Something has been happening here in the outback of Duki in Balochistan. And it has been happening for a very, very long time. My friend Aziz Jamali, civil servant and a man of good sense, saw the worst of that happening.
In June 2018, as he drove from Kohlu to Quetta via Duki and Ziarat, he spotted the mound south of the road, about 20 kilometres southeast of Duki. Rising like a huge pimple from the dusty landscape, it was immediately recognisable as a cultural mound. Aziz resolved to check it out in detail at some later time but then he saw the mischief: a bulldozer was busily cutting up the mound and spilling the dust of ages over its eroded verges. He inquired and was told the mound was known as Shar Ghali — City of Ghali.
In the same hot month 404 years before Aziz, that is, in 1614, the English merchants John Crowther and Richard Steel passed this way en route from Ajmer to Isfahan. Neither commented on the mound, but they stopped for three days at the town of ‘Duckee’ inhabited by Pashtuns. Here, they tell us, the Mughal government maintained a garrison in a fort.
In Balochistan, a mound that could be the vestiges of a stupa, needs urgent protection from vandalism
If Steel and Crowther saw people digging the mound for treasure, they did not report it to the authorities in ‘Duckee’. Aziz did and Meeran Baloch, the proactive assistant commissioner, immediately went into action to arrest the man with the bulldozer.
As he drove me to it, Meeran recounted how the mound, measuring 26 acres, was allotted to the bulldozing man in 1996. In itself this was a criminal act because, even at that time, locals knew this as an ancient site which gave up its little secrets after every fall of rain. Here, with the top soil washed away, children came to collect shiny beads and terracotta items. It should, therefore, have been declared a protected monument.
Journalist Farid Kakar was one of those children who frequented this site in the early years of this century. Almost in the centre of the uneven surface of the mound was a thick and tall clay pillar, he recalls. Besides the trinkets he collected, Farid remembers seeing an opening on the northern verge of the mound which he and his friends entered. Inside, he claims, was a chamber with images and statues. This opening was covered when the bulldozing of the surface began in 2017.
Farid says that, for as far back as he can remember of his 20-some years, he saw men digging around the mound. But it was only in 2017 that this one person set about it with a dozer blade. Assistant Commissioner Meeran Baloch did well to put a stop to the vandalism.
The pharmacy of the affable Dr Khalid Kakar of nearby village Yaru Sheher is more of an antiquarian’s den than a clinic. From the cupboards and from inside dusty cardboard medicine boxes he pulls out artefact after artefact and lays them out on his desk. The figurines include a mother goddess with a full head of hair, a beautiful horse, its mane greatly enhanced with an obvious adornment. It is fitted with a high saddle. On both these figurines, the sexual organs are noticeable for their exaggeration. There is also a simpler horse (again with exaggerated mane) and a humped bull as well as a human face finely carved in stone and painted black. These pieces are all under eight centimetres in height. The larger pieces are kitchen utensils and what appear to be Buddhist relic caskets. Traditionally, these latter contained remains of Buddha to be interned in a core above which the stupa was raised.
All these, says Khalid, were found from the Shar Ghali mound. He also has a broken piece that seems to be alabaster carved with an elegant leopard whose teeth and fore claws sink into the rump of an antlered deer even as it looks back at its tormentor. The workmanship is beautiful.
There are several other pieces, some of which were acquired from other sites ‘in the nearby hills’ and others that are obviously fake. One thing is clear, however: the mound of Shar Ghali has long been a very happening place.
Journalist Farid says Shar Ghali is probably a corruption of Shar Mughali — Mughal City — for there is the common belief that this was a Mughal fortress. My mind races back to the merchants Steel and Crowther and the mention of a Mughal garrison in Duki. It seems word on the Mughal presence simply permeated around until an obviously much more ancient site also became attributed to them.
We drive the couple of kilometres from the pharmacy to the mound and as we approach it, I am disappointed. Its verges are smooth: it is not creased by irregular channels created by centuries of rainwater washing down the sides. I tell my companions that the 10- to 15-metre high mound cannot be any older than a century and a half at the most.
But how wrong I was!
As we climb up the smooth ramp created by the dozer blade, I espy those same signs of erosion I have seen on other cultural mounds. My companions tell me that there used to be erosion channels and that, when the bulldozer flattened the summit, it pushed the earth over the sides. Indeed, the soil laid only a few months before our visit is so soft that one sinks into it.
On the flat top, Farid points out the spot where the tall mud brick steeple stood until last June. Having seen what looked like Buddhist relic caskets at the pharmacy, I feel it might have been the last eroded remains of a stupa. But now with the bulldozer man having done his black deed, we will never know the truth unless this site attracts the eye of trained archaeologists. Farid was doubtful if he could find an image showing the mound as it was before the vandalism.
Whereas the archaeologist works with trowel, scalpel and brush to preserve whatever is uncovered, the bulldozer smashed everything in its way. We pass by the remains of a large pot from whose base I estimate it would have stood about a metre high and large enough for over a hundred litres. One of its shards, that formed the shoulder where the neck begins to narrow, is adorned with a chain-like frieze. This was apparently a popular design for we see it on other pieces as well.
If I was still doubtful about the age of the mound, we found a stack of kiln-fired bricks that settled it for me. These measured the classical 75 millimetres thick, 280 mm wide and 430 mm long (3”x11”x17”) huge tiles that were the building blocks in Sindh and Balochistan some 3,000 years ago. And these were found on the top-most layer vandalised by the bulldozer man. One can only guess what lies concealed beneath the 15 metres of dust below.
There are grindstones aplenty and, all over the site, shattered animal bones, mostly mutton, point to a meat-eating society. The site having been thoroughly vandalised, leaves nothing for the amateur to base conjecture upon. This is now only for the archaeologist to unravel.
Two decades ago I had stumbled upon a site in Nag Valley (Panjgur) from which I brought back a shard of a large painted pot. My mentor, Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, dated it to the pre-Harappan period (bce 3500) and confirmed my theory that the road west from the Kalat highlands through Panjgur connected the Indus Valley with Mesopotamia.
Similarly, the road west from Multan lay through the Suleman Mountains, past what is now Fort Munro and into the rugged country of Duki. Shar Ghali was one of the several cities that lay on this ancient highway. Perhaps if archaeologists one day apply their brushes and lancets to the dust, we will learn marvellous hitherto unknown secrets. Who knows if the dust beneath the vandalised top might reveal a text that will help decipher the language of ancient Moen jo Daro and Mehrgarh.
Postscript: At home, on Google Earth the site appears as a volcanic cone at North 30°-02’-14”, East 68°-40’-43”. The imagery date is December 2013, years before the dozer blade wrecked the site and the verges are deeply furrowed all around. Shar Ghali has seen much through the millennia. It needs to be preserved and investigated.
The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He tweets @odysseuslahori
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 7th, 2018