Situated on the banks of Jehlum river, the villagers of a small hamlet in south Kashmir have grown up making odd discoveries of ancient objects which haven’t attracted anyone’s curiosity. Shams Irfan visits the village to hear some extraordinary tales of what could be an important chapter in Kashmir’s history.
Mohammad Ashraf Bhat, 55, was digging in Jhelum river to extract sand on a winter afternoon when his shovel hit something solid. The clanking sound of shovel excited Ashraf and he slowly began to clear the sand around the mysterious object using delicate strokes. After 15 minutes into the work, Ashraf felt the weight of something heavy on his shovel and instantly lifted the object to the banks.
Under the weak winter sun, Ashraf saw a long rusted knife which he thought was of no importance to him and he instantly gifted it to one of his drivers. “I was not sure what it was. So I gave it to one of my drivers,” said Ashraf.
The long rusted knife, which was in fact a dagger, had visible signs of fine craftsmanship. Its 16-inch long blade, possibly made of metal, is held together by a finely carved handle. But unfortunately, for almost two months, the dagger remained in truck driver’s custody who hung it on the bumper of his load carrier truck as a sign of good luck.
“I thought the knife was of no importance. It looked ordinary to me,” said Ashraf, when he came to know about the possible importance of the dagger, presently in one of his driver’s custody.
Ashraf earns his living by extracting sand from Jhelum during winters when the flow of water is at its lowest. During summers, like most of his village friends, he looks after his saffron fields. Ashraf lives in Hathiwara, a small village on the banks of river Jhelum in south Kashmir.
To overcome the embarrassment of not keeping a potentially important piece of history, Ashraf quickly brought out four clay objects which he claims to have recovered from the river during sand extraction. His catch includes a large plate made of back clay and decorated with flower and petal designs; a small vase-shaped toy which is three inch high; a small clay-made bowl and a cone shaped clay stamp.
“What fascinates me is this plate. Look, it doesn’t weight much. Look at the design. I am sure it must have been used by some royal person,” said Ashraf in an exciting tone.
Ashraf claims to have found the plate at the bottom of the river while digging deep in last winter. “I have kept it safe. I know it is important. Nobody in my family is allowed to touch this plate without my permission,” said Ashraf assumingly, adding, “I always wanted to know its exact age,” he said.
“Do you know anyone who could help?” he asked curiously. Interestingly, both Ashraf and Hathiwara are known for such discoveries.
In 1970, the people of Hathiwara decided to build a grand (Jamia) mosque in the village. After deliberations, villagers located a small piece of wetland at the centre of the village and marked it for construction of the grand mosque.
But, as construction was not possible on the wetland, the villagers razed a small hillock to fill up the waterbody. To save costs, almost entire village volunteered in the construction process. “While digging through that small hillock, we found around 15 large vases,” Ashraf recalls.
Ashraf, a young kid then, was the first one to locate the vase while volunterring to carry out digging of the hillock. “I clearly remember that while moving earth, I struck my shovel into something hard,” recalls Ashraf.
“We thought there are rocks stuck inside the soil, so we dug hard,” Ali Mohammad Bhat, a retired teacher in his late sixties, who also volunteered for the construction of the grand mosque, says.
Abdul Razak Dar, a soft spoken local cleric, who oversaw the construction work of the grand mosque, credits Ashraf for his presence of mind. “If he (Ashraf) would not have been there, we might have damaged all the vases completely,” said Dar.
After recovering the first vase intact from the ground, Ashraf helped others with the digging. “I was fascinated by the sight of big, oval-shaped storage bins, which might have been inside the soil for God knows how long,” said Ashraf.
Throughout the day, one by one, people dug out 15 such vases from the ground. Luckily, most of the vases were taken out intact. Only a few were damaged during extraction; some even had lids over them. The vases were then distributed among the families whose members had volunteered for the construction of the grand mosque.
Ali Mohammad Bhat remembers that more than extraction, it was the transportation of the vases which was difficult. “A single vase weighted over 50 kgs. It was impossible to carry them from one place to another place because of their odd shape,” said Bhat.
Once again, it was Ashraf who came to their rescue and charted out an intelligent plan for transportation of the vases to different households in the village. “I wrapped the vases with big industrial ropes and then rolled them down the road to their destination,” said Ashraf. “Ropes took all the beating while vases remained scratch free and safe,” he said with a smile.
(Ashraf(centre) with the dagger that he clamis to have found while digging for sand in Jehlum –Photo: Shams Irfan)
But almost 43 years after the ‘big discovery’, as locals remember the event, only one vase is left in the village. “Initially people kept these vases safe and used them to store grains. Some even kept coal for the winters in them. But with time, they got neglected and ended up in dust bins,” rues Ashraf.
The only vase that is still safe in the village belongs to Ashraf. “I took that vase to my old house where I lived with my parents,” recalls Ashraf.
Ashraf accompanied me to his ancestral house. In a corner of a spacious lawn, a large vase was covered with tin and plastic sheets. It had remained there since Ashraf bought it here some four decades ago.
The vase has served the Bhat family for over four decades as a storage bin for all sort of odd items including feed for chickens, coal for winters, for drying clothes, as a refuge for kids playing hide-and-seek and for keeping stray dogs safe and warm during long winter nights. The vase never complained.
After Ashraf shifted to his new house some two decades back, he did not take his vase with him. He left it with his uncle’s family, who now owns the house, and completely forgot about it. His uncle, an elderly person in his late seventies, has cut a small hole at the bottom of the vase in order to make it accessible to his dwarf wife.
Ashraf stood in the distance as if admiring the piece of history and said, sadly, “This is what is left of the big discovery.”
According to a famous legend, a grand old man from Hathiwara village, who died a few months back at the age of 120, used to tell stories learned from his grandfather, about elephants coming to his village to drink water from river Jhelum. The old man is said to have claimed that his village’s name actually means a place where elephants reside (Hathi means elephant and Wara is a place of dwelling in local parlance).
Not sure about the exact usage of the vases, people associated the big discovery with the legend and believe that these vases might have been used to store water or food for elephants.