The mysterious ancient rock carvings of Tamgaly Tas

About 120km from Almaty lies a tourist magnet that has confounded scientists for over 100 years. Tamgaly Tas, meaning “stones with signs”, is a mysterious and sacred site on the right bank of the Ili River.

Here, intricate carvings of Buddha, animal petroglyphs and Tibetan scriptures have been inscribed on various cliffs and boulders. They are said to be crafted using thin and tall stone carving techniques, and the rocks are surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags commonly seen in the Himalayan region.

Legend has it that in the 10th century, a Buddhist mission stopped by the shores of the Ili river when an earthquake struck. They interpreted it as a sign to return to India, but carved three images of Buddha on the fallen rocks before leaving. No one knows where the animal petroglyphs and Tibetan scripts came from, though Tamgaly Tas is believed to have served as an open-air sanctuary in ancient times where religious rituals were held.

Historians and scientists still cannot say for sure who made the carvings and why. But one school of thought believes that they were done by the Dzungars, a tribe that migrated from north-western China in 1607, bringing with them their culture and religion such as the Tibetan influences we see today.

Experts have interpreted parts of the texts and found seven prayer scriptures containing the sacred verse, “Om mani padme hum”. This Sanskrit mantra carries deep meaning in Buddhism and symbolises the path towards nirvana, or enlightenment.

From Almaty, getting to Tamgaly Tas takes about four hours by car or SUV. It is not to be confused with the petroglyphs of Tamgaly, a UNESCO Heritage Site which features carvings from the Bronze Age. Both are found in the lush Tamgaly Gorge.

But Tamgaly Tas is also in urgent need of protection. Experts have warned that the droves of travellers, including thoughtless visitors who scribble on the rocks or over the ancient texts, are causing damage to the monument. So if you do get to go, please abide by a simple rule: Look but don’t touch.