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Kashmir heritage: Tale of a mammoth loss - Part 3

The first documented beneficiary of the government munificence was Moti Lal Nehru Children Centre (MLNCC), Lucknow
Khalid Bashir Ahmad
Srinagar | Posted : Jan 13 2018 1:29AM | Updated: Jan 13 2018 10:30AM
Kashmir heritage: Tale of a mammoth loss - Part 3
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This is a column series by Khalid Bashir Ahmad focussing a crucial subject. Not only for its academic worth, this series is hugely important in understanding our contemporary crises. It brings to light the loss of history and intellectual tradition that Kashmir has suffered at the hands of inefficient bureaucracy, complicit curators, wily outsiders, and corrupt political leadership. It also captures the loss that natural disasters inflicted on Kashmir's archival wealth. Each column in the series talks about various facets of this Kashmir's national  disaster, yet cumulatively making a coherent essay on the theme of how Kashmir was robbed off its artefacts and manuscripts; how Kashmir's past was emptied to turn its future vacuous. 

A mischievous 'generosity' 

The first documented beneficiary of the government munificence was Moti Lal Nehru Children Centre (MLNCC), Lucknow

In 1995, Indian paramilitary forces during a raid on a suspected militant hideout at Chandpora, Shalimar, claimed recovery of 35 (some newspapers mentioned 32) antique objects related to 8th-10th century AD which made big news. At a press conference, the recovered antiquities were displayed. An official of the SPS Museum was called to ascertain the antiquity of the objects. “We had gone to seek custody of the recovered objects but the security forces refused to give those to us. Overnight, the antiquities were shifted to New Delhi and handed over to the National Museum”, recalls Jamshed Ahmad. The images were of Hindu deities and mostly in stone. According to a former officer of the Department of Archives, Archaeology and Museums, the objects are now on display at the National Museum.

Several incidents of theft at the SPS Museum did not come in the way of Jammu & Kashmir Government liberally gifting prized heritage objects to various museums and institutions. The first documented beneficiary of the government munificence was Moti Lal Nehru Children Centre (MLNCC), Lucknow. In 1958, the MLNCC was gifted 30 numismatics, natural history and decorative art objects. However, in 2013, when in pursuance of a court order the Government of Jammu & Kashmir was asked to get back all the gifted artefacts, the MLNCC expressed inability to locate the objects. 

Barely two months after a major theft in the Museum in 1973, as heritage lovers in Kashmir were still under shock, the State Government gave a generous gift of 35 precious artefacts, including 31 antique coins, to the Government of Himachal Pradesh for setting up a museum at Shimla. On 26 September 1973, an order was issued, pursuant to a decision of the State Cabinet headed by Chief Minister Syed Mir Qasim under which the artefacts were taken out of the SPS Museum and the Research Section of the Department of Libraries and transferred to Shimla. The objects included coins, manuscripts, armoury and painting related to ancient and medieval Kashmir. The copper and silver coins dating from the earliest Hindu period (225 AD) to the Dogra rule (1846-1947) represented the reigns of Spalapati Deva (225 AD), Tormana (500 AD), Samanta Deva (900 AD), Ananta (1028 AD), Kalasa (1081 AD), Dida (1085 AD), Harsha (1089), Zainul Aabideen (1479 AD), Fateh Shah (1483 AD), Akbar (1556 AD), Jahangir (1627 AD), Shah Jahan (1658 AD), Aurangzeb ( 1707 AD), Shah Alam (1712 AD) and Farrukh Siyar (1719 AD). Other artefacts included a Persian manuscript, Magaz un Nabi (Wars of the Prophet) by famous 16th century Kashmiri poet, scholar and spiritual personality, Sheikh Yaqoob Sarfi, one gun of the Dogra period, a Sharda manuscript and a Kashmiri painting depicting Swchanda Bhairva. 

The largest ‘gift pack’ of 209 antiquities, however, went to the newly set up Central Asian Museum of University of Kashmir in 1980. Three days after a missive from the Chief Minister’s Office, Director Archives, Libraries and Museums, on 25 August 1980, ordered that “all Central Asian Antiquities be transferred to Prof. S. Maqbool Ahmad, Director, Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir on the day he reports in the S. P. S. Museum, Srinagar, under proper receipt. The order was “issued in pursuance of the orders of the Chief Minister.” The artefacts were taken out from textile, decorative art, archaeology and numismatics galleries. When in the light of a court directive in 2012, the SPS Museum asked for their return, the Centre of Central Asian Studies refused, arguing that these were properly transferred and registered with the Government of India under the Antiquities and Art Treasure Act of 1972 in the name of the Central Asian Museum. Subsequently, however, it relented.

Besides gifting away artefacts from its collection, the Government has exhibited casual approach towards preserving and protecting Kashmir’s heritage wealth, a glaring instance of which is sending outside the Valley ‘Stone Age’ objects for carbon dating and then caring less to bring them back. In 1963, these artefacts including stone axes and tools made of animal bones, unearthed from the Neolithic Burzahom in 1930s, were sent to a laboratory in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to scientifically determine their age. The objects were never brought back. Fifty-four years later, nobody even knows where the treasure is located now. Further excavation at Burzahom by Dr. de Terra and his team was stopped due to sinking of land there. However, the work was resumed many years later when Superintending Archaeologist Triloki Nath Khazanchi was able to unearth more Stone Age weapons. 

Old hands in Kashmir archaeology recall at least two incidents when precious artefacts were stolen from official premises. In the first case, Khazanchi had discovered a Buddha image at Harwan which was still under his study when allegedly it disappeared from his table. In another case, a 7th-8th century stone Shivlingam discovered from Parihaspora and weighing 5-6 quintals went missing from the Darbar Garh premises before it could be accessioned and transferred to the Museum. About four decades back, poet and filmmaker, Faiyaz Dilbar was doing a write up for a radio talk on heritage in which connection he visited the SPS Museum a couple of times where his attention was drawn by a small but elegant bronze statue. “It was a beautiful sculpture with Shiva in the middle and different incarnations of Vishnu around its oval shaped frame. After a fortnight, when I again visited the Museum I was shocked to see the head of Shiva missing”, he recalls. Around this time, antique traffickers in the Valley were known to be active, with a Srinagar art dealer nicknamed after a rank in one of the four suits of playing cards, allegedly being in the forefront. 

Khalid Bashir Ahmad is the author of Kashmir-Exposing the myth behind the narrative

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