John Vincent Bellezza
Flight of the Khyung surveys the ancient rock art of Spiti situated on the western rim of the Tibetan plateau! The last four newsletters have been devoted to the early cultural history and archaeology of Spiti and this one follows suit with more information and wonderful images. Readers are encouraged to consult those earlier issues for background information. Spiti will remain the focus of the next issues of Flight of the Khyung as well.
The extensive treatment of the rock carvings (petroglyphs) and rock paintings (pictographs) of Spiti that follows is the first of a three-part article. The other two parts of this work will appear in the October and November newsletters.
As explained in the July newsletter, no less than 6000 individual rock art compositions were recently documented in Spiti. In the July and August newsletters around 100 images of this rock art were published. In this month’s newsletter there are an additional 186 images to be followed by around 200 more images in the October and November newsletters. In total, approximately 450 different photographs of Spitian rock art are to be published in the July to November issues of Flight of the Khyung.
A Survey of the Rock Art of Spiti – Part 1
This comprehensive survey of rock art in Spiti is the first of its kind. The petroglyphs and pictographs selected for publication in this article belong to what might be called the standard or indigenous art of the region, compositions, subjects and motifs that recur in most places and phases of Spitian rock art. This body of rock art is remarkable for its thematic coherence, the production of a people sharing a common cultural idiom of great persistence. For information on the cultural and historical dimensions of the Spiti rock art tradition, see the July and August 2015 Flight of the Khyung.
This article is organized on a site-by-site basis, beginning in lower (southeast) Spiti and continuing up towards the northern extension of the region. In this first part of the article the following sites are treated (for a complete list of rock art sites in Spiti, see the July 2015 Flight of the Khyung):
- Sumdo 1 (Sum-mdo; el. 3070 m)
- Sumdo 2 (el. 3060 m)
- Dzamathang (rDza-ma-thang; el. 3160–3190 m)
- Shelatse (Shel-la-rtse; el. 3260–3280m)
- Hurling Pharke (Hur-gling phar-ke; el. 3210 m)
- Gyurmo (Gyur-mo; el. 3350–3390 m)
- Gyu West (rGyu; el. 3090–3130 m)
- Draknak (Brag-nag; el. 3155 m)
- Drakdo Kiri (Brag-rdo ki-ri; el. 3180 m)
- Gyari (rGya-ri; el. 3225–3250 m)
- Sahal Thang (Sa-skal thang; 3190–3215 m)
- Tibtra (3200 m)
- Tsen Tsalep (rTsan-rtsa-leb; el. 3210–3230 m)
- Lari Tingjuk (La-ri Ting-mjug; 3240–3260 m)
The rock art of each site is organized according to general themes in the following order:
- Zoomorphic portraits (individual or collective depiction of animals and supermundane entities in human form).
- Anthropomorphic portraits (individual or collective depiction of human beings and supermundane entities in animal form).
- Hunting scenes and other interactions between anthropomorphs and zoomorphs (depiction of humans and animals in concert).
- Geometric subjects (rectilinear and curvilinear designs of varying complexity), with and without anthropomorphs and zoomorphs.
- Apparent shrines and other types of ritual structures (an enigmatic class of rock art).
- Symbolic subjects (signs, emblems and icons that appear to have been invested with prescribed forms of abstract meaning).
In its three parts, this article presents approximately 6% of the 6000 pictures of rock art taken on this year’s Spiti Antiquities Expedition. The objective of publishing these images is to furnish a comprehensive pictorial survey of Spitian rock art. To accomplish this goal, a diverse selection of rock art on a site-by-site basis is showcased in an attempt to reflect the full range of contents. The contents of rock art can be delineated as follows:
- Theme (analogous scenes, topics and ideas articulated in a body of compositions)
- Composition (one or more petroglyph or pictograph created as an integral work)
- Subject (individual figures or symbols making up a composition)
- Motif (prominent element used in the depiction of a subject)
- Style (mode of artistic expression)
- Technique (physical execution and tools used in production)
This survey does not necessarily reflect the frequency of specific aspects of the contents of Spitian rock art. For example, the number of swastikas and blue sheep shown is not proportional to their numerical representation. That is because furnishing numerous iterations of rock art with limited stylistic variation would not add much to the comprehensiveness of this survey nor greatly enhance an appreciation of the rock art tableau.
Although a substantial array of rock art is featured here, it represents a small fraction of the complete corpus. Thus this survey cannot capture the full richness of artistic endeavor in stone, a tradition practiced in Spiti by untold people for no less than 1500 years. The skill and inventiveness of many individual creators of rock art characterized by numerous permutations in the standard contents as well as by idiosyncratic representations have per force been omitted from this survey.
The compilation of an exhaustive catalog of rock art in Spiti would have its own special scientific value, such as facilitating statistical forms of analysis and comparative exercises not possible in an article of this scope. This is a task however for a future effort.
Chronological terminology used in this article (for an explanation, see July 2015 Flight of the Khyung) and salient features of each phase of rock art are as follows:
I. Prehistoric epoch
- Early Iron Age (circa 900–500 BCE): Anthropomorphs with angular appendages and prominent displays of male genitalia, with and without wild ungulates. Deeply carved; very heavily re-patinated petroglyphs restricted in technique and style.*
- Iron Age (circa 500–100 BCE): Tigers and horned eagles exhibiting Upper Tibetan and Ladakhi influences; anthropomorphs with angular appendages and male genitalia, with and without wild ungulates; spirals and other geometrics. Deeply carved or finely engraved; heavily to moderately re-patinated petroglyphs somewhat restricted in technique and style.
- Protohistoric period (100 BCE to 630 CE): Anthropomorphs with angular and rounded appendages; archers on foot and horseback hunting wild ungulates; complex curvilinear and rectilinear designs; elementary tiered shrines. Less deeply carved; moderately re-patinated petroglyphs of diverse styles and techniques. Pictographs of analogous styles and themes.
II. Historic epoch
- Early Historic period (630–1000 CE): Portraits of horse riders and standing anthropomorphs in less iconical forms; complex tiered shrines (stupas); conjoined sun and moon; geometrics based on earlier phases of rock art. Most carvings shallow; modeling of figures stiff. Pictographs of analogous styles and themes.
- Vestigial period (1000–1300 CE): Buddhist artistic influences and themes as well as art imitative of earlier phases.
- Later Historic period (post-1300 CE): Copycat art contrived in style and presentation.
The label “Early Iron Age” and the chronology assigned to it in this work reflect broader Eurasian archaeological usage. At this juncture, it has not been determined what kind of economy and technological development Spiti had in the first half of the first millennium BCE.
In this survey of Spiti rock art there are certain subjects, motifs and styles that recall the rock art of Upper Tibet and Ladakh. These affinities may not be as compelling as those studied in last month’s newsletter but they are still noteworthy. Similarities between the rock art of Spiti and Ladakh and Spiti and Upper Tibet potentially have three major causes:
- The transfer of artistic forms to Spiti (mimesis effected through ideology, religious values, less formalized social responses, economic exigencies, political pressure and other agents).
- Pre-existing cultural and/or ethnic ties between Spiti and its plateau neighbors giving rise to the development of parallel art forms.
- Purely coincidental artistic resemblances without inter-regional and inter-cultural factors involved.
Note: The primary objective in the presentation of images is clarity of form. This sometimes required digitally enhancing images in such away that exaggerates the color of the background surface.
This is one of three wild caprids carved on a southwest-facing rock face suspended above the main road that runs through Spiti. As explained in the July 2015 Flight of the Khyung, the blue sheep is the most common zoomorphic depiction in the rock art of Spiti. This rendering of the animal with its rather linear form, hooked tail, and short curving horns extending on both sides of its head captures salient features of much blue sheep rock art in Spiti. Individual or collective portraits of wild ungulates were potentially created for a variety of purposes and with manifold meanings (for a review of these factors, see Bellezza 2008: 171–175).
This composition features a carnivore (wolf or feline) springing up at an ibex (identified by the long horns curving over the body in the same direction). Predator attack scenes are fairly common in the rock art of Spiti. Nevertheless, the location of the great boulder at Sumdo 2 on the road to Guge in Upper Tibet, the fine engraving technique used to create the composition, and the contents of rock art at the site more generally suggest that Upper Tibetan influences were behind the creation of this predator attack scene. This composition was possibly inspired by martial tradition, which appears to be represented at the site by a group of tiger petroglyphs (see last month’s newsletter). There are several other ibex carvings at Sumdo 2, the second most common animal portrayed in the rock art of Spiti.*
On the geographic range of blue sheep and ibex in Tibet, see Schaller 1998, pp. 102, 103; on the distribution of wild yaks, see ibid., pp. 128–136.
This figure has characteristic traits of anthropomorphic art belonging to the Protohistoric period: round head, arms pointing downward, long, straight body and legs spread apart. On the same boulder is another anthropomorph in an analogous style and a few other figures.
On this large boulder are various animal and other petroglyphs.
This is an unusually large zoomorphic figure, but the style belongs to the standard repertoire of Spiti rock art.
This is a typical scene of wild caprids in the rock art of Spiti. Due to extreme wear, it could not be confirmed whether anthropomorphs or other figures are present among the animals.
Several other wild caprids are found on the same boulder. The superimposition of later rock art on older compositions is not as common in Spiti as it is in Upper Tibet. Lower Spiti had an ample supply of boulders for carving, lessening competition for stone canvasses. The smaller number of palimpsests may also be due to the apparent cultural homogeneity and socioeconomic stability of Spiti and to its rapid absorption of Buddhism.
This is another example of a symphony of figures, interrelated chronologically as well as functionally. Although the hunting of wild caprids appears to be represented, this is not necessarily the dominant theme of this complex of petroglyphs. Cult functions with mythological, ritual or narrative elements can be easily imagined. One wonders if the two geometric subjects on the top half of the boulder might possibly portray pens or traps used to corral wild caprids during the hunt. Of course a number of alternative explanations for these types of petroglyphs can also be considered.
There are at least one dozen emblematic male figures on this boulder, some of which are brandishing bows and other objects. The majority of wild animals represented are wild caprids, but one wild yak can be recognized (see August 2015 Flight of the Khyung, fig. 33). The heavily re-patinated figures on this stone surface appear to be among the earliest examples of rock art in Spiti and could possibly date to the Early Iron Age. The less re-patinated figures, including animals in a more linear style and anthropomorphs characterized by greater stylistic variability, appear to date to the Protohistoric period.
Some of the differences in coloration and texture of the carvings are due to the geochemical scouring away of the varnish that once covered the upper portion of the stone panel. This has the effect of amplifying the contrast between various figures. Despite different phases of rock art being represented, there is much coherence in subject matter and stylistic modes.
Some of these associations are likely to involve hunting or perhaps more accurately, the mytho-ritual basis of the ancient venatic traditions of Spiti.
This anthropomorph is part of a network of proximate figures, signaling that the underlying meaning of this rock art was derived from viewing it in aggregate.
The exaggerated size of the male sexual organ in many of Spiti’s anthropomorphic depictions serves to emphasize gender identity and the vocational and ceremonial roles that went along with it. Virility, strength and bravery are implicit in these types of depictions, but the complex cultural and social symbolism these qualities carry is beyond our ken.
This carving portrays a male hunter. He is wielding a recurve bow, identifiable by the curling tips of the weapon. As in much anthropomorphic rock art in Spiti, the man’s arms point downward.
The later petroglyphs are less re-patinated than the Iron Age art. It is difficult to disambiguate what may be humans from animals in these compositions. They run together creating what seems to be a single mass of figures. This demonstrates graphically and probably symbolically too the profound sense of interconnectedness that prevailed between wild caprids and humans in the ancient society of Spiti.
The identity of this petroglyph is unknown. It could possibly have been conceived as representing a shrine or some other type of ritual structure, a holy mountain, or any other manner of things.
Wild yaks are uncommon in Spitian rock art and tend to be concentrated in lower sites such as Gyurmo (see August 2015 Flight of the Khyung). This is a typical hunting scene showing a hunter in close pursuit of his prey. This art was lightly engraved in the rock surface, a technique of production not met with in the earliest phase of rock art in Spiti.
This type of design and squares with an X inside are among the most common rectilinear subjects in the rock art of Spiti. Their meaning and function is a matter of speculation.
There is a great variety of curvilinear subjects in the rock art of Spiti, from simple curls and spirals to labyrinthine patterns. This class of rock art is more common in Spiti than it is in Upper Tibet and Ladakh. It is not known whether this rock art embodies literal representation or abstract forms of meaning or both (pictograms versus ideograms). The sheer diversity of forms extending across all phases of Spitian rock art suggests that curvilinear subjects (they commonly occur as components of complex compositions) had manifold meanings and significance. Some designs may represent highly stylized wild caprids. For more on the possible identities and purposes of geometrics in the rock art of Spiti, see the July 2015 Flight of the Khyung.
Stars are not common in the rock art of Spiti, Ladakh or Upper Tibet. An astronomical or astrological theme may possibly be indicated. This rock art is located on a bench east or down valley of fig. 7.1.
This is a fairly standard Spitian hunting scene in subject matter and style. In it a solo hunter on foot aims his bow and arrow at a wild caprid. The hunting of blue sheep or ibex was customarily carried out on foot in what was often difficult terrain. The hunting compositions selected for illustration in this article vary in age and style, but all portray the same set of techniques used in the slaughter of wild ungulates. In order to get near their quarry, hunters must have relied on stealth and/or the outflanking of animals by teams of men working together. In either case much stamina and skill was required. The hunting theme in Spitian rock art, as embodied in a large and diverse body of compositions, must have carried a significant degree of social prestige. As for the mytho-ritual aspects of this rock art, little of a definite nature can be said (for more on this topic, see the July 2015 Flight of the Khyung).
Hounds are not usually shown coursing game in Spiti’s rock art. In the crags and on the steep slopes where blue sheep and ibex spend much of their time, hunting dogs would be of little use. On the other hand, in the plains of Upper Tibet hunting dogs were an important asset and this is reflected in the rock art tableau of that region.
This is clearly a hunting scene. The trajectory of the arrow used to slay the wild caprid is depicted as a straight line extending from the bow to the animal. The portrayal of arrow trajectories is uncommon in Upper Tibetan and Spitian rock art but more frequent in the rock art of Ladakh. The standing hunter is armed with a recurve bow. In this typical Spitian hunting scene another wild caprid is depicted directly behind the one being slain. Its horns extend beyond the rear quarters of the animal being fired upon. The placement of two wild caprids back to back in this manner is a characteristic depiction in Spitian rock art.
These figures were not created by the same hand but in aggregate they convey one of the most common themes in Spitian rock art: the hunting of wild caprids by archers on foot. The hunters with their longish bodies, stick appendages and round heads are emblematic of anthropomorphic depiction in Spiti.
In the foreground of this composition are two blue sheep presented in full. Behind each of them are the horns of two more additional blue sheep. This is the kind of perspective one might receive when spying wild caprids from a distance. As noted, this is a characteristic manner of depicting wild caprids in Spiti rock art.
This figure with its relatively wide body, pectoral treatment and short legs is quite unusual. It is situated on the same boulder as figs. 9.3 and 9.4. Like most specimens in Spiti, this anthropomorph appears to be shown without any kind of headgear. In contrast, in Upper Tibet many anthropomorphic figures sport tall coiffures or headgear.
This composition showing the hunting of wild caprids is typical. Such scenes are reproduced hundreds of times in the rock art of Spiti. The carvings are not especially adeptly produced, like quite a lot of rock art in Spiti. However, erosion can create the effect of carvings seeming more crudely executed than they actually were.
Wild yaks are uncommon in the rock carvings of Spiti. The bowman is firing at two wild ungulates (not pictured above). The style of this human figure is highly representative of Spitian rock art (stick body and appendages and round head). The display of the male sexual organ is also characteristic. This leaves no doubt as to the sex of most hunters. Such displays of manhood are less common in the rock art of Upper Tibet and Ladakh. Nevertheless, in Ladakh comparable anthropomorphs are found in both hunting and non-hunting scenes. The figures in Ladakh also have long, thin bodies and appendages, round heads and male genitalia.*
For these figures, see Bruneau 2010, figs, 45, 47, 223, pls. 6, 74; Thsangspa 2014, p. 15 (1.1).
The bulk of figures carved on this boulder appear to form an integrated composition. The group in the upper left portion of the image may constitute a separate composition. Although they are amid animals, the two clearly discernable anthropomorphs in this photo (center and top left) may not be directly involved in the slaughter of animals. Thus a mythological, ritualistic or social theme may possibly be indicated, whether in a hunting or non-hunting context. The bi-triangular anthropomorph in the center of the image is an unusual form in Spitian rock art. This shape is far more common in Upper Tibetan and Ladakhi anthropomorphic depictions. The swastika-like bird in the upper right portion of the photo is discussed in last month’s newsletter (see fig. 20).
The anthropomorph appears to be depicted with a male sexual organ. It holds a bowlike object in the left hand but it does not appear to be aiming at anything in particular. The raising of the arms as shown in this figure is much less common in Spitian rock art than arms pointing downward. Figures with outstretched arms mostly date to the Protohistoric period or after. Of course, to fire a bow and arrow at least one arm must be somewhat raised. Also, this figure has a bulbous body, another unusual trait.
This petroglyph is quite heavily stylized, precluding positive identification of the carving as the impression of a hand. Handprints are well known in the rock art of Ladakh but rare in Upper Tibet.*
For handprint rock art in Ladakh, see Thsangspa n.d., sets 4, 5; 2014, p. 24 (fig. f), Bruneau 2010, figs. 52, 184, 198, 201–203, pls. 10, 17, 98. There is one handprint engraved in the round section (bum-pa) of a chorten documented in Upper Tibet, which dates to the Early Historic period.
The anthropomorph near the middle right edge of the boulder is a patently male figure. The anthropomorph on the lower left side of the rock also appears to be male. These two figures do not seem to be hunting. Like a fair proportion of Spiti rock art, these petroglyphs were not executed to a very high esthetic standard. Nevertheless, it appears that a rich array of narrative, mythological or ritual materials is embodied in such complex compositions. It is not know how many people were responsible for the ornamentation of this boulder but by the style, technique of carving and physical condition, many of the petroglyphs appear to form an integrated assemblage.
This figure has angular appendages with arms pointing downward, which is emblematic of early anthropomorphic rock art in Spiti. There are anthropomorphic figures in Ladakh and Upper Tibet with arms oriented towards the ground but this gesture or aspect is much more common in Spiti.* This rock art may possibly predate the developed Iron Age (pre-500 BCE). Nonetheless, there are no clear indications that any of Spiti’s rock art is of Neolithic or Bronze Age antiquity.
Anthropomorphic figures in Ladakh and Upper Tibet usually have different forms than Spitian specimens. For a Ladakh anthropomorph with a long, straight body, small round head and rounded stick appendages with arms pointing downward, see Bruneau 2010, pl. 74.
In the rock art of Ladakh and north Inner Asia (and in Upper Tibet to a much lesser degree) some figures have long objects or embellishments at waist level, but there is no direct correspondence with the figure from Spiti. This is not a common form of anthropomorphic depiction in Spiti.
Most or all figures on this boulder form an integrated composition. Spirals and other kinds of geometric subjects are particularly common at the Gyari site. Like this boulder, they are often interspersed among anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures and sometimes they form interconnected chains of carvings. The geometric at the bottom of the boulder, with its rectilinear and curvilinear elements, touches an ibex situated to the left. The male anthropomorph above and to the left of this ibex may have a bow but it does not appear to be firing at anything particular. A sinuous line above this human form links several figures together. This connecting of figures by lines is commonplace in composite rock art scenes in Spiti. These lines indicate an interrelationship between the various parts of the scenes, drawing wild caprids, humans and symbolic motifs into a singular conceptual or narrative structure.
One can only speculate about the grand meaning of such rock art. It may possibly possess both narrative and cosmological dimensions. It could also possibly represent the ecosystem of the makers and the various natural structures and processes that gave rise to it. In addition to serving as maps or models, one might speculate that these carvings functioned as magical diagrams to attract game or to enhance the good fortune of the natural or social surroundings. I will not belabor this discussion here, as it can be taken up by others now that Spiti’s rock art is being better chronicled.
This complex ornamentation consists of long lines that form contours around the face of the boulder. Short perpendicular lines connect these various incised contours. On the lower part of the rock are six or seven spirals.
There are many such subjects in the rock art of Spiti. They appear with numerous variations. It is not known whether these simple geometrics were conveyors of abstract meaning or figurative representations.
This is among the most elementary of styles in Spiti’s repertoire of zoomorphic depiction.
Also on this boulder (right side of image, front and back) are four characters that may belong to a proto-Sarada alphabet (circa 900–1200 CE). They will be examined in the November newsletter. Like the figure 8 in the middle of the boulder, these characters were engraved at a later date than the animal petroglyphs.
The uniform style and physical state of the three animal petroglyphs demonstrate that they constitute a single composition.
In Ladakh and north Inner Asia the horns of ibex are sometimes rendered or ornamented with lines of dots, which are not unlike the artistic treatment of the Spiti petroglyph.
As noted, the blue sheep and ibex, the most common animals in Spitian rock art, come in a large variety of interrelated styles.
The hunting of wild caprids and other animals by wolves and snow leopards has been a fact of life in Spiti since time immemorial. The reproduction of this ecological reality does not only record an aspect of the local natural history but may well have had broader applications related to the personal beliefs of human hunters of wild caprids. Such compositions could have captured the mythological background, ritual praxis or symbolism of hunting activities involving humans.
This is a standard figure in the anthropomorphic rock art of Spiti reproduced (with stylistic and technical variations) at most rock sites in the lower portion of the region (Spi-ti gsham). The angular style and heavy re-patination of this figure indicates that it belongs to the first phase of rock art in the region, which may date as far back as the Early Iron Age. This is one of only a few anthropomorphic figures documented in Spiti with clearly discernable hands. The depiction of hands recalls the rock art of Ladakh, where figures with hands are well represented. Most of these anthropomorphs in Ladakh are shown with hands outstretched or raised up, but specimens with hands oriented downward are also known.* However, these figures are different in form than Spitian examples.
See Thsangspa 2014, p. 22 (fig. h); Bruneau 2010, figs. 121, pls. 76, 77. A class of anthropomorphs with long, straight bodies, thin appendages, male genitalia and downward pointing arms are known from southern Siberia and adjoining regions (Hoppál 2013: 45 [fig. II.2.2]). As a group, however, these Siberian figures bear only limited resemblance to the emblematic anthropomorphs of Spiti. The Siberian petroglyphs are broadly interpreted in Hoppál’s work as shamanic. This may also be the true of cognate figures in Spitian rock art, but other interpretations are just as plausible. These range from portraits of hunters, chieftains and priests to representations of ancestral deities and mythic figures, among other possible identifications. The ancient cultures of Greater Western Tibet were sufficiently diverse and sophisticated that comparison with shamanism (as it is understood from historical and archaeological records) alone is inadequate. For a discussion on the labeling of Upper Tibetan anthropomorphs as shamans, see February 2014 Flight of the Khyung.
This figure is located on the same boulder as fig. 11.4.
In aspect, but not in form, this figure resembles a common class of anthropomorphic art in Ladakh. As with fig. 11.11, these artistic affinities may possibly be attributable to prehistoric cultural interactions between Spiti and Ladakh.
Perhaps the cruciform is an unfinished anthropomorph. On the same boulder are several blue sheep petroglyphs.
These two figures are very different in form. The one on the left displays male genitalia. The head of this figure is engulfed by a carving of unknown identity belonging to the same time period and possibly the same hand. The anthropomorph on the right, if that is what it is, has a large round head, arms that form circles and box-like legs. On the same boulder is another anthropomorph and a blue sheep.
On this same domed boulder is a dense array of blue sheep most of which may date to the Protohistoric period.
This horse rider is liable to reflect Upper Tibetan influences. Also on the same boulder are several blue sheep and a more recent Tibetan letter A and a vase-like subject.
These stick figures contrast strongly in style with the equestrian art of fig. 11.19.
These various subjects are closely related thematically and chronologically and seem to form a single composition.
The petroglyphs on this boulder have been damaged recently by orchardists and graffiti artists.*
For a large dense array of wild ungulates and geometrics at the Sabu site in Ladakh, see Bruneau 2010, fig. 103. This mass of figures recalls composite scenes in the rock art of Spiti, but most of the individual figures constituting it are different in style.
This is one of the standard themes in zoomorphic rock art of Spiti.
The manner of carving and modeling the two figures gives them a blotchy appearance.
These carvings are closely related to one another and may possibly form an integrated composition.
The hyperbolic arrow of the hunter seems to convey its effectiveness at dispatching blue sheep. There are carvings on all sides of this boulder, including two or three yaks (see August 2015 Flight of the Khyung, fig. 36).
This is another variation on the standard hunting scene in Spiti rock art. They differ in style and production, reflecting many centuries of artistic endeavor.
The depiction of a hand gesturing upward is reminiscent of Ladakhi rock art, where it occurs in many different contexts. Such portrayals are not found in Upper Tibet. The presence of this motif may possibly be attributable to artistic influences originating from Ladakh.
That argali were occasionally found in Spiti is confirmed by Egerton (1864: 88). On the flat top of this boulder there are also around a dozen blue sheep carvings.
This petroglyph is located on the same boulder as fig. 11.23.
The identity of this geometric subject is unknown. Among its elements there may possibly be a sun, crescent moon and wild caprid.
This type of border is a very common form of ornamentation in Tibetan objects of the historic era.
The outline of this figure bears some resemblance to a mascoid carved in Ruthok (see December 2011 Flight of the Khyung, fig. 11). However, the mascoid has a more complex array of lines and circles in it.
As noted, squares with an X are common in the rock art of Spiti. They are also known in Ladakh and Upper Tibet and in other parts of the world as well. This design occurs in thokcha (thog-lcags), a heterogeneous class of Tibetan copper alloy talismans. On the south side of the same boulder are various animal carvings.
This carving is located on the same boulder as fig. 11.41.
There are wild caprids and other figures on this boulder.
Spoked wheels of similar design are found in both Upper Tibet and Ladakh.* There is an anthropomorph and animals on this same boulder as well.
For a specimen from Ladakh, see Bruneau 2010, fig. 215. In Upper Tibet spoked wheels are solar symbols and chariot wheels. For example, see Bellezza 2008, p. 165 (fig. 277).
These swastikas are situated on the same boulder as illustrated in fig. 11.21. There are other petroglyphs on this boulder too.
Using Tibetan material culture as a reference point, possible identities of this enigmatic object include offering vase (bum-pa), ritual cake (gtor-ma, ’brang-rgyas), portable receptacle or permanent shrine of a deity (rten).
These two petroglyphs may have been made at different times but their forms compliment one another. They resemble offering sculptures albeit ancient variants. The finial of the example on the right is reminiscent of the ‘horns of the birds, sword of the bird’ (bya-ru bya-gri) of the Yungdrung Bon religion.
Both figs. 11.53 and 11.54 have some correspondence with ritual structures and shrines in the rock art of Upper Tibet. The closest correspondence pinpointed is with a petroglyph at the Sabu site in Ladakh, which has a similar finial but with five lines instead of seven lines (see Bruneau 2010, fig. 101). The body of the Sabu carving is like that of a shrine.
Cup-marks are found in rock art worldwide. They are however not very common in Spiti. These should not be confused with circular holes bored in limestone formations, which were used as mortars in Spiti. There is also a geometric subject on this boulder consisting of a rectangle bisected by a diagonal line.
As was customary in Spiti rock art, these figures are joined together, or almost so, in what was presumably a demonstration of caprid social behavior.
The loss the middle part of this rock is puzzling. From adjacent petroglyphs both above and below the missing section it can be seen that older rock art extended to it. Perhaps natural forces were responsible for this massive exfoliation of the rock surface, but anthropogenic factors cannot be ruled out. If humans were involved, it might mean that this rock art was deliberately destroyed. If the latter scenario has any validity, perhaps individual or clan rivalries can be implicated.
Many of these figures appear to constitute an integral composite scene.
These two petroglyphs were created using different techniques. The ibex was gouged from the stone one chip or flake at a time. The horse rider was engraved using a sharp ferrous implement for cutting the rock surface.
It is unusual in Spiti rock art for the horns of wild ungulates to form a complete circle. However, this motif is well known in early rock art of Upper Tibet and Ladakh.
The volute motif on the left portion of the carving and the fine engraving technique used are reminiscent of Eurasian animal style art in Upper Tibet and Ladakh, however, few examples of this genre of figuration have been discovered in Spiti and none of them include depictions of wild ungulates (see August 2015 Flight of the Khyung). Thus this petroglyph appears to be an anomaly. On the vertical face of the same boulder are petroglyphs of animals and other figures.
There are several other wild ungulate carvings on the same boulder.
There are various other caprids carved on this boulder. Unfortunately, this rock was recently split in two.
There are other caprids and geometrics on this boulder.
For a discussion of these compositions, see last month’s newsletter, fig. 15.
As we saw last month, there are a number of rock art compositions in Spiti depicting this theme. They may possibly have served as an archetype or sacred model for hunters.
Deer tend to belong to earlier phases of rock art in Spiti. Perhaps this means that cervids became extinct in the region quite early on.
In close vicinity to this carving are those of a blue sheep and ibex.
It is reported that small snakes live in the rocks of Spiti as far up valley as Lari. In Tibetan tradition snakes are most closely identified with water spirits (klu and klu-mo).
On this same boulder are wild ungulate carvings.
It is possible that rather than a human, this could be the portrait of a divine or mythic figure. Many Tibetan deities are mounted on horses.
There are geometrics on this same boulder belonging to a variety of periods.
There are a number of other animals on this boulder.
With its wide body and an appendages conveying movement this anthropomorph is in a style characteristic of the Early Historic period.
The small head and the stick body, appendages and male genitalia epitomize early anthropomorphic art in Spiti. However, these motifs occur with raised arms and a bent torso (expressing movement), which are stylistic and symbolic innovations of the Early Historic period.
This composition with the sun and moon between an ostensibly human figure and blue sheep appears to convey mythological and/or cosmological information. By virtue of being on both ends of the scene, the human and animal appear to be counterparts in a relationship modulated or generated by the sun and moon as principle cosmogonic symbols.
Perhaps by adding a hunter the maker was attempting to recapture some of the ancient hunting magic or good fortune incumbent in the wild caprid carving, but I hasten to add that this is pure speculation.
Wild caprids depicted with male sexual organs are uncommon in the rock art of Spiti. Such depictions are more common in Ladakh and Upper Tibet.
It appears that several different hands were responsible for creating these carvings.
There is a class of copper alloy talismans (thog-lcags) with complex geometric designs that includes a similar pattern.
This is a common subject in Spiti rock art. Also on the same large boulder are various animals and other figures.
This is a common geometric subject in Spiti. It is also found in Ladakh, Upper Tibet and in many other parts of the world.
This intriguing petroglyph may have both figurative and symbolic components.
Similar finials are found in the depiction of ceremonial monuments in Upper Tibet.
This is another composition that may depict both symbols and figurative representations. In any case, a cosmological or cosmogonic theme seems indicated.
As noted in the July 2015 Flight of the Khyung, the swastika is a symbol laden with meaning in the Tibetan cultural world, but it is not clear how any of this specifically pertains to these petroglyphs.
Bellezza, John V. 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: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Bruneau, Laurianne. 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, vol. 3. Répertoire des pétroglyphes du Ladakh”. Ph.D. dissertation, Université Paris I-Panthéon-Sorbonne.
Egerton, Philip Henry. 1864. Journal of a Tour Through Spiti to the Frontier of Chinese Thibet. Reprint, Bath: Pagoda Tree Press, 2011.
Hoppál, Mihály. 2013. Shamans and Symbols: Prehistory of Semiotics in Rock Art. Budapest: International Society for Shamanistic Research.
Schaller, George, B. 1998. Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thsangspa, Tashi Ldawa. 2014. “Ancient Petroglyphs of Ladakh: New Discoveries and Documentation” in Art and Architecture in Ladakh: Cross-cultural Transmissions in the Himalayas and Karakorum, pp. 15–34. Leiden: Brill.
____N.d. Petroglyphs of Ladakh: The Withering Monuments http://www.tibetheritagefund.org/media/download/petroglyphs.pdf
Vernier, Martin. N.d. Exploration et Documentation des pétroglyphes du Ladakh, 1996-2006. Fondation Sierre: Carlo Leone et Mariena Montandon.
Next Month: More awe-inspiring rock art of Spiti!