You must have heard of the 8000 plus strong Terracotta Army of Xian, in China, but have you heard about the mysterious Horsemen of the Pir Panjal? The Pir Panjal is a sub-range of the Great Himalayan mountain system that stretches from Murree in Pakistan to the Rohtang Pass in Himachal. Across the Pir Panjal, were ancient trade routes which were connected by passes locally known as Galis. Strewn along the old trade routes through the passes in this Himalayan range, between the Kashmir valley and Jammu, you will come across mysterious and spectacular sculptures of soldiers on horseback. Mostly unknown, outside the region, these ancient sentinels are only known to trekkers and locals who make their way through here.
The Horsemen of the Pir Panjal are found mostly at the foot of the Galis or on the main Gali itself and they usually have a natural water spring and accompanying pond nearby. There is no doubt that these sculptures mark important strategic points on ancient routes that connected different villages in the Pir Panjal. These were probably markers to mark milestones or resting places for weary horses and men. However, little is known about who built them and when.
The sculptures are mostly of horsemen along with some other reliefs of what seem to be local Gods and Devtas . This has led to a fair bit of speculation. Locals believe that the horsemen were put here by the Pandavas from the Indian Epic Mahabharata when they visited the place millennia back. Others point to the attire of the horsemen and the unique geometric shapes, as motifs, to say that these horsemen may have Bactrian origins.
In the Jammu region these are found in the Ramban area of Jammu on the Sangaldan Gool road near Gool Village and also at Gadi Nalla and Nar area of Tehsil Gool and Sildhar area of district Reasi in Jammu. This area is also referred to as the Gool Gulabgarh area and lies at the point where the Jammu region gives way to the Kashmir region and as a consequence has a mixed population of Dogri, Gujri and Kashmiri speaking people.
Out of these locations only the first one is accessible by a Road while the others require a hike up the mountains to these long forgotten sculptures. The one near the Gool Village is called the ‘Ghora Gali’ which is an obvious reference to these Horse sculptures. Locals claim that there are many other, off the road places where you can find such horsemen.
The sculptures are very detailed and these horsemen come in different sizes even at the same site. Many of the sculptures have two or even three people astride the horse. Interestingly all the horsemen appear to be armed and carry different kinds of weapons. They appear to be some kind of warriors of an army on a campaign and these structures are representations of that. Also there are a a few reliefs showing local deities and geometrical figures but overall its the horsemen who dominate these sites.
Take a first look at the horsemen and you will see that they seem to be more Bactrian inspired than Indic which is reflected in how the horsemen are dressed and the styling of the arms they carry. Even the figures of the deities etched on the stone slabs have little resemblance to contemporary deities. The geometric figures just add another element of mystique.
At the Ghora Gali site itself I counted well over a 200 horsemen in various sizes and conditions. Some still standing, some broken, some lying flat on the ground and still others which appeared to be buried. Further excavation of the site will probably reveal more of these Horsemen that have been completely buried over a period of time.
It is amazing that there is such little published material on these horsemen . Worse is the neglect. Many of the magnificent horsemen sculptures have just fallen to the ground as the locations where they are at usually receive a lot of rain and snow. Astoundingly on the Ghora Gali site itself there was no board of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and these sculptures are not even listed on the ASI site. The state Directorate of Archives, Archaeology and Museums had however listed this as a protected site in 1986. In fact three of these horsemen were taken and put on display at the Shri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar.
As of today even the Ghora Gali site, which lies right on the Road head is a picture of neglect. More and more of these Horsemen are falling over and getting destroyed. Though it seems that now there is some work being done on fencing off the site to keep the grazing livestock off the site. There is also talk of the Tourism Department promoting the site as a tourist spot in the coming time along with other tourist destinations in the area like the hot springs at Tatapani. Hopefully, with more people coming to visit, these wonderful sculptures will get the attention that they deserve and perhaps attention from scholars and researchers so that we can know more about these lost horsemen of the Pir Panjal.
Prashant Mathawan (Kiki) is a writer and a photographer who has spent his formative years in living amidst the Himalayas in the most beautiful Vale of Kashmir. For decades, he has explored the deepest parts of the Himalayas and is a passionate follower of the history and culture of the region.
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