Rock art gone wild

While surveying for wildlife in Spiti, our researcher came across his study species in the most unexpected forms—as impressions on the valley’s ancient rocks and boulders, leading him to speculate about the people and wildlife that inhabited these parts several thousand years ago.

Several hours had passed while surveying for Snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and its primary prey, Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) and Asiatic ibex (Capra sibirica), in a remote valley of the high-altitude Spiti basin in Himachal Pradesh. Since morning, all I had seen was the wind-swept cold-desert landscape peppered with silent, dead rocks and boulders, now being baked in the searing mid-day sun. And the last thing I expected was to find my study species nowhere else, but on the rocks.

Our early ancestors used to paint (pictograph) and carve (petroglyph) on rock surfaces—a practice collectively known as rock art. Painting and carving on rocks were their primary mode of social communication since ca. 30,000 years ago, just how we, in the 21st century, use books, photographs, internet and social media to communicate with each other. Each depiction on rock surface tells a story, as any photograph we share today on our phones and tablets. Rock art has attracted and interested archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists. But, can it be insightful to wildlife enthusiasts and professionals?

Impressions of Bharal on the rock. Note the broad-based horns bending outward from the head.

Impressions of Bharal on the rock. Note the broad-based horns bending outward from the head.

Prehistoric art

While gasping along the steep survey trail in the thin air of Spiti, I was transfixed by something unusual on a rock right beside the road. What I saw on a closer look made me wonder whether the altitude was taking a toll on my senses. I could readily recognise engravings of the Bharal, with its huge broad-based horns bending outwards, and the Ibex, with horns sweeping backwards. Was I hallucinating Bharals and ibex now? Then, on the same rock, I saw motifs of humans, a figure of a horse, a regular swastika and the reverse, an impression, possibly of the sun, and many symbols that I had no clue about. Another rock, very nearby, had engravings of a hunter on foot, with bow and arrow, shooting at a bharal. The trajectory of the arrow was depicted by a series of small successive depressions on the rock surface. I realised that I had stumbled upon a rock art site in the middle of nowhere.

Over the next few weeks, I learnt about the rock art sites in Spiti discovered this far, explored a few of these with some of my friends, and went through some key literature on rock art in Spiti and adjoining western Tibet and Ladakh. Apparently, the rock engravings here embody a signature style from the Bronze Age (ca. 3000 B.C. to ca. 1200 B.C.) or even earlier, to the pre-Buddhism (Bon period) and Buddhist era (post-7th/10th century A.D.). What astonished me most was the overwhelming representation of wildlife and natural subjects in the rock art of Spiti. Similar art found in Ladakh and western Tibet also bear a very large share of wildlife depictions. What could it signify?

Insights from the art

Wildlife seems to be an important component of the culture of these ancient settlers; these people were possibly nomadic or semi-nomadic, accustomed to moving with their herds of yak, sheep and goat through high-altitude pastures. Wild ungulates, such as Bharal and ibex, may have been their primary source of food and perhaps the most commonly seen animals in the landscape. Even today, the Bharal continues to be the most widespread and abundant large herbivore species in the valley. Comparatively, there are fewer representations of ibex; perhaps, implying that it was less common or more difficult to see than the Bharal, or that its occurrence was restricted. Today, the ibex occurs patchily in the Spiti Valley. Again, the significance of these animals could be entirely symbolic, religious or spiritual. The Spitian people continue to offer horns of Bharal and Ibex to their village deities and monasteries.

Apart from Bharal and Ibex, I found sporadic representation of certain wildlife. The most charismatic of them was the prime predator in the landscape, the Snow leopard. The innumerable depressions on the body surface representing the rosettes of the leopard and the long tail almost the size of the body with an upturned tip were unmistakable. Rare representation of the cat might indicate Snow leopards were rare back then, possibly very few people had seen a Snow leopard close and well enough to carve out a recognisable figure.

Ibex on the rock.Note the horns moving straight up and backward from the head

Ibex on the rock.Note the horns moving straight up and backward from the head

In Ladakh and Tibet, Snow leopard representations have been very scarce as well, and only a few among them depict a Snow leopard chasing a herd of wild prey. There were also representations of fox figures, unmistakable because of their characteristic short limbs and thick-bushy tail. In current times, Red foxes are commonly seen in almost the entire Spiti Valley, especially near villages and towns. As commensals, they show considerable dependence on human-origin food sources, particularly during the long winters, when naturally available food becomes scarce due to heavy snowfall. Foxes were possibly common back then as well but not as widely represented as the bharal. It could be that Red foxes were not as common as they are today. This will not be surprising considering human settlements back then were far less frequent and also possibly small. They may have supported only a small population of Red foxes in the vicinity of the settlements. Gradually, as settlements turned into villages, and villages grew in size adding to the human subsidies, Red fox population also flourished in the valley.

Bharal or blue sheep in their typical habitat in the valley.

Bharal or blue sheep in their typical habitat in the valley.

I also found engravings of the Bactrian camel, though very scarce. Wild and domesticated Bactrian camel are known to occur further north in Ladakh and Central Asia; they have not been reported in and around Spiti. Perhaps the rock artists had seen Bactrian camel elsewhere or in a caravan passing through Spiti, and engraved it on rocks out of fascination. This, along with existing oral and documented historical records may very likely attest to the fact that the Spiti Valley was commercially connected with Central Asia during historic time periods.

Representations of small mammals, birds and a few specific large mammals have so far not been found in rock art of Spiti. This alone in no way should be interpreted as the animal groups being absent from the valley. Birds, especially birds of prey, such as eagle, hawk, falcon and vulture have had prominent symbolic and spiritual role in Buddhism. Along with these, the mythical horned-eagle (khyung) have been represented extensively in the rock arts of Ladakh and Tibet. Why such birds do not appear in Spiti remains a mystery.

The apparent absence of animals representing the Tibetan and Ladakh assemblage, such as Argali (Ovis ammon hodgsonii), Ladakh urial (Ovis vignei), Kiang (Equus kiang) and Tibetan gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) is understandable as these animals were indeed not found in the Spiti Valley in historic times. This can be speculated with fair bit of confidence as the Spiti Valley is separated from Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau by a high and rugged mountain range that acts as a potential bio-geographic barrier. It is most likely that this has prevented the large herbivore assemblage of Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau from colonising and establishing populations in Spiti owing to their affinity towards high altitude gentle-rolling plateaus and plains as against rugged mountainous tracts.

On the trail for ancient rock art in Spiti, known to be one of the least populated regions in India and the gateway to the northernmost reaches of the nation.

On the trail for ancient rock art in Spiti, known to be one of the least populated regions in India and the gateway to the northernmost reaches of the nation.

A Research Complement

Context behind the naturalistic depictions in rock art and wildlife studies differ fundamentally, the former being largely social, cultural and spiritual, while the latter, primarily, ecology and conservation oriented. However, rock art offers considerable academic incentive for wildlife enthusiasts and experts, as the two fields are complementary, representing different types of information. Rock art can serve as an important perspective to trace natural history of a landscape or ecosystem across several centuries and even millennia, keeping biogeography and indigenous knowledge in consideration. It may facilitate understanding the role of wildlife with respect to historical climatic, socioeconomic, religious, cultural, spiritual and mythological contexts. Knowledge of role and importance of wildlife (especially species of conservation importance) can then be used to design appropriate context specific awareness programmes to motivate and sensitise current generations of local communities for wildlife as well as rock art conservation. Integrating ecology and wildlife conservation with archaeological and indigenous knowledge bases holds tremendous potential to inform current status and conservation scenario of contemporary wildlife and ecosystems. From now on, wherever possible, I hope to pay equal attention to impressions of natural history on the rocks as well as the conventional aspects of the subject.

Acknowledgement: The article is the result of the sheer happenstance of encountering rock arts in Spiti. I sincerely thank Michael Dowad, Karanbir Singh Bedi and Mayank Kohli for the insightful discussions. I am indebted to the people of Spiti.


This article was originally published in Jan 2015 issue of SAEVUS Magazine

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About the Author /

A research scholar working in the field of wildlife science, Abhishek is especially interested in addressing ecological and conservation issues pertaining to the Snow leopard and its habitat in the Indian Greater Himalayas and the Trans-Himalayas. He is associated with Nature Conservation Foundation and Wildlife Institute of India.

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