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How a farmer has been protecting the prehistoric Indus carvings of Domkhar

Boulders with prehistoric carvings of men and beasts at Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary

Boulders with prehistoric carvings of men and beasts at Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary   | Photo Credit: Tania & Sayan Banerjee

Strewn all along the Indus are boulders etched deep with prehistoric carvings. And one man has been protecting them

By the banks of the Indus, 160 kilometres away from Leh, lies Domkhar, a tiny village whose rippling green fields are dotted with the shadows of tall poplars. Along the gushing river are large boulders — some dark and polished, others veined with fissures, and many that bear on their gleaming surface prehistoric carvings of men and beasts.

I am in Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary, established in 2012. I make my way through a deluge of rain and push open the gates under the sanctuary’s welcome board. When I ring the doorbell of the solitary building there, a party of four greets me. And I am drawn into the warmth of a Ladakhi kitchen where we all sit cross-legged on the floor. This is the home of Stanzin Thangjuk, the farmer who has been instrumental in single-handedly protecting these rock carvings.

Thangjuk is away, so his parents and niece play host for me. Over almonds, apricots and steaming butter tea, they tell me that every one of the 500-odd petroglyphs at Domkhar happen to be located within this private property. They lay in obscurity for years, but Thangjuk and his family, recognising their historical value, decided to protect them.

Dry fruits served in an ornate bowl in Thangjuk’s home.

Dry fruits served in an ornate bowl in Thangjuk’s home.   | Photo Credit: Tania & Sayan Banerjee

There are also rock carvings scattered along the 35 km stretch between Domkhar and Khalste village, but many have been damaged by human activity, especially road construction work, they tell me.

When the rain finally stops, we set out to see the inscriptions. The path to the river snakes through apple and apricot plantations. The petroglyphs run all the way down to the river’s shore. It takes a moment or two to accustom my eyes to the shapes chiselled on the dark rock faces. There are line drawings of animals with horns, perhaps mountain goats; there’s one with a scorpion in the midst of a crowd of people; another shows a hunting scene.

Widely scattered

The archaic scripts on these rocks have been discovered to be similar to those found among the nomadic tribes of the steppe region of Central Asia who lived 2,000 years ago. No one has been able to put an exact date to the carvings, but they are believed to be over two millennia old. They also shed some light on the pattern of human movement during that era.

Rocks with prehistoric carvings

Rocks with prehistoric carvings   | Photo Credit: Tania & Sayan Banerjee

Tashi Ldawa Thsangspa, a rock art researcher, has also been involved with petroglyphs preservation for more than 20 years now. He says that purely in terms of antiquity and history, the Dhomkar rock art sanctuary has as much significance as any archaeological monument. The rock art was reported for the first time almost 100 years ago and studied subsequently by many scholars. Many researchers, both Indian and foreign, did a commendable job in researching the rock art of Ladakh, but sadly that did not help in the conservation of the petroglyphs.

Such petroglyphs are found scattered widely across Ladakh: some noteworthy places outside Domkhar are Tangtse, Khaltse, Kharu and Biama. And Thsangspa has been conducting awareness programmes to protect them. “So far we have records of about 400 sites, and some of these are even more spectacular than Domkhar,” he says. Over the years he has approached organisations such as the Archeological Survey of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, INTACH, and the State government, but none of them has come up any concrete steps for conservation.

As we stand watching, the downpour resumes and the Indus roars furiously. We decide that we must call it a day, and retreat once more into the warm shelter of Thangjuk’s kitchen.

The freelance writer gets a kick out of immersive travel and sinful dessert.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 2:18:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-petrogylphs-of-domkhar/article26745546.ece

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