Saving Kashmir’s Prehistoric Gem
In history circles, it is probably one of the most talked-about Neolithic sites in India. In Jammu & Kashmir, a state strewn with historic sites, it is one of only two sites to make it to UNESCO’s list of (tentative) World Heritage Sites. But all this has meant nothing for Burzahom. Today, this globally renowned archaeological site is on the brink of complete destruction.
Around 15 km from the city of Srinagar, the area around the core site of Burzahom is today the venue of a fast-growing annual cricket tournament – the ‘Burzahama Premier League’ – which had over 30 teams vying for the coveted trophy in 2018.
Dubbed the ‘BPL’, the tournament attracts thousands of youngsters from in and around Srinagar who line up to watch local talent, who by the way are mentored by the state’s Ranji-level players, according to the BPL Facebook page. While this is a great initiative to train and showcase young talent, the problem is that the tournament is held in and around the actual site of the archaeological excavations.
– To draw a parallel, this is akin to having the local Salisbury Football League tournaments in the open grounds of Stonehenge in England!
With hundreds of visitors, crowds trampling the ground and, believe it or not, metal rollers being driven to ‘level’ the pitch, experts believe the prized Burzahom archaeological site may have already been irreparably damaged.
What Lies Beneath
Burzahom is one of the earliest known and, until now, one of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in India. First excavated in the late 1930s by a Yale-Cambridge team, the site saw many follow-up digs in the 1960s-70s after it was brought under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). A series of pit dwellings – underground winter homes – was the most spectacular discovery here along with numerous skeletons and artefacts, some dating back to 3000 BCE.
Photographs of the site, shared with Live History India, by archaeologist and Assistant Professor at Kashmir University, Ajmal Shah, indicate the archaeological richness of Burzahom. Apart from being a great Neolithic site, historians believe that Burzahom was also important because it was a bridge. "This site gives us a lot of information about the connectivity between Central Asia and India since Neolithic times. Burzahom is also very well connected to the Pakistani site of Kot Diji (pre-Harappan and Harappan) in Sind. This is an important link in South Asian history, not just Kashmir," Shah explains.
So what went wrong for Burzahom, and why is such a significant archaeological site in such a terrible state?
Saleem Beg, former Chairperson of the National Monuments Authority and the current Convener of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) in the state, says Burzahom represents a larger malaise, a general disregard and neglect of heritage sites across India.
In the case of Burzahom, it gets worse. The Srinagar Circle of the ASI administers 59 sites in the Jammu Region and Kashmir Valley. Most of these are either temples or prehistoric archaeological sites like Burzahom. These sites were taken over by the ASI in the late 1950s and were managed by the local ASI office and Superintendent of Archaeology in Srinagar. In 1990, as militancy in the Valley rose, most government offices temporarily shifted out of the area. The ASI office was one of them. However, while others returned to the Valley as things settled, the ASI didn’t.
– Beg points out that the ASI office for Srinagar continues to operate from a private home in Jammu!
Beg blames the ASI for Burzahom’s “complete neglect”. He says, “ASI doesn't seem to have a person who can operate a circle out of Srinagar. I attribute it to the total neglect of ASI. There is no supervision!” He acknowledges that Burzahom’s predicament is no different from that of many other archaeological sites across the country. It starts with local, under-the-radar encroachments in the so-called protected site (area), which is actually unprotected. Before you know it, or in this case, due to the local supervisors’ vanishing act, the situation gets out of control!
In Burzahom, what started as local kids playing cricket near the open fields at the archaeological site has given way to an annual T20 Premier League-type tournament that draws thousands of people to this ‘cricket field’.
Beg says you really can’t blame the youngsters. “They don't even know the significance of the land they are standing on. When you go there, you don't get a sense that you are at a UNESCO ‘Tentative’ World Heritage Site. There is no museum there, nor is there even basic fencing around the core site.” Ironically, the many artefacts excavated from Burzahom can be found in museums across India but nowhere near the site! Beg laments, “Till 1990, the ASI did a wonderful job here, now it is just neglected.”
The success of the Burzhama Premier League has caused other problems for the archaeological site of Burzahom. Due to its growing popularity and lucrative opportunities that the league brings, the state administration has built a tar road right up to the actual excavation site. Shah says this makes the site even more “accessible”. “They pitch tents here, and bring cars and bikes to reach the top. This has led to heavy encroachment and damage to the site,” he notes.
For instance, the photograph above shows a clutch of six to seven megaliths that once stood at the site. Shah points out, “While early site pictures show that the megaliths were erect, now only one of the six to seven is still standing, and even that has been terribly vandalised with advertisements made with paint. It is a heart-rending situation.”
Beg, who has visited the site of Burzahom three times in the last month, says, “While there is no surface damage visible to the naked eye, they have been running metal rollers to level the pitch and the fear is that all the skeletons and artefacts buried under the site may have been irreversibly damaged. They may not find any real evidence of Burzahom if they were to excavate the site today!” He adds, “The state administration doesn't want to get into all this. Their priority is law and order and, as long as people are happy and not creating a noise, they are comfortable.”
Beg is among a long list of historians and archaeologists who have raised their voices, demanding that the authorities take up this matter at the highest level. But with elections due, and the state under President’s rule, little has been done. A frustrated Beg calls the crisis at Burzahom an “institutional failure”.
Shah shares his angst. “The government, especially the state government, hasn’t taken any action. When asked, they say the site is under the central government. This is sad. This is the heritage of Kashmir and it needs to be protected. It is the identity and culture of the people of Kashmir.”
Shah is leading an online campaign on change.org. and says he talks about the crisis in Burzahom wherever he travels.
– A recent Public Interest Litigation admitted by the J&K High Court, on the state of Burzahom, is a small ray of hope.
The plight of Burzahom raises some pertinent questions:
- How has such an important site of national importance been left unprotected?
- Why is the ASI not actively administering and managing important sites like this one in Kashmir? How bad is the state of affairs at other sites?
- Isn’t it a shame that the locals in Burzahom have not been sensitised to the importance of the site?
- Why haven’t there been any excavations here in the last four decades?
- Is the ASI aware of the actual state of the site today? How much damage has already been done?
- Despite the clamour against it, why hasn’t the state shifted the Burzahama Premier League to another site?
- Finally, and most importantly, what is being done to save Burzahom and check the damage that has already taken place?
In a state where there is so much strife, it is not surprising that heritage is not a top priority. It is also important to have initiatives like the BPL cricket league, to engage the youth and develop local talent. But this should not be done at the cost of one of India’s most prized Neolithic sites.
Surely, we should raise our voice to save Burzahom.