The construction of the long-delayed Diamer-Bhasha Dam risks drowning centuries’ worth of carvings and inscriptions, representing ancient cultures and civilizations
Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan “launched”—for the fourth time in two decades—the Diamer-Basha Dam project, which promises to provide energy-strapped Pakistan with 4,500MW of hydroelectric power. However, it doesn’t come without a steep cost: more than 40,000 people are expected to be displaced, and over 37,000 ancient carvings and inscriptions submerged, in the area that will make up the dam’s reservoir. This sets a daunting challenge, and opportunity, for the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA).
The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries has brought to the fore of public consciousness several pressing questions regarding heritage, specifically cultural heritage conservation and its management. Globally, the place of heritage, its significance and value for the communities that own it or identify with it, has been eroded by several different forces and processes, as well as pressures both external and internal. Communities all over the world have been responsible for neglecting, abandoning, desecrating and even destroying, willfully and otherwise, vital aspects of their heritage. At the same time, external threats to heritage loom large in the form of natural processes of decay; the degradation and depletion of the natural environment within which such sites are located; climate change; globalization; the imperatives of economic growth and development; social and political conflict; and, most radically, the destruction of cultural landscapes, in full or partly, as a result of armed conflict.
Twenty years ago, the World Commission on Dams found that an estimated 40 to 80 million people had been displaced by dam projects. Dislocation of such communities was seen to be the most serious social impact of dams, and although some compensation was invariably provided, the Commission found that the full range of social impacts were frequently neither addressed nor accounted for. Amongst these was how, in addition to physical displacement and relocation into often “alien” lands, entire communities suffered from cultural disarticulation that lasted long after the resettlement process was over. Cultural landscapes were inundated by lakes, forests uprooted, water diverted, rivers damned, the earth turned onto itself, emerging as a world for which a map had yet not been marked onto its skin. For the displaced, decades pass and memories fade; cultures become ghosts, vaporized by time.
Literature on Development Induced Displacement voices several concerns ranging from the purely growth-oriented paradigm to the articulation of ethics regarding the principles which guide the implementation of projects that would displace large numbers of people, resulting in the concomitant disarticulation of cultural roots. The need for energy and water storage being paramount in a country starved of both requires the construction of large dams such as Diamer-Basha, the funding for which has been largely secured from internal sources. Had financing been sought from international lending institutions, Pakistan, as a client state, would have had to adhere to safeguard policies that direct clients to protect communities, the physical environment, and physical cultural resources through detailed management plans, which aim to mitigate potential damage.
Without such obligations to adhere to international safeguard policies, the proposed Diamer-Basha Dam risks impacting extremely significant cultural artifacts in the form of ancient carvings of animals, hunters, anthropomorphic figures, fabulous beings, giants, stories or Jatakas from the Buddha’s life, hundreds of stupas in the Gandharan, Indian, and Chinese styles, and depictions of thousands of markhor and ibex being chased by hunters. Inscriptions in 14 scripts and distinct languages, including Hebrew, Chinese, Sogdian, Kharoshti, and Brahmi lie in the 102km area that has been designated the dam’s reservoir, with stored water rising to a top level of 1,172 feet, approximately 300 meters. The realignment of the Karakoram Highway, the main artery of the region, and the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor providing linkages between Gilgit-Baltistan, China, and Pakistan, are also feared to have adverse consequences for cultural heritage, at times either destroying highly significant artifacts, or just changing or denying access to existing cultural heritage resources.
History of humanity
The assemblages of rock-carvings across Gilgit-Baltistan provide a timeline of human movement along the ancient silk routes that passed through this region over millennia. Three hundred known assemblages of ancient petroglyphs make up the largest open-air petroglyph gallery known to humankind. Found largely along the banks of the Indus River, these carvings and inscriptions provide an immense trove of historical, artistic, and cultural information. Thousands of petroglyphs adorn cliffs, rock faces, and boulders along the Indus River from Indus-Kohistan to Baltistan, reaching as far as Ladakh and Tibet. One of the main clusters occurs between Shatial in the Indus-Kohistan area of Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Raikot Bridge in Gilgit-Baltistan, an area extending over more than 100 kilometers and straddling two administrative units of Pakistan. The heart of this complex lies at the foot of the Nanga Parbat, around 8,125m, near Chilas and Thalpan in the Diamer district. It is at this site that the reservoir of the Diamer-Basha Dam is to be constructed, inundating around 37,000 of the petroglyphs once the river is impounded and the reservoir is at full height.
These endangered petroglyphs were studied and documented by the Pak German Archaeological Mission between 1985 and 2013 under the directorship of Dr. Harald Hauptmann, a world-renowned archaeologist who spent many years salvaging ancient settlements impacted by dam-building activity in Turkey. Over a period of 30 years, Dr. Hauptmann and his team documented approximately 50,000 rock carvings and 5,000 inscriptions, their origins ranging from the Neolithic Era (7th/6th millennium B.C.E, Before the Common Era) to the coming of Islam from the 16th century C.E. (Common Era) onwards. This documentation, recorded and interpreted in German, has been published in 12 volumes and provides thousands of photographs and drawings, the location of each carving, its description, interpretation and significance.
More than a hundred years ago, in 1907, Ghulam Muhammad became the first person to present evidence of Buddhist petroglyphs in the district of Diamer near Chilas. Later, in 1942, Sir Aurel Stein also drew attention to their significance. However, it was Dr. Karl Jettmar who re-discovered the rock engravings in 1973, ushering in the first era of systematic research, which only became possible after the construction of the Karakoram Highway. With the support of the doyen of Pakistan archaeology, Dr. Ahmed Hassan Dani, scientific investigation commenced as a joint Pakistan-German project. Beginning in 1980, yearly documentation expeditions into the region were undertaken until 2010. Since 1983, a collaborative research project: “Felsbilder und Inschriften am Karakorum Highway” (Rock Carvings and Inscriptions along the Karakorum Highway) was put in place, involving the cooperation of the Heidelberg Academy for the Humanities and Sciences with the Department of Archaeology in Gilgit and the Director General of Archaeology and Museums in Karachi.
The tremendous diversity of the rock carvings permits insight into the history of different peoples of varying religious beliefs, socio-cultural and political traditions. It also discloses the strategic importance of the region. These high mountain areas have been, at all times, a crossroad of important trade routes connecting China and Central Asia with the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Meandering through the gorges of the Indus, its tributaries, and across high mountain passes, the trails are part of a highly frequented branch of the legendary Silk Road, which commenced in the most ancient Chinese imperial city of Chang’an and extended as far as Northern India, while passing by emporia and Buddhist centers such as Dunhuang in the Gansu Province as well as Turfan, Khotan and Kashgar in the Tarim basin.
Perhaps as early as the Epipaleolithic period (at the end of the Ice Age around 8000 BCE) the abundance of wild animals attracted bands of hunters into this mountainous region. Their presence is attested to by the numerous engravings of game and anthropomorphic figures. Representations of masks, which have analogies in the Okunev culture in Southern Siberia, allow the first definite link between the upper Indus valley and the cultural sphere of Central Asia during the third millennium BCE. The abundant drawings of horses allow us to trace out the trade in equines from Central Asia to China.
There is clear evidence that from the beginning of the first millennium BCE, Persian-speaking nomads from the Eurasian steppes had penetrated this area. From Assyrian sources it is known that in the 8th century BCE belligerent bands of nomadic cavalry, such as the Cimmerians and the Scythians, had intruded into the Near Eastern states from the Central Asian Steppes. Some groups probably advanced as far east as the Indus valley, which is indicated by engravings in their characteristic style.
After 518 B.C.E, under the rule of King Darius I, the regions of Gandhara and Taxila, as well as Hindus in Sindh, became a part of the Persian world. In addition, during the 6th century B.C.E, increasing influence of Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid Empire is evident. There are also fire altars signifying the Zoroastrian religion, which has a storied history in the subcontinent.
A new era, Hellenism, began with the conquest of Taxila by Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 326 B.C.E. At approximately the same time the Mauryan Empire arose in the Indian subcontinent and extended its supremacy to the Indus. One of the most important emperors of that dynasty was Asoka (268?-232? B.C.E). He was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism from the subcontinent to as far as Central Asia. Once of his most famous rock-engraved edicts can be found in Mansehra, Hazara Division.
Series of invasions
Another wave of invasions was to follow with nomadic hoards from the north in the second century BCE. The Hsiung-nu (Huns) invaded the western periphery of the Chinese empire, driving out its inhabitants, the Yeuh-chi (Indo-Scythians), who in turn expelled the Sai-wang (Saka’s) from their pasture-lands of Bactria-Sakistani (Seistan) to the west. The Sakas, as the Scythians are referred to in Asia, migrated to the south and finally put an end to the Hellenistic hegemony in Bactria around 130 BCE. Maues (or Moga), the first powerful ruler of the Sakas, was able to extend his rule over Taxila at the beginning of the first century B.C.E. Following the Sakas, the Parthians held power a short time before the invasion of the Yueh-chi nomads in 50 C.E.
About this time a new power, the dynasty of the Kushana, appeared in the northwest. King Kanishka, probably the most famous of the rulers, was able to incorporate both the Indus valley and Kashmir into his realm. The first inscriptions of the Indus valley, written in Kharoshti, date to this period. During the 3 rd century C.E, the Kushana were ousted by the rising Sassanian empire. The first inscriptions in the upper Indus valley mark the advent of the historical epoch in the areas of Gilgit and Chilas. Inscriptions in Kharoshti and Brahmi, as well as Sogdian, Parthian, Bactrian, Chinese and even Hebrew, illustrate the great numbers and varied origins of peoples that traversed the area from and to the subcontinent and Central Asia.
Concentrations of inscriptions at certain places along the route accentuate the growing significance of settlements in the region. For example, at Shatial, which lies in the narrow part of the valley and was possibly guarded by a fortress, a regional center of exchange developed. Here, caravans of the Sogdians from Central Asia stopped and traded. Spread over three sites, there are 700 pictorial representations and 1,100 inscriptions in ancient Iranian and Indian languages such as Sogdian, Brahmi, and Kharoshti. One of the most magnificent carvings in the entire assemblage of petroglyphs is located at Shatial; this is the “Sibi Jataka,” or the story of the Buddha and the hunter who had ensnared a pigeon. This colossal triptych, spread over an entire boulder the size of a squash court, describes the moral story of the Buddha sacrificing a piece of his own flesh as equivalent exchange to convince the hunter to release the pigeon.
The wealth of heritage in the area is apparent in how we are still discovering artifacts and heritage sites that earlier expeditions could not find. In 2018, while conducting a transect survey of Shatial Das and its environs, Dr. Mohammad Zahir and Dr. Ijaz Khan, archaeologists working with me, came across the remains of what could have been a Buddhist monastery. Higher up in the mountains, around an ancient lake now dried up, there was evidence of Buddhist settlements. Buddhist sanctuaries developed at many locations, for instance at Chilas-Thalpan, which was presumably a political center. Evidence of a local prince, Vairavanasena, who titled himself “Great King of the Dardes,” is provided by inscriptions of the 4th and 5th centuries C.E. The carvings at what might have been a river-crossing in ancient times, and where a bridge now crosses the Indus, are amongst the most sophisticated and delicately etched in all the assemblages. Regrettably, these are being damaged and destroyed by human activity, some receiving the sanction of government, with slogans and advertising. The surfaces of these carvings cannot be cleaned without specialist handling and care.
In the 8th century the world of these Buddhist rulers on the upper Indus valley was caught up in the conflict between Tibet and the Chinese empire. The subsequent political changes and anti-Buddhist tendencies during the 9th and 10th centuries are reflected in the rock engravings of the sun, battle-axes, and warriors on horses wielding axes larger than the riders. They suggest the arrival of a new people from inner Asia, rather than the revival of older religious traditions. There are no inscriptions known from this period, thus leaving the following centuries in darkness. Now, with the realignment of the Karakoram Highway and the construction of CPEC and the Diamer-Basha Dam, these ancient voices in stone speak again to yet another wave of “new people” crossing the mountains in search of a destiny.
WAPDA has conducted several assessment surveys of the area that would be affected by the Diamer-Bhasha Dam. In 2009, it contracted Rogers Kolachi Khan and Associates to provide an Impact Assessment regarding the heritage sites and people that would be most affected by the reservoir. It recommended that a Cultural Heritage Management Plan (CHMP) be written to mitigate all potential damage and to find ways to conserve significant heritage resources. In 2013, WAPDA commissioned the detailed conservation management plan for the rock carvings within the framework of international conventions and protocols. This document was integrated with the rehabilitation plan for affected communities and presents cogent, workable and sustainable suggestions for the management of this endangered heritage. Assisted by Dr. Hauptmann, Dr. Mohammad Zahir, Dr. Ijaz Khan, Dr. Qasim Jan, and architects Shahid Khan and Ijaz Khan, the author of the plan submitted four volumes detailing the significance of the heritage resources, in particular the rock carvings, and methods for mitigation and conservation as well as interpretation and display. It is expected that WAPDA will live up to its commitment to protect the cultural heritage that lies in the impact area of the Diamer-Basha Dam. If not, these ancient voices will be silenced forever, even as the river forges a new path to the future, carving its way between the mountains etched with our past.
Gauhar is the Lead Consultant of the Cultural Heritage Management Plan, Diamer-Basha Dam