Vandalised Burzahom stares at delisting from UNESCO

Within six months of state government announcing its decision to complete the formalities as required by UNESCO for designating Neolithic site of Burzahom as World Heritage Site, the ground situation at the site has turned bad to worse. With no government oversight, the creeping encroachments and open vandalisation have created a situation where experts warn that forget world heritage status, Burzahom site faces delisting from even tentative list of UNESCO.

Last December advisor to Governor Khurshid Ahmed Ganai convened a meeting to discuss modalities for preparation of the dossier for submission to UNESCO. Ganai asked the Culture Department to float expression of interest for engaging a consultant to prepare the dossier and help in filing the nominations with UNESCO. The successful proposal would have moved Burzahom from tentative list to permanent list of world heritage site. “Considering the immense historical significance of these sites, their inscription on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites will bring in much-needed international attention and appreciation to the gardens and Neolithic site. It will also increase the footfall of foreign tourists, researchers, students and prove to be an economic driver besides preservation,” the official statement read at that time.

However the ground situation at Burzahom has turned from bad to worse particularly during these months. A visit of concerned team of citizens recently found that the 5000 year old site has been turned into a sports field. “Burzahom site has become a playground where cricket tournaments are regularly being held, tents pitched, rollers used, megaliths defaced and vehicles brought in 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 the significance of one of the most important historical sites in South Asia. For them the Burzahom is known more for Burzahom Premier League (BPL) than its history rewriting past.

“This site is described in UNESCO listing as a unique comprehensive story teller of life between 3000 BCE to 1000 BCE. The whole site has been converted into a cricket field. It was worrying that now officials are sponsoring cricket tournaments there. This tantamounts to extreme kind of vandalism and may lead to its delisting by UNESCO,” said Beigh, recently at a conference in Kashmir University. “Further it will remove the most significant layer of our prehistory and also obliterate chances of any further site investigation. This needs immediate attention of ASI and the State Government.”

In its listing UNESCO describes Burzahom with rich historical wealth. “The results of excavations have provided dynamics of interchange of ideas between central Asia and South West Asia through the valley of Kashmir which acted as a bridge between higher Himalayas and beyond on the one hand, and Gangetic plains and peninsular India on the other hand during the third millennium B.C,” says UNESCO in its description of Burzahom. “From transition in architecture to development in tool-making techniques to introduction and diffusion of lentil in the north-western India, the site of Burzahom is a unique comprehensive story teller of life between 3000 BCE to 1000 BCE.”

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

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

“Government should arrange a separate sports stadium for the people and save the Burzahom site, but instead they are encouraging them to use the site” said Beigh.

Cricket is not the only headache for the site, but the encroachments in the shape of graveyards, orchards and ever creeping concrete constructions further aggravate the problems. Two graveyards have come up on the 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 left behind, government has even built a macadamised road right upto the top of the karewa.

The sanctum sanctorum of the site, the excavated pits are becoming litter ground, where people throw plastic bottles and empty chips packets.

Burzahom in Kashmiri means abode of Burza (birch) trees, which were in abundance at this place. The site has never been properly excavated and only a limited excavation happened at the place twice once in 1930s and later in 1960s.

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

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

Pointing towards the ingenuity of the community, the report details how the people adapted to the adverse climatic conditions with innovations such as underground dwelling pits and use of wool. Almost all stone and bone tools exhibit highly skilled nature and professional competence of people.

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

The site of Burzahom was discovered by H. De. Terra and TT Peterson of a Yale-Cambridge expedition in 1935. At that time they were actively 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 TN Khazanchi between 1960 and 1971. Khazanchi passed away without being able to complete the report and it was Fonia who completed the pending work. It took Fonia almost a decade to draft the report as he had to work through tonnes of data and findings.

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

“The site is on the brink of extinction. World over Burzahom has a high image which wrote new chapters in Kashmir history. Every year I receive 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 Mumtaz Yatoo, a leading archaeologist and neolithic expert.

During 60’s it is recorded that five megaliths were standing erect at the site. Today there is hardly one and local boys climb on it regularly thus ensuring the last remaining stone won’t be erect for a long time too.

Yatoo who along with other experts have been working to save the site, says the government decision to macadamise the road upto the Karewa has 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 the stratification underneath and future explorer won’t be able to find anything,” said Yatoo.

He suggested three things to safeguard the site. “Fence the site, bring back artefacts, allow re-excavation and build an on site museum,” said Yatoo. “Only then the site will be protected for posterity. The government has no idea how many tourists and how much income it will generate besides inspiring 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 Burzahom site. “There are excavated pits on the site and they have decided to bring in hundreds of truckloads of earth to fill up them, so that their playground will be flattened and extended. It is huge cricket mafia. The tournament generates a revenue of around half a crore every year, so spending some of it won’t be a problem for them,” said an insider. “This will completely destroy the site and UNESCO will simply delist the site by terming it as lost forever.”

ASI on the other hand is simply watching as a mute spectator. In their previous negotiations with locals, they have been accused of ceding land to graveyards and other things with nothing in return. They have all the materials for fencing, but have not done even an inch of fencing. “May be they are waiting for the site to turn into a major stadium so that they will close their office here and get relieved of the headache,” said an insider.

Yatoo agrees with the notion too. “Why will UNESCO consider it for a heritage site. There is nothing. The excavation findings are 60 year old 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 manage it, UNESCO may consider it, but not in current condition.”