The Rock Art of Karachi
By Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro
Directorate of Antiquities and Archaeology - Culture, Tourism, Antiquities and Archives Department, Government of Sindh, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698100520
194pp.

In February 1987, trekking up to the source of the Hub River in Balochistan, I had my first exposure to ancient rock art. Etched on a rock, in a wild and desolate area north of the village of Goth Badal Khan, was a hunting scene.

Dismissing those drawings of men, animals and geometric symbols as the work of modern youngsters, I took no further notice of them. Such was my understanding of our local petroglyphs, even when I erroneously considered myself an informed layperson.

Those etchings on stone were in the vicinity of what the locals call a gabr band — or wall of the fire-worshippers. Scores of these walls of dressed stones are scattered around in the mountainous areas northward of Balochistan and Sindh from the 26th parallel latitude.

Sometime later, I read the work of German anthropologist Karl Jettmar on the petroglyphs of Gilgit and Hunza. Though I saw several artistic similarities in the drawings, I yet could not relate the two. Little did I understand also that the rock art of Sindh and Balochistan was way older than that seen in Gilgit-Baltistan.

In 1996, trekking in the Khenji River valley of Sindh, I was shown some petroglyphs about 10 meters above the valley floor. From a geologist I later learned that the drawings would be from the early Neolithic period — or about 10,000 years old. Then it dawned upon me that every bit of rock art I had so disdainfully been dismissing as the mischief of modern youngsters was a message from our ancestors thousands of years ago. Thereafter, I began to look at every scratch on hillsides with awe, and even a bit of reverence.

An anthropologist’s cri de coeur: to save ancient artwork before it’s destroyed by greedy developers and mindless collectors and vandals

The fog of ignorance began to clear when I first read a paper by the young anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro. It was on funerary art on a tomb in upper Sindh. There followed a flurry of other works and, pretty soon, Kalhoro had clarified so much of the confusion in my mind after years of wandering about the wild places of Sindh, seeing things and not knowing what they meant.

Closer view of a boulder with animal track petroglyphs at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley | Photos from the book
Closer view of a boulder with animal track petroglyphs at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley | Photos from the book

After three earlier, very informative books, on funerary art in Sindh, hero and sati [marker to commemorate graves] stones in Tharparkar and petroglyphs across Sindh, Kalhoro — now an acclaimed anthropologist — has turned his attention to rock art around Karachi. This latest work is titled The Rock Art of Karachi.

It is surprising that, within a couple of hours’ drive from the heart of the metropolis, there are a couple of dozen sites where Neolithic hunters and shepherds kept busy artistic schedules. Even more surprising, we learn from the book that the several thousand year-old tradition of etching images on rocks is still very much in vogue.

In his earlier book, Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh, Kalhoro has shown how the vocabulary has changed with time. If scenes of the hunt were a supplication to the gods for an abundance of food and the Wheel of Life was a prayer for prosperity in days gone by, modern artists were partial to tractors, airplanes, buses and cargo trucks. The Sindhi axe, too, finds favour in modern times.

Labyrinth and stupa images at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley
Labyrinth and stupa images at Lahut Tar, Mol Valley

The current book is more of an inventory of rock art sites around Karachi, with short snatches of technical detail. For example, Kalhoro notices signs used 5,000 years ago, by inhabitants of Indus Valley cities, that come down to our times through petroglyphs etched in stone a millennium or more after Mohenjo Daro [Mound of the Dead] was ravaged by periodic flooding and drought. Many of these symbols, he tells us, are still used to brand cattle. The mere thought of this continuity of culture stretching across the millenniums makes one’s flesh crawl.

In the cave of Lascaux in France, artists — having rendered their work — made stencils of their hands which, to my mind, was their way of signing their masterpieces. Similarly, in Sindh Kalhoro shows us a fascination with not just handprints, but the shod and unshod foot as well. An informant told him that this symbolised the artist’s association with his work.

What is even more fascinating is the rendering of a large feline’s paw prints. Mostly in ones or twos, they are also found to make a track over a few metres not far from a similar track of shod human feet. These mysterious sets of prints are seen at Lahut Tar in Mol Valley — a scenic spot with a pond of clear water that is fast becoming a picnic spot.

In the early Middle Ages, Sindh was known as ‘Buddhiya’ — the Land of Buddha. And rightly so, because the larger part of the population was Buddhist. Inevitably, monks and fakirs travelling across the country performed worshipful acts of etching images of stupas on stone. In Sindh is one remarkable variety of tiered stupas on square bases with variously shaped domes above which streamers fly. Even more surprising is the etching of a two-humped Bactrian camel that was never seen in Sindh. This particular image could only have been created by a devotee from far-off Central Asia.

Shoe and axe petroglyphs at Lahut Buthi, Mol Valley
Shoe and axe petroglyphs at Lahut Buthi, Mol Valley

In this inventory, Kalhoro includes a number of Chaukandi-style graveyards, all of them unknown to the general public. Some of them are in a ruinous state, vandalised by art thieves who removed the carved slabs from the tombs. The archaeologist also notes the work of treasure hunters, who have dug up some priceless pieces in obviously fruitless hunts for wealth.

The alarming thing that our writer notices is how housing estates are encroaching upon these invaluable sites of Sindhi heritage. If this invasion is not halted, or if the rock art sites are not declared protected today, tomorrow will be too late. The bulldozers levelling the ground for housing will not care that the blade is destroying the work of an artist from the fifth millennium BCE.

As one reads through, the feeling one gets is that this really is Kalhoro’s cri de coeur: to save the ancient artworks before they are destroyed by greedy land developers and mindless collectors and vandals. He suggests protection first of all, and then turning the sites into art parks. It is a valid suggestion that one cannot argue against.

It is unfortunate that works such as The Rock Art of Karachi increasingly cause anxiety among educated and culturally conscious individuals. The underlined message in these books is always the threat of destruction faced by these irreplaceable cultural pieces. One can only hope that the present work will prod authorities concerned into preserving what we still have. If not, Sindh’s progeny will only know of what once was from the pages of Kalhoro’s books.

The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 13th, 2020

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