Kashmir’s First Settlers 



It’s hard to imagine that millions of years ago, the area we know as Kashmir today, was a gigantic lake. Around 12,000 years ago as the water from the lake began to drain, its fertile bed became habitable, providing a great base for early human settlers. Few who visit Srinagar today realise that the area around the Dal Lake, has seen continuous settlements for over 5,000 years! There are as many as 15 Neolithic sites strewn across the valley.

Dal Lake, Srinagar
Dal Lake, Srinagar|Wikimedia Commons

Millions of years ago, the area we know as Kashmir today was a gigantic lake

Till about 2.5 million years ago, Kashmir was very different: It was a giant 5,000 sq km lake. The rise of the Pir Panjal range in the inner Himalayas around 5 million years ago led to massive topographical changes in this region. Melting waters from the high ranges were trapped in the Kashmir valley leading to the formation of this lake.

Further tectonic movements approximately 200,000 years ago however led to a breach in the Pir Panjal range, leading to the draining of water from this lake. This formed the Jhelum River which originates at Anantnag.

As the river cutting through the higher ranges gave an outlet to the Himalayan waters, the lake shrank opening up its old bed. The exposed sediments rich surface, called the Karewas , provided the perfect base for agriculture (which it still does).

Around 5,000 years ago, this fertile land attracted early settlers. Situated in Burzahom, near Srinagar is one of the finest sites from the Neolithic period (around 3,000 BCE), when man began practicing rudimentary agriculture and used finer tools.

Pir Panjal Range
Pir Panjal Range|Wikimedia Commons 

Life in Burzahom

Burzahom is among the best known Neolithic sites in India for several reasons. First, it is one of the oldest sites where we have evidence of dwellings beneath the ground. Archaeologists believe that the Neolithic settlers in Burzahom, used these pits as their winter homes, quite like the Eskimos and their igloos, seen even today.


Around 5,000 years ago, this very fertile land also attracted early settlers

Dug out with stone tools, these dwelling pits have also thrown up a lot of clues about the life of the communities that lived in Burzahom 5,000 years ago. One interesting find here has been the use of fine fish bone tools including harpoons and needles. We also know that the dwellers in these homes had a rich diet with meats, fish and lentils and barley which they probably cultivated.

For archaeologists, another stand-out feature of the Burzahom site was that the burials here were unlike any other during this period in the subcontinent. Humans were buried along with animals both wild and domestic. Archaeologists believe that the animals may have been killed and buried along with the dead and their meat could have been intended as grave goods. These burials were mostly found in the habitation area.

Pit Dwellings at the site of Burzahom
Pit Dwellings at the site of Burzahom|Ajmal Shah

Some of the finds at the Burzahom site also indicate how well connected the people here were with other communities . Close ties have been established with contemporary Harappan communities and settlements in Central Asia and China.

Interestingly, there are many cultural similarities between the people here and Harappans. For instance, one of the human skulls found at Burzahom had seven holes, a feature commonly seen in some of the burials in the Harappan site of Kalibangan in Rajasthan. Excavations at Burzahom have also unearthed pottery with paintings of a horned deity closely associated with with early Harappan sites such as Kot Diji (3,300-2,600 BCE) in Pakistan’s Sind.

The site of Burzahom was continuously occupied for 2000 years and the evolution in architecture and lifestyles is evident here. By later periods there is also evidence of close contacts of the settlers here with China. Perforated stone tools used as harvesters in early China have been found here. In fact, only Kashmir, Sikkim and the Yunnan province of China had these tools in circulation during that time.

A painted pot unearthed from Burzahom
A painted pot unearthed from Burzahom|Wikimedia Commons

By later periods communities were erecting megaliths (large stones) like those seen at Stonehenge in England.

Interestingly, early archaeologists who had worked on Burzahom, when it was first discovered and excavated in 1936, thought that this was a Harappan era site. However, as excavations continued over the decades, it was clear that the site of Burzahom was a window into an even older past. Subsequently, over 15 other Neolithic sites along the Karewa deposits have been discovered mostly near Srinagar, between Anantnag and Baramulla.

Each of these sites throws up a different facet of the lives of these ancient settlers. In Gufkral, there was an overwhelming number of potters kilns indicating it might have been a village dominated by potters.

The neolithic communities of the Kashmir valley evolved over time and marched into history. But through the millennia, the close links between the land and the people continued. No wonder then that geography and the ever changing Himalayan landscape define Kashmir even today.


LHI TRAVEL GUIDE

The nearest railway station to Burzahom is Udhampur Railway Station, about 200 kms away. The nearest airport is Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport, Srinagar at a distance of 16 kms.

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