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Threatened rock carvings of Pakistan

Published May 18, 2011 09:01am


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A collage of carvings and inscriptions of different periods shows the heritage on the brink of destruction as the proposed site of the Diamer-Basha Dam hosts some 30,000 ancient art carvings and inscriptions which may vanish forever. – 3D artwork by Mufassir A. Khan

Pakistan is going to lose one of the most precious rock art carvings due to construction of the Diamer-Basha Dam. The proposed site of the dam hosts some 30,000 ancient art carvings and inscriptions which may vanish forever due to the construction of this reservoir.

The northern area of Pakistan is a mountainous region which lies between the western Himalayas, the Korakoram in the east and the Hindukush in the west. Here, the junction of the ancient routes made the upper Indus a cradle and crossroads of different civilizations.

The junction of the ancient routes made the upper Indus a cradle and crossroads of different civilizations.

Travelers, invaders, merchants, pilgrims and artisans from different ages and cultures used the legendary silk route and its branches to enter in the region. Many of them left their cultural and religious signs on the rocks, boulders and cliffs.

The sun-tanned smooth rocks attracted more visitors and settlers to carve their own signs, symbols, inscriptions and artworks on the same locations. And hence, gradually a rock art archive accumulated in the area and eventually became a wonderland of some 50,000 rock carvings and 5,000 inscriptions from different civilizations ranging from the eighth millennium BC to the coming of Islam (since the 16th century AD) in the region.

The diversity of the rock carvings in the region turned the area into one of the most important rendezvous of petroglyphs in the world.

The history of discoveries

In 1884, a Hungarian traveler, Karl Eugen discovered a Buddhist carving in present Baltistan. In 1907, a veteran explorer, Ghulam Muhammad unveiled another Buddhist petroglyph from the Diamer district.

When the 750 km long, Karakorum Highway (the modern Silk Road) inaugurated in 1978, thousands of more engravings came to view which inspires a German scholar, Karl Jettmar to further explore the rock art wealth.

In 1980, Karl Jettmar and Pakistan’s father of archaeology, Ahmed Hassan Dani launched a Pak-German study group to systematically investigate the ancient rock art in the region.

This area is also famous for the amazing story of mysterious gold-digging ants.Greek historian, Herodotus (in fifth century BC) wrote (Historia III, 102-105) about the land of Dardai, where gold-digging ants – “bigger than fox, though not so big as a dog were used to collect gold particles.”
Another research project entitled “Rock Carvings and Inscriptions along the Karakorum Highway” was initiated in 1983. The Heidelberg Academy of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of Archaeology of Gilgit were responsible for the study group. Professor Harald Hauptmann has been the head of the project since 1989 as a successor of Jettmar.

Talking Rocks

The Shatial, Thor, Hodur, Thalpan, Naupura, Chaghdo and other sites of northern Pakistan having clusters of carvings but the Basha-Diamer area holds thousands of very important rock carvings.

Hauptmann told that a total of 37,051 carvings on 5,928 boulders or rock faces will be inundated after the construction of the Diamer-Basha Dam.

The site represents hundreds of inscriptions in Brahmi, Sogdian, middle Persian, Chinese, Tibetan and even ancient Hebrew languages. Some 80 per cent of the writings are in Brahmi language.

Always) remember that (one day) you must die.” –. Photo courtesy of Harald Hauptmann / Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany.

These writings not only provide insights into the religious and political situation but also show the name of the rulers and a rough date of the time. These details of the inscriptions helped the experts arrange them chronologically.

One of the interesting Brahmi inscriptions can be read as; Martavyam Smartavyam, which means: “(Always) remember that (one day) you must die.”

This prehistoric Caprine depiction was discovered in Chilas . Photo courtesy of Harald Hauptmann / Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany.

The earliest rock carvings in northern Pakistan dates back to the ninth millennium BC (roughly late Stone Age). Wild animals and hunting scenes are commonly found in this era but the hunter himself was never found.

The mysterious “Giant Figures” represents the demons, deities or supernatural beings. More than 50 such carvings have been discovered in the area. – Photo courtesy of Harald Hauptmann / Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany.

The following Bronze Age petroglyphs represent the most spectacular carvings of giants. These life size male giant figures with stretched arms could be assumed to be images of ghosts, demons, deities or gods. Some 50 such carvings have been discovered in northern areas but all the giants have no facial features.

In the third millennium BC, agriculture started in the region and carvings of horses were observed for first time. Then in the beginning of the first millennium BC, the area witnessed invasions by new ethnic groups such as the Sakan tribes. They carved sketches of Eurasian animals, most of them very interesting, bizarre and mythical in nature.

Later, another bunch of carvings appeared representing more mythical creatures, horses and warriors with Persian attire. These depicted the Iranian influence in the region and the expansion of Achaemenid Empire in sixth century BC.

The Golden era of Buddhism

In the first century AD, Buddhism emerged in the area as new belief system and reached its peak between the fifth and eighth century. Many spectacular carvings of Buddha and stupas – sacred buildings – and related inscriptions were found carved in the same era.

The beautiful carvings of two Buddhas flanking a stupa. –. Photo courtesy of Harald Hauptmann / Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany.

According the Hauptmann, the historic period of early Buddhism started from this area because of findings of old Indian style Khorashti language or Sanskrit. The venerations of Buddha and names of different kings show the climax of Buddhism in this area.

Although addressing Pakistan’s energy crisis is an urgent need and the Basha Dam would help bridge the gap between the demand and supply of power, the conservation and mitigation of these carvings is also very important.

When, asked Hauptmann about mitigation of the rock carvings in one hand and the need of the dam on the other, he said, “We (as an archaeologist) have to respect the decision (to build the dam) but it is very sad for us to lose one of the most rich and diverse rock art provinces of the world.”

According to Hauptmann, the Basha Dam will drown 32 villages and displace more than 25,000 people.

He added that some 3,000 very important stupas and similar number of drawings will be submerged after the construction of the dam. He called to establish a cultural center in Gilgit where original and replicas of the carvings could be preserved along with scientific documents about the geography, history, languages, music, wildlife and other aspects of the northern areas.

This center could be a rendezvous for scholars, writers, visitors and for future generation to discover the exciting history of the region.

Gold-digging ants

This area is also famous for the amazing story of mysterious gold-digging ants.

Greek historian, Herodotus (in fifth century BC) wrote (Historia III, 102-105) about the land of Dardai, where gold-digging ants – “bigger than fox, though not so big as a dog were used to collect gold particles.”

Later, other historians and writers such as Arrian, Claudius Aelianus, Ktesias, and Plinius shed some light on this amazing tale that fox-sized fuzzy “ants” were found in far eastern India in a region with yellow sand rich in gold particles.

The creatures piled up the dust and dirt while digging up the burrows where people would collect them to extract gold.

In 1854, Alexander Cunningham mentioned the fact that “the sands of the Indus have long been celebrated for the production of gold.”

In 1984, a French ethnologist Michel Peissel wrote a book named, “The Ants’ Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas”. Peissel suggested that Herodotus actually mentioned the Deosai Plateau of Pakistan in the story of gold-digging ants.

He said that not ants but (Himalayan) marmot used to dig deep burrows and pile large amount of sand. He further wrote that Deosai Plateau is rich in gold particles where marmot were found in abundance and thus solved the thousands-of-years-old gold-ant puzzle.

Peissel also claimed to interview Minaro, Maruts or Sonival tribes of Deosai Plateau and they confirmed the gold collection procedure through marmots.

But why did Herodotus write about gold-digging ‘ants’? Peissel presented the theory that Herodotus was probably unaware of the Persian language and depended on local interpreters and never claimed to see any ants by himself. He was confused because the old Persian word for “marmot” was very similar to that for “mountain ant”.

The Management Plane

Dr. Ayesha Pamela Rogers is the director of Rogers Kolachi Khan and Associates (RKK) and contracted by the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) for the Heritage Impact Assessment survey and report for the dam.

RKK launched its first report in 2009 as a long term comprehensive management plan to safeguard the heritage and help the people affected by the building of the reservoir.

Rogers agreed that some 30,000 carvings on 5,000 rocks will be affected. Some of them will be totally submerged; others will be seasonally under water and then exposed when water level are low, she assessed.

“Other (rock carvings) will be seasonally under water and then exposed when water levels are low, others which are now at high elevations will be close to the new shoreline. It means mitigation and conservation approaches are needed for this entire situation.

Other threats exist which are not related to the dam – many carvings are being vandalised as we speak – and new risks will arise if and when tourism is developed. Again, all these need to be addressed in a management plan,” she added.

She further said that Wapda is committed to this project and preserving whatever it can.

The pages of history, language and religion have been carved on the upper Indus rocks and they have been talking to humanity for hundred of years. An urgent and comprehensive plan is needed to preserve them for the world and for the generations to come.


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Comments (33) Closed

HAIDER JAWAID May 18, 2011 03:32pm
Amazing rock carvings but my vote is to build this dam and kalabagh dam aswell. These carvings will not help us feed our people nor will they help to quench their thurst. I suggest you do as many studies and take as many pictures as you like before the waters passes over them. Do not run after things that will not benifit mankind in any way whatsoever. Wassalam
enlightment May 18, 2011 04:05pm
Do you understand what ecological impacts the dams have ???
thomas vesely May 18, 2011 04:19pm
@haider there will never be enough if we all continue to breed unchecked. that is the real problem.but,yes,the people first. photos,casts ets.all changes............
Kazmi May 18, 2011 04:30pm
I totally agree with Mr. Haider we must build the dams for people to get benefit from the water reservoirs. These rocks cant feed anyone
AaDii May 18, 2011 04:44pm
the safest option would be to move these rock to some safe place like museums. As the fact cant be denied that we need water reserviors and energy badly!
Rao May 18, 2011 05:00pm
Dear Enlightenment: If there is no food to eat and workm there will be chaos and disaster. Pakistan simply does not have the means nor the love or desire to save these carvings. After it is meaningless when viewed from a Muslim perspective. So take pictures study them well and build the dam. Nothing can be done. Rao
Zahid Hussain May 18, 2011 05:52pm
Few many years ago, when constructing Aswan Dam of Egypt, a number of huge ancient monuments were threatened. UNO bodies had to interfere, and they shifted them at safer place. It was really marvellous job.
najia May 18, 2011 06:16pm
It is so easy to sit on the outside and lecture other about never having enough , because you are not the one facing 8-12 hours power downs every day when the outside temprature is 45 celcius. This dam is a dire need of the people of pakistan, their survival is at stake,I wonder from where did this writer even found the courage to compare the importance of dam with these good for nothing carvings.
tat May 18, 2011 07:03pm
I think what they can do is to take help from UN agencies like egyption did for Aswan dam and shifted all the things to safer grounds, because dam is much needed than anything.
Reza May 18, 2011 07:30pm
The disregard for Pakistan's cultural heritage shown by government (and many commentarors here), is no surprise. It reflects the corruption of the government and that failure is reflected in the lack of education displayed by some commentators. True, water, food and power production are important. However, looking after the people's cultural heritage until they are educated enough to value them, is also part of putting people first. These problems are related. You can not expect a society to look after its people's basic needs, if it too corrupt or ignorant to protect its more holistic needs - which includes culture! Basic necessities can also be generated by preserving these carving for cultural tourists...
Nanga Pir May 18, 2011 07:47pm
1. Such heritage belong to whole humanity, not just people who happen to live there at particular time. And we Pakistanis must respect and honor such aspirations. 2. Even with this dam we will be still energy hungry. Better management and sacrifice are the answer. 3. This heritage must be saved. It will help the local people a lot.
JAY JOLLY May 18, 2011 07:54pm
These carvings are the combined heritage of the sub-continent.Both India and Pakistan should approach UNESCO for help to preserve the carvings.Thank you Suhail for a very interesting article.
Naeem Husain May 18, 2011 09:12pm
Excellent article by Suhail. Keep up the good work and let the world know that Pakistan is rich in ancient history and culture!Save the rocks and build the dam through Engineering design. Both will benefit Pakistan from ancient cultural and economic stand point. Preserve these precious stones and carving and show the world Pakistan and its people care for all faith and culture. May be UNESCO and the Pakistan Government could help protect this great historical site. It will attract tourists from around the world and simultaneously the economy could be revived.
SKChadha May 18, 2011 10:06pm
“He called to establish a cultural center in Gilgit where original and replicas of the carvings could be preserved along with scientific documents about the geography, history, languages, music, wildlife and other aspects of the northern areas. This center could be a rendezvous for scholars, writers, visitors and for future generation to discover the exciting history of the region.” Najia - The need is to build the Dam as also to protect the historical carvings. Both can be done simultaneously.
Deb May 18, 2011 11:45pm
Oh.Really!! It appears that on an evolutionery ladder you are a many steps below the people who made those rock carvings.
Saad May 18, 2011 11:45pm
This is a shame that such measures have to be taken...shows the bad planning at hand and utter disregard for national and ethnic treasures...these are sacred grounds for all the people of subcontinent as our ancestor.If we do not respect our own heritage why would foreigners respect us? We are more interested in "modernization" rather than our bloodline and ancestry.. sad day.
Matta Temujin reddy May 19, 2011 01:28am
Once nehru said dams are modern-day temples for the society. But dams are ecological disasters yes we need water and power but there are other ways to get it building dam looks good for advertising that's why politicians choose them.
Temu May 19, 2011 01:46am
I do not remember exact location but there was a ancient temple threatened to be buried by a Dam construction. The temple was ripped apart numbered and replaced at a safe distance. Here to save these 30,000 rock paintings,probably some fund raising even from India could save these paintings and can help to make this place a tourist spot. Tourism would bring lot of money.
Mohdudul Huq May 19, 2011 01:47am
Pakistan has long historical heritage goes back more than 3000 years. Many people and western hisorians are completely ignore the value of it's improtance. Moreover, the government and the people do not know it's value due to lack of education. Indus Valley civilizations are the prime example. Beside these there are a lot of hostorical places and landmarks which has especial significance. Goverement and people should preseve it as National Wealth.
Izam May 19, 2011 01:49am
No food to eat and no power? Why do we need nukes, the military, and huge mansions then?
Saima May 19, 2011 04:06am
Progress is not incompatible with saving heritage. This is world heritage and has important lessons to teach us that we have forgotten. If we forget our history, we lose ourselves. The effort to save these must be made. It is possible to address the energy crisis and save these. Beyond building Basha, we have a bigger issue of how we manage our generation, distribution, and transmission systems. These should not be lost. International assistance needs to be enlisted to help save these. As it is, the average Pakistani is so ignorant of the country's rich historical heritage. This will lose it forever if not saved.
M. Gupta May 19, 2011 04:44am
Pakistan and India should work together to preserve those precious and unreplaceable ancient history in a huge museum with the help of UNESCO at another place. It can be made a tourist place for the world to see, learn, and appreciate. Once gone, you can not get history back. Thus one can have dam as well as those precious carvings. It will be a monumental work but can be achieved.
Ahmed May 19, 2011 09:12am
Is there neglect because this is part of the pre-islamic Indian heritage of Pakistan? Most likely yes. Though ingnorance and corruption play a role too. By the way, Brahmi is not a language but a script with which Sanskrit was written. All subcontinental scripts eventually derive from Brahmi.
robin morgan May 19, 2011 11:19am
Truth spoken. Too bad politics and nationalism interfere with tremendously valuable cultural assets, for the entire mankind. You were right about Brahmi/Sanskrit too.
robin May 19, 2011 11:25am
Educated Pakistanis need to do something about this tragic situation. They need to set aside short-term political, religious view points and realize that their nation was once the site of greatest civilizations, cultures, knowledge and wisdom, and they should be immensely proud to inherit those, and fight to keep these places special. You sit on memories and treasures valuable far beyond any earthly price.
munnaprasad May 19, 2011 11:40am
I am of the view that before IMF or ADB banks approve any loans to Pakistan to build the dam these carving must be saved by moving them if need be this Must be the condition of any loans. There is alps enough evidence that Pakistan Government is negligent on managing and preserving pre Islamic art
daaron May 19, 2011 12:58pm
no doubt these rock carvings are an asset to the all humankind and they should be protected. however this point should not become the cause of not building the dam project as Pakistan needs it. the shifting of these stone carvings with the help of UNESCO,Japan or China to one of our national museums is the option to be considered!
Alok May 19, 2011 03:12pm
If this was found in any other developed country in UK, EU, Aus or US what would they have done??? Apply for World Heritage Site Status - involve National Geographic or UN for coverage and convert the whole area into a thriving tourism industry. What is Pak doing? building a dam over it - specially because it is pre-islamic. They are ready to wipe out over 30,000 yrs of human heritage just because they dont value it - even if the world would value it, which they would.
shiva May 19, 2011 03:35pm
Beautiful article – hope it is very timely too. Like Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia, Pakistan should also preserve and highlight ancient and pre-Islamic heritage - raising Pakistan's stature in the world. UNESCO should definitely help Pakistan preserve these rare treasures; and of course the dam can also be built for the benefit of the people. (was this area part of pre-1947 Kashmir kingdom? - especially then preserving this together can be peace-building move for Pakistan and India).
Selina May 19, 2011 04:33pm
I agree that this is a tragic case and I hope the project is modified to retain the rock carvings and then a system is set by caring individuals to preserve and maintain these for future generations, but I don't like you using this issue as a general excuse to lambast Pakistan. There are countless historical, incredibly valuable archeological and cultural sites all over Pakistan and you're wrong, people (the world at large) doesn't care about them. They haven't increased tourism, they haven't done anything for tourism. Unfortunatly successive Pakistani governments have cared even less about them. And I disagree that its about religion, I think the politicians don't have political will, although it's also tragic that both Pakistan and India are undoubatly rewriting their pre-islamic and Moghul histories respectively.
atul May 19, 2011 04:51pm
Dam should be definitely built but all these evidences of Pakistan's rich cultural heritage should be shifted to a safe area to avoid them getting submerged & lost to mankind Pakistan should remember that in the BC period it was a thriving land for knowledge, at that time when USA wasn't even in existence,or Europeans were very backward in terms of knowledge & culture(their intellect was like jungle people at that time)Whereas during that period in terms of knowledge ,culture,trade,the area that comprises of today's Pakistan was at the peak of the world Panini the greatest mathematician of that period, was from North West frontier province.He discovered the zero digit and knew mathematical things that will put to shame today's calculator.The process of plastic surgery also owes its origin to a famous surgeon of pre Islamic era in today's Pakistan's land area,The composition of the Vedas(religious doctrine of Hindus)also was done entirely on the banks of river Indus in that era.Who can forget University of Taxila where students from all across the came for learning just like today everybody goes to USA for higher studies?
Goga Nalaik May 19, 2011 06:15pm
I totally agree with the writer and I would like to thank Atul and Shiva for their pertinent comments. In 1960 when Gamal Abdel Nassir of Egypt had decided to build a barrage on the Nile, there were many world heritage monuments including the gigantic and world famous Abu Simbel temple which was carved in the rock. Transferring such a monument from one place to another (in 1960) was something impossible. But Egypt was helped by the UN and especially by the French government. It took quite some time, heavy machinery, perseverance of qualified engineers and a lot of money. Finally all these monuments were successfully transferred to their required places. Today, 80% of foreign exchange of Egypt is generated by the tourism industry. Abu Simbel is visited by more than 5 millions of tourists per year. I would say, displacing a few small rocks in today’s time is really no big deal. Pakistan can do it alone. We MUST save this world heritage. I’m not opposing the construction of Dam but we don’t have the right to let all these treasures go under water. Unfortunately almost all decision makers in this country (politicians) are utterly corrupt and they don’t care about the disaster they are going to create. If there is any sane person in the present government, I would like to beg him to do something. Imagine a trouble free, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan tomorrow with a flourishing tourism industry and thousands and thousands of foreign visitors... who would say no to it! Honestly, this is a very serious issue. May I request Dawn to launch its online petition so that its readers can vote?
shivendra kadgaonkar May 26, 2011 12:25pm
pl.before construction of dam save this valuable heritage . As in egypt, india the historical sites were reestablished befor they going to vanished . Pakistan has a great and valuable archaeological monuments which cannot be destroyed by any means. Next generation of researchers and touriest should know about the great past of civilization . pakistan govt can take a help from india to save this rock carvings or take some good idesas from archaeological survey of india to conserve this art.Since i am studied in archaeology the value of these carvings are uncountable. no other nation has such a treasure which pakistan has so do not destroy it.