Kashmir is one of the few locations across South Asia that still retains tell-tale details of the pre-historic settlements starting from the Neolithic age, writes archaeologist Dr R S Bisht

Archaeologist Javed carrying Kim, the 4000-year-old pot discovered in Kashmir early 2017.

On the present showing, the first settlers of Kashmir valley were the Neolithic people who were unfamiliar with the use and manufacture of pottery. The first site that was subjected to extensive excavations was Burzahom situated on a high karewa table land now surrounded by fertile paddy fields and orchards under the shadow of the towering Mahadeo. The location should have been ideal for primitive farming and stock-razing besides hunting and fishing. Excavations at Burzahom were conducted from 1960-1971 by TN Khazanchi of the Archaeological Survey of India.

The cultural deposit is divided into four periods out of which the first two belong to the Neolithic culture, the third to the Megalithic and the last one being the Early Historical. According to Khazanchi, period-I was marked by it dwelling of two types: (I) the large circular pits which are broad at the base and narrow at the top like a truncated cone. (The largest pit is 2.74 m at the top 4.57 m at the base and 3.95 m in depth. In a few cases a hearth on the bottom floor and in most cases walls have been found plastered with clay. Above ground along the margin of the mouth of such pits are found postholes suggesting the existence of a wooden superstructure supporting a roof of perishable materials. In one case two adjacent dwelling pits were connected by an opening for intercommunication).

(11) The dwellings were square or rectangular chambers cut into the loess to the depth of 50 to 1 m. Such partially underground structures seem to have been surrounded by mud-walls some of which indicate timber reinforcement also. (There have been observed successive floorings and hearths containing household goods such as saddle-querns, grinders and a description of tools and refuse. Amongst the tools there are harpoons; arrow heads spear-heads, needles, awls, digging tools, scrapers of bone and antlers and polished axes, adzes, borers, scrapers, chisels, polishers etc. of stone).

The Neolithic folk of this period used a crude and handmade pottery which often bore the impression of a mat on the bottom. Significantly RK Pant (1980) an associated with the excavation asserted that period-I of Burzahomis without pottery. In 1981, Pant’s view found to be correct.

The subsequent excavation at Gufkral in Pulwama conducted by A K Sharma has revealed the similar evidence. This excavation has added new information regarding flora and fauna, both wild and domesticated, whereas such information was sadly lacking at Burzahom.

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

During the period-I1 at Burzahom, (Khazanchiie) lithic and bone tools and the pottery of the proceeding period remained in use but pit dwellings were replaced by mud wall structures. Human as well as animal burials made their appearances. Significantly, early levels of this period yielded a few wheel made pots of red ware of pre-Harappan tradition in addition to the exotic copper tools and carnelian beads. But this context seems to be short lived.

However, there is reason to believe that the beginning of this period is heralded by the sudden appearance of the pre-Harappan pottery, although in very small quantity, in association with the copper tools and carnelian beads and further that the handmade pottery of coarse grey ware of poor technical skill follows the appearance of the pre-Harappan items. Most of shapes found in the Neolithic were poor and a bad imitation of some of the diagnostic shapes of pre-Harappan tradition. It is not unlikely that the Neolithic people of Burzahom learnt the art of pottery making from their pre-Harappan contemporaries with whom they are in contact; may be for a short duration but could not master the technique.

Scholars have tried to connect some of the bone: and stone tools and also the practice of pit dwelling with the Neolithic culture of China and elsewhere. But, this remain a debatable point, as there are no connecting links, at present, in the vast intervening area that separate the two cultural zones. Secondly, no Mangoloid trait is observed in the skeletons from Burzahom. Conversely, the anthropological studies indicate that the Burzahom people were nearer to the Harappan as well as the living population of the Punjab plains. Besides, in the recent years, there have been located and excavated, a few sites in the neighbouring Pakistan where there has been established a long succession of both aceramic and ceramic Neolithic containing a variety of bone and stone tools. This may throw welcome light on the point.

The period-III continuous with the preceding one in respect of pottery and most of the items of common use, is represented by rubble structures and huge menhirs.

The period IV is represented by the existence of the early historical potteries and mic brick structures. The recent findings from Gufkral has largely supplement the result of Burzahom but surely have thrown much more light on the pre-pottery, pottery stages of the Neolithic culture of Burzahom.

With regard to the stratographical position and use of the so called deep circular dwelling pits, Pant opines that these belong to the period-I1 and not to period-I; and further that those were not possibly meant for dwelling at all. No such large pits have been found in the central zone of the settlement whether at Burzahom or at Gufkral. At Burzahom, these pits occupy the margins of the settlement and might have been dug up largely for storage purposes. While no longer in use those were filled with the refuse. Archaeological Survey has located about two and half dozen sites. Nearly two dozen sites were studied by Pant and Nautijal who prepared site wise distribution of the different Neolithic fabrics and made an attempt to establish of stages of the Neolithic expansion in the valley.

Neolithic levels of Burzahom have produced seven (2-14 dates based on half life value of 5730 years. We feel that the first six are fairly consistent and cover a span of about 600 years (2400 to 1800 BC) for deposit of slightly less than 3.50m containing both the aceramic and ceramic levels. Another 200 years may be assigned to the Megalithic phase and thus bringing down the terminal date of the Neolithic tradition to 1600 B.C.

The Fossil Park at Guryul could be a global destination for geologists trying to unravel the great extinction. Image: Mahmood Ahmad

The lower age aceramic period has been further pushed back at Gufkral were the top level of the aceramic has given a date of 2470 BC and thereby suggesting still older date for the beginning. In this chronological framework the appearance of pre-Harappan objects in the beginning of the ceramic phase fits in well. Furthermore, Sharrna has suggested Harappan contact as well in the late phase of the Neolithic at Gufkral.

It is further observed that all the Neolithic settlements so far brought to light in the valley are situated on the high karewa tops or the elevated grounds and none so far on the valley floor.

There followed a long Dark Age of 14 to 15 centuries till the appearance of the Kushanas in the latter half of the 1st century of the Christen era. Two to three centuries before them the Indo-Greek and Indo-Parthian princes ruled over the greater part of the northwest India. Their coins have been reported from Kashmir too, but they remained by and large shadowy personages in the absence of their material culture till the Semthan excavation conclusively proved their debut in Kashmir. Similarly, the association of the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, with Kashmir is notable though earlier held debatable.

However, with the deposit of NBP ware period at Semthan, the later phase of that period coincides with the Mauryan rule. Still significant contribution of Semthan is in the discovery of a new culture, the material of which underlies the NBP deposit and rests on the natural soil.

The most diagnostic and significant item of this period, the ceramics, deserve special attention. Being largely unrelated to the assemblage of the Neolithic Burzahom, the pottery of this period, curiously enough, bears close resemblance in fabric potting. Surface-dressing and certain forms to the Bara and other cognate wares of Punjab and Haryana forms to where it might probably look for ancestry; yet need not be over emphasised (at this) point of time as there might be a chronological hiatus between the two.

Palaeobotanical investigation of GM Butt has established that the people of this period were conversant with the use and cultivation of wheat, barley and rice. In addition to the weeds usually associated with the cultivation of wheat and barley. The blue pine is also recorded.

(With respect to two cultures of Semthan, it is largely established that the NBP flourished from 500 BC to 200 BC although in recent years B BLal has tried to prove that its lower limit could be pushed to 700 BC. On the upper side too, the date might to come 1st century BC).

On most conservative estimates the NBP was flourishing here during the reign of Ashoka. Further in view of the thickness of the deposit and close proximity of Kashmir with Taxila both geographically and historically the beginning of NBP at Semthan could be around 500 BC at which time it was in use at the former.

Naturally, the antecedent culture should be pre-500 BC. In the light of thickness of the available deposit of period-I it is not possible to give it a longer duration than 50 years. Still there remains a gap of about one millennium between the terminal phase of the menhir Neolithic at Burzahom and the early Iron Age of Semthan. Therefore, there still exists a yawning gap that needs further bridging by archaeology.

In retrospect, the beginning of human activities in the valley starts with a long-lived aceramic of Neolithic culture, (if however we dismiss the solitary find of a doubtful Palaeolithic tool that was collected by DrSankalia from the Liddar valley in Pahalgam.)

Pre-pottery Neolithic culture towards its close came in contact with a feeble wave of the pre-Harappan influence, which otherwise, in the neolithic folk who then on started to manufacture the native ceramics. In the terminal stage one finds the erection of menhirs at Burzahom and at many other places such as Haripargom, Waztal, Gufkral, Brah.

Then follows a long dark age till the early Iron Age followed successively by NBP and, the Indo-Greeks at Semthan.

A Fossil rich park fenced at Guryul. Image: Mahmood Ahmad

It should not be out of place to mention here that the Nilmatpurana, perhaps the oldest surviving literary work of Kashmir, written sometime in the 8th century, claims that the valley remained uninhabited by man for six manvataras because there was a large sheet of water called Satisara. It was only in the last and seventh manvatara that mountains near Bararnulla broke open to let of the water and make the valley inhabitable for men.

Tradition has it that earlier it was peopled by the Nagaswho perhaps for sometime came under the sway of the Daitays as the story of Samgraha tells. Further, it is said that Samgraha was killed by Indra, the Aryan warlord. In revenge the former’s son Jalodbhava devastated the neighbouringcountries. It was only subsequent to the drying up of the Satisar that the tyrant was killed and the man of the race of Manu came to settle in the valley. The story further tells that for a long period the people of Manu and the Nagas remained hostile to each other, but the Nagas subdued by the Manus with the help of the nomadic pishachas whose home is said to have been vast desert of a far-off land.

Tradition further says that in the beginning the Aryans of the Manu race used to live here for six months of summer in order to produce food and then moved out for winter months during which the Pishachas would come down to the valley. The influence of the Pishachas could be eliminated only when the Manus and the Nagas came closer and reconciled to live in peace.

Thus there were the Nagas, the Daityas, the Manus and the Pishachas. In mythology the three tribes excepting that of Manus, that is the Aryans, were reduced to satanic forces perhaps for various reasons. The Pishachas were brutes and the others gave continuous resistances to the Aryan expansion and life style. There are copious examples in literature and in history that those were human tribes with whom the Aryans often established relations also.

Similarly the Nilmatpurana depicts the Pishachas as people of ferocious looks, living in the forest without houses, wearing animal hides for clothes and eating raw flush. Their original home is said to be in a distant desert. We do not know precisely whether it was TakalaMakan in China or the desert of Karakum in Russia or some other place. Significantly, one of the dialects of the Prakrita language is called Pishaclii which was spoken in a large part of northwest India during the medieval times.

Likewise Daityas were also a tribe with whom the early

Aryans worshiping Indra had fought bitterly over centuries.

It is, of course, difficult to build up a reliable story of the past on the basis of mythological tradition. There seems little harm to make an attempt for identification of these tribes which are said to have played a historical role in remote past of Kashmir.

A collection of fossils from various Kashmir fossil beds by Mahmood Ahmad

The Nagas of old Kashmiri tradition have been closely related to the water. Thus all the springs, lakes and ponds in Kashmir are held sacred to one of the legendary Nagas. The water in the valley must have been more abundant 4 to 5 thousand years ago; and the draining out of water and progressive desiccation would have been a very low process and a large area of Kashmir must have been covered by a series of lakes and the large area of the remaining land must have been marshy; therefore, not fit for habitation and large scale cultivation. It is why almost all Neolithic settlements are found on higher ground. No wonder, if the Nagas were the first settlers of the valley who after a long time came in contact with the advanced Daityas whose remains perhaps we find in the form of pre-Harappan items at Burzahom. They greatly influenced and changed material life of the Neolithic people although the contact did not last long. After a long gap we come across at Semthan with the early Iron Age pottery of foreign lineage. It must be mentioned here that the earliest people of Semthan were not surely those who came into contact and fought with the Nagas. These people might be the late successors of the conquerors whose settlements and objects are yet to be found. Only when the curtain is lifted from the Dark Age we would be able to identify the successors of the Neolithic and predecessors of the early Iron Age people and thus be in a position to solve the riddle of the Naga-Manu conflict if it ever occurred. And then only probably the Pishachas may appear as an archaeological reality.

(Dr R S Bisht has served the Archaeological Survey of India. This copy is based on his talk that he delivered at a symposium “Central Asia and Western Himalaya – a Forgotten Link” held in the University of Kashmir in 1983.)


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