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Art From Our Valleys 

Life in the mountains is tough. In addition to physical fitness, it demands a great deal of mental fortitude. This is particularly true among our elders, especially when you hear them speak about their younger days. Stories of how they managed to survive the long winter months tending to their livestock are hard to believe for our generation. Animals reserve a special place in our lives, and they too are often as spirited as hardy mountain people. Growing up in Ladakh, animals were an integral part of my life too: sheep, goat, donkey, horses, and yak. And then there are the wild animals that were seen rarely, but often encountered when they preyed on livestock. Growing up in the village of Kumdok close to the Changthang region of Ladakh, I enjoyed exploring the mountains as a young kid. I still remember joining my mother to graze the village livestock in the pastures around our village. Each family took turns to fulfill this task. During that time my mother would show me wild animals that were seen in the pastures around our village. We had to keep our livestock safe from hungry carnivores.


Illustration by Rohit Rao

I was fascinated by the outdoors and I still cherish those times spent exploring the pastures. I particularly remember the day I first encountered some very interesting art on some of the rocks in these pastures. As a 13-year old then, I wondered who had drawn them. I asked my mother and she told me that these were made many, many years ago. Probably even before our great, great grandparent’s time. This was from a time when there were no notebooks, pencils, and even schools which is why they may have etched them on the rock.

A few years later, I left the village for higher studies. Returning home each year, I noticed that the number of livestock in my village was reducing. Some years back everyone gave up herding sheep and goat. After completing my education, I began to work in wildlife conservation. My work took me to many places across Ladakh. I interacted with locals of every generation. I also worked closely with researchers who were trying to study nature and the relation that we Ladakhi share with them. That often took me back to rock art that my mother had shown me. Our ancestors may have shared a special relation with nature and animals, as was depicted in the art. This got me even more interested in rock art which is both rare and special. In the last few years, I have encountered rock art in the most unlikely places. I make sure to take a picture, each time I find new art. I often find myself thinking about what our forefathers were trying to tell us through the art. I would like to share some of these pictures and my thoughts with you.


"Hunter" rock-art, Ulley; Photo courtesy Sherab Lobzang

Ulley Tokpo is a village in the western part of Ladakh. Walking along the banks of the Indus River, I stumbled upon this curious rock art. The image shows a hunter pointing a bow at an animal with long curved horns, while a guard dog watches on. Did our forefathers hunt for food? Maybe they did not rear animals like sheep and goat then. Why else would they hunt? When did they start rearing livestock and when did we stop hunting? Thanks to livestock rearing we could stop hunting. But while hunting has stopped, archery remains a very popular sport and a cultural event that we participate in every winter. This is a common practice across many mountain communities in the Himalayas.

I recorded this rock art image of a horseman between the villages of Miru and Gya on the highway that connects Leh to Manali. One of my senior colleagues had shown me this image. If you drive past this area today, you will not find this horseman anymore. Unfortunately, a large part of the rock formation that carried this rock art was destroyed during road construction. But this image is a reminder of the role that horses might have played in the lives of our forefathers.


"Huntsman" rock-art, Gya-Miru; Photo courtesy Sherab Lobzang

Horses were the most efficient form of transport, be that for hunting or even later for trade and exchange of produce through barter. The significance of horses has diminished with the arrival of vehicles. However, they still reserve an important cultural role in our communities. Horse racing is active in some parts during Losar, the New Year celebrated on the first day of the lunisolar Tibetan calendar. Another sport that was played earlier was Ta Polo, Ta meaning horse, and Polo meaning ball. Could this have been a primitive form of the sport of polo? I often wonder where our forefathers might have learned it from.


"Horseman and Yak" rock-art; Photo courtesy Sherab Lobzang

I once encountered this fascinating image of what looked like horsemen pursuing a large animal. I wondered if these were yak. When I spoke with some elders in my village, they mentioned that indeed they were: they were wild yak! Dong, as they are referred to locally, haven’t been seen in a very long time. The domestic yak is believed to have been reared from the wild yak. Our elders explained that dong is much larger than the domestic ones we rear. Today, it is reported from a small part in Changchenmo which is largely unexplored. I wonder if there are other animals like the dong that once occupied these rangelands.

At the mouth of Phuyul valley near the village of Miru, I observed some very interesting rock art while carrying out surveys. This included images of wild animals, stupas which are religious structures in Buddhism, and script which was hard to identify. Some of these etchings look like ibex based on the longhorns they display. I find that particularly interesting because ibex was not found in these areas during our surveys in the past three years. Could the rock art be suggesting that these valleys were home to ibex in prehistoric times? It is hard to say. These are just a few of the images I have found so far. Many more remain undiscovered and I hope to keep finding them and sharing their stories, as I do now. While I have been fortunate to stumble upon these ancient relics that are part of our heritage, I am concerned about the number of these relics we may be losing out of ignorance. Rock art, which may date back several thousand years, are messages to us from our ancestors. They deserve attention and care. If we were to lose them, we might lose an important part of our past heritage. This holds true not just for Ladakh, but for all areas where rock art of this kind tells a story of the past. It is up to us to rediscover them and celebrate the wonderful stories they tell. These stories told by our ancestors.


"Village Scene" rock-art, Phuyul Valley; Photo courtesy Sherab Lobzang

About the Author

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Sherab Lobzang

Sherab Lobzang is from Kumdok village of Leh District in Ladakh. While growing up the wildlife found around her village got her fascinated about nature. Her favorite pastime is listening to traditional stories from the elders of the village. For the last 5 years, she has been working with children in Ladakh to explore nature and be the young voice to conserve it.

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