Drawn and Written in Stone

An inventory of stepped structures and inscriptions on rock surfaces in Upper Tibet (ca. 100 BCE to 1400 CE)

John Vincent Bellezza

Bar International Series 2995/2020 BAR Publishing

Pp. 311 soft bound

John Vincent Bellezza is a famous archaeologist and historian specialized in the pre-Buddhist heritage of Tibet and author of many books and numerous articles on the ancient history of the Tibetan plateau. This literary work does not emerge from cold intellectual research based on literary documentation found in libraries, but from a research done in situ with the assistance of local people over a period of eighteen years (1995-2013) during twenty different fieldwork expeditions. This new book explores ancient markings on cliffs, caves and boulders that describe the religious history of the highest reaches of the Tibetan plateau through rock inscriptions and rock art entrances, witnessing the early religious tradition of Buddhism and Yungdrung Bon.

The book is a joy for the eyes with its hundreds of photographs of stepped structures and inscriptions and enriched with numerous drawings as well as many illustrations of small copper-alloy objects or thog-lcags. The famous Tibetan author and visionary, Orgyen Lingpa, referred to the “four portals of virtuous royal practices”: the first guarding royal tombs, the second residing in castles, the third establishing temples and raising stelae with edicts, and the fourth elevating the practice of inscribing stone surfaces. Following these instructions the creation of rock inscriptions was a natural outgrowth of those cultural activities during the Imperial period in Tibet. 

The current state of Tibetan epigraphy is highly increased by this work which furnishes a comprehensive survey of stepped structures, chorten and rock inscriptions carved or painted in Upper Tibet.

The work is based on two major bodies of material evidence: rock art and rock inscriptions. The rock art and inscriptions of Upper Tibet are records of religious activities from the Protohistoric period (ca. 100 BCE to 600 CE), the Early Historic period (ca. 600-1000 CE) and the Vestigial period (ca. 1000-1400 CE).

There are many kinds of petroglyphs and pictographs with representational and symbolic imagery in Upper Tibet. They provide a rich complement of information on the cultural, social and religious background beginning in the late Bronze Age and reveal the architectural and religious character of the region. 

Stepped structures consist of two major types of monuments: elementary shrines or tabernacles and their main counterparts in Buddhism and Yungdrung Bon, known as chorten in Tibetan and stupa in Sanskrit. The bulk of rock inscriptions in Upper Tibet are religious in character and mostly comprised of mantras.

The book starts with a general introduction explaining the method and perspective followed by the author. The first part of the book composed of five chapters gives a complete overview of stepped structures in the rock art of Upper Tibet. 

In the first chapter there is a short overview describing site names, country location, types of rock art, sites and criteria adopted with a classification by historical period.

The second chapter describes the origins of stepped structures in Upper Tibet in literary and ethnographic records. Among them we find beautiful color illustrations with detailed descriptions of famous copper alloy talismans (tog-lchags) as well as stone artefacts. 

The third chapter is highly interesting from the artistic point of view with its presentation of black and white drawings of 232 stepped structures. The structures illustrated are organized into twenty typological groupings based on their forms beginning with the simplest type, progressing to more complex examples, and culminating in non-Buddhist and Buddhist chorten of considerable intricacy. A beautiful inventory of the typological illustrations is presented here drawn by Rebecca Bellezza and other artists with particular delicacy and beautiful drawings. 

The fourth chapter talks about the cross-cultural influences of the stepped structure rock art of Upper Tibet and the north-western territories and its dissemination and transfer of cultural implication to contiguous countries such as Spiti, Ladakh, and northern Pakistan. 

Chorten rock art in Spiti consists of simple styles with rock inscriptions dating back to the Early Historic period. Also in Ladakh elementary stepped structures and chorten are composed mostly of petroglyphs, with various types of stepped structures that are unique to Ladakh. The epigraphic status of Ladakh is different to that of Upper Tibet with inscriptions in Kharostthi, Brahmi and Sarada, many of which are accompanied by chorten. As in Ladakh, there is a huge amount of rock art in the northern areas of Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan) including a great many stupas. This chapter is also enriched with many black and white drawings describing visually this type of simple but attractive art.

The first part of the book closes with the fifth chapter consisting of a beautiful photographic catalog of stepped structures with more than 220 close-ups in color. This is the heart of the book and represents an important contribution from the documentary point of view. 

The second part starting with chapter six presents a comprehensive survey of early rock inscriptions in Upper Tibet. It introduces and describes the ancient rock inscriptions of Upper Tibet and analyzes their cultural and historical significance. Those inscriptions, written in Tibetan or a “Tibetanized” form of Sanskrit, provide a tool for a better understanding of the religious complexion of the western Tibetan plateau. The chapter ends with a useful list of locations of sites with rock inscriptions.

Chapter seven recounts the history of Upper Tibet rock inscriptions describing the variable development of epigraphy on the western Tibetan plateau. The oldest rock inscriptions in Upper Tibet were written in old Tibetan and these epigraphs significantly increase the relatively small body of extant literature composed in that language. They also give a fuller understanding of its grammatical development by taking a place between the written and oral language. 

In chapter eight there is a palaeographic analysis with palaeographic methods of dating and typology of Upper Tibet rock inscriptions. Old Tibetan of the early historic period was written in non-cursive block letters, known as dbu-can (letters with heads). There were several types of dbu-can script (yig-gzugs) in use in the Imperial period and Post-Imperial period, which were inscribed on various types of writing surfaces. 

Beautiful pictures show the palaeographic typology of the Early Historic period and the Vestigial period and describe the physical qualities of rock inscriptions like the type of calligraphy, the lineaments of the letters, and the orthography of the inscriptions. The palaeographic tradition in the rock inscriptions of Upper Tibet quite commonly include head marks in mostly standard calligraphic form.

In the ninth chapter a brief analysis from the statistical point of view has been done explaining the doctrinal significance of the mantras and rituals in Buddhism and Bon. 

The tenth chapter, the most attractive and richest part of the book, offers a beautiful photographic catalog and readings of Upper Tibetan rock inscriptions with 525 examples, depicted in 394 color photographs. Each engraving or painting generally includes a photo with caption, a reading of the inscription in Tibetan, the type of Tibetan script used, grammatical marks, and English translations. 

The book ends with a complete and exhaustive bibliography particularly useful for scholars and all those interested in discovering the ancient history of Tibet. Reading this book gives the impression of walking with J. V. Bellezza through the mountain passes of the Tibetan plateau, discovering together with him, although in a virtual way, the beauty of archaic monuments and rock art of a relatively unknown and fascinating country. 

Giorgio Dallorto

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