Saving Burzahom’s 5000 year old history

“Right in front of our eyes we are watching the systematic destruction of Burzahom Archeological Site and we are unable to do anything,” said Dr Ajmal Shah Assistant Professor-cum-Curator at Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.
Saving Burzahom’s 5000 year old history
GK Photo

At the ancient site of Burzahom it is a race against time. The odds are heavily decked against it for its survival. Not only are living encroaching on the 5000 year old civilisational remnants of Kashmir but dead ones too have joined the race. The faithful who die in the vicinity are being buried over or on the side of ancient Kashmiris who till date have remained interred, some with dogs, for five to six millennia, undisturbed. Two graveyards are firmly established on the famed plateau which when excavated had pushed date of Kashmir's history to earliest known records and captivated archeologists all around the world. 

The satellite imagery dated 2003 showed no sign of graveyard there, confirming the worst. A faded board stands chained with a tree with the help of barbed wire. The colour of the board has been replaced by different hues of rust, but one can still read Urdu writing, 'property of Masjid.' 

Just near the graveyard, which going by the markings is surely getting divided and expanded simultaneously, is brand new orchard. Somebody has surely managed to grab a piece of real estate and he will surely increase its size as its bulging boundary points out. Doomed is the nearby half-excavated ground, whose days are now counted. Again 2003 satellite imagery shows there was nothing on ground at the place of orchard.

"Right in front of our eyes we are watching the systematic destruction of Burzahom Archeological Site and we are unable to do anything," said Dr Ajmal Shah Assistant Professor-cum-Curator at Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University. "Encroachment and so called developmental projects are its biggest threat."

The developmental project which Dr Ajmal pointed out is carving out of road to the top of the plateau. "The road being built at the site will definitely be the final nail in the coffin of Burzahom," said Ajmal. "They have already put gravel and a tender has been floated by the Department of Tourism for construction and macadamization of a road approaching to Burzahom. It is an example of how heritage sites are lost to the modern urbanization."

The experts fear that the heavy construction machinery will destroy everything that is buried at the site. "The rollers will destroy artefacts and other material forever," said Ajmal.

The irony is that few years back government had allowed construction of a health centre on the site itself, but had to later backtrack following severe resentment. The construction material still lies scattered there. A place has been turned into a cricket ground and the youth have brought in their own rollers that is permanently stationed there. One can see plastic bottles thrown into the excavated pits that are supposed to have been protected.

The site has never been properly excavated and only a limited excavation happened at the place twice once in 1930s and later in 1960s.

Burzahom in Kashmiri means abode of Burza trees. As the name suggests area must had a large number of such trees which were used to make thatched roofs in traditional houses.

"In 1935 a team of two English officials H D Terra and T T Peterson had heard about ancient artefacts in the area. They requested the Maharaja who allowed them to excavate and here they found clay pots, slabs, stone tools etc. Back then it was a big find and would have continued but a group of local Kashmiris told them a major storm is coming from the mountains. Scared the Englishmen left," says writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal who has been following the place for a long time.

After a long hiatus, former Prem Minister G M Sadiq became interested in Burzahom and he deputed head of Department of Archeology T N Khazanchi to resume the digging. It was a massive success as they recovered human skeleton, evidence of pit dwellings, paintings of hunting scenes and many other artefacts.

Khayal was part of the journalistic team who were invited by former Prime Minister G M Sadiq to visit the site and see the artefacts. "I saw it myself, the 8ft long skeletons, pottery, skulls and other things," said Khayal. "Sadiq was ecstatic and he announced that an international museum will be made at the site. But before that could materialise Government of India told them that we will check the date of all these artefacts to see whether they are certainly 5000 year old. They took away all the find and never gave it back."

Khayal terms it a pure cultural loot. No leader ever pursued the case with New Delhi to get back the artefacts. "Burzahom is our only major evidence of 5000 year old history and when it is gone how will we boast of our old heritage," said Khayal who termed the ancient people of an advanced civilisation. "They were not just ignorant pit dwellers. We saw skulls which had holes in them, a sort of operation was conducted on them to take out brain. Similarly other tools attested to their advancement."


Last August Archeological Survey of India (ASI) in a report also revealed new insights into the Burzahom culture. It indicated that Kashmir had a fledgling international trade with neighbouring countries as early as 5000 years ago. 

Highlighting the glorious past of Kashmir, the report compiled on the unpublished findings of excavation of Burzahom, had brought to fore many new facets of the valley. According to the report Kashmiris in olden times were traditionally an artisan community, adept at weaving and intricate craftsmanship.

The findings submitted by the outgoing additional director general ASI, RS Fonia,  indicated that the inhabitants of Burzahom were far advanced than the general image of pit dwellers made out of them.  

The report links the Neolithic (or New Stone Age) site to the contemporary Indus Valley civilisation and establish the inhabitants' regular trade with the Harappans. 

The Burzahom site is unique in the sense that it showcases different stages of evolution of people from food gathered to food producer ranging from 3000 BC to 1000 BC. During the excavations the archeologists unearthed large number of artefacts, many of whom were in good condition and provided an insight into ancient era. 

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. The intelligence of people gets further credence with the evidence that people continuously innovated, and technology of that era was gradually taken to higher level. The items found included new tool types such as double-edged picks, spindle whorls, spear-heads, copper arrowheads, harvesters, celts and knife blades. 

Almost all stone and bone tools exhibit highly skilled nature and professional competence of people. The manufacturing of stone and bone tools show professional competence, skilled technique and cultural contacts. The report specially mentions stone and bone harvesters with two holes for handling it, indicating contacts with China.

Prof Vasant Shinde, Vice-chancellor of Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, while speaking to media after the publishing of this report said that Kashmir Neolithic culture not only was impacted by the Harappan civilisation but it in itself also impacted them. He termed the finding of proof of high quality textile at Burzahom as proof that Kashmiris had artisanry in their genes which they innovated and made their tradition.

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 completing the pending work. Fonia had extensive knowledge of the archeological scene in Kashmir as he had served as the superintending archaeologist in Jammu and Kashmir from 1985 to 1997. It took Fonia almost a decade to draft the report as he had to work through tonnes of data and findings. 


However, all is not done at Burzahom as the area still needs excavation to know the truth. "The area is unexplored and we need to excavate it as soon as possible before the government and private vandalism destroys it," said Dr Ajmal.   

Not only Burzahom but the entire area upto Harwan is ripe with archeological finds. As people are unaware most of it is being lost without anybody knowing. From the sightings of a human skeleton found in a large vase to usual terracotta and pottery artefacts being found during construction in the area, nothing is being documented or preserved.

At Burzahom too construction of houses is creeped into the plateau. In the pictures of Burzahom sting to 1960's one can see endless plain which today has become urban jungle of concrete houses.

ASI has utterly failed in the protection of the historical site. They have been unable to prevent encroachment and vandalisation of the site. Their officials even are unable be traced. When called an official of ASI said that Burzahom is looked after by another officials whose office is at Makhdoom Sahib. At Makhdoom Sahib the unmarked green shed was closed with no whereabouts of ASI officials. A phone number of SE is continuously switched off.

ASI has filed court cases against encroachers which have done nothing on ground. "We usually do find some artefacts while digging for construction or even graves. Not to get involved in litigation we stomp it back in earth," said a resident without wanting to be named.


The biggest has remained the repatriation of artefacts taken away from Burzahom. "They took away everything. They could have taken those iconic megaliths too had they been of lower weight," said Khayal. 

The artefacts are currently at Purana Qilla storehouse of ASI in New Delhi and anthropological survey office India Kolkatta. Recently when some Kashmiri researchers went to see them, they were denied the access and after much persuasion were shown few skeletons only. This has led to fear that majority of artefacts have been misplaced.

Ajmal and other archeologists advocate turning Birzahom into Site Museum. "As of now there is nothing, but if excavation is allowed we are sure to get treasure trove of artefacts. We will clean them and keep it as it is by making it site museum. People will come to know how those people lived," said Ajmal. "Regarding excavation archeologists all around the world are interested in Burzahom and a green signal from government will send everybody coming to Kashmir. It will generate its own revenue too and government need not spend anything."

However the question remains, will the secrets of Burzahom be revealed or they will perish with time, only time will tell. 

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