In addition to excavations and surveys, the members of the MAFIL pursue other researches on the archaeology, arts and history of Ladakh, mainly on the rock art and the steles and Buddhist bas-reliefs but also on the former Buddhist monuments (temples and ruined stūpas), pottery and lithic industry.
The existence of petroglyphs in Ladakh has been known since the 1880s. Their importance for ancient history was acknowledged since then, but rock images of anthropomorphs, zoomorphs, signs as well as rock inscriptions were only sporadically documented and published until the 1990s.
In 1996, Martin Vernier initiated a systematic documentation of rock art in Ladakh and recorded about 10,000 petroglyphs in Central Ladakh as well as in the Markha valley and Zanskar. A summary of his decade of investigations was published in 2007 in form of a catalogue, in which one finds for the first time a list of rock art locations (106 in total), along a thematic classification of petroglyphs.
In 2007, Martin Vernier joined forces with Laurianne Bruneau. Since then they have explored further areas such as the Nubra and Dah-hanu valleys. To date, the number of petroglyphs documented is about 20,000 scattered over 158 locations (91 systematically documented and 67 surveyed only). Among these achievements is the completion, in 2011, of the systematic documentation of the site of Murgi Tokpo in the Nubra valley, the largest rock art site known to this day in Ladakh, consisting of about 3,000 petroglyphs (read the preliminary publication).
Each petroglyph has been individually photographed, measured and recorded, as well as copied on transparent plastic sheets for the most significant ones. A detailed recording and mapping of each rock art site has also been carried out. This extensive data has been registered in a database. It is our aim to make it available online for the benefit of other scholars.
For a complete historiography of rock art documentation and publication
Studies and Publications
Vernier and Bruneau have already published, either jointly or independently, several specific studies dealing with historical and stylistic aspects of petroglyphs : see the list of publications
Laurianne has conducted a comprehensive analysis of the petroglyphs of Ladakh for her Phd (defended in 2010) including a study of the sites and typological study of the images, in the process of publication.
Awareness and preservation
Rock art, that is to say petroglyphs and stone sculptures, is the most valuable material to reconstruct the ancient history of Ladakh. However since the 1980s it disappears at a faster rate than ever before, there is an urgent need for action!
In recent years, numerous rock art sites have been destroyed totally or in part. The recent economic development of the region has led to the building of innumerable new roads and infrastructures. These are often built at the location of rock art sites: virgin rocks or those bearing images are smashed equally to be used as building material! For instance, at Hundar (Nubra), a Buddhist stone sculpture was destroyed 30 years ago for the construction of a power house, and a nearby sculpture is now facing a similar threat. At Basgo, petroglyphs are under water since the impounding of the Alchi dam at the end of 2012.
Another major threat is the shifting from traditional mud brick architecture to stone buildings. Let us take for example the site of Zamthang (Zanskar), where petroglyph boulders bearing millennia-old inscriptions and engravings were used to build a learning centre: see our article on the subject.
Another example is Alchi, one of the first rock art site discovered by Western explorers: it is being broken to pieces, year after year, to build nearby guesthouses.
Vandalism, that is to say graffiti or paintings drawn onto the petroglyphs, by locals and tourists, and also at times the cutting and moving of carvings, as in Taru and Khaltse, are additional threats.
Flyers in English, Ladakhi and Hindi were created (in cooperation with INTACH Leh chapter) for free distribution to persons potentially concerned with rock art (contractors, villagers living nearby a rock art site, schools, monasteries). Workshops were organized in 2012 and 2014 in Leh (in cooperation with INTACH Leh chapter). Other actions are planned in the future in cooperation with local representatives and institutions.
Rock art is a common heritage. Everyone shall be concerned with its preservation: villagers, competent authorities and tourists. Nowadays there is a lack of information about the historical value of rock art in Ladakh that is why the MAFIL is taking several initiatives to raise public awareness. Aside from publications, information panels were created. Flyers in English, Hindi and Ladakhi were created (in cooperation with INTACH Leh chapter) for free distribution to persons potentially concerned with rock art (contractors, villagers living nearby a rock art site, schools, monasteries). Workshops were organized in 2012 and 2014 in Leh (in cooperation with INTACH Leh chapter). Other actions are planned in the future in cooperation with local representatives and institutions.
Buddhist Stone Sculpture
Ladakh differs from other Tibetan cultural areas by a long lasting tradition of stone carving. Buddhist stone sculptures, including monumental reliefs, were already noticed by travelers in the region at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Although they are without doubt one of the main sources for the understanding of early Buddhism, both from a historical and religious perspective, they have been the object of scant research.
About 30 stone sculptures, either in the form of relief or stele, have been published so far. To date, the most detailed work on the subject is that of Phuntsog Dorjay (who defended his Phd on the development of Buddhist Art in Ladakh from c. 800 to 1200 A.D. at the University of Jammu in 2006). More recently, previously unknown Buddhist stone sculptures were published by NIRLAC in Legacy of a Mountain People – Inventory of Cultural Resources of Ladakh (2008).
Martin Vernier initiated an inventory of the Buddhist stone sculptures of Ladakh in 2003, still under way.
To date (Spring 2016), 210 Buddhist Stone Sculptures have been inventoried, all over Ladakh and only a few sides valleys remain unexplored.
For each stele or bas-relief, the documentation consists in: a descriptive form (size, subject, attributes, state of preservation, etc…), photographs, and sometimes drawings as well as a plan. When existing, local information (local name, cult, etc…) linked to the pieces has been recorded.
This inventory aims at :
- allowing a better preservation of this heritage. If some Buddhist stone sculptures are still subject to popular worship, some others are in great danger of destruction.
- making available a coherent set of data to other scholars for multidisciplinary analyses.
The publication of the inventory in form of a catalogue is under process by Martin Vernier.
It will encompass all data relative to the location, technology (for example size and depth of the sculpture), iconography (for example identification of the deity, its attributes and attitudes) and style (for example garments and jewels). Previous documentation (publications, archives) for each piece, when available, will also be included. The publication will include spatial, functional, stylistic and chronological analyses of the Buddhist stone sculptures.
Hopefully this publication will ensure the durability of the artworks and enable to discuss their conservation with the local religious and non-religious authorities and institutions dealing with the preservation of Ladakhi heritage.
According to written sources, the earliest dated Buddhist monument in Ladakh is the temple of Nyarma founded by Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055). Its ruins did not receive much attention: until recently only monuments with preserved paintings and sculptures were the focus of detailed studies by architects and art historians. However, numerous ruined temples and stūpas are scattered all over Ladakh and may be key witnesses for the early history of Buddhism in the region.
To date, 40 ruined temples were documented by Martin Vernier all over Ladakh. Even if their art is long gone, the study of their remains (plan, location, archaeological surroundings, etc…) brings valuable information about early Buddhist architecture. Their dilapidated state offers a privileged insight into their internal structures and techniques of construction, the study of which is otherwise impossible in preserved temples.
Similar documentation was initiated for ruined stūpas. Our focus is the morphology, techniques of construction and archaeological surroundings of the stūpas. Several ancient painted stūpas, so far unnoticed, were also documented during fieldwork and published.Lien
MAFIL wishes to make its documentation available to other researchers for further iconographic and stylistic studies
Stūpas are also privileged structures for a cross-study with rock art. Indeed, ancient engravings of stūpas are found at several rock art sites in Ladakh. Laurianne Bruneau studies these images from a morphological point of view, establishing a typology of engraved depictions. Her current research involves a comparative study with stūpas engraved in surrounding regions (Gilgit-Baltistan and Rutog) and actual architectural remains in Ladakh.