SRINAGAR: A world-famous historical site would be a place well-preserved and –painstakingly maintained by those responsible for its upkeep; visitors too would be attracted to the site in huge numbers. Or so one would expect. But this, unfortunately, is not at all the case with Burzahom, a site of tremendous importance to both Kashmir and to understanding prehistory in general.
Located on a ‘karewa’ (wudder) between the banks of the Dal Lake and the Zabarvan hills, Burzahom was the first Neolithic site to have been excavated in Kashmir. Sixteen kilometres northeast of Srinagar, it is about six kilometres from the famous Mughal Gardens of Shalimar. It was nominated for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, although this is still awaiting approval.
A visit reveals how badly this UNESCO-nominated site has been ignored. The first excavation here was in 1939 by a Yale-Cambridge expedition headed by the archaeologists, Helmut de Terra and Dr. Thomson Paterson. Subsequently, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) made detailed investigations here between 1960 and 1971, carried out by T.N. Khazanchi, the first Superintending Archaeologist of the ASI’s Srinagar Circle.
During earlier excavations, it was found that the Neolithic homes at the Burzahom site were pits dug below ground level using stone tools. The sides of the pits were plastered with mud. The pits were usually round or oval, narrow at the top and wide at the base. Holes discovered around the pits were probably used to fix wooden poles to support roofs made from tree branches. Some deeper pits had a few stairs leading down, while the pit-dwellers would have simply stepped down into the shallower ones.
Today, as one nears the Burzahom karewas through the pristine Naseem Bagh-Shalimar road, the land where thriving Neolithic settlements once flourished now has its fame instantly downgraded by the heaps of cow-dung that line the edges of the karewas. After climbing the karewa for a closer look, the cattle grazing inside the site catch one’s attention more than the remnants of this irreplaceable record of the gradual change in the nature of dwelling spaces among early societies.
“It’s like a waste land for the locals, who utilise it to store dung from domestic animals. What is unfortunate is that the officials who have been tasked with the preservation of this famous site don’t utter a word to stop the locals from spoiling it,” says Bashir Ahmad, a Burzahom resident, rueing the pathetic condition of the site which once had the potential for attracting a great tourist rush.
Two sign boards erected on the karewa by the ASI warn visitors and passers-by that they are “within 100 metres of the limits of the protected monument” which “has been declared to be prohibited area for… construction without prior approval”. However, the 100 metres the ASI is referring to are nowhere designated or at all marked anywhere near the site. “The site is open to any and every one, including dogs and domestic animals. The animals constantly seen at the site graze and excrete at will around it, sometimes even close to the spots where the excavation was done,” higher secondary student Raashid Ahmad told Kashmir Reader.
On odd days, children from nearby localities come together and treat the site as a playground, never even refraining from erecting wooden wickets on spots close to the excavation.
“Not only that, at times youths come here to take advantage of the deserted location and smoke cigarettes and cannabis,” a group of local schoolboys said.
The only good thing that has happened for the site in years, say locals, is that previously people would dig at the edges of the karewa to make away with the soil for filling holes in their lawns or building new houses, etc. But that activity was stopped after government agencies and senior citizens of surrounding areas intervened.
Director State Archaeology and Museums Department, Mohammad Shafi Zahid told Kashmir Reader that it is the ASI that has “ruined” the historical site as they had the responsibility of preserving it but “desperately failed” to do so.
“They (the ASI) excavated the site and took artefacts to Kolkata in the garb of studying them. But they never bothered to take steps in the preservation and maintenance of this world-famous historical site. They never even returned the artefacts to J&K. Since our department’s inception, we have been repeatedly seeking the artefacts’ return – even the former chief minister, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, intervened – but they hardly responded,” Zahid said.
He said that all 25 of the government’s departments returned to the Valley after the Darbar Move to the summer capital this year, but the Srinagar circle office of the ASI was the only department which remained in Jammu.
Admitting that the monument was not protected as it should have been, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI Srinagar circle, Vasant Kumar Swarnakar says that it was due to the absence of all-round fencing that external elements manage to enter the site premises. Swarnakar said he was in Delhi for an official meeting, and when asked why there was no one to look after the site, he said he had no knowledge of why no one was present there. However, he did also make an attempt at reassurance, saying, “Your concern (about domestic animals grazing inside the site) is genuine, and we are building a fencing wall to cover the entire regulated site for its better preservation,” he said.
After the discovery and excavation of Burzahom, other Neolithic sites were also unearthed at several places, such as Begagund, Brah, Gofkral, Hariparigom, Jayadevi-udar, Olichibag, Pampur, Panzogom, Sombur, Thajiwor and Waztal, all of which are located on karewas, mainly in the south-east parts of the Kashmir Valley.