Battling Burzhoam

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Key to the early settlement of mankind in the Neolithic era, Burzhoam is the world’s most recognized site that holds answers to a lot of questions. Though most of the items recovered from the spot have been shifted to far-off museums, the site is in mess and utter neglect, reports Aaqib Hyder

The historical Burzhoam. Image: Nitasha KaulThe historical Burzhoam. Image: Nitasha Kaul

The historical Burzhoam. Image: Nitasha Kaul

At a 15 kms drive from Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar, one lands in the famous Burzhoam village. Famous for housing thousands of year’s old human establishment and heritage site, it is a vast expanse of open land on top of a raised ground or karewa.

Although barely a minute’s walk away from the main road, a motorable macadamized path can be seen slithering its way up to the site top. Few rusted boards stand in silence on the top displaying information about the site in both English and Urdu. Half a dozen menhirs stand tall and a few are lying flat almost in the middle of the site. Menhirs are huge upright rocks found in different parts of the world having a prehistoric/Neolithic origin. Menhirs of a similar kind are also found in different areas of Kashmir like Sombur and Hariparigom areas of Pulwama district.

A few meters away from the menhirs are the historic pits which served as home to the Neolithic man for centuries.The pits are oval, rectangular or square in shape and the insides were plastered with mud. The largest pit measure 2.74 meters at the top, 4.75 meters at the base with a depth of 3.95 meters. The discovery of these pits which were narrow at the top and wider at the base documented and established the change in the habitat of an ancient man with time. The site is also on the UNESCO world heritage watch list.

“The Neolithic site of Burzhoam brings to light transitions in human habitation patterns from the Neolithic period to megalithic period to the early historic period,” UNESCO has noted. “The site of Burzhoam is a unique comprehensive storyteller of life between 3000 BC to 1000 BC.”

A view of Burzhoam heritage site. KL Image: Aaqib Hyder

Burzhoam is the first Neolithic site which was discovered in Kashmir dating back to 3000-1000 BC. Other analogous sites like Gufkral inTral were discovered later but Burzhoam is unique among them all. It is unique because it showcases different stages of evolution of ancient Neolithic man. Moreover, the findings at Burzhoam bridged many gaps in the ancient material culture of the Neolithic age and has established parallels of our ancestors with the cultures of Central Asia, Harappan civilization, Pakistan and China. On top of everything, some historians have termed Burzhoam as the oldest human establishment in Kashmir ever found.

The discovery of the site was first reported in the mid-1930s when small scale excavations were conducted by the Yale-Cambridge expedition headed by De Terra and Paterson in 1939. The excavations brought to light four phases of history at the site: the first two are Neolithic and the third and the fourth of Megalithic origins. The excavations were taken up again by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for over a decade in the early 1960s under the supervision of TN Khazanchi.

Mohammad Maqbool Dar, a septuagenarian local resident who has watched the site for over 16 years as a monument attendant, vividly remembers the day when a team headed by Sardari Lal Shali, a Pandit of Habba Kadal, arrived in Burzhoam in the early 1960s. The team which comprised of four Pandit supervisors and some foreigners employed Dar as a labourer in late 1960s. He worked at the same site for five years at Rs 1.5, a day. After watching his skilled labour and sincerity, the ASI took him on rolls and employed him as a monument-attendant for the site.

Mohammad Maqbool Dar who was monument attendant of Burzhoam for 16 years. KL Image: Aaqib Hyder

“I have personally witnessed the excavation of highly valuable artefacts and early man skeletons from the site,” Dar said. “After being associated with it for such a long time, I have the absolute realization of how massively important the site is. It pains me to see its condition now.”

From officials in pre-90s-Governments to present and academicians of current times, Dar said he has personally met many to bring their attention towards the pathetic condition of the site but nothing substantial was ever done. He believes it is also the responsibility of academicians sitting in big universities to stress upon the importance of Burzhoam and put pressure on the administration to preserve it.

“When I was the site monument attendant, I was so possessive and sensitive about its betterment that I once got my own uncle and another relative arrested for interfering with it,” he said.

During the excavation process, Dar remembers every single artefact and skeletons which were discovered under the ground. Skeletons as long as 7 feet, pots filled with beads, tools made of bones and stone like harpoons, axes and needles, small clay hearths along with flint stones and stones in the shape of passels were among the findings. Burnt birch was also found during the excavations which justifies the name Burzhoam translating as ‘a place of birch’. As the name suggests, birch trees must have been grown in abundance in ancient times there. Apart from all these findings, Dar remembers an excavated stone which intrigued him the most.

“During the excavation, we exhumed a slightly damaged flat stone with a painting depicting a hunting scene,” Dar remembers. “As the face of the stone was cleared, wide smiles spread around every supervisor’s face which made me think that the stone must be very important.”

With time and after several studies on the stone slab, Dar’s observation turned out more than right. The scene on the stone showed two human figures, one male and another female, hunting a stag using arrows and a spear. On the top side, there were two illuminating spherical objects which analysts thought were either moon and sun or a depiction of sunrise and sunset.

Recent research published in the reputed Indian Journal of The history of Science argues that the second spherical object is a supernova. The scene is believed to be the oldest ever illustration of a supernova (an exploding star) in human history dating back to 2100-4100 BC.

The excavated stone termed as the first depiction of supernova ever.KL Image: Aaqib Hyder

Although the scene possibly portrays one of the principal occupations of the Burzahom people, i.e; hunting but its extraordinary significance in Astro-sciences makes it highly valuable. Some researchers have even termed it as the oldest sky chart ever discovered.

The same was reiterated by a study conducted by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai in collaboration with Astro Physikalisches Institute Potsdam, Germany.

“We, therefore, investigate the possibility that the rock drawing is the record of the supernova HB9 which exploded around 4500 BC. We suggest that this is not only a terrestrial hunting scene but is actually a sky-map giving the location of prominent constellations and the Moon on the day the supernova was first observed,” the researchers noted.

The historical Burzhoam. Image: Nitasha Kaul

The historical Burzhoam. Image: Nitasha Kaul

The stone along with other valued artefacts, tools and skeletons were sent to Kolkata for tests like carbon dating which revealed that their origin dates back from 1500 to 2500 BC. Five decades have passed since then but the artefacts are yet to be returned back to the state; some of them untraceable now. These artefacts which archaeologists believe can establish and redefine the evidence of 5000 years old human presence in Kashmir are adorning the walls of museums and storehouses outside the state. Experts see it as an act of looting the state’s culture and identity.

After the excavations ended in the early 1970s, the then Chief Minister GM Sadiq ordered an on-site museum be built which would serve both academic and touristic purposes but the proposal never materialized on the ground. Till date, the main reason for that is the non-availability of the artefacts which were excavated from the site.

Successive governments have also reiterated the proposal many times but no serious initiatives have been taken yet to bring the artefacts back. The ASI officials denied having any concerns with those artefacts in exile and put the responsibility on the Department of State Archives and Archaeology. In turn, the latter put the ball back in ASI’s court.

“If the site is under the jurisdiction of ASI, so are the artefacts and every other thing associated with it,” a curator at the SPS museum said. “Although, two years ago, we were asked by the ASI to make space for those artefacts in SPS Museum which we did that time only (but) the artefacts never arrived.”

Ghulam Mohammad Rather, 67, another resident recalls the time when excavations were started in the early 1960s. A little kid at that time, Rather recalls Shali carrying a huge book with data and photographs from the excavations of the 1940s. As Shali was tallying the images with the current landscape of the site, the curious kid inside Rather stole a look in one of the pages. He was surprised to find his grandfather in one of the photos working as a labourer. Later on, he would go to the site frequently to see the excavation process first hand. He is one of those locals who wish to see the site preserved and saved in its original form.

“The main problem is that people are not aware enough about the importance of this site,” Rather said. “When GM Sadiq ordered to make an on-site museum in the 80s, people protested against the move because they were more concerned about losing the grazing land for their animals.”

Interestingly, a few years ago, some residents had moved to court demanding the land be given to the locals, barring developmental work in and around the site. The case was closed recently when the people who had lodged the case stopped attending the hearings altogether. Now the ASI (Srinagar circle) has started some developmental work on the site. A wooden path has been already constructed around the pits to preserve them, make them easily accessible and appealing. Proper fencing of the site is also being planned. However, a top ASI official cited non-cooperation of the residents as one of the main reasons for ‘monumental neglect’ and delay in the preservation of Burzhoam site.

“Sometime back, we erected demarcation pillars around the site for fencing, but they were gone the next morning,” he said. “Only a month back, we constructed a wooden pathway around the pits but it was demolished at a few places in a matter of a few days. We had to construct it again.”

It is a tragedy that a historical site which can arguably be called as the rarest evidence of our thousands of years’ old history is better known as a famous cricket playground now. The site is being used by youth and children as a playground for last many years now but the much-hyped Burzhama Premier League(BPL) has put it in the limelight of local cricketing circles in general and common people in particular. Its rich archaeological identity has been glossed over by a different sports image, thereby robbing today’s generation of the realization that how much value the place has. Some experts have even raised concerns about these ongoing cricket tournaments on the site in which heavy rollers are being used for pitch flattening.They fear that activities of such kind are harmful for the archaeological essence of the site and may destroy numerous fossils and artefacts which are possibly still lying under the ground.

“I brought this into the department’s notice when youth started playing cricket tournaments on the site for the first time,” Mohammad Maqbool Bhat who is currently the monument attendant at the site said. “Archaeology officials and others visited the site thereafter but to no avail. All kinds of external disturbances on the site will be properly hindered only when the site gets proper fencing.”

Neolithic dwelling pits at the site. KL Image: Aaqib Hyder

On the contrary, some residents allege that there is a nexus in place which involves department officials and police. They allege that the two departments got several chances to stop the detrimental activities going in and around the site but they didn’t act.

“A few days after the BPL started, a group of policemen visited the site and raised objections. Just a few moments passed and they left the place peacefully, never to return again. Either they were bribed or the league organizers had some sufarish in ASI,” a local said, wishing not to be named.

However, the allegations were trashed by officials at ASI. “Our job is to report the illegal activities on and near the site which we have already done by drafting and sending a report to the Tehsildar and SHO Hazratbal, Srinagar. Taking action doesn’t come under our jurisdiction,” an official said.

Mohammad Saleem Beg, Convener for INTACH J&K chapter (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) argues that onus to save the site from public interventions is on the district administration from the very beginning. “People saw a vast piece of unfenced land sitting idle and they started playing in it,” Beg said. “It was the job of the district administration to firstly aware people of the site’s importance and then take strict action against the offenders.”

The historical Burzhoam. Image: Nitasha Kaul

The historical Burzhoam. Image: Nitasha Kaul

Beg said there is an Act of parliament already in place by the name of AMASR Act (Archaeological Sites And Remains Act), which makes any kind of harmful intervention in and around an archaeological site as a cognizable offence, entailing to imprisonment but it hasn’t been invoked by the authorities in case of Burzhama. Several public interventions in general and particularly the sports tournaments are destroying the site’s archaeological essence and harming the repository of artefacts which are possibly still lying underneath the area but unfortunately, nothing is being done to stop them.

“It is a district administration issue and should have been dealt with accordingly which hasn’t happened till date,” Beg regretted. “Ironically, some of the sports tournaments organized on the site were patronized by the district administration itself. If the situation remains the same, we will lose this treasured link to our history and identity forever.”

Numerous sites of huge archaeological and historical value like Burzhoam, which should have been explored and studied upon by experts and students alike, are still craving for attention and proper preservation. When there should have been a proper debate going on about more extensive research and exploration of these sites, the administration is still stuck and struggling for its preservation. For a start, these sites should be preserved properly and people should be made aware of their importance so that a way is paved towards a serious academic and administrative interaction with these valuable assets which are still ripe with tons of archaeological evidence and insights.

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