A postman from Ladakh’s Zanskar region shares his fascination with its ancient treasure – petroglyphs dating back thousands of years
Story by: Tenzin Choejor
My job as a postman takes me from village to village in the mountainous Lungnak Valley of Zanskar. It gives me the freedom to roam about, connect with my community and explore my fascination for petroglyphs – ancient stones carved with inscriptions, dating as far back as the Bronze Age!
Zanskar derives its name from the ancient Tibetan language, literally meaning ‘related to copper’. Located on the shores of the mighty Zanskar River, it is only accessible by road in summer, after an 18-hour journey from Leh, with an overnight stop in Kargil! Enroute lie the Penzi La Pass at 14,436 feet, and the magnificent Drang Drung Glacier.
It won’t be wrong to say that Zanskar – with its beautiful rivers, streams, untouched mountains and marmots – is one of the least explored places on earth. Perhaps that’s why it still holds many secrets behind the evolution of humans.
Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated with the history of mankind. The fossils and petroglyphs in my area have only escalated my curiosity. On the trekking route from my village Purne, petroglyphs can be found on the path and arranged at the entrance of each village. We consider these stones sacred. We believe they keep the evil energy away us.
Many petroglyphs tell a story. Some are engraved with local animal figures – ibex, yak, blue sheep, horse and deer – or scenes of hunting and horse riding. Some have been carved by travellers of yore, with different symbols, in different languages, depicting different religions.
Near the hamlet of Zamthang in Zanskar, the petroglyphs carry Tibetan inscriptions. One of them reads dge ouar bcu nang la ci? Perhaps referring to the first of the ten Buddhist principles: One should not kill any living being. Through petroglyphs, I’ve also developed a gradual interest in ancient Tibetan to understand these scriptures.
Even though the petroglyphs have survived centuries of wind and water erosion, they are not formally preserved as heritage sites. Many have already been lost to negligence or ignorance. Some have been buried due to road construction. Some are being used for advertisements!
Tourism has slowly spread awareness about the hamlet of Zamthang and its Tibetan-inscribed petroglyphs. Some individuals and NGOs have initiated research and awareness campaigns too, to preserve this important part of human history.
Infact, it is said that this entire region was below the sea, millions of years ago. I learnt from a visitor that the unusual rock formations are evidence of the same. Ever since, I’ve been trying to find dissimilarities in the rock formations and communicate with him to understand the subject better. But to find an internet connection to interact with the outside world, I must walk for hours or ride a horse to reach the nearest road point to get a taxi for Padum, the small capital city of Zanskar!
If the rock formations really reflect millions of years of history, then Zanskar is truly a living museum of the natural history of humans. As I distribute letters across the valley, I always wonder what else I’ll discover along the way.