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Rock Carvings of Shatial, – Silk Road heritage – soon to be submerged in the Indus river dam

This blog is documenting the precious Silk Road heritage site, the ‘Indus rock carvings’, which will be lost forever in a few years when two dams on the Indus River are completed.

 

Stunning stupa depictions and inscriptions, “rock carvings of Shatial”

Shatial Rock Carvings, on a slope slightly off the Karakoram Highway down to the Indus River, located on the south bank of the Indus, between the Darel Valley to the east and the Tangir Valley to the west, were very important site for travelers, trade caravans and pilgrims on the Silk Road.

The rock carving ranges from those considered pre-Buddhist to those from the Gandhara heyday and post-Gandhara eras.

Firstly, the picture below shows the most famous rock carving in Shatial site. This rock art is impactful enough to elicit “wow!” response even from an ordinary tourist.

In the center of the rock is a large, delicately depicted stupa with many bells. On the left is a depiction of the “Sibi Jataka” and on the right is a votive stupa.

On the left side of the rock, the name of the stupa’s builder is inscribed in Kharoshthi script (or Gāndhārī, ancient Indo-Iranian script), which dates back to the 5th century.
Between the stupa and the votive stupa the names of people who lived back then (perhaps, some dignitaries) are inscribed in Brahmi and Sogdian script.

Two devotees dressed in Central Asian-style costumes approach the main stupa from three stepping stones. This staircase leads to a plinth decorated with a ‘four-stepped design’. Two pillars support the beam and the domed stupa. Bells are also attached to the beam, stupa and niche.
The stupa is topped by a series of umbrellas, from the top most of which hang down banners on either side like an arch. Small bells are also attached to the umbrellas, making this rock engraving different and novel from the other stupas.

The votive stupa to the right of the main stupa has four steps leading up to a high base, depicting a triangular stupa with a series of umbrellas above it and flags billowing and fluttering. It is a different style of depiction from the main stupa.

This figure on the left shows the ‘Sibi Jataka’.

 

About Sibi Jataka

(The Jataka is the stories of former lives of the Buddha )

There was a kind-hearted king named King Sibi.
A dove chased by a falcon flew to King Sibi and asked for help.

The falcon came to King Sibi and said, “I have not eaten for many days and if I do not eat the dove, I will die from starvation. Whose life do you consider more important, the dove’s or mine?”

So King Sibi thought that the falcon’s life is also important, so he cut off a piece of meat from his own leg, weighing the same as the dove, and placed it on the balance. But the dove was heavier, so he cut off the flesh again and placed it on the balance, but the weights were not equal.

King Sibi thought deeply and put his own body on the balance, and it balanced. The king said to the hawk, “Please eat me and get well”.
King Sibi tried to save the dove’s life by giving his own life to the falcon.

The falcon, knowing King Sibi’s heart, appeared to him in the form of Indra God and he saluted King Sibi’s action by saying, “You will become a Buddha in the future”.

 

In this rock carving, the Buddha sits in a cave, holding a ‘dove’ in his hand. The person depicted on the right holds a balance. The object on the balance is the flesh of King Sibi, which was cut off to save the dove’s life.
Below the Buddha holding the dove, devotees are depicted on both sides.

The above description is just one of many stories behind carvings in the main stupa. Shatial site has many other unique, valuable iconographies.

This is the carving on the rock opposite the main stupa, “Yantra”, a holy set of symbols at the center to the right, and “Labyrinth” on the bottom left.

 

Above and below are Sogdian tamga, emblems used by ancient Eurasian sedentary and nomadic tribes and their influenced cultures, represented in rock carving.

Sogdian Tamga

It’s difficult to see, but can you see the person holding what looks like a cup?

This is a rock carving of Sogdian performing a ritual in front of an altar, most probably. Probably a fire worship ritual?

 

 

 

 

 

Other animal rock carvings are depicted by people who walked the Silk Road. The rock carvings in the upper Indus, Gilgit and Hunza river basins are mainly ibex wild goat, with snow leopards and markhors goats, but here we see camels and elephants depicted.

The elephant figures remind us of the proximity to India. Apart from the picture below, there were several rock carvings that appeared to be camels and elephants, but only those that more or less certain are shown here.

Petroglyph of Bactrian Camel
Petroglyph of Goose
Petroglyph of Bactrian Camel

There is always something new to discover at the Shatial site.

By the way, the village seen from the rock carving site is full of dwellings that have been built at a rapid pace to get compensation for the submerged dwellings caused by the dam. The environment around the ancient rock carving has changed considerably.

 

Photo & text : Mariko SAWADA

*About the article: the article is based on an old book. I wonder if other views and explanations exist. I would be very happy if you could let me know so that I can study it.

Reference :”Huma records on Karakoeum Highway”, ” The Indus, cradle and crossroad of civilizations”

*Contact us, Indus Caravan for more information or to make arrangements for visiting Rock carving along the Indus.

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Category : ◆Khyber Pakhtunkhwa > - Indus river bank > ◇ Rock carvings / Petroglyph > ◇ Heritage of Pakistan
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Appreciating the Remaining Rock Art & Lamenting Their Impending Loss (Part 4) Gonar Farm

The last of the rock art blogs, which I will introduce to you is on the banks of the Indus at Gonar Farm. From Chilas, drive east on the Karakorum Highway for about an hour, then we get off the car and walk for another 30 minutes. We arrived on the outskirts of the village, dotted with rock art. It is a rock art that everyone in the know is already aware of.

It’s a light climb up, and after walking through the fields of the village, you arrive at the location.

A lot of rock art remains on the big rock, on the outskirts of the village in an open area.

A steep mountain range makes the backdrop of the petroglyphs.

The strange thing about this location is that it is a little far from the Indus River. It is possible that the Indus River once flowed through here and has now changed its flow, or perhaps it was a place that people gathered away from the river. I will imagine many scenarios as I walk around here looking at the art left behind.

The rock art of Gonar Farm has been significantly well-preserved. Perhaps it is because there were fewer visitors, but all of the rock paintings were clear. This Buddha has a happy expression, with folded hands, and adorned in the preists’robes kesa.

Most of the petroglyphs are related to Buddhism, and many that remain are images of pagodas.

There are carvings that are right on the ground, but these pagodas and other engravings remain free of damage because there are fewer people who would trample on it.

Some of the non-Buddhist etchings, are like this image of a plant and a handprint.

Regrettably, the rock art which I have introduced so far, are all destined to be flooded, upon the construction of the dam scheduled by 2027. Some of these rocks will be relocated and preserved by the government, but most of the more than 50,000 images will be submerged. I hope that these stones, which are engraved with the activities, thoughts and beliefs of the various people who traveled on the Silk Road, will have a chance to be seen by as many people as possible before they disappear underwater forever.

 

Photo & text : Koji YAMADA

Visit  : Nov 2021, Gonar Farm, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : - the Karakoram Highway > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Indus river bank > ◇ Rock carvings / Petroglyph > ◇ Heritage of Pakistan
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Appreciating the Remaining Rock Art & Lamenting Their Impending Loss (Part 3) Shatial

This blog is about the rock art from Shatial. It is known as a “Buddhist site” because a huge pagoda petroglyph, which is included in many of the tours to visit the Hunza region. This time, I was able to take a leisurely tour to look around more, and I found that there are many other rare works than just the famous pagoda.

Rock engraving of the pagoda, buddha image

Since Shatial is such a well-used transit point to cross the Indus River, since ancient times, many merchants, pilgrims, travelers, as well as Buddhists, have passed through. Many distinct designs and images were carved by the travelers. I will introduce a number of these rarer rock engraving.

A person who is raising their right hand

At first glance, it may seem that this person raising their right arm up, may be angry or upset, but the round halo behind his head indicates that this person was an Enlightened Buddha.

A Swastika symbol

This 卍represents a swastika, which is a symbol of Buddhism along with the Dharmachakra wheel.

PitchforkThis is a three-pronged pitchfork. You can try to imagine whether it was used as a weapon, a religious symbol or for agriculture, but either way, it has been in use since ancient times.

Ancient characters engraved on the rock

There are not only pictures but also various writing engraved on the stones. It is believed to be languages like Karosti, Sogdian, Aramaic, and more which have been found here.

The center image to me, looked like three fingers with nails, but it may actually be depicting a plant.

This looks like a Buddha statue with Naga in the background, but it also looks like a flame, so there is a theory that it is a fire worship platform.

A person wearing a mask

This is a person wearing a round mask with horns. The person is also wearing a skirt-like outfit which was very interesting.

Many animals were also depicted as well.

The face of a camel

The camels were an essential animal for the travelers in their journey along the Silk Road.

An elephant

Did the Indian elephants come this far up?

It was a small image, but animals like antelope were also engraved.

In Shatiar, various things were engraved in rock paintings; things used by ancient people of that time, the things they saw, and objects they worshiped. Just looking at this timeless rock art made me feel like I travelled back in time and experienced part of the hustle and bustle of daily life on the Silk Road.

Photo & text : Koji YAMADA

Visit : Nov 2021, Shatial, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Category : - the Karakoram Highway > ◆Khyber Pakhtunkhwa > - Indus river bank > ◇ Rock carvings / Petroglyph > ◇ Heritage of Pakistan
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Appreciating the Remaining Rock Art & Lamenting Their Impending Loss (Part 2)

In this installment, the rock art introduced here along the Indus River near Tharpan. From Chilas, driving east on the Karakorum Highway, cross the bridge across the Indus River, and then follow the road called Tharpan Road, is where these rocks are located. Since this area of the river is very wide, the rock paintings remain over such a large area, and the rocks there are huge, so there are various rock paintings that have remained here.

Rock art depicting a pagoda

It only speculation, but it is thought that this was a large gathering place for people to cross the Indus River because the riverbank is so wide. It seems that many kinds of people of different backgrounds, may have gathered here. Since many were Buddhists, there are many rock paintings related to Buddhism, and there are still many large and magnificent pagoda carved with sharp, straight lines which remain.

Tibetan pagodas depicted with flags at the top

Many of the depictions of Buddha were drawn only using lines, and delicate decorations were rarely seen.

A statue holding the beads in his left hand

The rock paintings other than those related to Buddhism were all spectacular and very interesting as well.

A person with something like a balance

This is a person who has something like a balance next to a pagoda. I wonder, is it depicting the laborer who built the pagoda?

Ibex and circles

This painting depicts an ibex and a sun-like circle. According to the archaeologist’s guide, this circle depicts a “circular trap” used for hunting. Perhaps because it was a large gathering area for various ethnic groups, there are still some outstanding statues left in the area.

In the photo below, there is a person wearing a Persian costume.

A person wearing a Persian costume

There were also rock paintings of animals drawn in the Persian style.

Animals drawn in the Persian style

In the designs of Persepolis, it is comment that the eyes of the animals are drawn with large circles.

The Apadana, lion and bull in relief, Persepolis

And below, the art that caught my interest in Tarpan was the image of a person who might be a Parthian.

A person who seems to be a Parthian

The Parthian Empire, which originated since the 3rd century BC, in what is now Turkmenistan and dominated West Asia, was split around 20 AD at the end of its reign. It was split into the Indo-Parthian by King Gondophares. This Indo-Parthian, which was once the capital of Taxila, was also active in the Indus River. Below is a statue of the Parthians in the Tehran Archaeological Museum. The appearance of the person wearing something like a helmet with a brim is common to see in the rock carvings.

A Parthian statue at the Archaeological Museum in Tehran

Once again in this figure, the person holds the hunted animal in the right hand and a sword in the left hand. It is a typical kind of design that was commonly seen for long time in West Asia.

Bronze plate from the Tehran archeological museum

In this photo, a copper plate from the period 1000 BC, was excavated in the Azerbaijan region of the Tehran Archaeological Museum. A person stands in the center, holding up their hunted prey in both hands. It is also the prototype of the work “Renjumon” in which 20 small circles surround a large circle design.

Artifacts from Jiroft in the collection of the Tehran Archaeological Museum

This photo is of an item that is also from the Bronze Age, the Jiroft culture, as seen in the Tehran Archaeological Museum. It is a soapstone vessel. The figure holds up huge scorpions, similarly, in both hands. I was very surprised that such designs and from different era designs are reflected in so many similar ways on the carvings in the rocks, along the Indus River.

The following picture is of the Parthian-carved rock, taken at a distance.

Rock with various carvings, masterpiece of Tharpan

In the lower center area of the photo, depicts the Parthians and the Persian style of drawing the animals are on the left, while the Buddha and four servants are carved to the right of the Parthians.

The Buddha and his four followers

Buddhism was also practiced in Parthian India, which is roughly the same period when these rock paintings were made. The fact that such various ethnic groups, religious icons, and animals all drawn in various styles, on the same rocks, tells us that this Tarpan was a great gathering place for the diverse people passing through. This is proof which embodies the significance of the Silk Road. I just can’t help but be overwhelmed with sorrow, to think that this place will sink to the bottom of the lake once the dam is completed.

 

Photo & text : Koji YAMADA

Visit : Nov 2021, Tharpan, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : - the Karakoram Highway > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Indus river bank > ◇ Rock carvings / Petroglyph > ◇ Heritage of Pakistan
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Appreciating the Remaining Rock Art & Lamenting Their Impending Loss (Part 1) Meandering Along the Karakorum Highway

I will introduce photos of the rock paintings I came across during my November 2021 visit, traveling along the Indus River. This blog will be broken up into several parts to cover the many different things I saw.

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In northern Pakistan, on the banks of the Indus River -from Shatial to Hunza, there are said to be more than 50,000 historic rock paintings that remain. These rock paintings mark the places where travelers crossed the Indus River, as they traveled along the Silk Road. When the Indus River waters were too precarious, travelers were forced to wait on the banks until the water levels fell enough to be able to make a safe crossing. While they waited, these carvings in the rocks were made by the various travelers, pilgrims, and merchants who were from all over. Most of the themes of the pictures relate to Buddhist traditions, but there are various motifs of animals (such as Ibex ,snow leopard) carved perhaps before Buddhism passed through this area. There are various ethnic groups represented based on the written languages as well, such as Kharosthi, Sogdian and Brahmi engraved.

A  bridge crossing over the Indus River

A modern bridge crossing over the Indus RiverWith most of the regular sightseeing tours being lead to Hunza and in this area, due to strict travel restrictions on the times allowed between destinations, you cannot take much time to make stops to see the rock art along the Karakorum Highway, as you could in the past. Last year, I made a research tour in November, taking time to stay in Chilas for a few nights, allowing me time to take leisurely tours of the riverbank to inspect and record the rock art I saw.

I was so shocked that there were so many rock paintings along the Karakorum Highway, places that I had so many times before, usually only passed on the road, without a thought. These photos were taken at Hudur, which is about 20 minutes west of Chilas along the Karakorum Highway.

Rock art of a pagoda with the flags fluttering in the wind

There are many places outside of Hudur where you can see many pagodas depicted in the rock art, probably made during the Kushan Dynasty in the height of Buddhism being spread across many different regions, and the various people who came from all over, as they travelled along the Silk Road.

A person reaching out with both hands, holding objects

A person holding a piece of armor in his left hand and a hunted animal in his right hand. This type of design, in which a person is drawn facing straight forward with the objects held in both hands held high, is one that has long been used in West Asia.In Gichi, just 10 minutes east of Hudur, there were many rock paintings of pagodas. Perhaps this is because many Buddhists stayed there, or because these relics were left untouched in the area.

Rock art of a pagoda that remains in Gichi-1.

In Oshibat, located about 10 minutes further east of Gichi, as soon as you get off the bus, you can see rock art scattered here and there. There were many there, but each one was very interesting and aroused my curiosity.

Rock art with an ibex image on the lower right side

On the lower right side you will clearly see the long-horned Ibex, and then to the left side, perhaps a hunter who is chasing it, looking very dynamic and looks like they are running.

Rock art with handprints and footprints

I’m not sure if it’s out of pure boredom, just waiting for the river water to go down, perhaps it is an old type of graffiti being carved, or perhaps it has a more mystical meaning. It is unclear.

Rock Art depicting what could be a Greek person

Painted with what appears to be a tool of some sort, this figure has a Greek-hairstyle and is painted in a Greek-style.

A figure that seems to be Greek

Drawn with the face in a side profile, the heavily emphasized eyes, the long fluttering hair and the type of wear that is similar to the image of Alexander the Great (in the next image).

A mosaic of Alexander the Great

This mosaic of Alexander the Great (Historical Museum of Sughd, in Khujand, Tajikistan) riding his steed Bucephalas.The next photo is of rock art that is located only 5 minutes by bus from the Shangrila Hotel, where I stayed in Chilas. I have visited this site on general sightseeing tours to Hunza and nearby locations many times before. But when I took more time to look around, I found a very detailed and expertly carved pagoda designs.

Rock art of a pagoda
A very detailed Buddha and pagoda drawn into the rock art near the Indus River

All of this rock art will sadly, be destined to be flooded by a dam, which is going to be completed around 2027. Some rock paintings will be relocated and preserved, but most of the more than 50,000 pieces, will be left behind and submerged by the river. I would like to continue to introduce you to the precious rock art that will be lost in the next installments of this blog.

 

Photo & text : Koji YAMADA

Visit : Nov 2021, Chilas area, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : - the Karakoram Highway > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Indus river bank > ◇ Rock carvings / Petroglyph > ◇ Heritage of Pakistan
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