As one moves on the Kargil-Zanskar highway, just before Sankoo town, one comes across a sleepy village sitting on the edge of the Suru River, overlooking the serene Sankoo valley – Skitmartsey. The village is inhabited by people who profess Islam as their faith. However, it was indeed surprised when one early morning on my way to Panikhar, I saw a Zanskari Buddhist couple, who were traveling in a Tata Sumo ahead of the bus I was traveling in, get off from their taxi and going towards a rock on the roadside with folded hands. As the bus passed by, I saw them bowing before the rock. It was intriguing, a devout Buddhist offering prayer to a rock in the midst of a village inhabited by Muslims.
I was just out of college with little knowledge about the land I belonged to. During a visit to the place this summer in the company of Ven. Lama Lobzang and a team of doctors from AIIMS, New Delhi, the site opened up a bit more. Mr. Ajaz Munshi, the curator of the Central Asian Museum, has given a lot of interesting information about the place in his book, 'A travel into the history of Purik'.
What one encounters as one gets off the vehicle is a large boulder, engraved in times unknown with an image that is identified as the Padmapani, the holder of lotus –Avalokiteshwara, the compassionate Bodhisattva. The reverence that the Avalokiteshvara commands can be gauged from the fact that the most-repeated Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, is associated with him. The central figure of the rock carving is a large relief depicting a six-armed Avalokiteshwara. “The presence of six-arm is a unique feature of the Kishtwar belt of Pahari Art”, I recollected what Mr. Munshi had once mentioned. The general depiction of the Bodhisattva is a four or eight-armed form; however, in the most complex form, the deity is depicted as having a thousand arms and 11 heads.
The identification of the image as Avalokiteshvara is solely based on the iconographic reference in the image i.e. a lotus flower in the second left hand. The figure is flanked on the left and right side by supernatural beings. Revering and worshipping figures could be seen beside the feet. Specialists in iconography consider the Mudra – the symbolic hand gesture as a special feature of the figure.
On a closer look, one can see that the Avalokiteshvara is seated on a lotus throne. The feet suggest a dancing posture. Right below the image, relief of a horse rider can be found. Such reliefs of a horse rider can also be found on rock slab carving in Drass. A.H. Franke suggested that the political setup of Drass and Suru might have been similar and the relief of the rider might be that of a dead king something akin to the “deceased barons of the hills”. Right above the image of the Bodhisattva, one can find the sun and the moon engraved, symbolizing the eternality of the image. Beside the figure are heavenly maidens, Apsaras showering flowers over the deity.
Since time immemorial, these valleys have been inhabited by people who professed the animistic faith, worshipping the various forces of nature. Later on, most of them, probably during the reign of Ashoka, the teachings of the enlightened Gautama Buddha reached these valleys via the Kashmir valley and the people embraced the new faith wholeheartedly. We can safely assume that the carving must have been done once the new faith has had made deep roots in these valleys.
The presence of Maitreya Buddha statues with features of Kashmiri art, within a radius of 60 km, point towards the Kushan Era. Since Ladakh has been an important point on the ancient silk route, major faiths of the world have had a date with the place. Jesus Christ was known to have spent his “missing years” in Ladakh.
As for the rock carving, one can also observe a number of geometrical lines crisscrossing through the image. The same geometrical lines could also be observed symmetrically on a large rock slab lying nearby. It is assumed that this slab used to be a part of the main rock. On the rock slab is an elaborately-designed lotus blossom. A myth associated with the rock slab with lotus blossom is that other Bodhisattvas and Rinpoches come and have a meal together in the company of the Avalokiteshvara. As per a research theory by a prominent author, there might be another rock carving/stupa of the same lineage in the periphery of the present Avalokiteshwara rock carving.
The 14th century saw Islam coming to these valleys again via the Kashmir valley and was accepted steadfastly by the entire western Ladakh. It has been seven centuries since then, and much water has passed down the Suru. The innate nature of the people of the mountains and the universal message of the Islamic faith has gelled together so much that the change in faith has not had an effect on the fraternity prevalent in the valleys right up till the late 20th century.
The tumultuous 2oth century that saw the horrors of the partition of the sub-continent and the rise of communal politics afterward also had a brief tryst with these mountains. However, the spirit is yet to be dampened and is very much intact, “nGatesskhongikhodanaqnaqbana, kharTsoqrtsina, KhongisnGatikhodakhartsoqrtsi cha in de…” the caretaker lady replied innocently, reflecting the need for mutual respect in cross-religious (communal) affairs. Who knows, how much more sun rays does the sun-facing image has to bath in. All that Skitmartsey, the sleepy hamlet, teaches is to have respect for a faith that doesn’t belong to you. You may not believe in it, you may not profess that faith, but you ought to respect it.