Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Kyung

October 2016

John Vincent Bellezza

Welcome to Flight of the Khyung, your journey to the mysteries of ancient Tibet! This month’s newsletter boasts an article about recent archaeological discoveries in Ladakh, written by Dr. Quentin Devers et al. This work breaks new ground by tackling thorny historical problems that have long plagued the study of Ladakh. It paves the way to a clearer understanding of the political, cultural and historical complexion of Western Ladakh in the 11th century CE. In doing so, this article presents valuable sources of evidence (rock art, inscriptions, fortresses) for the first time, prying open a vista on the past with crucial implications for subsequent research.

The second and final article in this month’s newsletter details the discovery of mask-like objects carved on boulders in Spiti. These carvings may help push back cultural links between Spiti, Upper Tibet and Ladakh to the Bronze Age.

 

The Petroglyphs of Kharool: The New Alchi of Ladakh

Written by Quentin DEVERS, Nils MARTIN, KACHO Mumtaz KHAN, Tashi LDAWA

Introduction

Fig. 1. Location of Kharool and other sites in Ladakh. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 1. Location of Kharool and other sites in Ladakh. [Q. Devers]

One of the most tantalizing petroglyph sites in Ladakh is situated only 15 minutes out of Kargil, along National Highway 1A towards Srinagar (Fig. 1). Inexplicably, it has remained unknown to the scholarly world. The hamlet of Kharool shelters a variety of very fine rock carvings. Among them, so-called animal style zoomorphs, what look like inscriptions in Kharoshti and Sarada, and most importantly, numerous chorten motifs accompanied by Tibetan inscriptions. The latter are comparable in quality to those found at Alchi, Khaltse and Balukhar. One of them represents the longest rock inscription ever found in the region for its period, opening a new page in the history of Ladakh. It appears to put an end to the long uncertainty about the dating of the military inscriptions found in the above-mentioned sites: these are not related to the Tibetan empire (ca. 650–850 CE), but to the earliest known conquest of Western Ladakh by the Western Tibetan (Gu ge-Pu hreng) kingdom.

The petroglyphs of Kharool were partially surveyed by Tashi Ldawa in 2007. After this initial documentation, no other scholars took an interest in the site. The search for Kharool was set in motion again by Nils Martin in the Spring of 2016. He noticed that in the temple inscription of the Nyima Lhakhang, in Mulbek, the ruler of Phokhar is reported to have received many villages from the ruler of Kashmir, “and even the fortress of Kharyul”. Looking for this location on a map, Martin noticed a village called Kharool near Kargil, at the confluence of the Dras and Suru rivers. Given the particulars of the name, Quentin Devers went there searching for a fortification in the summer of 2016, during a survey conducted in collaboration with Kacho Mumtaz Khan and funded by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage). A fort was indeed located at the very confluence of the two rivers. Opposite the fortress are the fields and handful of houses of Kharool, among which are carved boulders. The following description is based on several subsequent visits to the site by the authors, with the invaluable help of Kacho Sikundar Khan and Hassan Khan.

Archaeological environment of the site

Fig. 2. Plan of Kharool with the main zones of engravings. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 2. Plan of Kharool with the main zones of engravings. [Q. Devers]

The petroglyphs of Kharool are located at the confluence of the Dras and Suru rivers, along the left bank of both rivers (Fig. 2). The remains of a fort taken by the Dogras (Kaul and Kaul 1992: 89) are set on an opposite outcrop, on the right bank of the Dras river and left bank of the Suru (Fig. 3). Another fort appears to be built atop the mountain overlooking the hamlet, but we could not survey it as it is in a military restricted area.

In former times, the regular route to Skardu from Kargil crossed the Dras river at Kharool and continued downstream along the left bank of the Suru (Fig. 2). A few kilometers from the confluence that path crossed a small plateau known as Serthang, or ‘Gold Plain‘, where a gold mine is believed to have existed. Many dark boulders are located along this route, including some that are most probably carved. This area, however, is very close to the line of control and is believed to be scattered with unexploded ordinance. Extra precautions are needed to access Serthang, which the authors will implement during a planned survey in 2017.

Fig. 3. General view of Kharool from the North. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 3. General view of Kharool from the North. [Q. Devers]

Kharool is a small hamlet currently composed of about five houses, which until recently amounted to a single household. Fields are few and it is not clear how long they have been tilled or when people settled there permanently. It is quite possible that the petroglyphs date to a time when the confluence of the Dras and Suru was a strategic crossing protected by a fort but without a hamlet. If such is the case, many boulders may have disappeared in the past to make way for the fields.

Overview of the carvings

Fig. 4.  Examples of zoomorphs at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 4.  Examples of zoomorphs at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 5. Examples of anthropomorphs at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 5. Examples of anthropomorphs at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 6. Examples of flowers at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 6. Examples of flowers at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

There are over 300 carvings in Kharool. The most numerous motifs are zoomorphic (about 100, Fig. 4); then come patches of circles (about 80 circles), chortens (about 45), anthropomorphic figures (about 40, Fig. 5), compartmented shapes (about a dozen), swastikas (5 counterclockwise, 1 clockwise), flowers (about 5, Fig. 6), and handprints (just 2). There are an additional twenty miscellaneous or unidentified subjects at the site, and probably others as one always misses boulders even in the most careful and comprehensive surveys. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a detailed analysis of all the petroglyphs in Kharool. We will only briefly cover the most unusual ones before considering at length some of the new information contained in the inscriptions.

Fig. 7. Group consisting of a lion, horse and tiger at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 7. Group consisting of a lion, horse and tiger at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 8: Detail of the lion, horse and tiger in Fig. 7. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 8: Detail of the lion, horse and tiger in Fig. 7. [Q. Devers]

One of the most prominent zoomorphic groups is a trio of animals composed of a lion, horse and tiger, carved in a beautiful so-called ‘animal style’ (Figs. 7, 8). As we shall see, this trio raises questions about the limitations of petroglyph analysis based on stylistic and patina comparisons or, at the very least, about the duration of the period over which this style was used in Ladakh. Two other lions are carved on separate boulders (Fig. 9), bringing Kharool close to Khaltse and Balukhar, where similar lions are found in association with inscriptions left by a Western Tibetan military presence.

Fig. 9: The two other lions of Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 9: The two other lions of Kharool. [Q. Devers]

One boulder at the site stands out prominently, for it is carved with two large patches of fully pecked circles (Fig. 10). About 80 such discs can be counted – their purpose is entirely open to interpretation. Compartmented shapes can also be seen, the meaning of which is also open to interpretation (Fig. 11). Finally, of interest are two handprints on separate boulders, both with a light-colored patina and associated with chorten engravings (Fig. 12). Handprints are usually considered to be a motif dating from the prehistoric period, but in this context, we must largely disagree with such pre-conceived notions: there is nothing suggesting a prehistoric setting for any of the carvings at Kharool, the only tangible context is clearly and solely historic. As we shall further see, other elements in Kharool converge to question some of the usual stylistic and motif-based interpretations applied to rock art in Ladakh.

Fig. 10. Patches of circles at Kharool. [T. Ldawa]

Fig. 10. Patches of circles at Kharool. [T. Ldawa]

Fig. 11. Example of compartmented shapes at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 11. Example of compartmented shapes at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 12. The two handprints of Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 12. The two handprints of Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Of numerous chortens

Fig. 13. Examples of chortens at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 13. Examples of chortens at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

About 45 chorten engravings can be counted in Kharool. There were more before: several boulders have recently been broken up for construction material. Most of the engravings are finely executed, of a quality comparable to the famous ones at Alchi, Khaltse and Balukhar. The archaeological context of these four sites is similarly relatable: these are strategic crossings defended by a fort. Different shaped chortens are observable, almost all of which can also be found at Alchi, Khaltse and Balukhar (Fig. 13). However, some of them differ from typical Ladakhi chorten engravings, as is the case with a large remarkable trio (Fig. 14), carved more in a format that recalls chortens seen in Northern Pakistan (Fig. 15), where, in addition to a perfectly round dome, the spire is larger in proportion to the rest of the chorten and supported by slanting poles.

Fig. 14. Trio of a different type of chortens, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 14. Trio of a different type of chortens, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 15. Example of chortens in Northern Pakistan. Source: Pamirtimes.net (http://pamirtimes.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Archeological-Carvings-at-Chilas-Diamer-3.jpg)

Fig. 15. Example of chortens in Northern Pakistan. Source: Pamirtimes.net (http://pamirtimes.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Archeological-Carvings-at-Chilas-Diamer-3.jpg)

Of critical inscriptions, or how to open a new page of history

Fig. 16: Tibetan inscriptions at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 16: Tibetan inscriptions at Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 17: Other inscriptions at Kharool: in Kharoshti (?) on the left, in Sarada (?) on the right. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 17: Other inscriptions at Kharool: in Kharoshti (?) on the left, in Sarada (?) on the right. [Q. Devers]

Several inscriptions can be seen in Kharool. About seven are written in Tibetan (Fig. 16); one may be in Sarada and another one in Kharoshti (Fig. 17). Confirmation of their identity is now being sought. Most of the inscriptions in Tibetan are of the dedicatory type accompanied chorten engravings. They are of the simple format with the name of the person, and in some cases the title and clan name. Two important clans are represented, the Smer and the Rbang-ling, members of which are also found in Alchi, Khaltse and Balukhar. Their prominence in Maryul in the early days of the Western Tibetan kingdom has recently been evidenced by Nils Martin, based on the donation inscription in the temple of Avalokiteshvara at Mangyu (Martin 2016). Also noteworthy is that two of the soldiers in Kharool seem to have engraved their personal names in other locations as well: one is found in Alchi, another in Khaltse.

Fig. 18: Boulder with the main inscription, Kharool, with Kacho Sikundar Khan (right) and Hassan Khan (left).  [Q. Devers]

Fig. 18: Boulder with the main inscription, Kharool, with Kacho Sikundar Khan (right) and Hassan Khan (left).  [Q. Devers]

One boulder in Kharool stands out as it is engraved with one of the longest rock inscriptions in Ladakh of that period (Figs. 18, 19). A large central chorten is framed with the two parts of the inscription, on the left (A) and right (B). Part A is fragmentary: some syllables on the left are missing, the upper layer of the rock being damaged. It used to be bordered on the left side by another chorten, now almost entirely gone. This former chorten to the left explains why some of the lines of the text continue inside the main central chorten: the carver had a clear start on the left; i.e. the steps of the missing chorten, and then went on extending the lines into the central chorten. The syllables inside the latter are of a much darker patina and are more difficult to read. This part is composed of six lines, the last of which is almost entirely lost. Part B is also fragmentary: some of the syllables on the right are missing, also because of the damage of the upper layer of the rock. It is made up of ten lines. Again, the last line is pretty much damaged and thus the reading remains tentative only. From what I can see this inscription is in the Classical Tibetan language, supporting a later date.

Fig. 19: Closer view of the two parts of the main inscription, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 19: Closer view of the two parts of the main inscription, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Dating

The first lines of both parts of the inscription give us the most crucial information of all dedicatory inscriptions at this western group of sites. The first line of part A commemorates an event that took place in a dragon year, while the first line of part B mentions the king of Purang Od De (’Od lde, 1024–1037). There is only one dragon year under this ruler: 1028, which thus seems a likely date for the inscription or the events to which it gives account.

Some of the soldiers stationed in Kharool seem to have also been in Alchi and Khaltse. These three sites form a coherent ensemble with similar types of locations, similar archaeological environments, similar types of chorten engravings, and similar individual and clan names in the inscriptions. They differ on several of these points from other chorten carvings and Tibetan inscriptions found in Northern Pakistan and in Nubra. The sites in these three areas form three distinct groups that cannot be directly linked, and which are probably the result of different historical events.

Focusing now on Western Ladakh only, the main inscription at Kharool clears doubts about the origin of the carvings at Alchi, Khaltse and Kharool: they pertain to some type of a Western Tibetan military force that campaigned in the early 11th century in Western Ladakh; they do not appear to relate to the Tibetan empire. Some individual carvings may not belong exactly to this precise conquest but to later events, the Bro and the Smer clans being still attested respectively in Alchi and Mangyu a century later or so (Martin 2016). But no elements in these sites demonstrate an intelligible link with the Tibetan Empire: the earliest tangible element at our disposal is an early 11th century military campaign by Od De.

Bruzha and border areas

Part B of the inscription further mentions Bruzha, the first attested reference to this region in an inscription in Ladakh. It should be pointed out here that Kharool, by its very geographical location, is a natural candidate to play a border role between Ladakh, Northern Pakistan (Baltistan, Gilgit) and even Kashmir. The hamlet is located at the confluence of the Suru and Dras rivers. In former times, the regular route from Kargil to Skardu crossed the Dras brook at Kharool and then followed the Suru on the left bank towards the Indus. The area around Kharool has for a long time represented a frontier between Purig and Baltistan, and still does. The line of control used to be on the mountain above the village, and is now only a few kilometers away.

As noted, Kharool (under the name Kharyul) is mentioned in a temple inscription inside the 14th to 15th century Nyima Lhakhang in Mulbek. The ruler of Phokhar is said to have received many villages from the ruler of Kashmir, “and even the fortress of Kharyul”, suggesting that it previously belonged to the latter. A Kashmiri domination of the valley of Dras during some parts of Ladakh history is not strange, especially considering the material evidence seen in Dras. Fortifications there follow layouts that are atypical for Ladakh, and inside there are potsherds of wheeled ceramics (a technique absent from Ladakh). Furthermore, the famous Buddhist carvings of the village are the only ones in Ladakh to be inscribed in Sarada instead of Tibetan. Thus, it is increasingly evident that Kharool may have been under Kashmiri influence at times. As such, in addition to being a border village between Purig and Baltistan, Kharool might also have been a border village between Purig and Kashmir. That it is in Kharool where we find one of the longest military rock inscriptions in Ladakh referring to Bruzha is sound from a military point of view: Kharool was a strategic place right at the doorstep of Bruzha.

Historical and geographical wider context

The types of chorten engravings and dedicatory inscriptions at Kharool are not only found at Alchi, Khaltse, Balukhar and Kharool. Other sites with similar petroglyphs and inscriptions are situated primarily along the Indus valley (near Narmo, Domkhar and Lehdo) and in Purig (near Paskyum, Yarchok and Namsuru). Undoubtedly, more are yet to be found. All sites of this type have the same geographical context: they were crossing points over important rivers and located away from villages. However, surveys conducted by Quentin Devers and Kacho Mumtaz Khan in Purig revealed a second type of location: in Namsuru and in Yarchok (Kartse Khar valley), the carvings are found high up on mountainsides. These two sites offer great vantage points, ideal observation posts for watching armies coming from afar. As such, the shared characteristics between these two types of locations are as strategic places (river crossings, lookout posts) situated away from populated centers. No such inscriptions are found near ancient military installations located inside villages, only at those situated in uninhabited spaces.

An important consideration is that no such sites are found in Upper Ladakh. All the inscriptions are located downstream of the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. This geographical layout is very interesting for us. As Devers explained elsewhere (Devers 2016), there is ever more evidence for significant material differentiation between Upper/Eastern and Lower/Western Ladakh. The former region displays links with Western Tibet, whereas the latter shows influence from Northern Pakistan (Baltistan and Gilgit areas). The border between the two regions appears to have resided at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, which was also found to be a linguistic divide by Zeisler (Zeisler 2013).

It is commonly thought that Nyimagon (Nyi ma mgon) received Maryul from the hands of the Gyapa Jo (Rgya pa jo) or, alternatively, that he conquered it. There have been long debates as to what the name Maryul designated before the rise of the Western Tibetan dynasty. In the context of the annexation of the region by Nyimagon and considering the material remains found in Eastern and Western Ladakh, it appears that Nyimagon-controlled Maryul meant Eastern Ladakh only, i.e. the area extending from the Indus/Zanskar confluence eastwards/upwards, in the direction of Tibet. Western Ladakh does not appear to contain archaeological remains connected to the incorporation of Maryul into the possessions of the Western Tibetan kingdom by Nyimagon in the 10th century, nor do any of its villages seem to appear in historical texts belonging to that period.

The most characteristic and earliest material remains pertaining to the Nyimagon dynasty in Ladakh are rock inscriptions at various sites, which can now be dated to around the reign of king Od De in the 11th century. He was known for being a fighter at heart and to have campaigned in the land of Bruzha and other regions (Vitali 1996: 115). The military inscriptions left by his armies are situated all the way from Alchi, the first strategic crossing point found after the Indus/Zanskar confluence, to Baltistan and Kashmir, along the Indus river and in Purig. The areas where the inscriptions have been discovered all exhibit antecedent material influence from Northern Pakistan, suggesting they were not part of the same Maryul as Eastern Ladakh. At that time, they may very well have represented a foreign land that either belonged to or was in the sphere of influence of Skardu and Gilgit.

What we have here seems to be evidence for a large-scale assault on Western Ladakh by the armies of Od De. We do not find inscriptions in Eastern Ladakh, a region that already belonged to Western Tibet. The first inscriptions are found only soon after the Indus/Zanskar confluence, in Alchi. We have the same names of soldiers in several locations: the same army was marching west towards Bruzha. And right at Kharool, a strategic location at the doorstep of the latter, we find an inscription referring to this land, the only such mention known in Ladakh.

It is probably at that time when Western Ladakh became part of the dominions of the Western Tibetan kingdom. It is unclear whether this conquest was long-lasting or if these new parts were quickly lost. This will be the object of another paper by Nils Martin concerning the temple inscriptions at Alchi and Mangyu, where he will present new information that enable us to build upon this reconstruction of the early phases of historical Maryul.

On the limitations of patina and style- or motif-based dating

Fig. 20: The animal trio (left) and a Tibetan inscription with a chorten (right) carved on the same boulder. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 20: The animal trio (left) and a Tibetan inscription with a chorten (right) carved on the same boulder. [Q. Devers]

The petroglyphs of Kharool raise questions about the limitations of patina, style- and motif-based analysis in Ladakh. The first case on which we will focus is the lion-horse-tiger trio in a so-called animal style, particularly the horse in the middle (Fig. 20). Animal-style art is often attributed to the Iron Age. Hence this trio of the same style and very dark patina might be dated to the Iron Age. However, on another part of the same boulder are two large chortens and a Tibetan inscription (Fig. 20). These have the same very dark patina and certainly do not date to the Iron Age: they were engraved in the 11th century AD. It would be tempting here to dismiss the patina argument and say that in this case the motifs may have the same patina but are from different periods, which may well be the case. However, the places where we find similar subjects are Khaltse and Balukhar, two sites heavily associated with the same Tibetan troops from the 11th century. Whereas in Kharool and in Khaltse the argument of the presence of Kharoshti inscriptions can be made for raising doubt as to which period these lions belong, in Balukhar the only context available is that the carvings and fort all belong to this 11th-century Western Tibetan military presence in Western Ladakh. It would be useful to start considering the possibility that the so-called animal style (actually a wide range of interrelated styles) might have had a much longer span of usage, at least in Ladakh. That is to say, a motif carved in this style does not necessarily date to the Iron Age. This supports Bellezza’s observations elsewhere in Flight of the Khyung.

Fig. 21: Chorten with varying patina, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 21: Chorten with varying patina, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 22: Detail of the varying patina on the lower part of the chorten, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

Fig. 22: Detail of the varying patina on the lower part of the chorten, Kharool. [Q. Devers]

One particular chorten raises concerns about patina analysis on a single boulder (Fig. 21). A single chorten has a variable patina: most of it is of a light one but the lower end is very dark (Fig. 22). Close examination shows that no part of the chorten was re-pecked at any time, the pecking is all original and contemporary. If, instead of one chorten, there had been one motif carved on the upper part and another separate one carved on the lower part, each with different patinas, one light and one dark, the regular interpretation would have been that the upper motif was more recent, even much more recent, than the lower one. This chorten should remind us that basing oneself solely on patina for dating motifs relative to one another, on a same boulder, is a slippery slope that has probably led us to erroneous conclusions in more than one occasion in the past.

Finally, concerning motif-based analysis, we saw earlier the case of the two handprints associated with chorten engravings (Fig. 12). Although handprints are usually considered to be from prehistory, nothing in the site of Kharool reveals a prehistoric context – the only tangible elements are historic. These are further reminders that motif-based dating also has serious limitations and cannot be applied all the time.

These are only a few examples, but many more cases can be seen across Ladakh. Chronological analysis should not rely too heavily on patina, style and motif interpretation. Though these are useful tools that probably work in many instances, they cannot be applied on individual carvings without taking in account other factors such as the historical, archaeological and land use contexts of each petroglyph site. Ladakh is a region with much cultural, religious and ethnic complexity, where only careful contextualisation can help differentiate between what could be simple cultural or regional variations instead of strict chronological differences. A necessary step towards better rock art analysis will require a better understanding of the various contexts, in order to more accurately assess the environment in which they were created and, in turn, to better understand the carvings themselves and their dating.

Conclusion

Kharool represents one of the most important petroglyph sites in Ladakh. It is situated at a strategic confluence and crossing, only minutes away from Kargil, at the verge of Ladakh, Baltistan and Kashmir. It belongs to a group of similar sites found at strategic military locations (river crossings and observation posts), away from villages, where soldiers engraved chortens on boulders, some with dedicatory inscriptions. Similar types of chortens and names are found near the military sites of Alchi, Khaltse and Balukhar. They form a coherent ensemble that differs from the types of locations, archaeological environments, names and chortens found in neighboring areas such as Northern Pakistan and Nubra. The main inscription at Kharool, one of the longest for this period in Ladakh, settles an old debate about the dating of this group of inscriptions in Western Ladakh. They are not related to the Tibetan empire, but to the Western Tibetan kingdom. We have at Kharool an inscription written in the reign of Od De in 1028, a ruler known for his military activities. All sites with similar inscriptions are located downstream of the Indus-Zanskar confluence. This military presence concerns Western Ladakh only, showing a clear differentiation of the region from Eastern Ladakh, which allegedly already belonged to Western Tibet.

The main inscription at KharooI opens a new chapter in the history of the early phase of Maryul as part of the Western Tibetan kingdom. A detailed reading and translation of inscriptions found in Western Ladakh will be provided in an article under preparation by Nils Martin and Quentin Devers. The aftermath of the conquest by Od De will further be covered in another article by Nils Martin, based on a new reading of the temple inscriptions of Mangyu and Alchi.  Finally, a series of forthcoming short papers in Flight of the Khyung will introduce other new rock art sites, which, like Kharool, contribute to an improved understanding of the early history of Ladakh.

References

Devers, Quentin, 2016, Archaeological Ladakh, contribution of recent discoveries to redefining the history of a key region between the Pamirs and the Himalayas, 14th colloquium of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, 20th of June.

Kaul, S. and Kaul, H. N. 1992: Ladakh Through the Ages, Towards a New Identity, Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.

Martin, Nils, 2016: The lDe, the ’Bro, and the sMer, inscriptional evidence from the temple of Avalokiteshvara at Mangyu, 14th colloquium of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, 20th of June.

Vitali, Roberto, 1996: The kingdoms of Gu-ge Pu-hrang: according to Mgnaʾ-ris rgyal rabs by Gu-ge Mkhan-chen Ngag-dbang-grags pa, Dharamsala, Tho ling gtsug lag khang lo gcig stong ’khor ba’i rjes dran mdzad sgo’i go sgrig tshogs chung

Zeisler, Bettina, 2013: The dialect groups of Upper and Lower Ladakh. Apparent and less apparent differences, 16th colloquium of the International Association for Ladakh Studies, 17-20 April.

About the authors

Quentin DEVERS is a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Paris). He works on the archaeological remains of Ladakh, with a focus on fortifications, temple ruins and pre-Buddhist funerary sites.

Nils MARTIN is a PhD candidate at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris), where he is preparing a dissertation about the murals of Ladakh from the 14th and 15th century, co-supervised by Charles RAMBLE (Directeur d’études, EPHE, Paris) and Christian LUCZANITS (Professor, SOAS, London). He also takes a close interest in the early Tibetan inscriptions of the region.

KACHO Mumtaz KHAN works on the inventory and protection of the heritage of Ladakh. He is most active in the district of Kargil, where he has conducted projects on important sites such as the large Chamba of Apati. He is co-convenor of the Ladakh chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Tashi LDAWA is professor of zoology at the Leh Degree College. He has surveyed the rock art of Ladakh since 1997. He has dedicated himself to raising awareness and conserving this rich heritage through the organization of exhibitions, workshops and the creation of pedagogic material.

 

Discovery of Three Mascoid Carvings on a Boulder in Spiti

In the Spring and Summer of 2016, six more rock art sites were documented in Spiti, bringing the total number in this region of Himachal Pradesh to at least 33. These discoveries were made by the Spiti Rock Art and Historical Society, a local organization committed to protecting the rapidly dwindling ancient cultural heritage of Spiti. As of 2016, over 1900 boulders with rock art have been registered in Spiti and Sumra (a locale in Kinnaur on the Spiti river opposite Lower Spiti).

Spiti, a region making up half the district of Lahaul-Spiti, shares a long border with Tibet and Ladakh. Indeed, the rock art of Spiti has much in common thematically and stylistically with western Tibet and Ladakh (for a survey of Spitian rock art, see the July to November 2015 issues of Flight of the Khyung).

Among the most important rock art finds in 2016 were made near the settlement of Hurling (Lower Spiti, more than 95% of all rock art in Spiti is in this area). Here three mascoids (anthropomorphic visages in emblematic form) were discovered on a single border. In diverse forms, mascoids are also seen in the rock art of southern Siberia, the Altai, Ningxia, northern Pakistan, northwestern Tibet, and Ladakh.* The identity and function of mascoid rock art is still very much in question. Its use and symbolism may have varied considerably from region to region and culture to culture. We simply do not know. Certainly, they were of sufficient importance to be adopted by a variety of ancient peoples in Inner Asia, transcending sundry cultural, ethnic and linguistic barriers. Mascoids are often dated by rock art specialists using non-direct means to the Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1000 BCE). Estimates of age assigned to them have not yet been scientifically corroborated.

* For comparative studies of mascoids focusing upon specimens from Upper Tibet and Ladakh, see the following works:

December 2011 Flight of the Khyung.

Bellezza, J. V. 2014: The Dawn of Tibet: The Ancient Civilization on the Roof of the World. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bruneau, L. 2010: “Le Ladakh (état de Jammu et Cachemire, Inde) de l’Âge du Bronze à l’introduction du Bouddhisme : une étude de l’art rupestre, vols. 1, 2, 3. Répertoire des pétroglyphes du Ladakh”. Ph.D. dissertation, Université Paris I-Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Bruneau, L. and Bellezza, J. V. 2013: “The Rock Art of Upper Tibet and Ladakh: Inner Asian cultural adaptation, regional differentiation and the ‘Western Tibetan Plateau Style’” in Revue d’etudes tibétaines, vol. 28, pp. 5–161. Paris: CNRS (http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ret/pdf/ret_28.pdf).

Fig. 1. Three mascoids on a boulder near Hurling, Spiti. The upper two specimens are partially cut in the photograph. Cross-cultural indications suggest that these mascoids may date to the Bronze Age. Also on the boulder is a handprint and several curvilinear and rectilinear subjects of unknown identity. All these carvings appear to be of significant antiquity. Photograph courtesy of the Spiti Rock Art and Historical Society.

Fig. 1. Three mascoids on a boulder near Hurling, Spiti. The upper two specimens are partially cut in the photograph. Cross-cultural indications suggest that these mascoids may date to the Bronze Age. Also on the boulder is a handprint and several curvilinear and rectilinear subjects of unknown identity. All these carvings appear to be of significant antiquity. Photograph courtesy of the Spiti Rock Art and Historical Society.

Fig. 2. Two of the mascoids and handprint in fig. 1 (lower half of image). Above the mascoids is a spiral and other carvings. Photograph courtesy of the Spiti Rock Art and Historical Society.

Fig. 2. Two of the mascoids and handprint in fig. 1 (lower half of image). Above the mascoids is a spiral and other carvings. Photograph courtesy of the Spiti Rock Art and Historical Society.

The mascoids of Spiti include two rectangular specimens with slightly pinched sides subdivided into two sections. The interior of both parts of these mascoids contain minor carved areas. The third mascoid discovered in Spiti has a semicircular outline and is also divided into two parts. A carved blotch cutting across the top of the mascoid does not appear to be an original artistic feature. Each of the two sections of this bell-shaped mascoid contains two circles with a dot in the middle (the lower right circle and dot form a spiral).

Of equivalent age to the mascoids is a carving of a handprint with five fingers plus an opposable thumb. It is situated next to the semicircular mascoid. The matching carving technique used to produce the handprint and mascoid and the uniform wear of the carvings suggest that they may possibly form an integral composition, the handiwork of a single artist, but this cannot be confirmed from a visual appraisal alone. Handprints attributed to the Bronze Age have been documented in the rock art of Ladakh and north Inner Asia. There are also handprints in these regions belonging to more recent periods. Handprint rock art is very rare in Upper Tibet.

The discovery of mascoids in Spiti augments the range of rock art subjects aligning Spiti with Upper Tibet and Ladakh. Other cognate subjects of the Western Tibetan Plateau (WTP) include felines in the Eurasian animal style, horned eagles, tiered shrines, wild yak hunting on horseback, and cosmological symbols. These kinds of subjects reflect the existence of cultural and artistic interconnections between Spiti, Upper Tibet and Ladakh in the Iron Age (ca. 600–100 BCE), Protohistoric period (ca. 100 BCE to 600 CE) and Early Historic period (ca. 600–1000 CE). Nevertheless, the mascoids of Spiti may possibly be the oldest examples of rock art also common to Upper Tibet and Ladakh. Although a Bronze Age attribution for the earliest mascoids of the Western Tibetan Plateau is provisional, it is supported by the extreme erosion and re-patination exhibited by them.

Also of potential Bronze Age antiquity on the Western Tibetan Plateau (WTP) is bronze metallurgy, chariot carvings, mortuary pillars and agricultural remains. In tandem with mascoid carvings, this physical evidence seems to root communications between the constituent parts of the WTP in a highly remote period, serving as a precedent for later cultural and demographic interactions in the region. More crucially, the widespread distribution of mascoids in Inner Asia suggests that the WTP was privy to broad interregional exchanges occurring as early as the Bronze Age. These appear to have impacted Spiti, Upper Tibet and Ladakh in fundamental but still not well understood, ways.

The mascoids of Spiti are most comparable to those in Upper Tibet and Ladakh. As with horned eagles, wild yak hunting on horseback and other cardinal subjects and themes, it is Spiti’s larger eastern and northern neighbors that probably served as inspiration for the creation of the mascoids. Around 50 mascoids in several major styles have been documented in northwestern Tibet and around 100 in Ladakh (most come from the Murgi Tokpo site in the Nubra valley), hinting that their cultural center of gravity lay in those directions. However, the mascoids of Spiti are not identical to Upper Tibetan and Ladakh variants, rather they are unique expressions of an emblem or symbol with much wider currency. The Spitian examples are decidedly simpler in form that their Upper Tibetan and Ladakh counterparts, which also suggests that they are derivative or imitative in nature.

Fig. 3. Bell-shaped mascoid, Murgi Tokpo, Ladakh. This mascoid has a symmetrical array of internal elements, a characteristic trait of mascoid rock art on the WTP and other regions of Inner Asia. In addition to two ‘eyes’, the upper half of the carving has a triangular head adornment or hairline. The bottom half of the mascoid is partitioned into two parts, each with an inward pointing triangle. Photograph courtesy of Laurianne Bruneau.

Fig. 3. Bell-shaped mascoid, Murgi Tokpo, Ladakh. This mascoid has a symmetrical array of internal elements, a characteristic trait of mascoid rock art on the WTP and other regions of Inner Asia. In addition to two ‘eyes’, the upper half of the carving has a triangular head adornment or hairline. The bottom half of the mascoid is partitioned into two parts, each with an inward pointing triangle. Photograph courtesy of Laurianne Bruneau.

Fig. 4. Bell-shaped mascoid with eyes, other internal elements, feet and wielding what appears to be a bow, Murgi Tokpo, Ladakh. Photograph courtesy of Laurianne Bruneau.

Fig. 4. Bell-shaped mascoid with eyes, other internal elements, feet and wielding what appears to be a bow, Murgi Tokpo, Ladakh. Photograph courtesy of Laurianne Bruneau.

Fig. 5. Mascoid with sub-rectangular outline divided into two halves, each adorned with two spirals, Ruthok, Upper Tibet.

Fig. 5. Mascoid with sub-rectangular outline divided into two halves, each adorned with two spirals, Ruthok, Upper Tibet.

Fig. 6. Rectangular mascoid with slightly pinched sides divided by a line into two halves, Ruthok, Upper Tibet. This example, while very close in form to Spitian mascoids, probably dates to a later period. I refer to such types as pseudo-mascoids. Some of them bear complex internal elements. Pseudo-mascoids appear to have been produced in the Iron Age and Protohistoric period.

Fig. 6. Rectangular mascoid with slightly pinched sides divided by a line into two halves, Ruthok, Upper Tibet. This example, while very close in form to Spitian mascoids, probably dates to a later period. I refer to such types as pseudo-mascoids. Some of them bear complex internal elements. Pseudo-mascoids appear to have been produced in the Iron Age and Protohistoric period.

The bell shape of Spiti’s most complex mascoid is also seen in Ladakh, where it is one of the main indigenous forms. However, Ladakh variants often have feet and legs and wield a bow. There are no such appendages or accoutrements in the Spitian example. Although the outline is differently shaped, the quadpartite arrangement of the four circular motifs of the Spiti mascoid also occur in Upper Tibet (where they appear as spirals). The two rectangular mascoids with pinched sides in Spiti recall a common style in Upper Tibet.

Next Month: Ancient Artistic Horizons Further Expanded!

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