Prehistoric rock carvings in MustangThe Shar-ri artwork highlights the cultural makeup, physical environment, social compulsion and economic activities of the time.
As an anthropologist working in the Himalayas, I am studying the complex human-environment relationship at a time of climate change. Based in Lo Manthang, Upper Mustang where I have spent more than a decade researching the compelling narratives, evidence and experiences of the people living the adverse effects of climate change in situ. One of my findings is related to the rare petroglyphs or prehistoric rock carvings found in the Shar-ri region.
A local herder had informed me about the possible existence of some form of rock art in the Dhetang area of Shar-ri, but he didn't have the exact location. Three years later in 2017, I managed to visit the area and locate the solitary boulder covered with engraved images protruding from a cliff edge. Petroglyphs normally embody cultural symbols that represent the complex societies and belief systems of the indigenous inhabitants. Most such artworks are found around the area of worship or on cremation or burial sites depicting mythic, ritualistic and narrative scenes based on their cultural belief system.
The petroglyphs in Shar-ri are a rare find. However, such discoveries have been made before in Mustang. German professor Perdita Pohle has worked exclusively on petroglyphs and pictographs found in and around the Se-rib (Lo smad) region of Mustang. Nepali archaeologist Prakash Darnal has also published a work related to the petroglyphs in Lo smad, the details of which were published in Ancient Nepal (Vol 166). UNESCO is also taking an initiative for the documentation and safekeeping of such sites in the region. The discovery in Shar-ri is unique because it is the only recorded case from the region in question.
The stone of Shar-ri with engravings looks circular from the northern end but it is actually rectangular. The engravings are rudimentary both in execution and composition, and are unevenly spread across the stone surface in all directions, except for the buried base. There are hundreds of images engraved around the stone, most of them look like part of a larger scene. There are also carvings of solitary figures, but such engravings may very well be part of the broader composition. The engravings include an image of an antelope or deer, human figures hunting with bows and spears, hunters on horseback, ritual gatherings or dancing, wild yaks, sheep, birds, animals, squatting figures and numerous other unidentified and indistinct images.
Most of the human figures are 4-6 inches tall, and the animal figures are around the same in length. Some longer horizontal lines, 6-8 inches in length, are chiselled around hunting scenes, most probably representing the flight of bows and spears. There are also a few small semi-circular holes engraved on the upper side of the stone which look different from the carvings on it. It is hard to date these newly discovered petroglyphs of Shar-ri based on my preliminary work. It is also possible that some of these were made in a different epoch in history. However, based on the absence of religious motifs related to Bon or Buddhism in the artwork, we can safely assume that the petroglyphs of Shar-ri predate the Early Historic Period (600-1000 CE).
I tried to compare the engravings from Shar-ri with similar other artworks in Tibet and other parts of the Himalaya, especially the findings of John Vincent Bellezza who has done extensive research on both petroglyphs and pictographs in the Himalayan region and Tibet. A comparative study shows that the engravings in Shar-ri are quite similar to the artworks found in Tibet. The content of the engravings is also thematically similar to the petroglyphs and pictographs studied by Bellezza in the Guge region in Western Tibet and the Changthang and Tö region in Upper Tibet, which date back to the Iron Age (800-200 BCE).
The images from Shar-ri of hunters on horseback or foot, vivid hunting scenes, hunters with recurve bows and spears, wild yaks and some herbivores closely resemble the artwork studied by Bellezza in Western and Upper Tibet. The archaeological findings of Nepal-German Project on High Mountain Archaeology (1991-98) also prove the existence of an Iron Age civilisation in parts of Mustang, thus there are chances high that the petroglyphs of Shar-ri are linked to the Iron Age civilisation of Mustang.
The real motivations for creating the Shar-ri artwork remain hypothetical, but the content highlights cultural makeup, physical environment, social compulsion and economic activities of the time. The site of the Shar-ri petroglyph lies in an isolated area. There are no signs of ruins of settlements, caves and ritual or burial grounds nearby. A close scientific study of the surrounding area must be conducted because petroglyphs are normally central to the monument’s sacred landscape where rituals used to take place.
The Shar-ri petroglyphs are brutally exposed to the harsh Himalayan weather. Numerous engravings have naturally faded, and some stone surfaces have chipped, especially the northern and upper façades of the stone. Huge cracks are visible on either side of the main panels where most of the engravings are located. The Shar-ri petroglyph is located on the lower edge of the plain, and a small push or shake may send it tumbling down from the cliff, making it vulnerable to landslides and earthquakes.
For the safety of the artwork from vandals and over-enthusiastic visitors, I am keeping the whereabouts of the Shar-ri petroglyphs ambiguous for now. All major heritage sites in Lo Mustang have suffered from some sort of vandalism and looting. These artworks are also showing signs of natural degradation because of being exposed to the severe Himalayan environment. The authorities concerned should take urgent measures to document these artworks and preserve them for future generations. They may very well be the oldest and most magnificent prehistoric artwork in Nepal.
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