For more than 100 years, scientists have been trying in vain to unravel the mystery of one of the country’s most-visited tourist sites. Just about 120 kilometers from Almaty, on the right bank of the Ili River, is a set of 60-meter rocky gates: the sacred and mysterious Tamgaly Tas tract.
At Tamgaly Tas, rock carvings and paintings of Buddha, bodhisattvas and different styles of Tibetan scripture can be seen on separate cliffs and boulders.
“There are no exact answers for who were those nameless carvers, to what purpose they left descendants these rock drawings but the intrigue only fuels interest in the mysterious petroglyphs [rock carvings]. Thousands of tourists flock to the tract every year to see Buddhist deities and have a touch of eternity,” states Shopomania.kz project.
Italian archaeologist Renato Sala describes Tamgaly Tas as a very rare monument and a sacred sanctuary of Buddhists used for prayer and meditation. According to his description, images similar to the ones in this tract have been found in Kyrgyzstan, China, India, Pakistan and Tibet.
Kazakh scientist and archaeologist Zeinolla Samashev assumes that Tamgaly Tas was an open-air sanctuary where religious rituals were held according to the season. Ancient humans used to come there to recharge themselves with energy and health.
“From ancient times, the location of Tamgaly Tas by the Ili River was a favorable place where people could live and worship god,” Aidyn Zhuniskhanov, an assistant professor at Nazarbayev University, told EdgeKz.
In the 19th century, nomads who came to the region where the tract is located named it Tamgaly Tas, which translates as “Stones with Signs.”
The Buddhas of Tamgaly Tas are not to be mistaken with the petroglyphs of Tamgaly, which is a similar sounding but more ancient site 150 kilometres west of Almaty, the Caravanistan Silk Road Travel Guide observes.
“Tamgaly Tas scriptures and paintings were made with a tall and thin stone carving technique, distinguished by the picture’s rigor, precision and special elegance of contour lines,” the Almatyregion-tour.kz website explains. “[S]everal scriptures may be read as ‘Om mani padme hum,’ which is a form of a prayer.”
“Om mani padme hum” is a Sanskrit mantra that carries a deep sacred meaning in Buddhism. The word mani means “jewel;” padme, the Buddhist sacred lotus flower. “Hum” represents the spirit of enlightenment.
According to Zhuniskhanov, scientists from one of Semipalatinsk’s universities found the scripture of this mantra in the Tarbagatai Mountains, which spread from Xinjiang in northwest China into Kazakhstan, in 2013.
“This caused a big resonance … The scripture was found in Tamgaly Tas, East Kazakhstan and in a few other sites too. Tamgaly Tas is the most popular monument,” he said.
However, according to the assistant professor, no large-scale research or semantics work has been conducted on this particular monument. Some research and written work has been done on Tamgaly Tas; more than on other Buddhist monuments in Kazakhstan.
According to Almatyregion-tour.kz, one dramatic carving on an isolated stone features a painting of a burkhan, which means “God” or “Buddha,” together with horned, mythical snakes that have “bestowers of death” as one of their titles.
“In the tradition of Southeast Asia, similar horrendous paintings drive away evil spirits and do not let evil-minded people in. A man could climb up to the center of the entire composition only after walking past a burkhan with snakes,” the website says.
A cliff that has figures of Shakyamuni Buddha and the burkhans Manla and Chon Rai Chik carved on it is the heart of the entire composition. The figures are portrayed in a traditional and contemplative lotus pose.
“Chon Rai Chik matches with the Mongolian image of a Burkhan who is ‘chopping shackles of ignorance with a flaming sword.’ According to the Buddhist and general Indian tradition, ignorance or ‘avidya’ performs the role of the devil. The presence of one’s own ignorance, unwillingness and inability to comprehend are major obstacles for a person on the way for truth,” the website notes.
Therefore, after appealing to a burkhan, a believer turns his sight to the composition’s next character, Manla, “guardian of wisdom.”
“Having rejected his own misconceptions, the person becomes able to perceive supreme wisdom. The image of Shakyamuni Buddha rounds up the entire composition. After passing the previous three stages, a believer could appeal to this supreme deity and be imbued with truth,” Almaty-tour.kz writes.
Such an interpretation fits both the traditional model of a Buddhist temple and the very idea of a Buddhist believer who follows one of the principle teachings of the three modes or methods of spiritual practice known in Indian Buddhism as the Noble Eightfold Path.
Shakyamuni Buddha, Gautama Buddha or just Buddha was an ascetic and sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.
“The whole complex is a single composition and an outstanding monument of Kazakhstan’s arts, history and culture. The complex forms an open-air Buddhist sanctuary, wherein the cliffs and the river play an important role and enhance its emotional and psychological impact,” the story notes.
Legends and hypothesis
Legend has it that a Buddhist mission was moving deep into Zhetisu (Seven Rivers) region in the south-east of modern day Kazakhstan in the 10th century and when the mission stopped on the shore of the Ili River, an earthquake occurred and an enormous piece of rock fell from the cliffs to the ground. The mission took it as a sign that they should return to India, but before leaving carved three images of Buddha on a broken piece of cliff. Several others of those images can be found on adjoining rocks. The legend does not explain for what purpose these images were carved.
According to Zhuniskhanov, many people think that Dzungars erected Buddhist monuments in Kazakhstan and he believes that Dzungars made rock carvings by themselves. Dzungars were a tribe that left Dzungaria in northwest China in 1607 and for the next century or so battled with the Kazakhs, making inroads into their territory and establishing settlements.
“The East Kazakhstan and Zhetisu regions were under the influence of Dzungars for a long time and the tribe left their Buddhist trails as sanctuaries and scriptures,” he explains. “Another version suggests that monuments and cliffs were formed by a natural phenomenon, because not only Tamgaly Tas but other monuments also existed before the Dzungar period.”
Archaeologist and Candidate of Historical Sciences Alisher Akishev suggested that Shakyamuni’s roots come from Kazakhstan, which apparently was a legend too.
“A recently released film from Kazakh archaeologists shows Buddha was born in Kazakhstan. They support this idea in the film, and that it was logical for his painting carved in Kazakhstan. This was not proven scientifically … But it is interesting and needs thorough research,” Zhuniskhanov says.
According to him, such legends arise from a lack of research and come out as absolute truth some time later.
“Buddhism was not explored well in Kazakhstan because Buddhist sanctuaries don’t have a strong impact on us, like Islamic monuments do. Buddhist architecture, how it impacted the worldview of Kazakhs or whether there was an impact at all, is being explored from an archaeological angle only,” the assistant professor states.
Research on Dzungar-period monuments of East Kazakhstan as archaeological monuments and for reference and encyclopedia material will commence this year. However, Zhuniskhanov is sure that those monuments are unlikely to have a historic interpretation or deep analysis.
Zhuniskhanov thinks that historic tourism should be developed.
“Tamgaly Tas is foreign to Kazakh culture, it is a monument of worldwide value – that is why Kazakhstan should preserve this monument for future [generations] and develop internal and external tourism with it. We can invite foreigners to show them that we had Buddhist influences and religion, and a tolerant society where Buddhists, Muslims and Christians lived in peace and accord with each other. We have had it since historic and ancient times and need to show that modern Kazakhstan is a secular country,” he stresses.
Challenges of Tamgaly Tas as a modern tourism site
Tamgaly Tas is today a mass tourism site that gathers rock climbers, nature lovers and those interested in history and archeology to national rock-climbing contests, tourism forums and rallies held at the tract. Its close proximity to Almaty makes this route the most popular weekend tour.
“[U]nfortunately, sometimes this leads to the monument’s destruction; modern writings and drawings show up, sometimes right on top of unique ancient texts and prayers. Tamgaly Tas currently needs urgent protective and renovation arrangements,” Almatyregion-tour.kz writes.
The tract is under the protection of the Kazakh government as a cultural monument. However, problems with preserving historic monuments from vandals is a pressing matter in Kazakhstan.
“The carvings are in a remarkable state, considering their age, although vandals have done damage,” noted Caravanistan.com. Someone will write their names or signatures without fail, something like “Zdes’ byl Vasya” (“Vasya was here”) near and even on top of carvings.
According to Zhuniskhanov, these type of problems are currently being tackled and opinions on how to preserve monuments better are currently in discussion too. A new law on historic and cultural monuments of Kazakhstan will be adopted in 2018.
“Kazakhs did not look awry on Buddhist monuments but preserved them. They respect Buddhism as a religion and culture despite its not being broadly developed in the country,” he added. “People continue to explore Tamgaly Tas to this day, but superficially because of Kazakhstan’s vast territory and very few archaeologists, only 10 or 15 of whom work specifically with petroglyphs, [the work] is challenging.”