Gufkral, the endangered legacy of cavemen, metallurgists and Shahmar Pals

I have seen huge encroachments at various such sites in India, but never have I seen such massive encroachment, and 100 percent abandonment by ASI and state government.
GK Photo
GK Photo

For the family of Nisar Ahmad Kumar living in Gufkral Tral, the caves in the courtyard of their homes are a problem. They are open invitation for wild animals-bears and porcupines in particular. The dangers of collapse add risk to anybody particularly children venturing there. To deal with the dangerous dusty caves, which they claim are their hereditary property, they did what a normal person concerned with the safety of his family will do, they simply erected a wall to seal off the cave.

Everything looks normal, however there is one catch, neither the caves are ordinary nor the family of Kumar who represent a unique family lineage. The caves of Gufkral are one of the oldest in Kashmir and some estimates trace their origin to 2000-3000 BCE. Even the name of the area Guf (cave) Kral (Potter) comes from these caves. The caves have an enormous archeological value, but the lack of interest from either the state archeological department or the ASI have put the site on a path, which will only hasten their destruction.

According to some historians Gufkral is the place where the first men reaching the valley on early neolithic period settled. 

The area was first explored in 1962-1963 by the Frontier Circle of the Archeological Survey of India. And later it was excavated by an ASI team led by A K Sharma from 18 August to 20 October 1981. The excavation revealed five periods of occupation at the site ranging from Aceramic neolithic to Megalithic and Historical period. The findings include copper bangle, copper pin, stone celts, stone points, ring stone, pounders, querns, bone tools, awls, scape, piercer, polished bone needle, beads, terracotta marble etc.

The Gufkral findings also indicated that in the Kashmir valley wheat, barley and lentils had a much earlier antiquity than did rice, which the staple food of Kashmiris in the valley today and which is grown extensively all over the valley.

According to the findings published in the paper GU'fkraI 1981: An Aceramic Neolithic Site in the Kashmir Valley, "For the first time it has been firmly established that in the Kashmir Valley there was also an Aceramic Neolithic Period before pottery was introduced, It is in this period that the process of domestication of selected species of animals was attempted. People also recognized the food value of various grains as wheat and barley and had started collecting them. Bone and stone tools were manufactured. People lived in the open and in huts with floors sunk into the loessic deposits in order to protect the dwellers from gusty freezing winds. They kept the floors tidy and beautiful by painting them with red-ochre. Their main occupation was hunting."

In his findings Sharma hinted that the site can reveal number of surprises if the excavation is resumed. "One season's limited dig at Gufkral has filled some of the gaps in the cultural sequence of Kashmir and has definitely pushed back the antiquity of the Neolithic Culture in the Valley… From the size of the mound it appeared that Gufkral might reveal a fairly vast settlement."

There used to be number of caves on the slopes of the 35 m high mound, when Sharma started the excavation. The caves were both single and multi-chambered with pillars. A few caves, which are in good condition are used by potters for storage purposes.

"My grandfather Haji Ghulam Mohammed Kumar used to live in these caves and even my father was born in one of these caves" said Nisar. "They have lived in this cave for almost forty years. Later they shifted to the adjacent house."

Regarding the government interest in the caves, Nisar says that few years back some officers had visited the village and inspected some of the caves and after that they have heard nothing from them. "Maybe it is something valuable for them but for us they mean nothing. We use a couple of caves for storing charcoal or pottery and rest is not used that is why they became magnet for wild animals and we had to seal it," said Nisar. "My grandfather died few years back and since then the interest in caves have gone down."

Nisar remembers that his grandfathers used to speak about the caves and how for decades they have sustained them. "Even now in winters I usually shift to one cave that is well preserved. I live their as it is warm during winters and cold during summers," said Nisar.  

Behind the few houses that have popped up more or less in the last decade, lies the narrow path to the top of the Karewa. On the eastern side, almost on its edge, lay number of megaliths. The 6ft by 21 ft stone slabs are locally known as Shahmar Pals (snake stones). "Gufkral is one of the few places where megaliths is found. This site is almost of the same era as of the Burzahom," said Dr Ajmal Shah an archeologist. "Although no concrete theory determines the use of these megaliths, but at many places we have found that megaliths were erected at the place where somebody was buried. So it is a kind of ancient tombstone for important people. At Burzahom we found a skeleton beneath the megalith. In Gufkral unfortunately no megalith is in erect position and all have fallen down."

The megaliths of Gufkral are termed as the oldest not only in Kashmir but in entire North India. "Here megalithic phase started from around 1700 BC and continued till 700 BC. So it is not only earliest also continued till late. In other places megalithic phase ended in 1200 BC," said Ajmal. "The most important aspect of Gufkral is that it is here that iron was introduced in Kashmir. We have earliest evidence of use of iron from Gufkral."

Regarding the families, Ajmal says that it is a unique place where people have continuity of their craft for centuries. "It is such a unique place where we find continuity of culture despite so many changes around," said Ajmal. 

Sharma too in his report has written that few megalith have rolled down upto the river where potters wash clothes on them. 

The army camp that came up on the archeologically rich karewa somewhere in 2000s has also not helped in the preservation of this historic site. Now that part of the Karewa and even adjacent area is out of bounds for anybody. The army personnel had cemented one of the megaliths that has vaguely human features and put a green cover on it. "They call it Pir Baba and regard it in high esteem," said a local. The camp is adjacent to these megaliths adjacent to which is also a helicopter pad. Secondly a school, water storage tank and a Tourism hut have been built on the Karewa without any NOC from archeology department of ASI. 

Nobody knows what do they get when they dig for the foundations. Nisar says that they usually found old pottery material and other items which they usually discard. 

Over the years the rise in the number of houses around the site has put enormous pressure on the caves. The satellite picture of 2000s shown only a few houses in the village and almost none of them near the caves. But today some of the houses are almost built on the caves.

A team of INTACH recently visited the site and termed it as the most endangered neolithic site in entire India. "There is rampant encroachment, vandalisation and increased pressure from habitation. A family has encroached the caves and sealed them. There is no outside archeological evidence left and there is no public access to them," said Salim Beg state convener of INTACH. "I have seen huge encroachments at various such sites in India, but never have I seen such massive encroachment, and 100 percent abandonment by ASI and state government."

Prior to the visit INTACH tried to get reference of the site from ASI and Department of Archives, Archeological and Museums but could not get anything as all conveniently have abandoned it. "ASI has explored this site but they have not notified it. The local department conveniently washes its hand of the site terming it property of ASI. In reality State has its own act and it can explore it. Even a local Tehsildar can protect it under the act," said Beigh. "This is the prehistoric site where excavation has been done and there is proof of its importance and yet it stands abandoned. Given its present situation it is the most endangered identified prehistoric site in India."

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