Imagery on Stone

Viraf Mehta

geometric symbol

An undefined geometric symbol

The skill and art of making things out of stone or rock and of carving on rock are rapidly vanishing cultural traditions that, like the rock art itself, require protection and conservation.

I was privileged to have contributed an article titled The Hidden Petroglyphs of Ladakh in Volume 68 (2012) of The Himalayan Journal. That article was intended as a brief introduction to both, the rock art of Ladakh, and my association with it. The present article has been designed to convey a small sense of both, the artistic imagery carved on stone and the focus on a selection of a few of the spectacular locations in which they are often found.

It was with the dawn of the 20th century that Moravian missionary scholars based in Ladakh, notably A.H. Francke, brought to the notice of the archaeological and historical worlds, evidence of Ladakh’s earliest known heritage through its rock art and other cultural heritage. The rock art he discovered spanned a period from the prehistoric to modern times, and in the former, included depictions of various animals, birds and reptiles, hunting scenes, human hand and foot prints, human warring and ritual scenes, symbols including the swastika, geometric shapes, and the sun and moon. In the historic period we see the appearance of inscriptions of varying type and in various scripts beyond Tibetan, including Brahmi, Kharoshti, Sogdian, Arabic, and Chinese, as well as religious iconography, with stepped shrines or stupas being the dominant motif. In rendering these images upon stone, it should be borne in mind that a great deal of technical skill must have been refined and transmitted to future generations. The skill and art of making things out of stone or rock and of carving on rock are rapidly vanishing cultural traditions that, like the rock art itself, require protection and conservation, a topic beyond the scope of the present article to go into in any depth.

As we know, Ladakh was closed to tourists and other visitors from Independence to the mid-seventies, and it was through the dedicated efforts of both, foreign and Indian researchers, particularly over the past 2-3 decades, that we now know that there are over 350 rock art sites across the Leh and Kargil districts that comprise modern Ladakh. This is a stunning and largely unknown announcement, in that it deserves to place Ladakh much more prominently on the rock art map of the country. In particular, the Indus river system in Ladakh, particularly the lower Indus between Khaltse and Batalik is host to some of the richest concentration of prehistoric and historic rock art in the country, and deserves some forms of legal and other protection as a sanctuary, as do other specific sites in other parts of Ladakh. Various researchers have demonstrated that Ladakh’s rock art also displays regional variations in content, style and technique, as also affinities over the millennia with neighbouring cultures and regions, including Central Asia, Western Tibet, Northern Areas of Pakistan and Spiti. These attributes make a study of Ladakh’s rock art all the more fascinating: a high-altitude mystery par excellence!

Site A: Alchi

This is a picturesque village about 65 km downstream of the Indus from Leh and home to the famous Alchi monastic and temple complex which is on the itinerary of all visitors interested in Ladakh’s monasteries (Gompas).

A view of a section of the Alchi plateau looking south towards Saspol village

Alchi plateau
ibex and other animals and human hunters

Representations of ibex and other animals and human hunters accompany depictions of most likely later day Buddhist stupas (chorten) that are overdrawn upon the original themes to perhaps depict changing religious belief systems

Alchi bridge (zampa)

A winter view north towards the Alchi bridge (zampa) with a weathered boulder displaying various designs of stupas, archaic Tibetan inscriptions as well as less visible, and possibly older, animal

Less known is the rock art (petroglyphs) carved upon the shiny patinated surfaces of the hundreds of boulders strewn across the plateau above the left bank of the Indus through which a modern- day metalled road bisects. The rock art spans a huge span of time, from the prehistoric to the historic, as evidenced by the images on rock. The earlier images include various animals, hunting scenes and later-day Stupas (Chortens) accompanied by inscriptions in archaic Tibetan script. Evidence of ancient fortifications and bridges and reports from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) of stone tools found in the vicinity further testify to the shifting significance of Alchi through the ages.

Sadly, Alchi’s rock art heritage has received scant protection from the destruction and damage caused by modern-day construction projects and the requirements of rock, and scores of the over 250 petroglyph- bearing rocks are either forever lost or irreparably damaged.

Site B: Domkhar

Domkhar is a village about 125 km downstream of the Indus from Leh, and about 25 km from the Block headquarters at Khaltse. It is not without good reason that Francke (the Moravian missionary who did pioneering work on lower Ladakh’s cultural heritage over a century ago) regarded the rock at Domkhar as being amongst the finest he had seen. Admittedly, Francke was aware of perhaps 30-40 rock art sites across the parts of Ladakh he explored, but his comment is still valid even after the dedicated efforts of modern researchers have taken the total number of rock art sites in Ladakh to beyond 350. This is also despite the fact that the stretch of the lower Indus from Khaltse to Batalik contains some of Ladakh’s finest and most prolific rock art. The rock art of Domkhar is to be found in privately owned land that lies above the left bank of the Indus and has approximately 500 images incised or engraved on cliff-faces and on the shiny black surfaces of large boulders and rocky outcrops. The rock art of Domkhar displays, aside from the relatively common renditions of various animals and hunting scenes, some of Ladakh’s most artistically rendered images of deer, horse and other animals, in what is termed the Animal Style of Steppic cultures of Central Asian regions. Extremely rare inscriptions in Chinese, unusually shaped anthropomorphic forms and mythic-looking animals offer researchers a unique glimpse into an as yet unknown past, and the challenge of interpreting it.

ibex and blue sheep

A close-up view of a cliff-face panel on which ibex and blue sheep are drawn in the bi-triangular style accompanied by other indeterminate images

anthropomorphic forms and animals

A collection of anthropomorphic forms and animals are found carved upon the shiny patina of rock outcrops situated amidst a grove of willow trees above the Indus

HH 14th Dalai Lama

An antlered stag in motion rendered in the Animal Style accompanied by a hand-written appreciation of the artistry of the image by HH 14th Dalai Lama (July 2014)

rock art in Ladakh, Tashi Ldawa

A drawing of the picture above by my friend and a pioneer of rock art in Ladakh, Tashi Ldawa

I have had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know as friends, the two particular families on whose properties the rock art is found, and have spent many nights in their homes in the company of robust and warm-hearted generations of people, surrounded by fabulous rock art during my day long walks. More importantly, the protection and conservation of the rock art at Domkhar by individuals such as Stanzin Thangjuk can be an inspiration to others.

Site C: Murgi

Murgi is a small village on the right bank of the Nubra river. It is approached by proceeding north from Panamik and its well-known hot springs, towards Sasoma, crossing the river at Hargam and taking a turn left. The great mounds of blocks of dark brown rocks contain the largest number of petroglyphs (over 3000) at a single composite site in Ladakh. Close to the site is a recently constructed road which ascends from the valley floor to the aloof and remote Ensa Gompa. Given its proximity to the ancient trade route to Yarkand and beyond from Panamik via the Saser La and Karakoram La, there are images related to travel that are shared by other sites close by, including at Sasoma and Changlung. Recent discoveries of stone tools at nearby Tirsha lake (Tso), and remains of ancient human campsites on the Saser La route by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and others, have demonstrated that human beings were present in this part of Ladakh as far back in time as ten thousand years ago, even if the extent of their populations and geographical extension are as yet unknown. In this context, the rock art site and its wide range of images singles it out as the pre-eminent rock art site of this region. Amongst the images that characterize Murgi, are geometric human face-like representations referred to as ‘mascoids’, humans in celebratory scenes, and artistic and unusual renderings of animals.

geometric symbol

An undefined geometric symbol

Drawing by Tashi Ldawa

Drawing by Tashi Ldawa

A horseman

A horseman


Drawing of the horseman by Tashi Ldawa

I have made several visits to the Nubra region, with my base at the Nebula Guest House in Panamik to explore at leisure the northernmost rock art of the country, after which there is only a wilderness of the giant peaks of the Karakoram and Eastern Karakoram ranges and the infamous Siachen glacier.

Site D: Zamthang

The rock art site of Zamthang lies on a small plateau above the Lungnak river opposite the village of Cha (or Char) in the southern Zanskar region of Kargil district, at an altitude of 4100 m. Char is a well-known halt on the pilgrimage trek to the spectacular cave Gompa at Phugtal (or Phuktal), and possesses its own rock art, but it is the rock art site at Zamthang that is for me, the ‘jewel in the rock art crown of Zanskar’! The site comprises nearly 900 images incised on boulders and rock faces, and its proximity to a river crossing lends to the belief that this site was a popular camping or halting point in ancient times. The rock art of Zamthang is dominated by images of a wide range of prey and predator animals, and also by human hunters with bow and arrow, swastika, chortens and inscriptions.

Looking south up the Lungnak River: the bridge (swept away in recent floods) and a steep uphill track connects the village of Cha (left of pic) to the small hamlet of Zamthang (right of pic)

Lungnak River
A bowman hunting yak

A bowman hunting yak


A yak being chased by a predator animal, perhaps wolf

A swastika and antelope-like outlines

A swastika and antelope-like outlines

In modern times, the site has suffered the negative impacts of ‘development’ projects through damage and graffiti, and its relative isolation is threatened by roads and related infrastructure projects.

About the Author

Viraf Mehta is a social anthropologist who’s childhood schooling in Darjeeling evoked a permanent passion for the mountains. He has travelled extensively in Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Nepal and India. Since 2001, he has made over 40 visits in all seasons to Ladakh - exploring, documenting and helping to protect and conserve the ancient rock art heritage that faces unprecedented risk of irreparable damage and destruction. Viraf is the co-convenor of the Rock Art Unit under the aegis of the Himalayan Cultural and Heritage Foundation, Leh.

He is based out of Gurgaon/New Delhi, where he pursues a three decade long professional career in the field of corporate responsibility.

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