Monumental Neglect Of Burzahom

Dr. Mumtaz Yatoo

Dr. Mumtaz Yatoo, who has done his PhD from University of Leicester (UK), is a leading Kashmiri archaeologist. He has been a Ford Fellow and is currently working as Assistant Professor (Archaeology) at Kashmir University’s Centre of Central Asian Studies (CCAS) where he is also the principal investigator of Kashmir Prehistory Project (KPP) which was started in the year 2014 in collaboration with Prof. Alison Betts (Prof. of Silk Route Studies), University of Sydney, Australia. During his PhD research at University of Leicester, Dr Yatoo successfully located six Neolithic sites in Kashmir which paved the way for KPP for further probing of the sites. In a detailed interview with senior journalist, Athar Parvaiz, for Kashmir Observer, he answered various questions about the prevailing status of archeological sites across Kashmir.




Athar Parvaiz (AP): To start with, please give a brief description of archaeological sites of Kashmir and the significance of most important sites?


“Mumtaz Yatoo (MY): In both exploration and excavation, Kashmir now has a fragmented archaeological record spanning prehistoric to modern times, and this still requires systematic probing and research. However, beginning  chronologically from  prehistory Prof. H.D. Sankalia (1971) surveyed Pahalgam, 100 kms south east of Srinagar in the south Kashmir, with the objective of challenging De Terra and Paterson’s findings, who said Palaeolithic material culture did not exist in Kashmir.  The only aim of the survey was to locate Palaeolithic material so that a chronological gap could be filled.  Sankalia successfully reported an Abbevillian handaxe and massive flake (considered by him to be the earliest in South Asia) dating to first interglacial and second glacial periods of lower Pleistocene (lower Palaeolithic) from well-stratified deposits, in the vicinity of the Liddar River (a tributary feeding Jhelum River).  Sankalia’s findings aroused the interest of other archaeologists who surveyed Pahalgam again in the 1970s in an attempt to locate more tools of this period and to verify the findings of Sankalia”.


“Prof. A. A. Bandey surveyed Manasbal lake in the 1990s, 35 kms north of Srinagar in Ganderbal District with the aim of determining the presence of Palaeolithic material culture in Kashmir particularly towards north of Kashmir which until then was considered a marginal zone in terms of Palaeolithic findings.  He successfully located cave shelters and stone tools belonging to the Middle Palaeolithic period. I myself surveyed North eastern areas of Baramulla District and located Upper Palaeolithic site and material culture along the Yemran mountains in Bomai Sopore, an in-situ rock engraving is one of the significant finds of this period in whole of South Asia. Archaeological Survey of India excavated Burzahom, under the leadership of T.N. Khazanchi from 1960 to 1973. It was systematically excavated for a period of nine years.  The detailed excavation report by Khazanchi is yet to see the light of the day, but summaries of each excavation season were published in the Indian Archaeology Reports.  The excavations revealed a four-fold cultural sequence: phase I (2586-2130 cal. BC) and phase II (2881-1730 cal. BC) were attributed to the Neolithic, phase III the Megalithic (797 cal. BC) and phase IV the Early Historical (c. 300 – 500 AD)[for more details and significance kindly see question 1] . A settlement analogous to Burzahom was excavated in two seasons at Gufkral, 40 kms south east of Srinagar in district Pulwama, by the Archaeological Survey of India under the direction of K.D. Banerjee and A.K. Sharma.  During these excavations three cultural phases were indentified:  phase I Neolithic, further divided into I-A aceramic Neolithic (1420 cal. BC), I-B early Neolithic (2554-1772 cal. BC) and I-C later Neolithic (1923-926 cal. BC); phase II is Megalithic (2131-1677 cal. BC); and phase III is Early historical. The significant find at Gufkral was the earliest evidences of use of Iron implements.  Furthermore, Kanispora a two-period site (Neolithic 3149 cal. BC and early historic c. 1st to 5th century AD) situated on the left bank of Jhelum River in Baramulla District, 50 kms north west of Srinagar.  Kanispora was briefly excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India in a single season under the direction of B.R. Mani.  From the five cultural phases found at this site; the phases I and II yielded the Neolithic material culture (with phase I aceramic and phase II ceramic); and the other three phases belonged to Kushan of the early historic period.  The Neolithic material culture of Kanispora had similarities with that from Burzahom and Gufkral. The significant find of the site was emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) which is only reported at this site in Kashmir”.


“Semthan a multi period site, located 43 kms south east of Srinagar on a loessic deposit.  It has been partially excavated in three seasons by the Archaeological Survey of India from 1977 to 1984 to bridge the sequence of cultures from c. 700 BC to c. 600 AD.  The aim of the excavations was to bring to light habitational deposits and material culture of northern black polished ware (NBPW) and onwards at this site.  The significance of the Semthan excavation to the archaeology of Kashmir was that it brought to light important evidence about the cultural sequence from the end of Megalithic and early historic period (the concluding phases after the Neolithic period at Burzahom and Gufkral) up to the later historic period in Kashmir.  This period between the early and later historic would normally be understood through definition as cultural periods and developments such as the Iron Age and Indo-Greek. Daya Ram Sahni from Archaeological Survey of India excavated the important Buddhist site of Parihaspora, 28 kms north west of Srinagar.  Among the structures exposed, the most important were a stupa, a chaitya (halls enclosing the stupa) and a vihara (monastery).  These monumental ruins provided important information about the Karkota rulers of the 7th century AD.  Chief among these was Lalitaditya Muktapida, who is credited with building Parihaspora.  As well as Parihaspora, Daya Ram Sahni excavated the Buddhist site at Pandrethan near Srinagar, and the Hindu temples of Avantisvamin and Avantisvara at modern Avantipora (8th century AD), 28 kms south east of Srinagar and Ushkar site in Baramulla town.  R.C. Kak’s excavation work at Harwan in 1919 revealed a fully-fledged Buddhist Settlement laid out on the terraced slopes of the hill.  Although the Harwan excavations were essentially carried out to unearth structures, it was the unusual style of these structures in Kashmir (such as diaper rubble and diaper pebble) and the discovery of molded tiles marked by Kharoshti syllables that aroused the interest of many scholars in the wider archaeology of this site. In 1938 M.S. Kaul excavated some Buddhist settlements in Gilgit and Kashmir.  His most significant work was the excavation of ancient Pratapapura (modern Tapar in Baramulla District).  A base, courtyard, enclosure wall, pathway and other architectural members were exposed.  The town and the temple are attributed to King Pratapaditya II (7th century AD), son of Durlabhavardhana of Karkota dynasty and father of the famous King Lalitaditya of the later 7th century AD”.


AP: Could you please explain for a common Kashmiri why it is important for the government and the citizens to preserve Burzahom and why it matters to the common citizens (and, to our region)? 


“MY: Burzahom is a third millennium BCE Neolithic (new stone age) site, 12 kms north east of Srsinagar city, first of its kind to reveal the Neolithic material culture of our early ancestors in Kashmir.  The site was first discovered by H De Terra in 1935 when he was carrying out the geological and geomorphological survey in the region.  He carried out a trial excavation at the site in September of the same year.  De Terra deemed the material culture to be of considerable antiquity with no parallels in India at the time.  The material culture of this site aroused the interest of the Archaeological Survey of India and, under the leadership of T.N. Khazanchi from 1960 to 1973, it was systematically excavated for a period of nine years. Excavations at Burzahom brought to light some interesting information about our ancestors, such as their dwelling places, subsistence patterns, disposal of dead and their economy and interactions. The excavations revealed oval and square pit structures, narrow at the top and broad at the bottom that were interpreted as the Neolithic dwelling places (or as grave pits) with timber and birch bark roofing .  However a new research is being carried out on the similar dwelling pits in Kashmir, which suggest that they probably acted as granaries. The animal and plant remains at Burzahom were interpreted as indicating people with pastoral and arable knowhow.  The material evidence from Burzahom suggest that people knew various crafts such as pottery making, weaving, tool making in bone and stone, expressions of art and so forth”.


“Two noteworthy pots were recovered from Burzahom, one was painted with a horned figure on its shoulders, the other was found filled with carnelian and agate beads.  Parallels of these pots and beads have been traced at pre-Harappan site Kot Diji (northern Sindh, Pakistan), also at Sarai Khola (Taxila, Pakistan) and at Gumla (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), signifying their cultural interactions with Burzahom.  Similarly a copper arrow-head, a coil and a copper knife from Burzahom were considered to be evidence of cultural contacts with Harappans. Prof. G. Stacul, working with the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat Valley (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan), found remarkable similarities between the material culture of Burzahom and the Swat Valley. Material culture from Burzahom Kashmir has been found to have parallels in neighbouring regions such as in Pakistan, Chinaand, Mongolia.  Based on these similarities, it was suggested that Burzahom was a part of larger multifaceted culture known as the Inner Asia Complex or Northern Neolithic Complex”.


AP: There are growing concerns about ill-treatment of archaeological sites like Burzahom. For example, due to growing urbanization and developmental projects like the proposed road-construction for making Burzahom ‘accessible’ to tourists. Your thoughts on that?


“MY: Burzahom is a very unique site in Kashmir, it is a place where our ancestors lived for thousands of years, domesticating plants and animals and living a settled village life. The Burzahom is a window for Kashmiris through which they could have a peep and glimpse of their past but unfortunately Burzahom is vandalised to such an extent that when a common Kashmiri or tourist or a student visits site, they see nothing of the sort they read in books. The Site is encroached on all sides, roads are laid through the middle of the site by our government in contravention to Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Act.  It’s ironical that the site we are so proud of is reduced to a T20 cricket ground, people who come to see the site, come with high expectations but return with disappointment, their expressions at the end – so is this the Burzahom Archaeological Site! As a Kashmiri and as an archaeologist, I feel embarrassment when tourists come long way to visit the site and find nothing except disappointment – I sometimes wonder why make the site accessible to tourists when it is just a walk of five minutes from main road to the site. I feel the need is to preserve and conserve the site, construct an onsite museum, proper information kiosks, built public convenience rather making the site accessible”.


AP: What are Kashmir’s most proud possessions with reference to the discovery and preservation of archaeological artefacts?  Have we lost some artefacts? If yes, please explain. 


“MY: Among the most proud possessions I would say the one millennium old Palaeolithic tools reported from Pahalagam, Middle Palaeolithic tools from Manasbal and an In-situ rock carving belonging to Upper Palaeolithic period at Bomai, Sopore. The Bomai rock engraving, first of its kind in whole of South and Central Asia is thought to be an astronomical scene (Meteorite Comets shower), the research is ongoing in collaboration with Prof. Mayank Vahia of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.    From the excavated Neolithic sites such as Burzahom, Gufkral  and Kanispora, the bone and stone tools are the signature artefacts but unfortunately most of the artefacts are untraceable. Unique to Kashmir, the terracotta moulded tiles from Harwan, Ushkar, Hutmur, Kutbal are again the priced artefacts of the Kushan period in Kashmir. The tiles had various decorations over them depicting social and ideological elements from life during the Kushan period, such as real and mythical animals, Kharoshti numerals and other artistic expressions, these tiles also had other motifs such as the Barhut railing, the Chinese fret, the Sassanian foliated bird, the Persian vase, the Roman rosette, the Indian elephant and others, which showed connections or knowledge about these far off places and practices in Kashmir. These tiles have not been reported from anywhere else in Central Asia.  Some of these tiles are at SPS Museum, Srinagar but most of them are in the possession of ASI.  The terracotta heads of Yakshas from Lethpur, Kashmir are again the significant artefacts of the c. 7th Century AD, many have reached to different museums of the world only one is housed at Central Asian Museum, University of Kashmir, Srinagar. These terracotta heads are the best unparalled specimens of the plastic art of Kashmir.

The Gilgit manuscripts are again a different story, a proud possession of Kashmir, the World’s oldest manuscripts which probably holds key to the exact evolution of Sanskrit, Buddhist, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan literatures. The manuscripts were taken out of the J&K during the 1948 indo-pak conflict and now under the possession of National Archives of India. The stone artefacts of Gods and Goddesses from 7th Century onwards are masterpieces of artistic expression by the people of Kashmir, most of them are housed in SPS museum and Central Asian Museum, and the museums in India, and they are among the better preserved artefacts of Kashmir”.


AP: When we talk of the oldest civilizations, does Kashmir enjoy a uniqueness in the sub-continent?


“MY: Certainly – Kashmir has the earliest evidences of the human activity since Palaeolithic times, it remained occupied through Lower Palaeolithic, Middle Palaeolithic & Upper Palaeolithic periods – C. 1.2 million years BP to C. 18000 years BP, the artefacts of these periods have been reported from South to North of Kashmir. The Neolithic Period is very well represented in Kashmir and it is on the basis of identified common traits in the Neolithic material culture with the Swat sites and Taxila in Pakistan, Yangshao and Longshan in China, and Gobi in Mongolia that scholars termed this a unique cultural complex calling it the ‘Inner Asian Complex’ or ‘Northern Neolithic Complex’. This unique cultural complex possibly existed because of the ancient routes such as Jhelum Valley route, Gurez-Gilgit-Baltistan route through Himalayas, movement of people took place, which might have played an important role in the development of this distinctive cultural complex within Kashmir, Pakistan, China and Central Asia. Following the Neolithic period, we have a number of early historic sites in Kashmir which are unique in the subcontinent such as Harwan, Semthan, Kanispor, Ahan and so forth this period in Kashmir dates from c. 7th BC century to c. 5th century AD. In Kashmir evidence for cross cultural integration during the early historic period is known from Semthan, where Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) and Indo-Greek potteries were found (c. 7th century – c. 2nd century BC).  Kalhana’s Rajatarangini verses 101-107, translated by Aurel Stein, mentions four places founded by Asoka, and this brings Kashmir into the ambit of the Mauryan empire (c. 324 – c. 185 BC).  It is suggested that the Mauryans were based at Taxila and would have found it comparatively easy to interact with Kashmir most likely through the Jhelum Valley route.  The Kushan period (c. 1st – 5th century AD) also suggest integration and interaction. The Terracotta art during the Kushan period of Kashmir is considered to have been influenced by the Gandharan school of art, representing religious as well as secular beliefs”.


AP: Any particular message you want to convey as one of the premier archaeologists of Kashmir?    


“MY: Study of the archaeology and culture of Jammu and Kashmir is very essential in exploring and documenting the history of the region and its people. Archaeology records the history of a region through its material culture. As such it can be used to test the veraCity of historical records and to provide a more nuanced picture of the past. Beyond history, in the deep past, it helps to tell a story that cannot be recovered through written sources. However, while historical studies are the first job of an archaeologist, the scope of this discipline is very much broader, and its reach much wider.   Because archaeology is concerned with the material record, it is also the base discipline for Heritage which covers the management and promotion of historical sites and monuments. While these are of much importance to the Local people of Kashmir, they also play a critical role in the promotion of tourism, especially to visitors. Therefore, there is a great need of support by the people in protection and preservation of archaeological sites/artefacts to assist in the professional revitalization of our cultural tourism in Kashmir”.


  • Burzahom has been vandalised to such an extent that when a common Kashmiri or tourist or a student visits site, they see nothing of the sort they read in books.
  • Burzahom is encroached on all sides, roads are laid through the middle of the site by Govt in contravention to rules.
  • Road has been built for the site when it is just a walk of five minutes from main road.
  • There is need to construct an onsite museum, information kiosks, public convenience at the site.
  • J&K has nothing that caters to the needs of tourists who want to learn and appreciate the cultural wealth of the State.
  • It is critical to at least fully document the archeological sites in Kashmir before they disappear”.


[Courtesy : daily Kashmir Observer,  Srinagar, Kashmir, June 19, 20, 21, 2018].


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