Kashmir heritage: Tale of a mammoth loss- Part 1

Kashmir heritage: Tale of a mammoth loss-  Part 1

The significance of the find at Pampore lay in the strong prospect of its redefining natural and climatic history of Kashmir.

This is a column series by Khalid Bashir Ahmad focussing a crucial subject. Not only for its academic worth, this series is hugely important in understanding our contemporary crises. It brings to light the loss of history and intellectual tradition that Kashmir has suffered at the hands of inefficient bureaucracy, complicit curators, wily outsiders, and corrupt political leadership. It also captures the loss that natural disasters inflicted on Kashmir’s archival wealth. Each column in the series talks about various facets of this Kashmir’s national  disaster, yet cumulatively making a coherent essay on the theme of how Kashmir was robbed off its artefacts and manuscripts; how Kashmir’s past was emptied to turn its future vacuous. 


Found, and Lost

The significance of the find at Pampore lay in the strong prospect of its redefining natural and climatic history of Kashmir. 


During a study tour on 31 August 2000, when some teachers and students of Degree College Sopore discovered a fossil of a mammoth at Pampore, 15 kms south of Srinagar, geologists in Kashmir were excited. The find, comprising a skull with complete lower and upper jaws, a broken tusk and a vertebra, was highlighted as ‘the largest ever unearthed in the subcontinent’. A little distance from the site a huge tusk measuring 8 feet and 3 inches was also unearthed. Further excavation threw up 58 ‘Paleolithic (stone) and 3 bone tools’ in the same fossil bearing strata, a claim yet to be scientifically ascertained. As news about the discovery spread, the site turned into a huge attraction with enthusiastic people jostling each other to have a glimpse of the find.

On the basis of carbon dating of upper strata of the Pampore karewa, the fossil was estimated to be at least 50,000 years old. The fact that it was discovered from lower stratum its life further going back in time – may be a million years or more – remained a possibility. Experts believed it had catapulted Kashmir into the great mammoth era. The significance of the find lay in the strong prospect of its redefining natural and climatic history of Kashmir. Given the ‘discovery’ of stone and bone implements, the find could alter the widely held belief about the oldest evidence of human presence in the subcontinent, especially Kashmir. In short, the unearthing of the fossil was one of the most significant archaeological developments regarding Kashmir’s past.

The euphoria was still high when in 2007 news broke that the precious find was surreptitiously removed from its makeshift tin shed at the excavation site. On 3 April 2007, Dr. Abdul Majid Dar, one of the two geology teachers who had chanced upon the find, visited the site and, to his shock and disbelief, found “both the skull and the tusk are missing”. He feared that these had been smuggled out of Kashmir for sale in the international market. The incident left people in general and lovers of Kashmir heritage appalled. Incidentally, five years before the theft, fears had been expressed in the State Legislature about the safety of the find whereupon the Government had assured of “proper watch and ward” arrangements of the find, besides promising to declare the area as a “protected site once the authenticity of the findings is established.” However, the assurance proved false.

As days passed, the fossil was found parked in the University of Jammu’s Geology Department. It turned out that a teacher of the University of Kashmir who was earlier co-opted for excavation of the fossil, on his return to University of Jammu – his parent institution – had illegally taken away the prized collection and, shockingly, also bragged about the theft. “Yes, I have shifted it. I didn’t need permission from anybody. I have done whatever I had to do. They can go to court”, he was quoted as saying in the Himalayan Mail, a subsidiary publication of the Indian Express from Jammu. When voices for getting back the stolen fossil began to rise in Kashmir, an artificial opposition by students of the University of Jammu was engineered to thwart its return. A four- member recovery team sent to Jammu met with hostile situation there and returned empty handed. 

In 2011, a shocking news came from Jammu that “the rare fossil is gathering dust in the corridor of the Jammu University’s Geology department” and that “exposure to changing climatic conditions and the elements in the air for over eight years has started taking its toll on the fossil, with officials helplessly watching its destruction.” Ten years after its illegal removal from Kashmir and assurances on its return held out by the then Vice Chancellor, University of Jammu who is now an advisor to the Chief Minister, the fossil is still illegally held by the University of Jammu. In fact, it is now permanently installed at the newly set up Wadia Museum of Natural History giving enough indication that the University has no plans to return it to Kashmir. Not to talk of return, it even refuses to share information on the status of the fossil terming it ‘out of the realms of public interest’. In response to an RTI application seeking information about the status of the fossil and why it was not returned to Kashmir, the University asked the applicant to “justify the public interest involved in the disclosure of the information sought”. When confronted with a counter argument that if seeking information on the theft of a priceless object holding information on natural and climatic history of the land of 7 million people was not of public interest what else would be, the PIO of the University wrote back that the information “will be supplied in due course”. The ‘due course’ being an undefined timeline, it might entail decades. The University of Kashmir that financed the excavation of the fossil, has taken the cover of a ruling by the ‘Apex Court’ in a certain case to deny information. Obviously, both universities were helping each other out in keeping facts from the public domain. Incredibly, nobody was held responsible for the theft, nor for illegally holding the fossil. The height of insensitivity of the Government could be measured by the fact that it failed to perform even the basic responsibility of filing a case against the daylight robbery. An inquiry committee announced by the University of Kashmir in 2007 never took off. The Chief Minister’s instructions to get back the fossil from Jammu remained proverbial Hukm-i-Nawab ta dar-i-Nawab (The ruler’s orders are obeyed not beyond his door).  

The discovery and purloin of a mammoth fossil from Kashmir was not the first incident of its kind. An elephant tusk and bones were excavated from the same area in 1931 by Dr. de Terra, then research associate at the Carnegie Institution of Washington who was twice sent on expedition to India by Yale. On his return from the first expedition, Terra took the mammoth with him and installed it in New Haven. When Maharaja Hari Singh came to know about it, he wrote to the University asking for the return of the mammoth. Although Terra claimed that he had a written authorization from the Kashmir Government to take the fossil out “but as I wanted to go back to Kashmir, I decided to return it.” Hari Singh had the mammoth installed in his palace for, lo and behold, “using its tusk as coat-hangers”. When in 1935 he left Kashmir where he had “extracted so much inspiring information” in his search for traces of pre-historic man, Dr. de Terra felt “as though we had laid a foundation on which pre-historic research on early man in India can be built in the years to come.” The 1931 fossil was shifted to the Sri Pratap Singh (SPS) Museum Srinagar. 

Khalid Bashir is the author of Kashmir- Exposing the myth behind the narrative