Vandalised Burzahom stares at delisting from UNESCO

How a cricket tournament is destroying 5000 years of Kashmir’s history
Vandalised Burzahom stares at delisting from UNESCO

Within six months of state government announcing itsdecision to complete the formalities as required by UNESCO for designatingNeolithic site of Burzahom as World Heritage Site, the ground situation at thesite has turned bad to worse. With no government oversight, the creepingencroachments and open vandalisation have created a situation where expertswarn that forget world heritage status, Burzahom site faces delisting from evententative list of UNESCO.

Last December advisor to Governor Khurshid Ahmed Ganaiconvened a meeting to discuss modalities for preparation of the dossier forsubmission to UNESCO. Ganai asked the Culture Department to float expression ofinterest for engaging a consultant to prepare the dossier and help in filingthe nominations with UNESCO. The successful proposal would have moved Burzahomfrom tentative list to permanent list of world heritage site. "Considering theimmense historical significance of these sites, their inscription on the UNESCOList of World Heritage Sites will bring in much-needed international attentionand appreciation to the gardens and Neolithic site. It will also increase thefootfall of foreign tourists, researchers, students and prove to be an economicdriver besides preservation," the official statement read at that time.

However the ground situation at Burzahom has turned from badto worse particularly during these months. A visit of concerned team of citizensrecently found that the 5000 year old site has been turned into a sports field."Burzahom site has become a playground where cricket tournaments are regularlybeing held, tents pitched, rollers used, megaliths defaced and vehicles broughtin with ease without any consideration of the vital site," said Salim Beigh,state convener of INTACH, who was also part of the team.

The irony is that the youngsters have no idea of thesignificance of one of the most important historical sites in South Asia. Forthem the Burzahom is known more for Burzahom Premier League (BPL) than itshistory rewriting past.

"This site is described in UNESCO listing as a uniquecomprehensive story teller of life between 3000 BCE to 1000 BCE. The whole sitehas been converted into a cricket field. It was worrying that now officials aresponsoring cricket tournaments there. This tantamounts to extreme kind ofvandalism and may lead to its delisting by UNESCO," said Beigh, recently at aconference in Kashmir University. "Further it will remove the most significantlayer of our prehistory and also obliterate chances of any further siteinvestigation. This needs immediate attention of ASI and the State Government."

In its listing UNESCO describes Burzahom with richhistorical wealth. "The results of excavations have provided dynamics ofinterchange of ideas between central Asia and South West Asia through thevalley of Kashmir which acted as a bridge between higher Himalayas and beyondon the one hand, and Gangetic plains and peninsular India on the other handduring the third millennium B.C," says UNESCO in its description of Burzahom."From transition in architecture to development in tool-making techniques tointroduction and diffusion of lentil in the north-western India, the site ofBurzahom is a unique comprehensive story teller of life between 3000 BCE to1000 BCE."

The team found that apart from destruction to the ground thelocals have been relentlessly damaging sign boards and structures built aroundthe pits. Archeological Survey of India (ASI), which is in charge of the sitehave been erecting detailed boards only to find them damaged or stoned nextday.

Over the years, BPL has become a major cricket tournamentwith dozens of teams participating in it. Organisers even broadcast the cricketmatches live on social media complete with live scoreboard tickers on aprofessional pattern. Even district administration has been activelyencouraging the tournament. All this is being done at the expense of thearcheological site. The BPL has grown into a major affair and participatingteams have to cough up about Rs 70000 for entry.

"Government should arrange a separate sports stadium for thepeople and save the Burzahom site, but instead they are encouraging them to usethe site" said Beigh.

Cricket is not the only headache for the site, but theencroachments in the shape of graveyards, orchards and ever creeping concreteconstructions further aggravate the problems. Two graveyards have come up onthe plateau which few years back were not there. Just adjacent to the site,somebody has excavated the ground to make way for his bungalow. Not to be leftbehind, government has even built a macadamised road right upto the top of thekarewa.

The sanctum sanctorum of the site, the excavated pits arebecoming litter ground, where people throw plastic bottles and empty chipspackets.

Burzahom in Kashmiri means abode of Burza (birch) trees,which were in abundance at this place. The site has never been properlyexcavated and only a limited excavation happened at the place twice once in1930s and later in 1960s.

Former Prime Minister of J&K G M Sadiq wanted to buildan international museum at the place after the massive discovery of variousartefacts, but the central government took away all the artefacts in the nameof research. Till date they have not been returned.

The ASI report of 2018 compiled on the unpublished findingsof excavation of Burzahom, indicated that Kashmir had a fledgling internationaltrade with neighbouring countries as early as 5000 years ago and people werefar advanced than the general image of pit dwellers made out of them.  The findings of bone needles, cotton, wooland other fabric have added a new chapter to ancient Kashmir economy by provingthat the state had a dominant textile industry thousands of years ago. Numberof artefacts like pendants, beads, terracotta bangles give credence beyonddoubt that Kashmir freely traded with present day Pakistan, China and othersub-Himalayan areas.

Pointing towards the ingenuity of the community, the reportdetails how the people adapted to the adverse climatic conditions withinnovations such as underground dwelling pits and use of wool. Almost all stoneand bone tools exhibit highly skilled nature and professional competence ofpeople.

The findings also confirmed the previous notions that peopleof that era gave special position to dogs and goats and some of them wereburied alongside  people.

The site of Burzahom was discovered by H. De. Terra and TTPeterson of a Yale-Cambridge expedition in 1935. At that time they wereactively pursuing their expedition to find traces of early man and associated human culture in the Kashmir valley.The trial diggings suggested further excavations that were undertaken by TNKhazanchi between 1960 and 1971. Khazanchi passed away without being able tocomplete the report and it was Fonia who completed the pending work. It tookFonia almost a decade to draft the report as he had to work through tonnes ofdata and findings.

Experts fear that the significance of the site may remain intext books only as the ground situation is contrary to that.

"The site is on the brink of extinction. World over Burzahomhas a high image which wrote new chapters in Kashmir history. Every year Ireceive so many scholars who want to see Burzahom and when I take them there,their only question is, 'Is this burzahom, there is nothing'," said Dr MumtazYatoo, a leading archaeologist and neolithic expert.

During 60's it is recorded that five megaliths were standingerect at the site. Today there is hardly one and local boys climb on itregularly thus ensuring the last remaining stone won't be erect for a long timetoo.

Yatoo who along with other experts have been working to savethe site, says the government decision to macadamise the road upto the Karewahas made the matters worse.

"Hundreds of vehicles go on top of the Karewa during tournaments,rollers are always there. We fear all this must have destroyed thestratification underneath and future explorer won't be able to find anything,"said Yatoo.

He suggested three things to safeguard the site. "Fence thesite, bring back artefacts, allow re-excavation and build an on site museum,"said Yatoo. "Only then the site will be protected for posterity. The governmenthas no idea how many tourists and how much income it will generate besidesinspiring more research and young minds."

As of now the BPL organisers are planning their next move,which if allowed will be the final nail in the coffin of 5000 year old Burzahomsite. "There are excavated pits on the site and they have decided to bring inhundreds of truckloads of earth to fill up them, so that their playground willbe flattened and extended. It is huge cricket mafia. The tournament generates arevenue of around half a crore every year, so spending some of it won't be aproblem for them," said an insider. "This will completely destroy the site andUNESCO will simply delist the site by terming it as lost forever."

ASI on the other hand is simply watching as a mutespectator. In their previous negotiations with locals, they have been accusedof ceding land to graveyards and other things with nothing in return. They haveall the materials for fencing, but have not done even an inch of fencing. "Maybe they are waiting for the site to turn into a major stadium so that they willclose their office here and get relieved of the headache," said an insider.

Yatoo agrees with the notion too. "Why will UNESCO considerit for a heritage site. There is nothing. The excavation findings are 60 yearold with nothing to follow up and the government is not eager to protect it,"said Yatoo. "Had there been any work taken up on ground to protect and manageit, UNESCO may consider it, but not in current condition."

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