Tamga-Tash, Kyrgyzstan

Tamga Tash (tamga - imprint, tash - stone) are sacred stones discovered in Kyrgyzstan which provide clear evidence for the historic existence of Buddhism in the land.

Buddhism first arrived to present-day Kyrgyzstan in the 1st century AD and flourished in the region until the Western Turks invaded the territory in the 7th century. The forceful arrival of the Turks sparked the slow decline of Buddhist thought, which was gradually replaced by Islam as the predominant religion in the region.

The Tamga Tash stones were discovered in the late 19th century near the banks of the Tamga River along the southern perimeter of Lake Issyk-Kul in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Buddhist prayers dated to the 8th-9th centuries and Tibetan petroglyphs are engraved on the stones, which are situated about a kilometer apart from each other.

There are three main stones with significant engravings, two on the left riverbank and one on the righthand shore. This latter stone is the most visited, for on it is carved the common Buddhist mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum” (“Oh, the Pearl Shining in the Lotus Flower!”). The phrase can be found on many stones in current and former Buddhist territory, most often near high passes, by rivers and in select settlements and monasteries. The Tamga Tash inscription dates back to the Dzungar Khanate of the 15th-17th centuries. The words are carved in a rigid and bold bas-relief style, with some letters as large as 10 centimeters. The monolith is split in two, which local legend asserts was an act of the epic hero Manas that testifies to his immense, superhuman strength.

The inscription on the second stone is similar to that of the first, but the words are carved directly into the stone and are dated to the 10th-12th centuries. This stone was used for ritual purposes, as evidenced by the hole drilled into it which was a characteristic act of the nomadic Saka people.

The third stone, like the first, belongs to the 15th-17th centuries. Engraved on the surface is the ‘OM’ sign, a sacred sound in Buddhism which is pronounced before reading holy texts, mantras and the like.

Kyrgyzstan’s sacred Tamga Tash stones continue to gain notoriety around the world as they attract Buddhist pilgrims and curious tourists. When planning your trip to Kyrgyzstan, do not miss the chance to see these unusual shrines with your own eyes!