Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Pictographs (John Vincent Bellezza)

Nyag Lhakang Karpo (Guge Lhome)

Before the Mural and Scroll Painting:
Rock Art in Ancient Tibet

John Vincent Bellezza

Tibetan Archaeology

Introduction to the rock art and classical art of Tibet
This is an exploration of art forms that existed before the appearance of Buddhism and the Bon religion in Tibet. A perusal of the Himalayan Art Resources website and other sources demonstrates that Tibet produced a huge array of religious paintings and sculptures over a long span of time. Buddhist and Bon murals and statuary can be traced back to the 7th century CE, while the oldest painted scrolls or thangkas date to the 10th or 11th century CE. As in many other parts of the world, the classical religious art of Tibet was preceded by more ancient traditions of representation found painted and carved on stone. This rock art is of two major types: petroglyphs (engravings on stone) and pictographs (paintings on stone).

As is well known, Tibetan Buddhist art owes its aesthetic inspiration to India, particularly to the regions of Kashmir and Bengal under the Karkota and Pala dynasties respectively. Nepal also had a formative impact on Tibetan painting and sculpture. Sogdiana and Khotan in Central Asia were major influences on the development of classical religious art in Tibet as well. The introduction of Buddhism and other extraneous cultural patterns on the Tibetan Plateau beginning in the 7th century CE led to a major reordering of its civilization. As a result, the indigenous religions of the Plateau known generically as bon waned. This archaic bon is not to be confused with the Bon religion, the Lamaist counterpart to Tibetan Buddhism, which arose in the late 10th century CE.

The older or native artistic traditions of Tibet belonged to a world with its own cultural makeup, physical environment, social compulsions, and economic priorities. Conversely, Buddhism and Bon are part of a more recent world, one in which foreign cultural and religious forces are paramount. As rock art is a very different kind of medium from classical forms, it is hard to single out the historical connections between them. Rather than a specific subject or genre of prehistoric art acting as direct inspiration for the creation of classical art, antecedent pictorial traditions more probably constituted a diffuse cultural influence mostly disseminated in an uncritical or unremarked fashion.

Although rock art is the historic forerunner of Tibetan Buddhist and Bon painting, the functional links between them are rather muted. Indigenous religious traditions such the cult of territorial deities, utilitarian ritual practices and life-cycle celebrations did indeed infiltrate Buddhism and Bon, including its figurative arts, but these were reconfigured to embody the philosophical principles and esthetic sensibilities of the classical religions. In the realm of art antecedent customs and traditions are most recognizable in costumery, ornamentation, armaments, zoomorphic imagery, and symbology. Indigenous motifs, however, tend to serve as a subtext to the main doctrines, morality and practices expressed in Buddhist and Bon art.

There are also other major differences between the archaic and classical art worlds of Tibet. Rock art was a more inclusive enterprise in which both those with and without specialized artistic skills and talent could participate. This medium is generally more rudimentary in execution and composition, reflecting the inherent challenges of painting and cutting uneven stone surfaces while being exposed to harsh weather conditions. The elementary character of rock art also seems to betoken a less diverse economic regime than the one prevailing more recently.

The motivations for creating rock art remain hypothetical, contrasting with the well articulated religious purposes for which Buddhist and Bon art was and is carried out. We can infer from the preponderance of hunting scenes, as well as battles and martial contests, that Tibetan rock art encompassed more pedestrian or pragmatic concerns. Mythic, ritualistic and narrative scenes are represented in rock art as well, but pinpointing the cultural content of these areas of ancient intellectual life is not possible in any objective sense. We are only left therefore with broad indications of what the abstract significance and practical usage of early art might have been to its makers and original viewers.

Technical considerations: age and location
In order to better appreciate how indigenous artistic traditions contributed to the pictorialization of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, we shall examine petroglyphs and pictographs that both predate and were contemporaneous with these religions. The rock art presented in this study is all located in the uppermost portion of the Tibetan Plateau: the regions situated north of the Transhimalayan ranges and west of Lhasa (Changthang), the upper Brahmaputra valley (Martshang Tsangpo), and far western Tibet (T?). This vast territory of some 300,000 square miles can be referred to as ?Upper Tibet?. Some of the rock art featured here is published for the first time.

A note on dating rock art is in order. The dates provided below are imprecise and should be seen as suggestive and not prescriptive. At this time, scientifically verifiable methods for gauging the age of rock art worldwide are still under development. A number of inferential methods for formulating a chronology of rock art are currently used by specialists. These include stylistic analysis, identification of content, appraisal of physical characteristics, examination of the relative position of paintings and carvings, collateral archaeological evidence, and interpretation of literary and ethnographic sources. It must be stressed that none of these methods are completely reliable and are best used to devise a relative chronology, which determines what composition might be older or newer than another one. The chronology employed in this study is as follows:

Prehistoric epoch
1. Bronze Age (circa 1500-800 BCE)
2. Iron Age (circa 800-200 BCE)
3. Protohistoric period (circa 200 BCE to 600 CE)
Historic epoch
1. Early historic period (600-1000 CE)
2. Vestigial period (1000-1300 CE)

Gallery of Rock Art Images:

Fig. 1: Iron Age.
While Tibetan mural and thangka paintings are generally more complex than rock art, petroglyphs and pictographs containing upwards of 100 individual subjects are known. On this flat-topped boulder there are more than 25 animals, most of which appear to be wild herbivores indigenous to Upper Tibet (wild yaks and sheep). In the middle of the boulder is a lightly re-patinated animal of more recent production. Frequently, hunters either on horseback or on foot are depicted among such intricate animal compositions. The function of this rock art bestiary is a matter of speculation. More favored hypotheses include an articulation of social or ceremonial obligations, ritual magic for hunting, and expressions of thanksgiving.

Fig. 2: Protohistoric period.
This complex composition with its counterclockwise swastikas, crescent moon, sun, trees, bird of prey, yak, other wild herbivores, anthropomorphic figure (hunter?), and unidentified motifs appears to convey a mythic, ritual and/or narrative theme. The subjects created in this painting were of seminal importance to the venatic way of life in Upper Tibet, and include animals used for food and the natural constructs that sustained them. The swastika, sun and moon are still key cosmological and religious symbols in Tibet and often grace classical religious art. However, it is not prudent to attempt to transfer their historic meanings in toto to the prehistoric cultural setting. While longstanding cultural continuities exist in Tibet much has also changed over time.

Fig. 3: Early historic period or vestigial period.
The counterclockwise swastika is the symbol of the Bon religion par excellence, but its origins as a rock art motif go back to prehistory. On the other hand, Tibetan Buddhists use the clockwise swastika, setting them apart from the Bonpo in an easily recognizable way. The swastika depicted here was painted in red ochre (oxides of iron), the most common pigment used in Tibetan rock art. According to David and Janice Jackson (see bibliography), red ochre (tsak) was also utilized by painters of early thangkas.

Fig. 4: Iron Age.
It was around 1000 years ago that the direction of the swastika became a marker of religious affiliation. In prehistoric rock art swastikas are oriented in both directions with no apparent differences in their mytho-ritual context. Like the example shown here some early swastikas have arms turned to align with the opposite side. Some of these non-standard swastikas resemble birds. Birds and swastikas were well-known solar symbols in Eurasia, possibly accounting for the hybrid design in Tibet.

Fig. 5: Bronze Age or Iron Age.
In addition to the swastika, the sun and moon figure prominently in the symbolic rock art of Upper Tibet. In Buddhist and Bon art the sun often cradles a crescent moon, signifying the union of the methods and wisdom that lead to enlightenment. In more ancient rock art the sun and moon usually appear separately on stone surfaces. In this composition the two of them were carved in conjunction with a swastika. The sun with its spokes and hub resembles a chariot wheel. At this particular rock art site there are numerous petroglyphs of chariots with similar wheels, providing us with an indication of its antiquity. In the historic epoch Tibetans did not regularly use wheeled vehicles for transport.

Fig. 6: Protohistoric period or early historic period.
This complex red ochre composition features a conjoined sun and moon, two sunburst motifs, tree, counterclockwise swastika, and many dots. The presence of all these crucial symbols may signify a cosmological or cosmogonic theme. Trees and a variety of other vegetation are often used to enliven thangka paintings, but they are subsidiary features rather than central motifs.

Fig. 7: Protohistoric period.
A horned eagle or khyung hovering above a wild herbivore. Due to the horns on the bird, we can presume that this raptor was conceived of as a supernatural creature. Thus the maker of this composition may have intended it to have ritual or mythological import. The khyung is still a popular subject in thangka paintings, adorning the tops of thrones and as a primary figure in its own right. In Tibetan Buddhism and Bon the khyung is a tantric symbol and deity, protector god, and attribute of the esoteric mind training school known as Dzokchen. Bon texts further tell us that the khyung was once an important clan deity of Upper Tibet. Given the textual indications, the khyung may also have functioned as an ancestral and protective spirit in prehistory.

Fig. 8: Iron Age.
Another horned eagle with outstretched wings. This khyung is found among a menagerie of animal carvings. According to Bon historical texts, the khyung was a royal and priestly emblem of the Zhang Zhung kingdom in Upper Tibet. Some Bon literature suggests that the so-called bird horns were the crest feathers on certain species of avifauna.

Fig. 9: Bronze Age or Iron Age.
A group of five birds with outstretched wings. Carved in isolation it cannot be known whether this composition was merely a literal representation of flying raptors or charged with the cognitive and emotive imprints of complex cultural traditions. Flying birds frequently soar through the skies painted on thangkas as well.

Fig: 10. Iron Age.
A beautifully rendered bird with a crest of three points and eyelike body ornamentation. This seems to depict the silhouette of an eagle or other bird-of-prey. In murals and thangkas birds are portrayed standing, flying and swimming as ancillary background figures. However, in ancient rock art animals play a much more important role and were often depicted in isolation. Some of these depictions may be of zoomorphic deities but it is very difficult to distinguish the numinous from more prosaic portrayals of animals.

Fig. 11: Early historic period.
A red ochre duck or goose pictograph. Like much historic epoch rock art, this bird is realistically painted with many easily recognizable anatomical details but the execution is somewhat stiff and unimaginative. Ducks and geese fill the ponds and lakes of many murals and thangkas, part of the idyllic environments in which deities reside.

Fig. 12: Early historic period or vestigial period.
Confronted carnivores prancing among a variety of other animals (not shown in this image). The figure on the left has a long muzzle, pointed ear and what appears to be a long tail curled over the graceful body, a common motif in the carnivore rock art of Upper Tibet. The animal on the right with its big head and chest is lion-like. These creatures may have served a variety of functions (clan symbols, military emblems, zoomorphic spirits, objects of trance states, etc.), all of which remain hypothetical. In thangkas protective deities (srungma) are commonly accompanied by wolves, bears, felines, raptors, and other fierce animals, which serve as their minions and agents of power.

Fig. 13: Protohistoric period.
With its gaping jaws, pointed ears, long curling tail and stripes this appears to be the likeness of a tiger. There is a prehistoric genre of striped carnivore art in the region suggesting that at one time the tiger may have been native to Upper Tibet. Scenes of these big cats attacking wild yaks and other wild herbivores of the region reinforces this impression. In thangka art there are a variety of protective and tutelary deities that ride tigers. However, in Upper Tibetan prehistoric rock art there are no gods or goddesses portrayed riding tigers or other carnivores.

Fig. 14: Iron Age or protohistoric period.
A red ochre stag identified through its branched antlers. The most popular figurative subject in the rock art of the Tibetan highlands is the wild herbivore. Next to wild yaks, deer are the most common species represented. According to Tibetan literature, deer fulfilled a number of ancient ritual functions serving as sacrificial offerings, psychopomps and the mounts of deities. While these kinds of religious purposes may also be indicated for rock art deer, this remains unconfirmed. The earliest Tibetan literature dates to circa 650 CE and its description of more ancient times cannot necessarily be taken literally.

Fig. 15: Iron Age or Protohistoric period.
The two gamboling deer or antelope in this composition were rendered in a style of art closely aligned to the steppes and the various Scythic tribes known as Sakas. This genre of art is only found in northwestern Tibet, evidently a conduit for interactions between the Plateau and the deserts and steppes to the north. As with most ancient rock art styles, there are no close counterparts in the murals, thangkas and statuary of Buddhism and Bon.

Fig. 16: Iron Age or protohistoric period.
A wild herbivore with curled horns that most resembles the argali, the largest species of sheep in the world. Since the carving of this animal the rock on which it was made has deeply split. The simplicity yet vibrancy of the figure is a hallmark of prehistoric rock art in Upper Tibet. While animals in Buddhist and Bon art can also be highly stylized and dramatic, they lack the raw potency of earlier art.

Fig. 17: Iron Age or protohistoric period.
A wild yak carved in magnificent isolation in a style unique to Upper Tibet (and to Ladakh). This style is marked by circular horns, ball-like tail, belly fringe, and large rounded withers. Like the two herbivores in Figure 15, the body of this animal is ornamented with the scroll motif characteristic of northwestern Tibet. The rock cracked after the petroglyph was made, an indication here of considerable antiquity. This yak may have had either prosaic or preternatural connotations for its maker. Be that as it may, in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, yaks are the vehicles of territorial deities (yulha) and the personal protective spirits of men, women and warriors.

Fig. 18: Iron Age or protohistoric period.
A wild yak with what appears to be an anthropomorphic rider. It is not very likely that bull yaks (gender indicated by the long belly fringe) were customarily ridden in Tibet. This understanding leads us to consider that the composition may depict a deity or some other kind of supernal figure. If so, this verifies that the tradition of Tibetan deities riding yaks is of prehistoric origins, just as Bon ritual texts maintain.

Fig. 19: Prehistoric epoch.
A wild bull yak boldly painted in ochre with a magenta hue. This animal and others like it in the same cave belong to the oldest stratum of pictographs in Tibet and may date to the Bronze Age. This genre of painting is associated with a rich color palette ranging from mustard and orange to the deepest reds. No such style of painting exists in Buddhist or Bon art, which is many centuries if not millennia more recent.

Fig. 20: Iron Age or Protohistoric period.
An archer mounted on a horse taking aim at a wild yak. The yak has already been hit by three projectiles. Quarry in hunting scenes are often depicted mortally wounded in this manner. It seems to signal that this depiction was used either as a charm to attract game or as a celebratory gesture after the successful completion of a hunt. These kinds of graphic killing scenes of ordinary animals do not occur in Buddhist and Bon art, as these religions are based on the ethic of nonviolence. Hunting compositions as much as any other class of prehistoric figuration highlight the stark cultural differences between archaic and classical art.

Fig. 21: Iron Age or protohistoric period.
A hunter on horseback shooting his bow at an animal resembling the Tibetan wild ass (kyang). Note the reins of the horse. An orange red ochre was used to create the pictograph. Although the hunter is merely a stick figure, there is much vitality in his form. As in Figure 20, the prey has already been struck by a projectile.

Fig. 22: Protohistoric period or early historic period.
A mounted hunter with a bow and what appears to be a pike (a fairly common weapon in Upper Tibetan rock art). His quarry are two large wild herbivores (wild yaks?). This finely rendered pictograph has suffered much wear. In Upper Tibet, pictographs in black pigment are much less common than red ochre ones. Carbon from soot and ash are regularly used in thangka painting to make black pigments, but the chemical composition of this pictograph remains to be determined. In addition to charcoal, manganese dioxide has been used as a rock art pigment since the Stone Age in sundry parts of the world.

Fig. 23: Protohistoric period.
A horseman shooting a bow. This figure is part of a hunting scene (the rest of it is not shown). The hunter appears to be sitting on top of a tall saddle, a style still in use in Tibet. There is no graphic sign however of stirrups in the composition. Metal stirrups did not become widely used in Inner Asia until after the 5th century CE and the advent of the Turks. The bow may be the so-called Scythian or recurved type but there is not enough detail in the painting to be certain.

Fig. 24:
Figure on horse brandishing a bow. This horseman with topknot and what may be a quiver is not part of a hunting scene. The depiction of battles, martial contests and ceremonial functions in which equestrians participate are also very much part of the Upper Tibetan rock art tableau. The bow and arrow is carried by a wide spectrum of wrathful and protective deities in Buddhism and Bon. From the hunting weapon of choice in ancient times, it has come to symbolize the piercing of ignorance in the modern religions of Tibet.

Fig. 25: Protohistoric period.
Anthropomorphic figures in what appear to be mythological and ritual portrayals are also visible in Upper Tibetan rock art. It cannot be determined conclusively however if these figures represent deities, ancestral luminaries, priests, spirit-mediums, or cultural heroes. All of these possible identities are represented in Tibetan literature and the oral tradition. In the scene depicted here a standing anthropomorphic figure gestures towards a row of five round objects, the middle one of which is surmounted by a cruciform object. On the head of the ostensible ritualist is a crown or headdress resembling five diadems (known in classical art). Above the anthropomorph is a swastika-like bird watching over the proceedings. Religious and mythic themes sometimes connected to rich narratives lie at the heart of Buddhist and Bon art. This art is inspirational and pedagogic in nature, part of a living tradition that can be studied and understood in both a traditional and academic sense. No such claims of interpretation can be made for ancient rock art. It belongs to a cultural sphere that has mostly vanished. Even when traditions and concepts documented in the Tibetan literary and ethnographic records are applicable, rock art remains too uncomplicated and ambiguous in composition to prove what these might constitute in each individual case.

Fig. 26: Bronze Age or Iron Age.
An anthropomorphic figure bending over to assume a pose that appears to be ritualistic in character. In addition to a long tail, this figure may have two horns on its head. As it was carved in isolation there are no other subjects that might lend it a wider context. According to Bon texts, the prehistoric kings of Zhang Zhung wore crowns of bird horns. These texts also speak of horned deities especially those that underpin old funerary traditions. Moreover, Bon speaks of the transformation of ancient saints into animals in order to conduct religious rituals such as the retrieval of lost souls. Nonetheless, it is not if any of this textual lore is relevant to the petroglyph. All that can be safely stated is that it appears to depict an extraordinary activity or event, one in which sacerdotal or supernatural personalities may have been present.

Fig. 27: Bronze Age or Iron Age.
An anthropomorphic figure seemingly dancing with a large bird. On the same rock face is an animal and unidentified curvilinear motifs that may be part of the same composition as the bird and anthropomorph. This exceptional composition appears to encapsulate a mythic, narrative and/or religious theme. The bird with its outstretched wings and large triangular tail is typical of ornithic depictions in Upper Tibet. The placement of the right arm of the anthropomorph mimics the pose of the bird (the position of the left arm is more ambiguous). This identification with birds could possibly indicate a shamanistic activity, as in an ecstatic flight to the heavens.

Fig. 28: Bronze Age or Iron Age.
Two unusual athropomorphs. The figure on the left stands with spread arms and legs. On the top of its head are three prominent lines, which may possibly simulate rays or feathers, both of which are attested in Bon accounts of prehistoric Upper Tibet. This anthropomorph is of a type seen at other rock art sites in the region (it is reminiscent of the specimen in Figure 25). The figure on the right has an hourglass-shaped body and stubby arms raised up towards its square head. The abbreviated appendages and tiny head may suggest that it limns no mere human being. The two figures were carved using somewhat different techniques and exhibit varying degrees of re-patination, which seems to indicate that they were made in different periods (the figure on the right being older). The coupling of these figures suggests that they were conceptually integrated into a single supramundane theme.

Fig. 29: Early historic period or vestigial period.
A anthropomorphic head crudely carved in shallow relief, a technique employed in historic epoch rock art. The crown of five diadems, called rignga in Tibetan, is a recognizable historic religious trait. It is still used by Buddhist and Bon tantric practitioners and spirit-mediums. This type of headdress is also worn by various deities including the popular class of female divinities known as 'sky-goers' (khandro). Thus we cannot know if the carver of this petroglyph intended it to represent a human or divine figure. In this particular example of the rignga, simple eyes, mouth and nose were engraved in each diadem. These may represent the five directional Buddhas (Gyelwa Rignga), a class of divinities found in paintings, statuary and on the diadems of the rignga.

Fig. 30: Protohistoric period.
Depiction of a five-tiered shrine with bulbous top. Upper Tibet rock art is replete with shrines consisting of graduated steps. These include rudimentary examples like this one as well as more complex and recent forms known as stupas (Sanskrit) or chortens (Tibetan). It appears that in addition to architectural and religious influences coming from the Indian Subcontinent, Tibetan chortens owe their origins to the more basic shrines of prehistory. Bon ritual texts contain accounts of primitive tiered shrines used to enshrine deities for effecting various practical objectives. According to the Bon, the graduated base of these monuments symbolized the five elements (ether, air, water, earth, and fire). The ruins of early tiered shrines have been discovered at various locations in Upper Tibet. Miniature models of these structures in copper alloys and stone have also been documented. Likewise, copper alloy and stone Buddhist and Bon chortens in a multiple of sizes are well known. Chortens figure prominently in religious paintings as well.

Fig. 31: Early historic period.
The depiction of a polychrome chorten or a precursory type of shrine. Its precise architectural status is unclear. The sinuous figures to the right of the shrine have not been identified either. Polychrome pictographs are uncommon in Upper Tibet. This example was painted using red ochre, yellow ochre (ngangpa) and a white pigment. According to David and Janice Jackson, yellow ochre was rarely used as a pigment by thangka painters, but was exploited as the primary undercoat for gold in Tibetan paintings. The white pigment of the shrine is most likely calcareous in composition such as the mineral chalk or gypsum.

Fig. 32: Vestigial period.
From left to right: a dagger (phurba), ritual thunderbolt (dorje) and bell (drilbu). This nicely executed pictograph was made by an individual thoroughly acquainted with Buddhist religious motifs. In the first few centuries after the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, its chief symbols and implements formed a substantial theme in rock art. Flanking the trio of ritual tools are two clockwise swastikas (one in yellow and one in red), another essential sign of Tibetan Buddhism. The exact reasons the artist chose to paint these motifs cannot be known to us. Perhaps he was a meditator or magician who occupied the cave. Alternatively, they may have been drawn by a peripatetic lama conferring his blessings on the locale in this way. It is also conceivable that these potent symbols were laid down to religiously secure the location and expel non-Buddhist or bon practitioners. The cave does contain a number of counterclockwise swastikas possibly suggesting a clash or encounter between Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The dagger, ritual thunderbolt and bell are widely represented in Tibetan classical art forms. The bright yellow pigment used to produce the pictographs might be orpiment (arsenic trisulphide), a pigment regularly used in thangka paintings.
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