Burzahom – UNESCO’s World Heritage Site

Tanveer Lone


Located in proximity of the Srinagar city, Burzahom is a historic site carrying great archaeological importance. The Burzahom ruins are located to the north-west side of the famous Shalimar Gardens and are at a distance of around 16 kilometers away from the city of Srinagar. The site is located at an elevation of 1,800 meters (5,905 ft) above sea-level. The geographical indication and relevance is that the site is settled on an ancient Pleistocene lake bed. The Burzahom settlement is the first Neolithic site discovered in Jammu and Kashmir and is also the northernmost excavated Neolithic site of India. The location of the site is on a high terrace and has Karewa soil; the reasons for both are the floods of the Jhelum River. The Burzahom ruins also give an astonishing view of the famous Dal Lake, which is located two kilometers away from the site.


The ‘Birch Tree’ relatedness

The word ‘Burzahom’ translates to ‘place of birch’. In Kashmiri dialect the word ‘Burza’ refers to birch tree. Archeological remains found on the site do surely resemble the extensive usage of the birch tree which might have been common to this terrain during the Stone Age.


About the ‘Burza’ - Betula Utilis

It is a deciduous tree native to the Western Himalayas, and grows at elevations up to 4,500 m. One of the important features of this tree is its white, paper-like bark which was used in ancient times for writing Sanskrit scriptures and texts. It is still used as paper for the writing of sacred mantras, with the bark placed in an amulet and worn for protection. The bark of this particular variety of birch was used centuries ago in India for writing lengthy scriptures, particularly in historical Kashmir. Its use as paper for books is mentioned by early Sanskrit writers Kalidasa, and Varahamihira. Kashmiri pandits reported all of their books were written on Himalayan birch bark until Akbar introduced paper in the 16th century. Besides, the bark of this tree is famous to have several medicinal properties, like anti-microbial, pain and inflammation relieving and anti-cancer properties.


History

This famous Neolithic Site brings to light transitions in human habitation patterns from Neolithic Period to Megalithic period to the early Historic period. The site of Burzahom which is said to have been existed somewhere between 3000 BCE and 1000 BCE has embedded in it a lot of transitions, from architecture to development in tool-making techniques to introduction and diffusion of lentil in the north-western India. The famous archeological site is an inimitable comprehensive story teller of life in that very period.

Carrying great archaeological importance, the Neolithic site of Burzahom was discovered in the mid-1930s, however the excavation under professional supervision began much later. And the most important i.e.; unveiling of what lies underneath the mound still remains a work in progress.


Excavation

The excavation process is based on an interesting story. Legend is that a Yale–Cambridge Expedition headed by Helmut de Terra and Dr. Thomson Paterson were on a geological tour in the Kashmir valley. Helmut de Terra, one of the team leaders noticed something strange evolving on the banks of Jhelum River and a stone knife was found which was made out of volcanic rock. This marked the first turning point and led to further in-depth research. However this excavation in year 1936 was a limited exercise but numerous rare findings excavated from the site confirmed that the remains belonged to a large span of time ranging from the period of New Stone Age to the early historical period of 3,000 B.C. It was two more than two decades later when ‘Archaeological Survey of India’ excavated Burzahom. This was done under the leadership of T.N. Khazanchi from 1960 to 1973. It was systematically excavated but the detailed excavation report by Khazanchi and his team is yet to see the light of the day; however summaries of each excavation season were limited to publication in the Indian Archaeology Reports only.


The excavations and the archaeological study revealed that the inhabitants lived in subterranean dwelling (underground) pits. These underground pits were cut into natural soil and tools like long stone celts were used for the procedure, the cuts-marks of which can still be traced. The pits were oval or round in shape, narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. However some pits were shallower possibly either shoved in as storage pits or may have been dwellings for the harsh winter period. The pits were plastered with mud. In the site at Burzahom, archaeologists have also bought to light that dogs have had a special status. Their special significance can also be traced as burial pits containing dog skeletons have been found. More interestingly a couple of such burial pits have been discovered where the dog is buried right next to the master within the compounds of the dwelling units. Interestingly this Dog burial culture is similar to the Shilka culture, for whom the Dog was almost a cult animal.


One of the interesting artwork of the inhabitants of this settlement is a hunting scene painted on a stone. The artwork shows two hunters hunting a deer and the hunters are accompanied by their dog. Interestingly the artwork on the stone portrays two suns as well, and as per the archaeologists and scientists this is the first instance of a supernova being recorded in ancient times which makes this a very interesting find.


The valuable artefacts which were all excavated from Burzahom before 1971 were taken to Kolkata for carbon dating. The sad part is that they haven’t been yet returned back to the Govt. of Jammu and Kashmir.


Cultural phases and the archaeological Findings

Phase 1: The remains of the site script the steady change in the nature of dwelling spaces among early societies. From underground dwelling pits to emergence of mud-structures, thereon mud-bricks constructions on level ground. Even the variety of tools recovered from the site shows the progression and development in tool making as well. The early people of Burzahom used gray or reddish-brown hand-made pots of different shapes and sizes. These people also made polished stone tools out of animal bones and antlers. These improvised tools mostly carved out of bones included harpoons for fishing, needles for sewing, and arrow-heads and daggers for hunting. Ash, charcoal and pieces of pottery were found in the pits. However this early phase of the Neolithic at Burzahom did not yield any burial sites.


Phase 2: During this phase people had started to live in mud huts at ground level. This phase marked much better finished tools carved out of stone and bones. The hand-made pottery of this phase marked shiny black pottery. Many burials of this phase were discovered, usually under house floors or in the compounds. Apart from human burials, animals were sometimes buried along with humans or in separate graves. Seeds of wild and cultivated types of wheat, barley and lentils of different kinds found at Neolithic levels of Burzahom.


Phase 3: This phase marked the ‘Menhirs’ (a tall upright stone of a kind erected in prehistoric times). Huge boulders formed due to the varying temperatures were brought down by the inhabitants from the hills with great effort and installed to mark notable events of the community. The massive stones were erected most probably as commemorative establishments. This phase marked skilled craftsmanship during this period. Structures made of rubble were also found.


Phase 4: This phase marks the last level of the human occupation/ activity at Burzahom. Related to the early historical period and is dateable to 3rd-4th century A.D. Superior structures as compared to the earlier period were built and mud-bricks were used for the construction. Besides structures made of bricks (mud-made), pottery manufactured in a wheel and a few metal objects have also been found from this era. The practice of agriculture has been established through the tools and finding of palaeo-botanic analysis. The presence of lentil in the Burzahom settlement gives hints about trade/contact with Central Asia, also acts as evidence that human movement had started through the mountains and passes of Kashmir valley.


The current scenario: The Burzahom Neolithic site recalls its landscape and physical integrity. The physical stability of the pits is also retained as each pit is protected and wooden path has been constructed around the pits to preserve them. The wooden path alongside the pits also makes them easily accessible and appealing. However the much needed proper fencing of the site is also being planned.


Burzahom, an archaeological site of historical value should have been explored and studied upon by experts and students’ alike but is still craving for attention and proper preservation. The site nowadays is also used a playground and sports tournaments (particularly cricket) are being organized on this rich heritage which will for sure destroy the site’s archaeological essence. It will also harm the repository of artefacts which are possibly still lying underneath the area. Proper and timely intervention from the government will save one of India’s most prized Neolithic sites and this treasure must be explored and not vandalized.