On 6 April, Xinhua reported that construction workers building a highway at a junction in Zhag’yab County, Chamdo Prefecture, noticed Buddhist carvings etched on cliffs, located 8 kilometers north of Azixiang township, near the banks of the Leibuqu River. The accidental discovery made while mining for stones in Tibet Autonomous Region may help to shed light on some of the most mysterious and uncertain periods of the Tibetan Empire (7th to 9th centuries CE).
The regional cultural relics protection research institute said that these carvings, could be dated to the ninth century, the time of the twilight of the Tibetan Empire (known as Bod in Tibetan and referred to as Tubo in medieval Tang and modern Chinese sources).
The carvings depict serene, smiling figures with tall diadems in the Indo-Tibetan style, long robes, and what seem to be nimbuses or halos. It is unclear whether they depict royal or aristocratic donors, bodhisattvas in princely garb, or some other religious motif. The Chamdo Prefecture Cultural Relics Bureau has prioritized the protection of these precious finds, requesting the contractor to stop mining the stones from the 10 meter high cliff face, for the meantime.
“The discovery of these cliff carvings could help us to make cultural connections between the northern and southern regions,” said Xiage Wangdui, an archeologist with the Tibet Autonomous Region Heritage Protection and Research Institute. (Xinhua) The presence of these carvings could imply that the reach of the Tibetan Empire may have been wider than originally thought, stretching well across Qinghai and the Tibetan Plateau. Xiage Wangdui noted that these carvings were valuable first-hand sources for the study of Buddhist culture and art in the imperial period, and they might give insight in how transportation might have functioned during that time.
The ninth century heralded the fragmentation of a centralized Tibetan empire and the end of Buddhism’s First Diffusion in the Himalayas. According to popular Tibetan historiography, Trisuk Detsen or Ralpacan (815-836), the third of the so-called Dharma Kings (chösgyal), was murdered by courtiers resentful of his excessive support for Buddhist monasteries, which was draining the imperial treasury. His successor, Langdarma (c. 799-841), was apparently assassinated by a Buddhist mystic.
Following the civil war that engulfed Central Tibet and displaced many members of the Yarlung imperial family and noble families of the region, the Bod or Tubo empire split into warring principalities and would not find a cohesive identity until the rise of the rival sectarian schools of the Second Diffusion of Buddhism during the 10th to 12th century. Different schools, often through external patronage—for example the Sakya school’s symbiosis with the Yuan Dynasty— continued to vie for varying degrees of regional control until Qing annexation in 1720.
Over 5,000 statues and cliff carvings of Buddhist deities or divine protectors of the Dharma have been found in Tibet, to date. Some date back to as early as the 7th century, the very beginning of the First Diffusion.
Cliff Stone Carvings from the Tubo Period Discovered in Chamdo, Tibet (Xinhua) (Chinese only)
Awe-inspiring Stone Cliff Carvings from the Tubo Period in Tibet (chinatimes.cn) (Chinese only)
1,200-year-old Buddha cliff carvings found in Tibet (Xinhua)
New cliff carvings discovered in eastern Tibet; give glimpse into ancient Buddhist art (DNA)