Across Pakistan, Majestic Stupa Images In Rock Art Point To A Flourishing Buddhist Past

Across Pakistan, Majestic Stupa Images In Rock Art Point To A Flourishing Buddhist Past
Pakistan is home to a large number of rock art sites. These sites are located in different regions of the country. The largest rock art concentration is located along the Indus and its tributaries in Gilgit-Baltistan, which were documented by both Pakistani and German scholars. Professor Ahmad Hassan Dani (d.2009) was the first Pakistani scholar who systematically documented and wrote two books and several research papers on the rock art of Gilgit-Baltistan. It was he who laid the foundation of rock art studies in Pakistan. Later, Muhammad Nasim Khan also documented and studied rock art in Gilgit-Baltistan and the Gandhara region. Based on his survey and documentation he wrote books and several articles.

Stupa images from Chilas

While traveling in Gilgit-Baltistan, one comes across many rock art sites along the Indus which bear representations of the Buddhist stupas. From Shatial to Alam bridge are found engraved boulders which contain stupa images. The most impressive stupa engravings are found from Shatial in upper Kohistan district to Chilas Thalpan, and Shing Nala in Diamer district. The majority of stupa carvings are located in and around Chilas and Thalpan areas in the Diamer district. Similar impressive stupa petroglyphs can also be seen in the Hodur rock art site in the Diamer district. According to Harald Hauptmann (d. 2018), a German archaeologist and expert on the Gilgit-Baltistan petroglyphs, there are about 3,000 images of stupas at various rock art sites of Chilas, Thalpan, Hodur, etc.
Some stupa engravings were also reported from Gutomus in Gakuch in Ghizer district by Karl Jettmar and K.Sagaster (1993).

Stupa engravings are also found at various rock art sites in KP, but the most stunning is located at Shatial in Upper Kohistan district, and the painted images of stupas from rock shelters of Swat and Buner, which were studied by Italian archaeologist Luca Maria Olivieri and other Pakistani archaeologists. Apart from Gilgit-Baltistan, KP and Sindh, I have also documented many stupa engravings in the Khuzdar district in Balochistan.

The stupa has many variants. Engravings in Gilgit-Baltistan can be classified into the domed stupa and tower-like-stupa. The predominant visual element of a domed stupa is, as the name suggests, of course, the dome. In fact, domed-stupa engravings in Gilgit-Baltistan contain all the classic features, like the stairway(sopana), platform (vedika), dome (anda or grabha) and harmika (parasol). A few stupa engravings also include lion pillars: the best specimen is seen at Shing Nala and Thalpan rock art sites in the Diamer district.

The other form of a stupa is a multilayered, tower-like structure. Representations of both types of stupas, the domed and tower-like, are located in many rock art sites of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, the most impressive carvings of domed stupas are situated at the Chilas I and II rock art sites. Some depictions can also be seen in the Thalpan rock art site. One also finds painted domed stupas at Chaghdo in Baltistan. There are painted stupas at Chaghdo. All three stupas have domes as a prominent feature. However, these stupas do not contain the stairways (sopana) as one finds in other petroglyphs in Chilas. Baltistan stupas contain spire which is inseparably connected with harmika. It directly rises from the dome of the stupas.
The stupa has many variants. Engravings in Gilgit-Baltistan can be classified into the domed-stupa and tower-like-stupa

A stupa image in Gaj valley, Sindh

At Chilas and Thalpan, one finds very beautiful tower-like stupas. Apart from Gilgit-Baltistan, one also finds the engravings of stupas in other parts of Pakistan, especially Sindh. In fact, Sindh is the second largest rock art region after Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. In Sindh, I have documented a large number of petroglyphs in the Khirthar mountain range where there are impressive stupas images that are engraved on the walls of caves, rock shelters and boulders. Both forms of stupas can be seen at various rock art sites in Sindh. However, the domed stupas are impressively carved at many places in the Mol, Baran, Nali, Gaj, Makhi, Mazarani and Buri valleys in Sindh. If one compares the domed stupas of both Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan, there are some similar images found at both places. In Thalpan II, there are some images of domed stupas. I have seen a similar style of stupas in the Khirthar mountains of Sindh – which might be of the same period. This may be reflective of the influence from the south. Traders, merchants and travelers who followed the Indus route to reach the Silk Road also visited either the sanctuaries or bazaars in Gilgit and Chilas etc., which might have introduced this style in Chilas and beyond. In Sindh, the domed stupa is surmounted by harmika. Interestingly, in Sindh’s petroglyphs, one moreover finds depictions of the cross-form vajra, also called karma-vajra, which represents twelve heavens in Buddhist traditions. These symbols are always engraved close to domed stupas in Sindh’s petroglyphs.
The majority of stupa engravings in Gilgit-Baltistan are inscribed - while those in Balochistan, KP and Sindh are mostly not inscribed

Stupa ensemble at Chilas

Like Gilgit-Baltistan, there is also a variety of styles in the tower like-stupas of Sindh. Tower-like stupas of Sindh are further classified into small and large ones. A small stupa is just a one- or two-storey structure (with a dome or without a dome), while a large stupa is a multi-tiered building (either with or without a dome). The stupa images provide telling information about the form of those that existed in Pre-Islamic Sindh. The multi-tiered stupas of Sindh can be classified into two types: 1) a type of stupa that has a dome with topping and 2) a form of the stupa that is without a dome but has a topping. Both types of stupas are only found in Gaj, Makhi and other valleys in the Khirthar mountain range. The first form of the stupa is earlier than the latter forms, found in the Gaj valley.

Stupa engraving at Shaho Kumb in Seeta valley, Sindh

Representations of multi-tiered stupas are mainly seen on the ancient route that connects Gaj with Makhi and Khurbi valleys. On this ancient route are located many archaeological remains and rock-art sites. I have discussed various forms of stupa engravings in Sindh in my research paper “Buddhist Traditions in the rock art of Sindh, Pakistan” which was published in the Journal of Asian Civilizations (2013) and later was reproduced in my book Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh (2018) published by the Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh (EFT).

A stupa image at Chiti in Nali valley, Sindh

In Baluchistan, a majority of stupa engravings are found in the Khuzdar district. I have seen some beautiful stupa engravings at Malango in the Jamoro area, the Zidi area and Goroo and Khori in Khuzdar district.

The majority of stupa engravings in Gilgit-Baltistan are inscribed - while those in Balochistan, KP and Sindh are mostly not inscribed. In Sindh, there are only a few rock art sites where one finds inscribed stupa images. The tradition of engravings stupa images on rocks started in the 1st century AD and continued up to the 9th century in different regions. It has left us with some striking imagery, indeed.


The author is an anthropologist. He tweets as @Kalhorozulfiqar. Excerpts have been taken from the author’s book The Rock Art of Karachi published in 2020. All photos are by the author

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar