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“There is an open-air museum in the Chilas valley,” said Aftab Rana, president of the Sustainable Tourism Foundation Pakistan (STFP). He was referring to a mountainous area of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, where the cliffs and boulders are festooned with tens of thousands of petroglyphs – ancient carvings made when drawings are etched into rocks.

The Chilas valley has one of the largest known numbers of rock engravings. Many are located on the banks of the Indus river, clustered around old roadways, river crossings and settlements. They are difficult to reach – a factor that may have helped preserve them. But soon, that will no longer be the case.

This is the area where the Diamer Basha dam is being built on the Indus under the supervision of Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). The eight million acre-foot, 272-metre-high reservoir will generate 4,500 megawatts of hydroelectric energy and irrigate 1.2 million acres of agricultural land. Its construction means that most of the area’s magnificent heritage will soon be underwater.

See: Pakistan breaks ground for dream dam project at Diamer

See: Diamer Basha project needs independent seismic experts

Rana, who as a young man frequently visited the area to look at the carvings, expressed concern about their future to The Third Pole. But, he said, “I am hopeful that [Prime Minister] Imran Khan’s government will not ignore the conservation of this important rock art heritage.”

Four of the ancient rock carvings that will be submerged by the Diamer Basha dam [Images by: Gulraiz Ghouri]

Irreplaceable cultural history

Before the 1980s and the completion of the Karakoram Highway, getting to the area was hard and few academics had studied the ‘rock museum’. However, with improved access, scholars documented 50,000 carvings and 5,000 inscriptions, dating them from 8,000 BCE up to the 16th century CE and the advent of Islam in the area.

Over the ages, both peaceful travellers and invaders from Central Asia left their mark on the region, following routes along the upper Indus and its adjoining valleys. As a branch of the Silk Road, the roads were used by merchants, pilgrims and artisans from the north or the Indian subcontinent. 

Feryal Ali-Gauhar, lead consultant for cultural heritage management at Diamer Basha dam, said, “The significance of these carvings and inscriptions for Pakistan is extremely important in that it reveals to us the evidence of the many tribes and groups and even individuals that have travelled through our far north, leaving behind cultural traces which form part of our heritage.”

A survey conducted by the STFP found that most of the carvings depict single animals, ‘triangular men’, images of Buddha, Buddhist stupas (burial mounds) and hunting scenes.

Mueezuddin Hakal, an assistant professor at the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said that people “involved in this international activity wrote their diaries on rocks”, expressing “their aesthetics propagating particularly their belief in Buddhism”. He added that there are messages in Brahmi (an ancient Indian language), Sogdian (from ancient Iran), Tibetan, Hebrew, Chinese and Bactrian Script (from north Afghanistan).

Two of the ancient rock carvings that will be submerged [Images by: Mueezuddin Hakal]

Two of the ancient rock carvings that will be submerged [Images by: Mueezuddin Hakal]

Conservation plans

Ali-Gauhar stressed the importance of conservation, as “heritage is a non-renewable resource, and once lost, cannot be reproduced”.

WAPDA has written a Cultural Heritage Management Plan. This sets out how it will preserve the rock carvings and inscriptions, set up a museum and promote cultural tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan. 

The document detailing the plan is not yet public. However, Ali-Gauhar outlined it to The Third Pole.

In total, 35,000 rock carvings will be affected by the construction of the Diamer Basha dam. Of these, 5,000 will be scanned by a 3D camera. The 5,000 carvings were selected by Harald Hauptmann, the former head of the Pak-German Archaeological Mission and a professor at Heidelberg University, who died in 2018. The data will be stored in archives and used to make full-scale replicas of the carvings for display in the museum. 

The majority of the original carvings will be submerged when the reservoir is built. “Cutting the carvings from the cliff faces and boulders upon which they are carved is not an option as this will totally destroy the carvings due to the fragile nature of the rock, which is igneous and is already profoundly weathered,” said Ali-Gauhar.

The submerged carvings can be treated with a protective coating. Depending on the clarity of the water, Ali-Gauhar said, it is possible people will still be able to view the carvings underwater. 

“Since a Chinese company has been contracted for the building of the dam, it is possible to seek assistance from the Chinese government to help us to build a dome-like structure above the most important carvings,” she said, citing Baiheliang, an archeological site that was submerged when the Three Gorges Dam was built. It is protected by an arch-shaped glass covering filled with purified water. The underwater museum means visitors can descend and view the original inscriptions.

Resilient ethyl silicate was used to reinforce the carved stone at Baiheliang, and polyester adhesive-bonded fabric to protect the inscriptions from erosion. Ali-Gauhar said WAPDA will seek the assistance of Chinese experts in protecting the rock carvings in the Diamer Basha dam area.

Carvings outside the reservoir will be protected with a chemical coating to shield them from wind, water and the sun.

Ali-Gauhar added that “a rapid assessment will have to be carried out to upgrade the existing plans,” the last of which was submitted in 2016. “A lot of changes have occurred in the past four years and WAPDA needs to move very quickly,” she said. For example, archaeological excavations that have found evidence of Buddhist settlements and monasteries must be carried out before any construction work on the dam begins.  

The carvings are not on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s World Heritage List, which gives sites certain legal protections. Jawad Aziz, national professional officer (culture) for UNESCO Pakistan, said the carvings are “priceless and irreplaceable assets of Gilgit-Baltistan, and have a great potential for promoting tourism and generating economic benefits for the local people.” 

He said, “UNESCO remains committed to safeguard the cultural heritage of Pakistan and is currently planning to mobilise resources to engage local community through awareness raising and provide technical support to the government of Gilgit-Baltistan for protection and promotion of its cultural heritage.” 

Scholars respond

Mian Attique Ahmad, an archaeologist, is director of the Information and Cultural Department of Punjab and secretary general of the Museums Association of Pakistan. He said he agreed with the plans for the preservation of the rock carvings. 

He added that the technology exists to relocate these rocks, giving the examples of a mosque in Turkey and Egyptian temples during the construction of the Aswan dam, which were moved to other sites.

Christian Luczanits, a senior lecturer in Tibetan and Buddhist art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, described the submerging of the carvings as “a great loss for Pakistan”. He added that “fortunately they are well documented and the information they contained will at least be partially preserved.”

Jason Neelis, chair of the religion and culture department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, questioned the estimated number of carvings that could be impacted by flooding in the dam basin, as he said not all the sites in the basin have been extensively documented.

Hakal urged the government of Pakistan to involve institutions such as University of Peshawar, Hazara University and the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations in conducting further in-depth research.  

Tourism can still thrive

Ali-Gauhar said that it is “possible to manage this important cultural and historical heritage so that local and international tourists can benefit from the understanding of the ancient images and inscriptions.”

The Cultural Heritage Management Plan includes the restoration of Chilas Fort, a 19th-century edifice built by the British that has been acquired by WAPDA. 

A museum and archive will be established there. Tourist trails and facilities will be set up, with employment opportunities for the local community as guides.

Ali-Gauhar said Gilgit-Baltistan’s department of culture and the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums for the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were consulted and approved of the plan. 

Aftab Rana, of the STFP, said he was keen for the government to establish a rock art museum-cum-garden in Chilas or at Gilgit. He said this could become a tourist attraction and source of economic activity for the region, as well as a focal point for researchers, writers and scholars.

Photographer Gulraiz Ghouri’s work can be found here 

4 comments

  1. In today’s age of modern technology nothing is impossible! An underwater dry museum or museums, to preserve the Carvings in it’s natural ambiance and habitat at the same time avoiding damage and pilfering is suggested in Chilas and also Karakoram Highway by the Hudor and Thor villages with an added attraction of an underwater restaurant, we have such examples already in the world as in Maldives and China. Investors from rich Buddhist Japan and Korea should be invited to put in place a futuristic museum on the map of Pakistan which will be life changing in the region and will open up varied avenues for the locals besides being just trained as guides The whole area should be developed as a world class architecturely planned tourist resort to maximise tourism and make a difference to the lives of people of Gilgit Baltistan and booste the economy of Pakistan at the same time meeting the water deficits .

  2. Australia’s latest megadam (Paradise Dam) destroyed not only the last significant remnant of a critically endangered Gondwana dry vine rainforest, it destroyed priceless First Nation culture, the wakka wakka jinda’s numerous sites of significance:

    The Wakka Wakka Jinda, Gurang Gurang and other groups affirm:
    … They would suffer strong spiritual loss, as cultural life is centred around the river, particularly for food. How can this be replaced or valued?
    … The Paradise Dam cuts an important traditional pathway (migratory trail/trading route/The Rainbow Serpent Songline) which was crossed in the biennial Bunya Nut Gathering at the Bunya Mountains. (*This is at a place called 3 mile rapids, 6 kms of gently falling rocky river beds in the main river channel, the river’s major riffle area that oxygenated the water for the lungfish & all other species major breeding grounds just downstream – all now inundated by the Paradise dam …. update 12.3.08)
    … According to Mavis Hawkins, president of the Wakka Wakka Jinda group – "We believe in the stories our Elders told us of the sacred places in MURULLBAKGERA , the ‘river of the breathing fish’, now known as the Burnett River. The place where the turtle people lived and bred. (Increase & source site) These are special places to us and we do not want to loose them.” (Mavis also identified another very significant women’s place – a wailing wall for women in the Burnett River gorge – in a letter to editor printed in the Central and Northern Burnett Times. There are also caves there which I’m sure must have been significant – all inundated now)
    Mavis’ letter in the CNBT (NB: Mavis died not long after the dam became operational, probably of a broken heart.)

    It consequently has caused a massive decline in the endangered lungfish and elseya turtle, mainly from destroying their main breeding sites but also being smashed to death over the dam wall on two flooding occasions.
    NO-ONE apart from myself is still fighting to get this abomination decommissioned: http://worldatpolarity.blogspot.com/2018/07/paradise-dam-case-of-ecocide.html

  3. This is to make ourselves fool to built a glass environment for the display of rock art in their original places. I don’t know how to make this dream really to make it possible in the environment of the siltation process from the thick mud and sand in the River Indus? We have fast siltation in Khalti Lake and Ataabad Lake on main tributaries. How long such examples of art will survive in this imaginary display? The only option looking possible to me is to shift the rocks with art to the upper terraces above the level of water deposit, rather to dump them at Chilas Fort. Many open air Museums around the Lake will attract the attention of tourism.

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