Protect petroglyphs under threat: save the pre-historic footprints in Mustang

, Nepal
11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities

The 2018 UNESCO-Department of Archaeology fact-finding mission assessed the situation of petroglyphs at Ekleybhatti, Chhusang and Samar in Mustang. Several of these artifacts are at high risk of disappearing quickly with most already showing decades’ long weathering scars. Exposed to natural and human-made hazards and extremely vulnerable due to their fragile geolocation, they represent pre-historic human activity in the region and signify various meanings.

In Ekleybhatti (GPS 28.822, 83.776), along the riverbank of the Kali Gandaki, lies the largest petroglyph rock panel, near the old settlement of Kak Nyingba, which is now in ruins. It has disintegrated in parts both from the river current and harsh climatic conditions that occasionally cover it with sand and pebbles, as well as human activities. The efforts to protect them will require huge resources and specialists on embankment protection, stone conservation, and more. 

In the south-west of Chhusang Village (GPS 28.909, 83.809), in Lhi Rhi cave-cliff across the Kali Gandaki River, lies another large petroglyph rock panel on the northern edge of the approximately 500 metre high cliff. It stands on a steep slope of mixed loose landmass of sand and pebbles. As more than half of the panel is protruding from the cliff edge, it stands a high risk of falling at any time. Similarly, in Samar (GPS 28.952, 83.810), a number of scattered petroglyph panels lie over a large area of a hilly terrain, a few kilometers down from the settlement. They are prone to landslide damage due to subsidence of the area’s landmass from the surrounding cliffs to the west and south.

A UNESCO-Department of Archaeology joint documentation team worked for a week in these areas in November 2019. The team mapped the sites and scientifically documented the petroglyphs. They also met with members of the community, village mukhiyas (chiefs) and the mayor of the rural municipality to raise awareness of the urgent need to safeguard them.  The team is now working to produce a one-minute video to raise national and global attention to the need to protect these unique, ancient art scripts and prevent their irreversible loss.

Meetings with stakeholders held at Samar and Kagbeni revealed that the local communities were mostly unaware of the importance of the petroglyphs, and while some had seen the marks on the stones, they had not fully understood their value. They said, “Now we know the significance of the marks, since you have explained it.”

Some members of the local community, particularly the elderly, value the petroglyphs as the symbol of Guru Ringpoche’s visit to the area. Tenzing Gurung (64), from Samar, requested UNESCO, the Government and NGOs to help protect them, saying “This is the stone where Guru Ringpoche had meditated on and left his footprints, and we revere it, offering incense and khada, a ritual scarf.” He also expressed the community’s desire to help protect the petroglyphs, and suggested putting a roof cover over them to prevent further disintegration from the sun and rain.

The Mayor of the Barhagau Muktikshetra Rural Municipality, Phenchok Tsepten Gurung (Dara Gurung), expressed the need to take the initiative to protect them. He said, “Two years ago people were indifferent, but now the awareness has improved. We have started talking about preserving them in our village meetings.”

“The Government of Nepal will take initiatives to carry out independent research for protecting these petroglyphs,” stated Dr. Suresh Suras Shrestha, Head of World Heritage Section at the Department of Archaeology. “Upon the local government’s initiative under the prevailing act, the Department will coordinate with concerned stakeholders to protect the petroglyphs of Mustang,” he added. He shared that the Department will coordinate with UNESCO in the future as well, to protect cultural heritage, particularly the high Himalayan heritage.

The project complements the Department’s effort to identify, document and develop a better understanding of the issues and threats related to the protection of nodal towns and other physical evidence of the heritage corridors, and helps raise attention to the need to implement proper and prompt preservation actions.

This project is supported under UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund, which aims to strengthen the ability of member states to prevent, mitigate and recover the loss of cultural heritage and diversity because of natural or human-made hazards.