Heritage: ‘A life of stone after so many lives’

The ancient rock at Manthal stands as the remaining emblem of the Tibetan Scholars Empire in this particular location.

Maha Malik January 05, 2012


The solitary granite boulder is cordoned off in barbed wire. We are there as of chance. Our jeep can no longer tract a snow-laden Satpara Road and, returning towards Skardu, we catch sight of the single surviving engraved rock in the area.

Located at Manthal, this boulder extends over eight metres high and five metres wide. Poised at an elevation of about 2,500 metres, its weathered northern face catches the soft lights of the setting sun. We are struck almost at once, by the exquisite serenity of the setting and by a kind of whispering disbelief.

Circa 900AD, the carved image depicts a frame of bodhisattvas, at the centre of which rests the mythic figure of Maitreya Buddha, the friend, the guide, cast in meditation. Here, in the open air, is a sense of transport, and a rich reordering of the world we seem to inhabit. For in an instant something washes over — a feeling as whimsical and enduring as centuries of time, marked by a solitary human hand, human intent. The ancient rock stands as a last remaining emblem of the Tibetan Scholars Empire in this particular location. The remainder have been lost to natural wear, vandalism and use in local construction.

Now imagine beneath the naked sun, thousands of massive stone easels, at such height, in one concentrated area. Imagine around them, an amphitheatre of mountain ranges — solitary pilgrim routes themselves carved between the Karakorums, Hindu Kush and the Himalayas. Imagine a continuous archive of images, often layered on a single site, from Epipaleolithic times, up till the early 16th century. Imagine the healing power of such a vast historic chronicle. Imagine it being submerged.

With the construction of the Basha-Diamir Dam, its reservoir will absorb Chilas town and 15 surrounding miles. With it will go this diverse and unparalleled landscape. The modern conundrum persists — national development or preservation of a non-utilitarian heritage.

Anthropologist Michael Taussig provides a disturbing caveat to such monologic state construction. He refers to the Chilean countryside and a story about what happens when a child is abducted by witches. “In order to break the child’s will, the witches crush the child’s bones and sew the body parts together in an abnormal way. The head is turned around so that the child has to walk backwards, and the ears, eyes and mouth are stitched up.” In the making of such a “sutured” reality, what is endangered, Taussig suggests, is the existence of the society’s moral foundations. He comments on peoples and communities, in this way culturally stripped and infantilised, floating apart into fragments.

In order to mitigate plausible losses caused by construction of the dam, the funding source, ADB, executors Water and Power and Development Authority (Wapda) and the research cell at University of Heidelberg, have devised a cultural heritage management plan. The dynamic actor, activist and film-maker Feryal Gauhar currently directs the programme. During a brief interview in Lahore, she mentions some aspects of their multi-tiered approach. These include ongoing documentation of sites, as well as 3-D scanning of select high-significance carvings. The scanned images are to be used in reproductions of 150 out of 33,000 in situ petroglyphs.

Despite the many challenges that such a project imply, Gauhar’s insights are striking. She narrates a particularly arduous journey made in order to gain documentary footage. A narrow climb leads to the top of the nullah where a glacial mill has formed between seven boulders. Each of the enormous granite rocks are engraved with a scene from Buddhist iconography. They read like a living Jataka fable under open skies. In this dramatic setting, a fair, red-haired boy sits with his friends, feet casually splayed over one of the images. When asked who he thinks these figures are, he responds with approved gravity, “Yeh kaafir hein.”

These are the disbelievers.

One is reminded of Taussig’s cautionary tale, at the heart of such innocence and in the midst of so much beauty.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2012.


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