Rock Art is known from prehistoric times to the present and is a living tradition in many parts of the world, including India. The Prehistoric Rock Art of Ladakh has been known of and described since the early 20th century, initially by foreign Moravian missionary-scholars, such as A.H. Francke, and comprise almost exclusively, petroglyphs on large and medium-sized boulders and on rock faces and cliffs. Subsequent to these earliest pioneering efforts, we have virtually no further information about the prehistoric petroglyphs of Ladakh till its ‘opening’ in mid 1970: the last quarter of the 20th century witnessed a resurgence of foreign and domestic academic and amateur interest in the Rock Art of Ladakh, by archaeologists, anthropologists and travel writers. It was against this backdrop that I encountered my first petroglyphs whilst driving past the newly constructed Petroglyph Park in the Military Camp Area at Kharu in 2008. This Park was a small plot of land set aside by the army in an effort to protect, through relocation, a few dozen petroglyph bearing boulders that were facing destruction in their original locations due to road-making and other public and private development projects. I recall examining and marveling at some of the specimen rocks and the startlingly beautiful depictions of mostly various animals and hunting scenes that had been etched through various techniques upon the patinated surfaces of these boulders.
Petroglyph near Likir Yarutse. (Viraf Mehta)
I could not help noticing too that many of the boulders had been defaced with modern-day graffiti. Such graffiti and the destruction of entire petroglyph boulders was also the result of government and military road making and contractors who were unaware of the importance of these ancient cultural relics. By the time I stepped out of the fenced Petroglyph Park, I had determined to make further enquiries and investigations about the petroglyphs of Ladakh, little realising that this first encounter was very soon to become an almost full-time passion. The summary of my researches informed me that rock art goes back to over 30,000 years B.C. in their most ancient forms and locations across the world, and that these earliest efforts of humankind to depict aspects of their existence are almost all we have left to understand our humanity from a culture dominated by the use of stone to one of metal: copper, bronze and iron.
Rocks below Ensa Gompa along the right bank of the Nubra river depicting human figures. (Viraf Mehta)
However, I learnt too that the issue of accurate dating of rock art, through direct and indirect methods, were still evolving.
Down the Indus river near Domkhar village. (Viraf Mehta)
What followed over most of the period 2009-11 was a period of intense journeying to all corners of Ladakh. My prior training in anthropology and archaeology played a vital role in this process, as it enabled me to make educated guesses about the potential locations of Ladakh’s hidden petroglyphs. By the end of my field work, I was confident that petroglyphs existed in profusion in over 125 sites and sub-sites across Ladakh, and my collection had exceeded over 2000 individual rocks or boulders bearing multiple glyphs or figures. Amongst these, we had sites such as Ensa, opposite Panamik, in Nubra, Sabu near Leh, and Stakmo near Thikse, which had well over 200 or more petroglyph bearing rocks or boulders, to sites at which only 5-10 rocks still existed. As time passed, I became aware of a few key issues concerning Ladakh’s rock art which I would like to briefly share:
In the first instance, the rock art of Ladakh represents a continuous living tradition, from earliest times (estimated at 2nd to the 3rd millennium BC, but quite possibly older) when the first populations lived and settled in some of the world’s highest, coldest and most inhospitable places, to the advent of Buddhism from Tibet and its unique iconography in the Historic period. The prehistoric petroglyphs have, as their dominant theme, depictions of a wide range of animal species and hunting related scenes. There are significant exceptions, however, and these are a small group of geometric and anthropomorphic forms that we can only marvel at, without being able to explain.
A beautifully rendered feline hunting scene from a large rock on the road leading from Tangtse to Pangong. (Viraf Mehta)
On the road up the Zanskar river to Chilling. (Viraf Mehta)
A unique boulder bearing multiple animal, reptile and other images from the desert located near Stagmo village. (Viraf Mehta)
A large solitary boulder just past the village of Nurla. (Viraf Mehta)
Rare rock from the Kargil area depicting handprints. (Viraf Mehta)
Relocated boulder at the Kharu Petroglyph Park. (Viraf Mehta)
Examples of wanton desecration. (Viraf Mehta)
In the second instance, the petroglyphs represent the handiwork of very different populations over differing period of time, and these include the ethnic Dards, Mon and people of Tibetan stock as well as travellers along the ancient trade routes that crossed through Ladakh. Research along the Indus river in Pakistan controlled parts of Baltistan, and from the Changthang region of western Tibet, reinforce the affinities and influences visible in Ladakh’s petroglyphs.
In the third instance, it became clear to me that the petroglyphs of Ladakh were under severe threat of destruction due to local ignorance about their significance, and might entirely vanish in several sites. I got to hear of Tashi Dawa, a zoology lecturer in Leh, who had apparently been researching the petroglyphs of Ladakh as a personal passion since the late 1990’s. Our first small joint initiative involved the printing of 2000 copies of a ‘Save Rock Art’ poster for distribution amongst stakeholders across key locations in Ladakh to create awareness of this unique earliest cultural evidence. This has included meetings with community representatives, youth groups, travel and agencies, educationists and army organisations, particularly those involved with road-works, to mention a few. A small momentum of awareness has been created, and it is our hope to continue working along these lines through the creation of a rock art society in Ladakh, that will institutionalise these individual efforts.
Search and study of hidden petroglyphs of Ladakh.