"The Kirthar Mountain Range, which separates Sindh from Balochistan, is rich in ancient petroglyphs.” Thus anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro opens his latest book Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh. If anything, this is an understatement, because in Sindh, virtually thousands of examples of man’s artistic expression can be found. In two earlier works, Kalhoro discussed memorial stones and funerary architecture and its art in the province. In this book, as indeed in his earlier works, the author unravels aspects of anthropology and history that had always been right in front of our eyes and of which we knew nothing.
Until the book on memorial stones in Tharparkar, even the informed traveller coming upon them was utterly uninformed of their provenance and meaning. The Brahmi script on the oldest memorials, and Gujarati on later ones, was unknown to visitors and so these stelae — whose exact number was not known — sprinkled around the Thar Desert were just stones with nice carvings of horse riders. End of story.
Kalhoro’s treatise revealed the history and meaning of these stones. He had earlier described in detail the frescoes in funerary monuments across the province. With Symbols in Stone, he presents us with a complete compendium of Sindh’s rock art. Anyone who has walked in the Kirthar Mountain valleys in seasons other than between December and mid-February cannot but compliment the author because much of his fieldwork was done when the treeless Kirthar valleys can be like furnaces. It speaks of a dedication bordering on madness.
An exciting book by an accomplished anthropologist lays bare the history of petroglyphs in Sindh through millennia
From 1980-88, when I frequently trekked in the Kirthar Mountains, I occasionally stumbled upon drawings of animals and human figures and dismissed them as the very recent work of local shepherds — having read something on Mayan and Incan art and statuary, I expected “helmeted and space-suited” interstellar travellers, as charlatans such as Erich von Däniken would have us believe. But all I saw were a few animals that, going by their curved antlers, were ibex, some humped bulls and stick figures standing upright on horseback. In those pre-GPS days, I did not keep a record of their locations because, to my mind, these were created by modern young hands that lacked finesse and skill. If the Mayans in, say, the 6th century CE could craft such elaborate statuary, why were our artists so unrefined?
It was only after reading the works of German anthropologists working on the rock carvings of Gilgit-Baltistan that I got some notion of the art. But if light was shining on the rock art of Chilas and Ganesh in the north, the stone canvases of Sindh were still an area of darkness — until Kalhoro came along with his flood lamp and told us that Sindhi petroglyphs were almost 8,000 years old by the time the northern folks applied their sharpened stone points to their rocks.
Symbols in Stone, like Kalhoro’s previous books, is an anthology of papers read by him in various conferences. One learns that the humped bull (we still see them in Sindh) with curved horns and two thick legs that the author calls “joined legs” (showing one fore and one hind leg) dates to the Neolithic period (BCE 6500-4500). The depiction of a bull attacking a woman with a man nearby in a state of alarm and shock indicates a time a little earlier than that, when humans had first started to draw closer to the animal in attempts to domesticate it. Then the anthropologist’s eye catches a very telling detail: the surcingle between the bull’s neck and forelegs, and we learn that this strap signifies the domestication of the animal. This, Kalhoro surmises, occurred about BCE 5000. From then on, bull depictions became steadily finer. The most dramatic of his finds is the idealised image of a well-fed and clearly domesticated bull of Chiti rock in Shakloi Dhoro of Gaj River (Dadu).
The horse and camel were tamed shortly after, for we find Shakloi crowded with riders of both animals. In that bygone age, humans were also building pillared temples where they danced to placate gods endowed with large genitals. As for the over 400 depictions of the humped bull recorded by him, Kalhoro says that, in the Neolithic period, the bull was worshipped for its agrarian and economic value. He affirms that the joined-leg bull pre-dates the bull of the same species with separate legs from the Indus Valley seals — even before the great cities reached their prime, wandering artists were exhibiting their desire to own and utilise the animal until they actually achieved it.
Across the magnificent Kirthar Mountains, Kalhoro flies the reader back and forth through more than four millennia. At the fabulous, huge canvas of Sado Mazo, crowded with images, Kalhoro acquaints us with at least two predominant religions. Here we find fire altars and temples side by side with Buddhist stupas. Here we also find a handsomely crafted dancing girl in frock and trousers, to recall the famous image from Moenjodaro. But before the amateur mind runs off with the idea of this piece being contemporaneous with the great Indus Valley city, we are told that the girl dates between the 6th and 7th centuries CE. This is quickly corroborated with nearby finds of Brahmi inscriptions from the Gupta period.
Nevertheless, the large flat-surfaced rock of Sado Mazo bears the work of artists from the early Neolithic well into the early Middle Ages. Kalhoro’s analysis shows how the anthropologist pieces together history from petroglyphs as we learn that, while fire altars hark back to Sassanian rule (283-356 CE), Buddhist stupas remind us of the time between 500-641 CE, when Sindh was ruled by Buddhist Rajput princes.
The snake shown sneaking up on an unsuspecting man is another indelible historic record found only in Sita Valley. On my own travels here in 1996 and 1998, my local friends had to remind me to look out for snakes. Kalhoro says that frequent depiction of the serpent registers snakebite cases. The question of why a particular item, especially non-religious, was drawn always rankled with me. It is only now I understand: this is a record of history as compiled by ordinary men, not court historians.
The most intriguing presentation in this book is about the cup marks that any amateur could be fooled into taking as natural indentations. These occur on bedrock as well as on vertical rocks. It is shown that these were created for utilitarian purpose (to grind grain or colour) and/or to satisfy an ancient belief system. Kalhoro believes some of these may be representations of stellar constellations. However, as most Kirthar valleys abound in lovely ponds with turquoise water, he says the cupules could also have symbolised water that was always there to slake the traveller’s thirst.
The rock art of Sindh began nearly 10,000 years ago. One would expect it to have ended sometime in the Middle Ages when writing became more accessible, but it continues to this day. From matchlocks with curved stocks, we move ahead to modern rifles and axes. That is not all. We find trucks, motorcycles, cars, tractors, fighter jets, helicopters and propeller-driven aircraft. Kalhoro shows how the appearance of the first ever motorcycle in a particular valley led to the first bike petroglyph with the name of the artist still living in memory. This is very much a wish to own what one covets, the very same as what led ancient hunters and farmers to draw the ibex or bull.
When researchers showed us that the stencil prints of human hands found in France and North Africa were an assertion of the artist’s identity, we took that with a pinch of salt. I, for one, believed the hand was painted because it was the most accessible item. Kalhoro goes a step further to find handprints with inscriptions naming the persons who drew their hands. The handprint has indeed always been an assertion of identity!
Symbols in Stone, clearly a preliminary work with much more to follow, is a very exciting book. Something that even the informed layperson would have dismissed as scribblings by bored and idle shepherds, turns out to be a book of history whose pages are scattered about the myriad valleys of the Kirthar Mountains. The first page was written some 10,000 years ago; more pages are being added still. The last will only be completed at the end of time. Kalhoro tells the story of these millennia with the masterful finesse of the accomplished anthropologist. This is, once again, a work to be read and cherished. In the end, one cannot but thank the Endowment Fund Trust for continuing to publish ‘economically non-viable’, but immensely useful scholarly works.
The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel
Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh
By Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro
Endowment Fund Trust, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 4th, 2018