Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Treasure Forsaken

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Xuanzang, the celebrated Chinese pilgrim who journeyed across India for 16 years between 630 and 646, left behind a remarkable record of his travels and travails. Without the account left by this pious seeker of the original texts of Buddhism, some of our history would surely have either been lost forever or at best misinterpreted. One story Xuanzang recounts tells us of Raja Sibika.

This great king was an earlier incarnation of the great Buddha. In that life, seeking to attain enlightenment or budh, he one day chanced upon a dove in the clutches of a hawk. As Buddha was known to do in the future, Raja Sibika cut off chunks of flesh from his own body to offer to the hungry hawk and rescued the dove. Our devout pilgrim tells us of a stupa dedicated to this king somewhere in Swat.

Segue to British adventurer extraordinaire Alexander Burnes who travelled extensively across Punjab and Sindh in the 1830s. Burnes noted the large, lofty mound rising above the village of Shorkot in the doaba or island between the Ravi and Chenab, and concluded, albeit incorrectly, that this was the ruined city where Alexander of Macedonia had almost been killed by an arrow piercing his chest. The contention was reinforced when locals narrated the legend that their town was destroyed some 1300 years earlier by a nameless king from the west.

At a height of 30 metres, the mound, measuring 500 x 370 metres, was a sizeable citadel. Here Burnes and his successor, the indefatigable Alexander Cunningham, found a large number of sun-dried, kiln-fired bricks sticking out of the dust to suggest a place of some significance. Burnes also acquired a single copper issue of Apollodotus to give some provenance to the mound of Shorkot: this man, who died circa 147 BCE, was the Indian regent for his brother Demetrius, the Indo-Greek king of Bactria and Afghanistan. Subsequently, Indo-Scythian (1st century BCE-1st century CE), Hindu Shahiya (8th-10th century) and Muslim coins were also discovered.

As neither Burnes nor Cunningham carried out excavations, they concluded that the mound of Shorkot was no older than a century before Alexander’s time. In the middle years of the 19th century, with the Indus civilisation yet unknown, it was impossible for an explorer to venture a bolder guess regarding the antiquity of Shorkot. Cunningham recorded one interesting story told him by a Brahmin of the town: the original name of the place was Shivanagri, also known as Sheopur, which elided over time to Shor.

In November 1906, it was reported to the deputy commissioner of Jhang, the district in which Shorkot is located, that in digging for the foundation of a new house near the mound, some ostensibly ancient iron and copper utensils were found. These were acquired for Lahore Museum where they were stored and promptly forgotten. Over a decade later, the largest of these utensils, a copper degh or large cooking cauldron, caught the eye of an archaeologist. On being cleaned of the verdigris, the degh revealed an inscription with a dedication to the Buddhist priests of Sibipura. The date corresponded to 402-03 CE.

Now we had a name: Sibipura rendered Sivapura or Sheopur in its various pronunciations, celebrating Buddha in his earlier incarnation as King Sibika. This tallied with what Cunningham had heard from the Brahmin. But by the time of this decipherment, Harappa was yielding its treasure of secrets and the first spade had also struck the dust covering the ancient streets of Moen jo Daro.

In the ensuing excitement, Shorkot was forgotten. Meanwhile, the ever-increasing population of the village needing more and more housing was slowly encroaching upon the mound that was once visible from a long way off.

Each new foundation dug around the hillock threw up terracotta pieces depicting animals, human figures as well as pottery, coins and metal utensils. In the 1970s, by which time much had already been wasted, Jamil Bhatti, a local schoolmaster, began acquiring what was mostly considered useless junk by those who uncovered it. Within years, the man had a large collection of all manner of artefacts. They were ancient, that much Bhatti knew, but how ancient, was the question. With his passing away a year ago, his collection has fortunately been acquired by the newly-established Lyallpur Museum at Faisalabad.

Still, the mound of Shorkot went unnoticed by the Department of Archaeology, even as Bhatti’s collection alerted local robbers. Surreptitious diggings were carried out and an unknown quantum of finds spirited away and sold within the country and abroad. Sometime in the 1980s, the Pakistan Air Force took over the mound and installed a radar on it, rendering it inaccessible to the public. For nearly 25 years, that kept Shorkot from being plundered. Now, with the radar shifted, the site is once again open to pilferage.

Dusty, eroded by flowing rainwater and heavily encroached from all sides by modern brick structures, the mound is a treasure house. The trained eye roving over its undulating surface liberally strewn with burnt bricks and pottery shards can pick out coins and statuettes, a reward made the easier immediately after a rain shower. The verges of the mound were once rich with partly exposed artefacts which have been picked clean by treasure hunters over the past few years.

The base of the mound is the archaeologist’s greatest prize. Here, nearly 15 metres below the surface – and not twice as much, as Burnes recorded erroneously – one can see buried arches constructed with kiln-fired bricks as well as remains of ancient walls. This could take Shorkot back at least to the 5th millennium BCE. We will only know for sure when a detailed scientific investigation gets underway.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:30,


At 3 March 2014 at 21:57, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

New to me. Shorkot was never known to be that old site.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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