Semthan Secrets

Located between the highway and Jhelum is Bijbehara’s Semthan. Home to a cluster of archaeological ruins, it is Kashmir’s only spot where humans’ have been living uninterrupted for the last 2800 years, covering six different cultures, writes Dr Abdul Rashid Lone, a professional archaeologist who worked on the history and archaeology of Semthan

Semthan Plateau is the key archaeological site which holds secrets of ancient Kashmir.

The landscape around Semthan is important because it bridges the gap, between the end of the megalithic phases of Gufkral (Tral) and Burzahom (Srinagar) and the beginning of Kashmir’s early historic period. It is the only archaeological site in Kashmir that was home to three unknown cultures; Pre‑Northern Black Polished Ware (Pre‑NBPW), Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), and the Indo‑Greeks, thereby bridging the gap between the Neolithic and the Kushan period in Kashmir. The quality and quantity of the material culture on the site surface and those recovered from excavations make it distinct.

Chakradhara

Bijbihara (ancient Vijayesvara), from where Semthan is around 1.5 km away, is a pivotal area for understanding the historical processes of South Kashmir (ancient Madavarajya) and its relations with south and central Asia. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini mentions Semthan as Chakradhara. The plateau is still known as Chakdhar, apparently the corrupt pronunciation of its ancient name. The area has played a significant role throughout its history in different socio-religious, cultural and trading networks and has emerged as one of the successful and leading urban centres in Kashmir’s early historic period. It is Kalhana’s ‘historic township’ where, it is believed that emperor Ashoka laid foundations of two stucco temples (near Bijbihara), now untraceable.

During the research, the history and archaeology of Semthan was thoroughly investigated. It led to the location of a number of archaeological settlements, particularly in the lands of Zablipora (Tengun area), whose archaeological material remains were observed keenly. Fifteen archaeological mounds are geographically located close to each other. On the right-hand side of Jhelum, certain archaeological sites were also located and material culture was observed.

It led to the detailed observation of archaeological material, particularly terracotta artefacts (human and animal figurines, beads and certain decorated tiles and bricks), semi-precious stone objects (carnelian beads), metal objects and coins- excavated from the site by the ASI and some of them preserved in the private possessions.

Almost 50 km south of Srinagar, the site is located on the top of the loess karewa formation, deposited by an ancient lake, at an altitude of 1646 metres above mean sea level, on Jhelum’s left bank.

Cowries are small sea shells that in ancient were a form of currency. A huge quantity of this currency of the bygone era are protected by people living in Kehribal area of south Kashmir. Pic: Special Arrangement

The actual archaeological remains – rubble and pebble stones, terracotta bricks, miniature terracotta figurines, and pottery can be seen scattered in huge concentrations, on the whole area presently bound by the Jhelum on the east and north, by the Semthan village on the west and by new colony Bijbihara on the south. The whole area, dotted with pottery and other cultural materials, roughly measures 90 to 100 hectares with a perimeter of around 3.5 kilometres. The most prominent archaeological features at the site are a series of high and low archaeological mounds dotting this whole landscape. Some of these mounds occupy the loess karewas, therefore, they are situated on already elevated areas. Other mounds occupy the plain surface with the cultural occupation starting from their bases. These mounds are locally known as Chakdhar (1646 metres above mean sea level), Rajma Teng (1622 metres), Sona Khut (1595 metres) and Shushrum Nag (1612 metres).

The trapezium-shaped Chakdhar plateau is spread over 17 to 20 hectares, with its plain top and devoid of any modern building construction, except for one late medieval Muslim shrine of Totak Shah Sahib. There are a number of depressions varying in shape from circular, square and rectangular dotting the whole surface of the mound probably representing the ancient traces of habitations. The plateau is separated on its north by an arc-shaped gorge in the ground, arc facing north-west, Yaishnad. The separated part of the plateau is known as Lachamdin Wudar, while the rest part of the mound is known as Totak Shah Wudar or Chakdhar.

Terracotta tile depicting a galloping horse. This is one of the few hundred items recovered from Semthan (Bijbehara). KL Image: Special arrangement

On Lachamdin Wudar’s northern tip, there are a series of depressions in the ground in a linear pattern, resembling some traces of a foundation wall made of some perishable material, possibly timber or mud. MA Stein, who translated Rajatarangni into English, has identified these traces as ‘last indications of the wooden ramparts which enclosed the (Chakdhar) shrine’ in ancient times. Besides, there are a number of Kushana period baked bricks scattered on its surface, many of these full in size. Some of them are reused here in a masonry style, originally being a part of some other structure, probably of the structures having rubble bases situated on the top of this side of the mound.

Shushrum Nag (1612 meters) is another huge mound as well as the area extending from the slopes of the Chakdhar mound on the south and south-eastern sides continuing up to the New Colony Bijbihara road. The whole area is under dense cultivation of apple orchards. Pottery in huge quantities of different textures, fabrics and shapes can be seen dotting the ground as well as in the sections or profiles of the cut mounds. One of the exposed sections has a deep concentration of pottery in it.

Excavations History

Semthan was subjected to excavations by the ASI’s former north-western Circle (now Srinagar Circle)for three years from 1977 to 1981. The results of these excavations were not fully published barring sketch references. The first systematic archaeological excavations were conducted by RS Bisht that confirmed the actual cultural sequence at the site.

Terracotta female figurine recovered from Semthan (Bijbehara) and preserved in Ashmolean museum.

The excavators reached up to the natural soil at a depth of 10.2 metres. A total of 35 successive floor levels were encountered, which reflected six periods of cultural occupation, ranging from the pre-NBP period up to the medieval times without any appreciable break. From the references to these excavations, the six cultural sequences of the occupation levels could be made.

These excavations are of tremendous importance in Kashmir’s archaeological history. Semthan is Kashmir’s only archaeological site from where the Northern Black Polished Ware (hereafter, NBPW) sherd’s – broken pieces of ceramic material, were recovered from proper stratified layers. Indo-Greek cultural assemblage is also unique to Semthan, not found anywhere in Kashmir.

During the course of excavations, some important antiquities were recovered from Period I (pre-NBP; c 700-500 BCE). Beads made of terracotta and bones, pieces of copper, an iron arrowhead and iron slag were also found.

Period II (NBPW; c 500- 200 BCE) is marked by the presence of Northern Black Polished Ware in association with red and grey wares. The grey ware found here is different from that generally found in association with NBPW elsewhere. The important antiquities of this period constitute several copper and silver punch-marked coins, beads of semiprecious stone and terracotta, terracotta balls, bone points, copper and iron objects, bone stylus and cast copper coins from the upper level.

Period III (the Indo-Greek period commencing from c.200 BCE and continues up to the beginning of the first century CE) recovery includes a potsherd with an inscription in five letters engraved below the rim portion or the neck of the pot on the external side. Besides, a small clay seal depicting an Indo-Greek deity was also discovered, which the excavators identified with the Greek god Apollo. The most significant discovery, however, of this period is the recovery of some Indo-Greek coins.

Inscription on a pottery sherd, recovered from Semthan (Bijbehara).

The Period IV (Kushana-Huna; c 1 CE- 5th century CE)excavations labelled as the Kushana-Huna period span around five centuries from the beginning of the Common Era up to the fifth century. The evidence of the Kushana pottery is strikingly significant. Another major discovery related to the settlement patterning of this period is the terracotta brick tiles having faint motifs of a cross within a circle. This period of occupation at Semthan is also significant because it yielded a rich repertoire of antiquities, including:

(a)  Beads made of terracotta, semiprecious stone, bone, shell and crystalline quartz;
(b)  Terracotta balls and wheels;
(c)  Clay seals and sealings bearing legends in Brahmi and Kharoshti scripts. Seals have also been found from the surface survey by the excavators of the site;
(d)  Copper and silver coins of the Kushana rulers;
(e) A large number of terracotta figurines of humans, animals and many other miscellaneous objects, usually made out of a single mould, and
(f)  Copper and iron objects.

Besides, the top levels of this period also yielded some coins from the Huna rulers.

Period V (Hindu period 5th-century CE-13th century CE)has a cultural deposit of over four metres thick. Besides pottery, some of the significant antiquities of the period include copper coins of various rulers of the period and ‘numerous miscellaneous objects of daily use’.

The Period VI (Late Medieval; (post 13th century CE) onwards) is the topmost occupational deposit at Semthan belonging to the 13th century and beyond. This period has not provided any sufficient evidence that may indicate any major change in the material culture. It has yielded typical late medieval pottery demarcated by rough and scarcely fine red ware of thick to medium fabric, however devoid of any glazed ware pottery.

2016 Study

Since the ASI excavations at Semthan, the area around this important archaeological site has not been studied properly. The purpose was to provide a meticulous understanding of the characteristic features of the archaeological landscape of this part of Kashmir, particularly the southern segment. This was done by carrying out detailed research on the excavated material remains from the site in relation to those observed from private archives and textual references.

A terracotta displaying a dancing woman. A rare recovery from Semthan (Bijbehara) details the artworks that were part of the ancient Kashmir culture.

My aim was to observe, analyze and document the archaeological material remains that were excavated from the site by the ASI and make an attempt at a correlation with the textual references and the material culture observed in many private collections. Additionally, the proper contextualization of the material remains was also done which was missing in the earlier studies.

The study resulted in the observation of large quantities of archaeological material consisting of the pottery of various chronological periods and fabrics, coins of several ruling dynasties of the historical period, terracotta figurines of animals, and humans and many miscellaneous unidentified objects, terracotta tiles, beads made of several semi-precious materials as well as of terracotta; copper and iron objects, terracotta stamps etc. that were document from private collections, which helped in answering a varied number of research questions that were designed prior to the study.

All the observed material remains were subject to a comparative study in relation to the material remains excavated from Semthanand other early historic sites of Kashmir and with some archaeological sites outside Kashmir, especially the Gandhara region.

A large number of antiquities are in the private possession of a number of locals who do not have any sense of the antique value of these antiquities. They are selling these, especially coins and other metallic antiquities, to the blacksmiths, thereby destroying our heritage.

Semthan is contextualised in its geography. An aerial Google image shows how the site, the oldest habitation of Kashmir is protected by the Jhelum river and how the population lives around it. The site is dry without any vegetation.

The cultural assemblage recovered during excavations consisted, of terracotta objects categorized as human and animal figurines, seals, beads, wheels, rings, balls, spouts, pendants, skin rubber and gamesmen. It was followed in number by iron objects and copper objects. Bone, glass, carnelian, shell, ivory, stone and metal alloy objects were also part of the material repertoire. Besides, some unidentified objects of copper and iron were also part of the cultural repository.

An Assessment

My assessment is the area of a 5-km radius from Semthan was probably divided into two zones – one, on the north and north-eastern side of the site beyond Jhelum and another on the south and south-western sides. The latter fulfilled almost all the agricultural needs of the people – supplying grains, and clay for pottery and the former might have been used as a source for forest products, mainly for the game, and pasture lands because of the hilly nature of the terrain.

The areas on both banks of the Jhelum, which still produce paddy in abundance, are regularly flooded by the Jhelum, which deposits the silt on these fields making it more fertile for agricultural produce. The area from 2.5-km up to 5 km and beyond might have satisfied all other needs like the hunting of big and small game, forest products etc and also some mineral resources. This area might have served as ideal pastureland as well. It appears that the catchment area on the left side of Jhelum was more exploited than that of the right side of the river.

A huge terracotta storage jar measuring 4.5 x 8.5 ft that belongs to the ninth century CE is protected in the Kehribal area of South Kashmir. Pic: Special Arrangement

The area of a 5-km radius around Semthan is dotted with many satellite settlements, all unknown before this effort. These include Katriteng (Dupatyar), Fateh Shah Wudar, Bijbihara temple, Muqdam Bagh and Baliyar (Marhama), and 15 mounds of Tengun area at Zablipora in Bijbihara, Batpora (Naina). Semthan, Fateh Shah Wudar, Katriteng (Dupatyar) and Kanylwan lie on the same trade route which leads to Pahalgam from Bijbihara towards the south of Kashmir and is joined by Lidroo and Huthmura; both Kushana period settlements en-route to Pahalgam, few kilometres away from Anantnag. The occurrence of the network of Kushana period sites on that particular trade route is of considerable importance. Semthan might have served as an entrepôt of trade and communication mechanisms between the north and south Kashmir in ancient times, besides a centre of politics.

The proximity to a perennial supply of water is the most important determinant for the establishment of any settlement and trade centre. The site is bound by Jhelum on its three sides and the elevated plateau is protected against floods.

Vital Sites in Bijbihara

From the description of the archaeological material observed from the Zablipora area of Bijbihara, one comes to the conclusion that this area of Bijbihara is of considerable importance from different points of view. This area was inhabited during the early historic period – definitely in the Kushana period and in some instances perhaps before the Kushanas, because the ceramic traditions of this area speak of some definite links with the people of Semthan who inhabited the site in the early historic period.

The pottery and burnt bricks from the majority of these mounds belong to the Kushana period and has similarities with the potteries found from Harwan and from the Kushana levels at Semthan. The pottery including the button-knob lids and inkpot-type lids prominently figure here and they also frequently bear designs typical of the early historic period of Kashmir.

The historic remains, of the Muslim period at the site, including some gravestones and lakhauri bricks. Besides, the structural activities, especially the brickworks of the Muslim period in Kashmir, also match with ones found here. These are known as lakhauri bricks which are considerably different from the bricks of the early historic period especially Kushana period bricks. These settlements, therefore, provide a treasure of information related to the settlement pattern, site distribution, constructional patterns, pottery traditions and the nature of the landscape of the early historic period as also the later historic period of Kashmir.

Additionally, this area has been the centre of focus for the locals for collecting miniature terracotta figurines, terracotta tiles, big earthenware, stoneware and coins of several ruling dynasties and of varying metals.

This is a broken rectangular tile 30x26x7cmshaving a stamped motif of a riding horse surmounted by a human being. It is well fired and is of brick-red colour. The motif is on the left half of the tile. A strong and muscular horse is shown galloping with the right forelimb rising up. A man is shown surmounted on the animal holding a stick-like tool, probably a club burner in his right hand, while the left hand is depicted controlling the horse by holding the reins of this running animal. The man is shown wearing a big cap with a conical top-end waving at the back of his head. One more impression, probably of the same type, can be seen on the right end of this tile, broken completely.

It should be noted here that the paving of floors around the religious edifices by terracotta tiles, with and without decorations, is a common feature of the archaeological sites in the Kashmir valley belonging to the Kushana. A prominent site of such concern was excavated at Harwan.

Finally, one can say that Semthan, in its historical and archaeological context, has played an important role in historical times. It gives us evidence of those historical dynasties and processes that were unknown before the rediscovery of this important settlement in south Kashmir. Semthan has a vital role in the then trade and commerce Kashmir was involved throughout her history. More importantly, the excavations and recent studies suggest that this settlement has never turned off its lights in the last 2800 years of its carrier in its past history.

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