Lampang’s rock art at Pratu Pha
Besides handprints, at least fifty sites are known in Thailand where prehistoric man has left a pictural record on rocks, cliffs, or the walls of caves. The tens of thousands of images are almost all painted with red ochre (haematitic powder) and usually represent human beings, animals (wild as well as domestic), and characteristic abstract motifs, such as zigzag lines.
But there are numerous exceptions, like the paintings in animal blood or charcoal, and a cliff in Sakon Nakhon in the Northeast where the pictures are carved into the rock.
The paintings of sea vessels in the so-called Viking Cave of Ko Phi Phi Le in Southern Thailand were likely made in historic times. This site is visited daily by hundreds of tourists from Phuket and Krabi, whereas the rock paintings on the Pha Taem cliff on the bank of the Mekong are the much advertized pride of Ubon Ratchathani province — it is probably the most extensive open-air site with prehistoric images in the world.
Most of the rock paintings, however, are in little visited and remote areas and rather difficult to get to. Some sites are even closed off to protect them from damage or vandalism, while visitors to Phu Phaya Mountain in Nong Bua Lamphu province are not allowed to see the intriguing rock art as a result of a violent dispute featuring a businessman eager to exploit the limestone deposit pitted against villagers and conservationists. Many sites are concentrated in the Northeast (Loei and Ubon Ratchathani), the western part of Central Thailand (Kanchanaburi and Uthai Thani) and various coastal areas of the South. The mountains of Northern Thailand, surprisingly, were poorly represented on the prehistoric rock art map, until in 1988 a large number of rock paintings were discovered on a limestone outcrop at Pratu Pha, some fifty kilometres northeast of the town of Lampang.
The site, at the pass where Highway 1 crosses the border between the watershed areas of the Wang and Yom (both major tributaries of the Chao Phraya), is locally well-known for the cult of the powerful spirit Chao Pho Pratu Pha.
This Lord Father of the Cliff Gate is believed to be the spirit of the legendary warrior Phaya Mua Lek from a village in Ngao district. He lived in the eighteenth century and led the resistance of the Lampang people against the Burmese occupiers. He is said to have killed many Burmese soldiers, and to have used his hands as shields to defend himself. At last he was cut down, while leaning against the rock face of the towering limestone cliff.
The spirit shrine of Chao Pho Pratu Pha is in front of the limestone crag. It has for long been one of the most visited places of Lampang, yet the prehistoric paintings at the other side had to wait until 1988 for discovery. In that year, captain Chookiat Meeshome from the nearby Pratu Pha Army Camp was leading a rock climbing exercise in the area when the group came across the rock art. Nowadays the paintings are easily accessible. Flights of concrete stairs lead through dense bamboo thickets to the site. There are about seven large clusters of images within a stretch of 150 metres. In front of each, named after a conspicuous scene, is a wooden platform where visitors will find a brief commentary on the works on a signboard.
The first group of paintings, called the Cliff of the Mountain Goats, consists of many pictures overlapping each other, and numerous handprints. In the centre, are two large images of horned animals resembling the goat-antilope called serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), which still roams various mountain areas in Northern Thailand, such as Doi Inthanon. According to the explanatory text, there is also a picture of two men who appear to be dancing, but these may now have faded away beyond recognition.
The second group of paintings is called the Cliff of the Peacock. A picture of this bird is surrounded by numerous prints or designs of hands, which suggests a hunt. Formerly peafowl were quite common in Northern Thailand, while in the travel accounts of nineteenth century explorers they were still frequently mentioned, as they made an excellent dinner.
The third assemblage of paintings, the Cliff of the Oxen, displays oxen or cows surrounded by human figures, which may represent a hunt or a ritual sacrifice. Two men and at least six animals are depicted in a way quite different from most of the other paintings. Only their contours are drawn in red ochre, and a multiply split fuzzy-ended wooden brush was probably used for these fine lines. There are also many images of hands.
At the fourth cluster, called the Cliff of the Dancing, most of the paintings are rather high on the rock face, and field glasses could be useful. Furthermore, many figures are partially obscured by later natural deposits. One small dancing figure, however, is easy to recognize, as well as a man running towards two oxen that seem to be fighting. Of the many animal species mentioned on the board (deer, hare, bird, bat, mouse), I could hardly localize any. Dancing figures are painted at many other widely scattered sites as well. At Khao Plara in Uthai Thani province, there is an outline drawing of three dancers, one with an animal’s tail.
The fifth collection, the intriguing Cliff of the Standing Stones, shows two figures laying down with crosses drawn across their chests and two stone pillars behind them. It is said to represent a prehistoric burial ritual. In fact, excavations by the Fine Arts Department in 1998 showed that human bodies had been buried in front of the cliff.
Number six, Cliff of the Prayer, shows a female figure with her arms outstretched. Many pictures of animals are close together and rather faded away, while here also subsequent natural deposits impair the interpretation of the designs. This place is also seriously disfigured by modern graffito in black oil paint. Of great interest is an abstract consisting of parallel undulating lines. Similar waves, or alternately zigzags, have been interpreted as symbolizing water, or a river, whereas archeologist Sujit Wongthes has suggested that they are an expression of snake worship, which is still common in India. These abstracts also closely resemble some of the decorations on the Ban Chiang prehistoric earthenware from the Northeast.
Finally, the seventh site, the Cliff of the Hunting, shows rather well preserved pictures of a man chasing a cow or oxen, and another man who appears to be striking one of the animals. Surrounding this scene are the paintings of a monkey (likely a macaque) and a dog.
Just past it is a platform a large slogan: BE PROUD OF YOURSELF. Visitors are urged to be aware of the need to preserve this important aspect of Thai cultural heritage by abstaining from littering and disfiguring the rocks.
A trail continues below the cliff, passing through bamboo thickets and a forest with many teak trees, lianas, monkey ladders, and flowering Clerodendron. Plenty of bird life (white-rumped shama, warblers) and numerous colourful butterflies also make a detour of half an hour worthwhile.
Although the phrase ‘Thai cultural heritage’, may suggest that Thai people were the creators of the rock art, such a claim is highly debateable. As Charles Higham and Rachanie Thosarat point out in their Prehistoric Thailand, there is no accurate information on the chronology of Thailand’s rock paintings and the people who created them. The representation of a man accompanied by two, apparently, domesticated dogs at Khao Plara in Uthai Thani suggests a date later than 2000 BC, since remains of dogs are not found in Hoabinhian sites prior to that date. (The single dog at the Cliff of the Hunting, then, may represent a wild one.)
In his Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand, Christophe Munier proposes a date between 2000-500 BC, and more likely closer to the latter date, as there is ample evidence of a developed life style, such as a man digging with a hoe, and rice cultivation. The depicted people wear loin clothes, strange looking headwear, and, at some sites, belts of cloth besides ornaments such as feathers, bracelets, and even tails.
Numerous superimpositions over faded earlier motifs suggest that the rock faces of this Lampang site, as at other sites in Thailand, and elsewhere, attracted artists over many years.
Red (iron oxide) paint is widely associated with the metal age culture of the region. In some of the caves reported, there are traces left by a metal instrument that was used to smooth the painting surface. Apparently, local people used these locations for their hunting, and other, rituals. Red haematitic powder had been applied to the bodies of the dead in caves near Peking about 18,000 years ago. In primitive societies, sorcerers and medicine men often paint their bodies red before, or while, engaging in ritual activities, and it is common practice to hold blood sacrifices for hunters and soldiers sent on expedition. Such people probably linked the red ochre with spirits or souls, and indeed in China rock paintings are still called ‘deities’ shadows’.
Several rock paintings in Thailand (like those in Phu Phaya) share similarities with those in Southern China (as for example at Phalai in Guangxi), which according to some scholars, suggests that they were made, if not by the same hand, then by people of the same cultural group.
For instance, the similarities in the curves of the calves of human figures is amazing. If this is so, the prehistoric painters must have been very mobile, and may even have been proto-historic cattle traders herding caravans of cattle from, for example, the Northeast to Central Thailand.
Cliffs and rock shelters would have been convenient places for them to spend the night. The Pratu Pha Pass may have been on such an early trade route.
Whatever the case, an excursion to the paintings at Pratu Pha is worthwhile. You will not only encounter evidence of the spirit worship of the past, but also its contemporary varieties. Around the shrine of Chao Pho Pratu Pha there are hundreds of tiny spirit shrines, and even many more wooden elephants. People have rubbed gold leaves onto the statue of the former hero, while his shrine is often shrouded in the smoke of noisy firecrackers. Few of the drivers on the road passing the shrine fail to blow their horns in salute. Spirit worship is alive and well!
You can also visit the nearby cave in the limestone outcrop, where, according to the legend, supporters of Phaya Mua Lek watched while the man from Ngao was fighting the Burmese soldiers. Now, it houses a seated Buddha statue. At the parking place near the shrine, many women from the Yao (Mien) hilltribe sell their spices, herbs and local medicine. No souvenirs featuring rock art influenced images are on sale — so far.
©SJON HAUSER: TEXT & IMAGES