Heritage Matters: Kashmir’s Forgotten Wonders

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    Kashmir is a traveller’s delight today but most people visiting this scenic destination don’t realise just how storied the region’s past is. From a rich geological history that goes back thousands of years to being the cradle of kingdoms and faiths, Kashmir was once a melting pot of cultures, ideologies and religions. This is reflected in sacred shrines and monuments, diverse crafts, living traditions as well as significant archaeological sites that form the layers of the region’s history.

    Sadly, much of this vibrant cultural heritage is eclipsed by the conflict and unrest that envelopes the valley of Kashmir. As a result, little has been done to highlight Kashmir’s history. Ironically, this rich and varied heritage could be an antidote to some of the divisions that contribute to the strife in the region.

    In our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters, we discussed Kashmir’s legacy in an episode titled Kashmir’s Forgotten Wonders. Our panelists were: Saleem Beg, Convenor, INTACH J&K Chapter; Dr Ajmal Shah, Assistant Professor of Archaeology, University of Kashmir; and Prashant Mathawan, Writer and Photographer. Each of our panelists has extensively documented different aspects of Kashmir’s past, which helped us understand where we are lacking when it comes to showcasing its heritage.

    The story of Kashmir goes back to a time when the region was nothing but a gigantic lake. Around 85,000 years ago, tectonic movements and topographical changes took place, which began to drain the lake. Eventually, the lake bed was exposed. Called the Karewas, this fertile land provided excellent ground for agriculture and this encouraged human habitation. The earliest evidence of human occupation in the region goes back 5,000 years, at the site of Burzahom.

    There are many archaeological sites in Kashmir which tell us of its long history. Kashmir has as many as 14 Neolithic sites, one of the most significant being Burzahom. This is one of the oldest sites where there’s evidence of dwellings beneath the ground. But did you know that the area around the core site of Burzahom is today the venue of a fast-growing, annual cricket tournament? The tournament is held in and around the site of the archaeological excavations.

    Dr Ajmal Shah, Assistant Professor of Archaeology, University of Kashmir, who is an expert on prehistoric Kashmir, pointed to a sad reality – that not many of these archaeological sites have been explored and excavated. He said, “There’s a lack of continued research. To give you an example, the site of Kanispora (in Baramulla) was excavated around 1998-99 under B R Mani, the then Superintendent of the Kashmir Circle of ASI. After that, it was only recently, in 2017, that we did some excavations. Between this, not a single site was excavated in Kashmir... Because of the stalwarts in archaeology, like B R Mani, R S Bisht who excavated the sites and continued the research in the field, knowledge of these sites used to reach the common people in the good old days.”

    Until very recently, there was no educational department focused on archaeological studies in Kashmir. It was only in 2017 that the University of Kashmir opened a department devoted to the subject, Dr Shah revealed.

    Saleem Beg, Convenor, INTACH J&K Chapter, and a former Director-General of the Tourism Department in Jammu & Kashmir, has worked on many restoration projects. Beg said that insurgency has dealt archaeology in Kashmir a massive blow. He said that during insurgency in Kashmir in the 1990s, many central government organisations moved out, including the local office of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which moved to Jammu. While many government agencies later moved back, the ASI didn’t. In fact, for the last 10 years, there’s been no Superintendent Archaeologist in the ASI’s Jammu circle, he pointed out.

    Talking about two important sites – Burzahom and Gufkral – Beg said that while Burzahom was given the status of a protected site by the ASI, Gufkral failed to get this status, even after a detailed report was submitted and both sites were excavated. The sites today lie in neglect and have been encroached upon. “I saw a megalith (at Gufkral) which has been turned by a security company into a peer baba (like a memorial to a saint)...The whole problem is institutional. Over the course of time, archaeology has lost the priority it should have been given,” he said.

    Another problem, Beg pointed out, is that not all historical sites and monuments have been covered by the authorities, such as the Archaeological Survey of India. Among these are the Mughal Gardens of Kashmir, including Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Gardens. While the Mughal Gardens elsewhere in the country are archaeological sites, the ones in Kashmir fall under the Department of Floriculture, Beg pointed out. They haven’t been recognised as national monuments. Beg said that he and others have led campaigns for the restoration of these gardens and to get them recognition, for more than a decade, and they are now on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

    But being recognised as an archaeological site has little meaning if there is no attempt to protect and conserve it. Take, for instance, the ancient capital of Parihaspora, which dates to the 8th CE. While the site is protected under the ASI, it is still are a victim of apathy and neglect. Mining, digging, removing soil for construction are only some of the challenges that Kashmir’s ancient heritage faces.

    Another fascinating aspect of Kashmir’s heritage is its Buddhist past. It was an important centre of early Buddhism. It was mainly through the corridor in the Kashmir region that Buddhism spread south, via the Silk Route, to the rest of Asia. Kashmir still guards many secrets to this chapter of its history. One of them is the Harwan Monastery on the outskirts of Srinagar. It is believed that it was at this monastery that the Fourth Buddhist Council of the Mahayana school of Buddhism took place in the 1st or 2nd CE, on the orders of the Kushana Emperor Kanishka I. Like many other historical sites, this monastery also lies unattended and forgotten.

    Prashant Mathawan, Writer and Photographer, who has extensively explored Kashmir, said: “While growing up in Kashmir, I never knew about Harwan Monastery, I didn’t even know Kashmir had Buddhist Heritage. Many people have forgotten that it used to be a cradle of Buddhism… one of the few remaining sites is the Harwan Monastery. The first day I went there, I couldn’t find it. The next time I went, there was nobody there. It was well-maintained, but there was no one, no site museum. I could have in fact picked up anything from there.”

    The architecture of Kashmir, as Beg pointed out, truly captures its varied past. He talked about how sacred shrines, such as mosques, represent an amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist styles. Mosques in Kashmir have shikharas instead of domes, he said. “The cultural memory of Kashmir exists in the vernacular… If you look at our architecture, it’s also vernacular and unique. We have imbibed forms, motifs, spaces both from Hindu past and Buddhist past, and they exist in some shrines.”

    These facets apart, there are many other interesting elements in the Kashmir region such as the thousands of petroglyphs in Ladakh or living Sufi traditions and festivals, all of which form a composite cultural heritage and needs to be documented and preserved.

    Our panelists agreed that the problem also lies in the educational framework – local history isn’t included in the school curriculum. While schools in rural or remote areas might still be talking about regional history to the students, through their curriculum and activities Beg pointed out, schools in urban areas need to develop awareness about the region’s heritage.

    How can we showcase Kashmir’s heritage?

    Awareness is the key to better promotion, agreed our panelists. Local communities need to be educated about the diverse history and heritage of Kashmir. Dr Shah believes that research, especially in the field of archaeology, is much needed. The central and state archaeological departments also need to make efforts to conduct and facilitate excavations and research at the sites so that new facts can come to light.

    Mathawan believed that a museum-going culture might help create awareness as well as encourage the preservation of Kashmir’s heritage. He said that establishing local site museums is essential. On the SPS Museum in Srinagar, Mathawan felt that once people visit museums like this, it might stimulate a curiosity to know more about the stories and history of the objects in the museum. Social media, he said, can be a great medium for storytelling and showcasing heritage.

    Beg believes that culture can be the way forward for Kashmir. He said connections to the past need to be revived through education and awareness. This can act as a balm to the troubles the region is currently facing.

    Cover Image: Harwan Monastery, Prashant Mathawan

    You can watch the complete conversation on Kashmir’s Forgotten Wonders here:

    Through our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as showcase work that addresses the many problems faced on the ground, across the length and breadth of India. If you have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, write to us at:

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