BUILDING A FUTURE IN THE PAST IN KASHMIR

After a violent summer, there’s a smidgeon of cheerful news from Kashmir. A brand-new postgraduate programme is not only offering exciting careers to students but as writer-editor Catriona Childdiscovers, it is also revealing the idyllic prehistory of the Valley and its importance in the early development of agriculture.

Archaeologists cleaning prehistoric artefacts from the Kashmir Valley

As you read this article,20 postgraduate students, 11 women and nine men,are digging into the first stage of an M.Phil.in archaeology at the Centre for Asian Studies in Srinagar, Kashmir.

Why is this news? Well – it’s the first academic archaeology course ever to be run in Kashmir and one of the few positive stories to come out of the Valley after a dark and troubled summer.

Leading the course are Dr Ajmal Shah and DrMumtaz Yatoo. Dr Shah, a Tagore Fellow and expert on the Kushan period, has a PhD from the Pune Institute for Archaeology and Dr Yatoo, a Ford Fellow, did his doctoral thesis on Kashmir’s Neolithic at the University of Leicester in the UK.


Dr Mumtaz Yatoo in the field

 

Plans for the M.Phil.course in Kashmir were first conceived in 2010 and driven by the enthusiasm of Saleem Baig, convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Jammu & Kashmir Chapter.


Female students are in the majority in the first course in archaeology to be taught in Kashmir

 

And the programme is boosted by a recent tie-up between the Centre for Asian Studies in Srinagar and the Centre for Classical and Near Eastern Studies, University of Sydney. Since 2015, the two departments have been collaborating on the Kashmiri Prehistory Project (KPP), which aims to uncover the origins of a distinctive Neolithic culture (Northern Neolithic), found only in Kashmir and other isolated pockets, such as the Swat Valley in Pakistan.

In 2017, the KPP was rewarded by the discovery of a magnificent 4000-year old pot, close to a bountiful orchard full of rosy apples. As a tribute to its voluptuous shape, the team nicknamed it Kim, after Kim Kardashian, a detail that will probably not appear in any of the papers in learned journals.


A 4000 year-old pot named Kim

 

Start of the Silk Road

Alison Betts, Professor of Silk Road Studies at Sydney and now an Adjunct Professor at Kashmir University, who leads the Australian team, is interested in the origins of agriculture in Asia and says Kashmir plays an important role in this story. “Early results from KPP are exciting”, she told me. “We’ve found the Valley was the place where farming technologies, particularly millet and rice cultivation from China and wheat and barley cultivation from West Asia, met and crossed over.”

This, she says, is one of the earliest expressions of what later became the Silk Road, the path of trade between east and west. Dr Yatoo elaborates, “Yes, we are looking at the prehistory of the Silk Road. One strand of it was the exchange of agricultural technologies. Later, other strands developed and coalesced until, a millennium or so later, we have what came to be known as ‘The Silk Road’”.


Landowner Mohammed Ashraf Dar (L) with two members of KPP team – DrYatoo (C) and Professor Betts (R)

 

Life in prehistoric Kashmir

The Neolithic period in Kashmir began around 6,000 years ago, in the 4th millennium BC. According to Shah and Yatoo, life in the Valley at this time was extraordinarily peaceful and, in prehistoric terms, comfortable. While their Harappan contemporaries in the Indus Valley became urbanised and developed a sophisticated civilization, the farmers of Kashmir were happy to continue a bucolic existence in villages perched on terraces (karewas) above the soggy valley bottom.

They tilled the rich lake deposits below their houses, kept sheep and goats, which grazed the high pastures in summer, and lived a life that changed little for 2000 years.

Although tucked behind the formidable Pir Panjal range, the neolithic Kashmiris were not completely isolated, says Professor Betts. Folk from the Indus Valley came to extract galena (lead ore) for cosmetics (kohl), steatite for the famous Harappan seals, and copper; and their mines can still be seen in the hillsides. They possibly traded carnelian beads with the locals and a few of their distinctive Harappan pots have been found at Kashmir Valley sites.

The early Kashmiris made pots too (cue Kim), but there is no sign that these were influenced by the designs of the city-smart Harappans. Conservative to the last, the Kashmiri folk may or may not have admired the Indus Valley ceramics but had no intention of adopting these new-fangled ideas themselves. Instead, they carried on doing just the same things in just the same way, generation after generation until about 1300 BC.

In the Indus Valley and other places during this time, bronze had come on the scene and with it the growth of trade and acquisitiveness. Bronze technology created more effective weapons, the first arms dealers set up shop and warriors were buried with swords and daggers to vanquish foes in the afterlife. But not in Kashmir. Here, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, farmers stuck doggedly to their stone tools and used metal only for building purposes, say the archaeologists.

Stone axe from Yuntang, Kashmir

 

 

Why were the Kashmiris so stuck in their ways? Professor Betts explains that they had no real reason to change. “Their environment was quite comfortable and they had plenty to eat. The only new habits they did adopt, the cultivation of millet and rice, which came to the valley after wheat and barley, diversified their crops and gave them even greater food security, she said.”

Why there is a future in the past

At an informal meeting, Dr G.N. Khaki, Director of the Centre for Asian Studies, welcomed the first batch of archaeology students to the M.Phil course and Professor Alison Betts asked them why they had chosen this line of study. Their excitement at being part of this new venture was palpable. Many of them liked the practical, outdoor, hands-on approach of archaeology and the idea of the detective work involved.

And Dr Khaki said, that if the students applied themselves, then the course would definitely lead to employment. There was an urgent need for archaeologists to work on heritage projects in the Central and State governments. Numbers on the M.Phil.course would be deliberately limited to ensure that demand and supply remained in balance.

At this 20-odd smiles lit up the room. It may have been a terrible summer, indeed the Valley was on shut-down that very day, but for these young Kashmiris at least, the future was looking bright.

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