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Images of Lost Civilization
The Ancient Rock Art of Upper Tibet

by John Vincent Bellezza

Originally appeared on www.asianart.com

Red ochre horse in style resembling those of the Scytho-Siberian cultures of Inner Asia. Discovered in a cave on the shores of the Celetial Lake, Namtso.

Long ago, I had speculated upon the pre-Buddhist Central Asian influences on the Tibetan people as we know them today. Inevitably, confusion about what I was really saying ensued, as I linked Tibetan ethnography with Central Asian tribal people. Many assumed I was linking Tibetans with "Muslims". This was not the case. While working on the book Dream Weavers - Textile Art from the Tibetan Plateau, my thoughts inevitably returned to these questions and my attention was drawn to the work of John Bellezza for which I must thank Mike Slogar. I entered into correspondence with John Bellezza and he has made significant contributions to my thought processes as well as the text of the book which is to be published in September-October, 2004. John's interest in the Zhang Zhung culture of pre-Buddhist Tibet is very unusual as most Buddhist scholars are not educated in this period. I have had conversations with noted scholar, Jane Casey, and even her knowledge of Zhang Zhung is very liimited. The early petroglyphs and rock art of Tibet, as documented by John Bellezza, is clearly suggestive of a people inextricably linked to other early Central Asian peoples, which, by association, situates the Tibetan people and their textile art firmly within a pan -Central Asian tradition. I hope this article will prove useful to all students of the Tibetan culture who have yet to familiarise themselves with this material..

The spiked mane and ears of this composition seem to identify it as the kyang, the wild equestrian of Tibet. Pre-Buddhist period.

A rock art tradition found on the highest parts of the Tibetan plateau chronicles at least 3000 years of a fascinating but little known civilization. Centered in the northern and western regions of Tibet, the broad extent of this rock art is just now coming to light. The prehistoric phase of this tradition was produced by the same people who created the Zhang zhung kingdom in the period before Buddhist domination some 1400 years ago. These images in stone are one of our clearest windows into the nature of early civilization in Tibet and they are invaluable to our understanding of the pre-Buddhist economy, environment and religion.

This is an evocative example of the horned eagle or khyung, a mythological bird that holds a seminal position in the Bon religion. The khyung is a protective spirit, mountain and clan deity, and a tutelary figure of lamas and spirit-mediums. This is a typical frontal depiction of the bird, wings partly spread and head turned sideways. Above the khyung a crescent (an important early symbol often depicted with the sun) is visible and below the khyung the head of another bird. Pre-Buddhist period.

Rock art, which includes pictographs (painted and chalked representations on rock surfaces) and petroglyphs (pecked, scratched and engraved figures in stone), provides us with graphic evidence of early Tibet for they were wrought by the very hand of her inhabitants. However, unlocking the meaning and significance of these ancient images is a complex, problem-ridden task, and in most cases it will always remain an open book. For no matter how refined the technology at our disposal becomes we cannot enter the minds of the creators and thus we can never satisfactorily know what motivated them to produce art in stone. Even basic questions pertaining to the age and identity of specific compositions remain difficult to address. Nevertheless, groups of scientists, particularly those affiliated with the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (see their journal: Rock Art Research, Melbourne), utilizing sophisticated scientific tools and techniques, are hard at work attempting answers worldwide.

This complex hunting scene features around 18 figures including four or five mounted archers and at least eight drong. The vitality and excitement of the hunt is captured here as its participants pursue and fire on their quarry. Pre-Buddhist period.

In this image a group of animals and anthropomorphs on a rock panel totaling around 140 figures are shown. In the central portion of the image there are two unidentified gourd-shaped objects. At the bottom of the image an anthropomorphous figure brandishes bow and arrow-like objects. Other anthropomorphous figures, ungulates and what may be birds also grace this rock panel. A magico-ritual theme may be intended here. Probably Pre-Buddhist period.

Nearly one hundred rock art sites in Upper Tibet have been discovered to date (60 of these sites are photographically documented in Art of Tibetan Rock Paintings, Sichuan People's Publishing House: 1994). During my expeditions to Upper Tibet (known in Tibetan as the Changthang and Tod regions) to study traces of pre-Buddhist civilization I too have documented a number of rock art sites. These sites were produced over more than three millennia and exhibit highly diverse subject matter and techniques of manufacture.

In this depiction what appears to be a carnivore with gaping jaws chases an ungulate. The most plausible identification of the long horned ungulate is a deer or antelope. As for the stripped carnivore the wolf is a likely candidate but we cannot rule out the tiger. Until the onset of the Iron Age, a subspecies of the tiger was native to the adjoining Turkestan (Xinjiang) region and tigers hold an important place in Bon tradition. The head of the upper ungulate has been obliterated by a Buddhist mantra. This destruction of earlier rock art by Buddhist mantras is a common occurrence and is indicative of the great religious transition that took place in Tibet. Pre-Buddhist or early Buddhist period.

In fact, so varied is this rock art that it is truly emblematic of the development of Tibetan civilization from early times onwards. Beginning in the period when the inhabitants of Upper Tibet subsisted as big game hunters, rock art proceeds over time to document the arrival of the domestic horse, warfare and religious concerns. Later, with the advent of the Zhang zhung Iron Age culture in Tibet, the range of subjects becomes broader and starts to include familiar images such as the stupa, horned eagle (khyung) and flaming jewels, albeit in forms that have long since become outdated.

This example appears to show an ambulatory individual. The ochre pigment has run and quite a bit of it has exfoliated as evidenced by the white specks in the body of the figure. This composition most closely resembles a Mahasiddha, the great Vajrayana adepts of yore. It probably dates to the early Buddhist period or to 1300 at the latest.

By far the most common subject in Upper Tibet rock art are animal compositions linking it thematically with the Eurasian animal style. Eurasian animal art prevailed throughout the steppes in the First Millennium B.C.E, and is characterized by the vibrant, forceful depiction of animals. Even in more recent centuries rock art in Upper Tibet has been dominated by the portrayal of animals, mostly the hoofed ungulates. This can be partly explained in functional terms because even today the economy of this most austere part of the Tibetan plateau revolves around stockbreeding, while hunting remains a viable supplementary activity.

On this carved boulder we find a lone horseman who seems to be grasping the reins of his mount while he counterbalances with the other arm. The sun and moon rise above him, symbols that have had cosmological and talismanic value for millennia and which are well known in the Bon tradition (as well as their later Vajrayana connotations). Pre-Buddhist period.

The prominent depiction of animals can be further attributed to the role they have played in indigenous religious traditions, mythology, spirit-mediumship and lore surrounding the old clans of the region. The most common animal in Upper Tibet rock art is the wild yak or drong, a potent symbol of Tibet's distinct identity. Horses, mostly with mounted figures, are also common. Probably the full range of native ungulates (gazelle, antelope, argali, blue sheep and deer) are depicted, as well as carnivores, birds, fish and other animals. Animals are frequently portrayed in isolation or as the quarry of hunters but also in what are ostensibly magico-ritual compositions.

In this depiction a mounted archer confronts a huge drong in close quarters. It apparently shows the hunter coming in for the triumphant final kill. Such compositions seem to celebrate the prowess and bravery of the hunter. This kind of physical demonstration incumbent on killing became an anathema in the subsequent ethos of the Buddhist period but in early times it was common and presumably well accepted. Pre-Buddhist period.

This pictograph depicts an unusual ancient Bon monument. Although it might generally be classed with the stupa it has no known modern counterpart. A narrow extension connects the wide base of the object with a half circular midsection. The top of the object is crowned by a prominent three-pronged structure reminiscent of the Bon charu chatri, the symbolic representation of the horns of the khyung flanking an upright sword. To the left of this enigmatic composition there is a counterclockwise yungdrung and what appears to be a five pointed star created using the same red ochre pigment. At the bottom of the image the vowel sign (kigu) of a Buddhist mantra painted in a darker ochre pigment is visible. This pictograph was probably executed during the early Buddhist period but we cannot rule out the possibility that it is older.

This polychromic pictograph is that of an archaic style stupa (Tibetan = chorten) as typified by the small midsection (bumpa), short spire, long streamers and horn-like finale. The counterclockwise swastika (yungdrung) painted in the same red ochre pigment identifies this as a Bon composition. Polychromic rock paintings seem to be rare in Tibet (for reference to another example see my Divine Dyads, p.262, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives: 1997). Probably early Buddhist period to 1300.

The most widely depicted human figure in the rock art of Upper Tibet is the hunter both represented mounted on horses and on foot. The hunter's most common weapon is the bow and arrow but pikes and swords are also known. Figures locked in combat are found at certain sites, and in addition to the weapons mentioned above, they often have shields and perhaps helmets. Anthropomorphous figures that seem to portray priests and primitive deities are also part of the rock art tableau, although they are not especially common.

This composition portrays a mounted archer and what may be a hunter on foot attacking two wild yaks. As is clearly depicted one of the yaks and probably both have been hit by projectiles. Pre-Buddhist period.

Some of these figures appear to be wearing horned or feathered headdresses and some of them may possess zoomorphic qualities (however, the rock art does not usually lend itself to fine anatomical or costume detail and so it is difficult to assess the characteristics of the compositions). These types of attributes are associated with Zhang Zhung era religious practitioners as recorded in Bon literary sources. Additionally, human figures are shown in migration between camps, dancing, tending livestock and hoisting banners.

In this petroglyph a horsemen (no evidence yet for female yak hunters) is in close pursuit of a drong. What may be the hunter's hound is also running along side the wild yak. Pre-Buddhist period.

One of the most important findings I have made is that rock art sites in Upper Tibet are often located near pre-Buddhist archaeological monuments, particularly graves and hilltop structures. This association alludes to concentrations of populations that in ancient times not only constructed
permanent habitations but who found artistic expression in the nearby rock formations. As we refine the tools employed in the study of pre-Buddhist civilization we will come to better understand the chronological and cultural dimensions of this association.

On the surface of this boulder we find a number of intriguing depictions. They include a mounted figure, a standing figure wielding a bow or spear, three dorjes (ritual thunderbolt of Vayrayana), concentric circles and two unidentified bi-circular designs. The bi-circular petrogylphs containing various design elements are the oldest figures on this boulder as indicated by the substantial repatination they have underwent (considerably more than the other figures). Recalling generative eggs, masks and mandalas, it would seem that they represent an important pre-Buddhist cultural theme by virtue of the subsequent carving of the dorjes on the same rock.

The selection of petroglyphs and pictographs presented here were captured on film during one of my recent expeditions. They have been chosen for visual appeal as much as for content and are but a small sample of the rich rock art record of Upper Tibet. I hope that these images will help cultivate an appreciation of ancient Tibet and help viewers better know one of the world's great civilizations. The attribution of the period of manufacture to the rock art specimens shown here was derived from an analysis of the contents, stylistic forms and physical characteristics of the petroglyphs and pictographs on a site by site basis. As always readers' comments are very much welcome.

My heartfelt thanks to friends of the Philadelphia Meditation Center (Theravadin) for making the documentation of this rock art possible. I also wish to thank various government officials with the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China for aiding my research -

John Vincent Bellezza

All text and images © John Vincent Bellezza

This article has been reproduced with permission from John Bellezza and I thank him for this opportunity. Neither the text or photographs as seen here may be reproduced without permission from John Bellezza or myself.