon analysis and yielded at calibrated date in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. See Bruneau and Vernier 2015, pp. 22, 23. Provided the axis of the Tirisa chorten is reflective of the date of establishment of this monument and its age is not biased by the ‘old wood effect’, it confirms a pre-Imperial period presence of the built chorten in Ladakh.

I have found no epigraphic or artistic evidence indicating transfer of stupas from cis-Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh to Spiti and western Tibet, strengthening a northern vector of transmission.

Pre-existing elementary stepped shrine rock art in Ladakh, Upper Tibet and Spiti had a potent influence on how chortens in those regions were conceived and articulated in the Imperial period. During the time of the Tibetan empire, complex designs as well as distinctive artistic elements, such as the sun and moon finial, long spires and round vases, of northwestern chortens also made their way to western Tibet. The conveyors of northwestern artistic traits may have been adherents of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions, those travelling and communicating in the wider region in the Tibetan empire period. Tibetan troops, administrators and traders who reached as far as Wakhan must have been among them. Similarly, people from the northwestern reaches of the empire and theatre of military operations who visited western Tibet for commercial, official and religious purposes are likely to have contributed to its repertoire of rock art chortens.


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_____2017b. “The Prototypic Hunters of the High Plateau: Wild carnivores in the rock art of Upper Tibet”, Part 2, in Flight of the Khyung, October 2017. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2017c. “The Ancient Textiles of Upper Mustang: A review of a recent article on fabrics discovered in Samdzong”, Part 2, in Flight of the Khyung, October 2017. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2017d. “The Swastika, Stepped Shrine, Priest, Horned Eagle, and Wild Yak Rider: Prominent antecedents of Yungdrung Bon figurative and symbolic traditions in the rock art of Upper Tibet”, in Revue d’etudes tibétaines, vol. 42, pp. 5–38. Paris: CNRS.

_____2016-2017. “Talus-blanketed Red House Necropolis of Upper Tibet: Cross-cultural exchanges with the north at the end of the Bronze Age, Part 1: Indigenous characteristics” and “Part 2: The wider Inner Asian archaeological context”, in Flight of the Khyung, December 2016 and January 2017. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2016a. “A Preliminary Study of the Origins and Early Development of Bronze Metallurgy on the Western Tibetan Plateau, Part 1: The ‘Eurasian animal style’, an art historical perspective in Flight of the Khyung, February 2016; Part 2: Intercultural contacts in the Bronze Age and Iron Age, an archaeometallurgical perspective”, in Flight of the Khyung, March 2016. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2016b. “A Review of a Recent Scientific Article: “Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the Silk Road across the Tibetan Plateau””; “Art and Shelter: An ancient settlement in far western Tibet”, in Flight of the Khyung, April 2016. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2016c. “A Mirror of Cultural History on the Roof of the World: The swastika in the rock art of Upper Tibet”, Parts 1, 2, in Flight of the Khyung, May and June 2016. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2016d. “Bravery, Propitiation and Accomplishment: Wild yak hunting in the rock art of Upper Tibet”, Parts 1–3, in Flight of the Khyung, July, August and September 2016. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2016e. “Discovery of Three Mascoid Carvings on a Boulder in Spiti, in Flight of the Khyung, October 2016. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2015a. “Visitations from Upper Tibet and Ladakh: A survey of trans-regional rock art in Spiti”, in Flight of the Khyung, August 2015. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2015b. “A Review of the Early Cultural History of Spiti – Part One”, in Flight of the Khyung, May 2015. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2015c. “The Ancient Corbelled Buildings of Upper Tibet: Architectural attributes, environmental factors and religious meaning in an unique type of archaeological monument”, in “Architecture and Conservation: Tibet”, November 2015 (ed. Hubert Feigelsdorfer), pp. 4–19.  Journal of Comparative Cultural Studies in Architecture. Hannover.

_____2015d. “Spotlight on Spiti”, in Flight of the Khyung, May 2015. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2015e. “A Survey of the Rock Art of Spiti – Part 3” and “Ahead into the Historical Era: Non-Tibetan rock inscriptions in Spiti”, in Flight of the Khyung, November 2015. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2015f. “A Survey of the Rock Art of Spiti – Part 1”, in Flight of the Khyung, September 2015. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2015g. “A Survey of the Rock Art of Spiti – Part 2”, in Flight of the Khyung, October 2015. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2014a. Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Sites on the Tibetan Upland, Residential Monuments, vol. 1. Miscellaneous Series – 28. Sarnath: Central University of Tibetan Studies. Online version, 2011: Tibetan & Himalayan Library (THlib.org).

_____2014b. Antiquities of Zhang Zhung: A Comprehensive Inventory of Pre-Buddhist Sites on the Tibetan Upland, Ceremonial Monuments, vol. 2. Miscellaneous Series – 29. Sarnath: Central University of Tibetan Studies. Online version, 2011: Tibetan & Himalayan Library (THlib.org):

_____2014c. “A Nexus of Ancient Upper Tibetan Settlement: Revisiting Bell Island” and “The Largest Archaic Shrine Complex Discovered in Upper Tibet”, in Flight of the Khyung, June 2014. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2014d. “Horned, Feathered and Sanctified: Extraordinary anthropomorphs in the rock art of Upper Tibet – Part 1”, in Flight of the Khyung, August 2014. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2014e. “Exquisitely Carved Chortens from Far Western Tibet”, in Flight of the Khyung, July 2014. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2014f. The Dawn of Tibet: The Ancient Civilization on the Roof of the World. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

_____2014g. “Straddling the Millennial Divide: A case study of persistence and change in the Tibetan ritual tradition based on the Gnag rabs of Gathang Bumpa and Eternal Bon documents, circa 900–1100 CE”, in Revue d’etudes tibétaines, vol. 29, pp. 155–243. Paris: CNRS.

_____2014h. “Sinuous Shapes: The Eurasian animal style rock art of Upper Tibet”, in Flight of the Khyung, October and November 2014. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2014i. “A Scintillating Visage: Another golden burial mask comes to light”; “Serpentine Signs: Tibetan copper alloy artifacts with animal style motifs”; “A Further Note on the Tibetan Animal Style” December 2014. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013a. Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet: Archaic Concepts and Practices in a Thousand-Year-Old Illuminated Funerary Manuscript and Old Tibetan Funerary Documents of Gathang Bumpa and Dunhuang. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse Denkschriften, vol. 454. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

_____2013b. “More on the golden mask from Malari”, in Flight of the Khyung, December 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013c. “Visages of the past: The golden burial masks of Upper Tibet, the Himalaya and northwestern Xinjiang” and “Hunters, Warriors, Shamans and Lovers: Chronicles of ancient life at Thakhampa Ri – Part I”, in Flight of the Khyung, December 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013d. “High on the Khyung”, in Flight of the Khyung, January 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013e. “A new archaeological discovery in Upper Tibet: Early encounters between Buddhism and the indigenous cults”, in Flight of the Khyung, October 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013f. “The ancient art and architecture of Dokhor Phukpa”, in Flight of the Khyung, November 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013g. “A unique collection of ancient ceremonial monuments both drawn and carved”, in Flight of the Khyung, August 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013h. “Of a Different Form: Tabernacles of the ancients”, in Flight of the Khyung, February 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2013i. “Thirteen Golden Reliquaries”, in Flight of the Khyung, May 2013. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2012a. “The horned eagle: Tibet’s greatest ancestral and religious symbol across the ages”, in Flight of the Khyung, January 2012. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2012b. “Pillars Marking the Ages”, in Flight of the Khyung, January 2012. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2012c. “Palimpsests: The superimposition of images and inscriptions”, in Flight of the Khyung, November 2012. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2012d. “Bactrian Camels up on High”, in Flight of the Khyung, March 2012. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2011a. “Revisiting the chariots of Upper Tibet”, in Flight of the Khyung, November 2011. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2011b. “The individual or group in emblematic form: The mascoids of Upper Tibet”, in Flight of the Khyung, December 2011. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2010a. “The Ancient bon Religious Centers of Mangkhar”, in Flight of the Khyung, September 2010. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2010b. “Riding high: The chariots of ancient Upper Tibet”, in Flight of the Khyung, August 2010. Tibet Archaeology:

_____2008. Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet. A Historical and Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Monuments, Rock Art, Texts and Oral Tradition of the Ancient Tibetan Upland. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse Denkschriften, vol. 368. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

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Catalogue of photographs of stepped shrines in Upper Tibetan rock art

Group I: elementary two-tiered shrines




Group II: elementary three-tiered shrines











Group III: elementary four-tiered shrines












Group IV: elementary multi-tiered shrines
























Group VI: elementary shrines with spatulate and crescent-shaped finials





Group VI: elementary shrines with spatulate and crescent-shaped finials





Group VII: elementary shrines with multi-foliate finial



Group VIII: elementary shrines with tricuspidate finial





Group IX: idiosyncratic elementary shrines













Group X: shrines with small bulbous upper section























Group XI: twin shrines sharing common base




Group XII: simple style chortens








Group XIII: chortens with forked finial


13b, 13d


13e, 13f, 13g














Group XIV: chortens with cross-piece spire

14a, 14b














Group XV: Giant pictographic shrines






Group XVI: flat-topped chortens


16b, 16c, 16o






16i, 16p (r, l)








Group XVII: chortens with simple spires













Group XVIII: intricate non-Buddhist chortens
























Group XIX: intricate chortens of Brag gyam


























Group XX: Buddhist chortens









Next Month: More revelations about ancient Tibet!

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