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Heritage: Romancing the stone

October 20, 2013

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The signboard that I saw three years ago on the main Karakoram highway, showing directions to the Danyor Rock, had disappeared. This time around I was in a local taxi and the driver had no idea what I was searching for. I was afraid that Shaukat had already blasted the rock as per his plan. For more on who Shaukat is, read on.

The Karakoram highway has been cut through the Himalayas and Karakoram mountain ranges to connect Pakistan and China. In the late 70s, when the highway opened to public, scholars and archaeologists flocked to the northern region to discover ancient sites littered with rock inscriptions, Buddhist stupas, temples, ancient mosques, and the inscriptions of hunters. Most of it has now been explored.

The town of Danyor, with its narrow streets and bustling bazaar, is located on the main Karakoram highway, exactly 5km north of Gilgit towards Hunza. As a tourist, I discovered a Sanskrit rock inscription here three years ago through a guidebook, which said ‘Likitu giri’ or old writing stone in the Shina language. It was hard to find the rock itself since it was located, not in some archeological dig, but in a house at the end of a narrow, uncarpeted street.

The family living in the house didn’t know much about the rock, which lay partly broken towards the upper end and covered by a tin-shelter provided by the archeology department. Measuring 13x17feet, it bears a five-line Sanskrit inscription in the late Brahmi character of the 8th century AD.

According to research by Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani, a renowned archeologist, this inscription belongs to the line of rulers mentioned in the Hatun inscription in the region, engraved by the prince (Kumaramatya). It bestows royal titles of Patola Shahi Shahanushahi and Parama-bhattaraka to the ruler Jayamangala Vikramaditya Nandi of the Vikramaditya family. Two other descendants of the ruler are also named. The inscription is perhaps the most important discovery of Danyor, seen for the first time by Karl Jettmar in 1958, while staying in the upper Indus region as member of an Austrian mountaineering expedition.

Dr Dani in his book, Human Records on Karakorum Highway, states that the purpose of this inscription appears to commemorate some conquest in the upper Indus valley. He further adds that it speaks of the conquest by the local ruler, probably implying the overthrow of a raid by Tibetans.

Everyone in the house gathered around me as I began to inspect the rock. They probably thought I was from the government or the archeological department. Much to their disappointment, I was just a tourist. As I started taking pictures, I heard someone say “I will blow up this rock soon”. That someone was Shaukat, the owner of the house where the boulder lay.

I wondered aloud why he would wish to destroy a piece of such historical value. He explained how difficult his life was, given that he was jobless. No one from the tourism or the archeological department had paid him any remuneration for housing the rock. He felt he would rather blast the rock and grow cash crops on the land to earn his livelihood. I took some more photos and left the house with Shaukat’s warning stuck in my mind.

Three years later I was in the same region on another assignment. I was curious to know if the rock was still there or if Shaukat had blown it up to grow cash crops. Since the signboard was missing, I went to the main bazaar of Danyor to inquire.

Most of the people didn’t know much about it, but a traffic constable noticed my disappointment and approached me. Luckily he knew about the rock and took me to a shop that belonged to Shaukat’s cousin. After a long wait, a man with a sweaty face and wounded hand, wearing dirty, worn out clothes entered the shop. It was Shaukat. I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t remember a mere tourist as he showed no signs of recognition.

Initially, Shaukat refused to show me the rock. I then explained that the visit was not for tourism but to help him with his plight. I insisted on seeing the rock and finally managed to convince him to take me to his house.

We headed towards his house in a taxi. I tried to have a conversation with him about whether he had found employment or not. “I make furniture at a workshop,” he replied grudgingly. I asked if the rock was still there, and he nodded in affirmation. As we entered the house, I was relieved to see the rock in its place, just like it was three years ago. This time it was dustier with wild plants growing on the sides. As I started taking photographs, Shaukat brought his documents to prove his disappointment with the government. He had piles of letters by the government authorities offering him crop compensation and a job in the archaeology department. He told me that the government offered him remuneration of Rs1,000 per month as compensation, which was obviously not enough to feed his family.To show my concern for Shaukat’s livelihood and the value of the rock, I suggested that he should initiate a ticket system for visitors. He explained that this is the government’s job, not his. “As there are hardly any tourists visiting, it would be embarrassing to ask people who come from far away to pay money to see the rock,” said Shaukat.

Shaukat can blow the rock anytime he wants to, and he still wants to. “All I have are these documents (of authenticity) but they don’t do me any good. This rock occupies a lot of space in my house,” said Shaukat. The rock has deteriorated with time, and the inscription is badly faded. The same inscription that shows that Sanskrit was once a part of this land and that the history of this country stretches further back than what our textbooks would have us believe, far beyond the present day religion, culture and language of this land. Tragically, it is not just the rock of Danyor itself that is endangered, there are countless other sites in Pakistan that need proper conservation.