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Rock Paintings

Tibetan rock paintings reflect the historical and cultural traits, the methods of production and the lifestyles of the early Tibetan tribes on the plateau. Hence they provide good information to those wishing to learn about early Tibetan history, religion and cultures.

Rock paintings are mainly distributed in the cliffs, caves and separated rocks of the western and northern regions and plateaus in the middle and upper reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet. They remained undiscovered until the latter part of the 20th Century, and it is estimated that over 5000 such paintings exist in some 60 different locations. Nagri and Nakchu are the two places where there are greater concentrations of the paintings.

Tibet rock paintings, Sera Monastery, Lhasa

Subjects and Motifs of Tibetan Rock Paintings
Tibetan rock paintings have a great profusion of subject matter. The pictures depict animals, humans, plants, trees, weapons, vessels and symbols. Animals are the most popular subjects, and they include yaks, ox, sheep, horses, dogs, wolves, deer, leopards, camels and others. With these single or groups of pictures, the rock paintings express various aspects of Tibetan life, including herding, hunting, fighting, dancing and religious activities.

The religious subjects mainly focus on religious symbols, natural worshiping, sacrifice and sorcerers' ceremonies. Pictures of the Sun and the Moon and swastika are the most common symbols. The objects that they worship may be animals, such as yaks, hawks and deer, trees, the Sun, Moon and genitalia. The majority of these subjects are related to Tibet's indigenous religion, Bon. Later rock paintings also include Buddhist themes. These include Buddhist objects, like adamantine pestle, prayer flags, umbrellas, stupas and symbols such as the swastika, fire, lotus as well as the act of worship and other religious activities. There are also some sculptures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas among the rock paintings that were added in the recent times.

Periods and Genres of Tibetan Rock Paintings
Tibetan rock paintings can generally be divided into three periods: early, medium-term and late. Each period has its own genres and focus relative to content.

The early rock paintings were created around 3,000 years ago. They are merely some symbols of separate animals or human figures without a unified meaning. For example, a dot signifies the head, and the body and four limbs are described as several lines. These pictures are sculptured by thick single lines. The rock paintings discovered in Jialin Mountain of Nyima County, Nakchu and Rutog County, Ngari are representative of these.

Rock paintings, Drepung Monastery, Tibet

The medium-term rock paintings were created between about 3,000 and 2,000 years ago, which was the most productive period for rock paintings. They begin to illustrate large scenes, such as matches between animals, dances and sacrificial ceremonies. The four limbs are made in double lines and are resilient then. Patterns of 'S' or vertical lines also appear in the body of some animals. The pictures were also mainly made by sculpturing, but a painting technique began to be applied. These rock paintings are mainly concentrated in the western regions of Tibet.

The creation of the late rock paintings lasted up until the Tubo Kingdom . Apart from the above subjects, religious symbols and sacrifices are very abundant in these paintings, and aspects of the Buddhist culture also appear. As for the technique, the five sense organs, hands and feet are depicted in detail, and the paintings seem to have momentary and spiritual senses. They take account of both sculpturing and painting techniques, but more of the latter. The cave paintings beside both banks of Namtso Lake , Nakchu are representative of this late period.

Comments and Questions

i was wondering if you knew anything about how there was a development from rock painting to mural painting? as i understand it, much of tibetan art work has a transitory nature- sand mandolas, or can travel due to the nomadic lifestyle of many tibetans. how did these more permanent forms of art work fit into this?


9/12/2011 12:16:00 PM


Asked by anna bruce (United Kingdom)