Gufkral; cradle of caves and cavemen

The first settlement in Kashmir around 3000 BC which plausibly connects several dots in the history of many civilizations is ironically unexplored by its own people, reports Saqiba Gul.

From prehistoric gufs (caves) to present-day krals (potters), their virginal association explains how time wedlocks the two as does the name Gufkral.

Gufkral, a homonym for the hamlet and its inhabitants both, is situated in the Hardumir area of Tral ,an hour’s drive away from Srinagar. Housing 16 families of krals besides nestling the five millennium old legacy of Kashmir, arguably the first settlement, Gufkral is considered older than the neolithic settlements of Burzahom (Srinagar). 

Untouched by market interventions and investments, the hamlet exists in its primordial virgin landscape devoid of shops in and around. A long winding concrete staircase ushers to the house of Abdul Khaliq Kumhar on the karewa (elevated table land). He makes kondals (earthen pots) for kangris on a motorised wheel all day long on the verandah of his one-storeyed house constructed beside the ancestral guf.

Earthenware by Abdul Khaliq Kumhar

“Two of the families happen to be the indigenous potters belonging to the primeval lineage and the rest have settled in from adjacent areas over time, “claims Nissar Ahmad Kumhar who belongs to the primeval pedigree.

“The shift towards mud and concrete house is less than a century old while the gufs, our ancestral legacy has sheltered us since time immemorial “.This shift was not a choice but rather a consequence of degrading gufs due to landslides and the fear of animals such as bears and porcupines. “I have seen the caves collapsing gradually in my thirty years of life, their sizes shrinking due to damages caused by landslides, snow etc. “said a visibly disappointed Nissar. The fear of bears was so rampant that one of the caves had to be sealed. The conflict sealed many others.

 A wooden door at the cave entrance opens to the compact yet airy space extending to quite a few meters and can accommodate more than half a dozen members, others are multi-chambered which can house a dozen families. As one walks in bending over and squatting, gushes of cool air blow across and the remarkable dip in degrees is felt during summers while keeping you warm during harsh winters.”

The warmth comes from our ancestors, the caves are magical,” expresses Haseena with a smile. Haseena has lived inside caves and seen her family and in-laws doing the same for years until new houses were constructed lately, a decade ago. However, the new houses do not keep them away from their comfort places —the gufs.

“While the caves are used predominately as cold stores we invariably go inside them and have our moments of absolute peace and solace,”  says Nissar Ahmad, 30

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One of the biggest caves in Gufkral

Gufkral, the oldest known settlement in Kashmir of the neolithic era came to light after the Frontier Circle of Archeological Survey of India (ASI)  first explored the site in 1962-1963 and later ASI team carried out the excavations in 1891 under K D Banerji and  A K Sharma.

The excavation revealed five periods of occupation at the site ranging from Aceramic, Early Neolithic, Late Neolithic, Megalithic and Historical. The findings include copper bangle, copper pin, stone celts, stone points, ring stone, pounders, querns, bone tools, awls, scape, piercer, polished bone needle, beads, terracotta marble etc.

The findings revealed a similar culture in Burzahom(Srinagar) and Mehrgarh (Balochistan)  during the neolithic era while many historians argue Gufkral to be oldest of the three.

Located only a few steps away from the settlement are the big megaliths known as Shahmar Pals on the elevated green pasture. The archaeologists have recorded that the high ground is home to 16 menhirs which have fallen in a semicircle. Their length varies from 6.55 to 2.90 meters and the excavations from the spot yielded a number of iron objects like points and rods, and a copper bangle. The megalithic remains are represented by a 50-60 cm thick habitation deposit with pit activities yielding ceramics, animal bones, burnished grey ware and gritty redware pottery.

Shahmar Pal

Similar menhirs are abundantly found in villages like Hariparigom, Dadsar, Sombur (Pulwama), Brah, Waztal (Anantnag) and Tarakpur (Baramulla), It is yet to be ascertained whether the same people practiced the cult of erecting huge memorial stones or if a new wave of people had arrived on the site and started living with the original neolithic settler. It is pertinent to mention that menhirs were a practice unique to the neolithic men across all settlements worldwide, says Mohammad  Qazim Wani,  professor of History and officer at the Directorate of Archives, Archeology and Museums Jammu and Kashmir.

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The preservation of this site falls under the domain of ASI  who have excavated various artefacts from it and preserved them in the national museum,Wani futher added.

The elevated pasture overlooking the surrounding villages was once a harbour says a lore. According to the elderly locals, the pastures were earlier grainfields of wheat and barley. A tiff resulted after the farmer abused a Sufi malang whose cattle had grazed over the wheat field. The next day the malang while puffing his weed walked around the field and consequently to everybody’s surprise it soon turned into a wildland. “Malangs have a vision,” asserts  Ghulam Mohammad Kumhar, who is one of the oldest Krals from the hamlet.

One of the menhirs has been fenced and turned into a place of worship by the military forces garrisoned at the periphery of the karewa. A helipad constructed at the centre of the archaeological site and two huge concrete water tanks there are recent encroachments into an area earmarked for its prehistoric significance.

“Yim chi yiwān ti gaschān patti mashrawān”

“They come and go, take interviews, give assurances and then the chapter closes, the authorities never show up afterwards. We are frequented by visits from district administrators who assure us help in preserving this dying legacy. I am quite used to interviews and the apathy of results too,” laments Nissar Ahmed with a smile.

The gufkrals have preserved the ancestral gufs, observed no encroachments over the site, and maintained the scenic beauty of the hamlet quite single-handedly, selflessly and responsibly over the years. The generations of gufkrals have kept this prehistoric tradition alive in the most original form, however, the craft is steering towards a phase of reluctance from the new generations who demand proper incentivisation for the same.

“Gufkral is the legacy of every Kashmiri only if we know about our roots. Gufkral is our identity and our relationship transcends the craft of pottery alone ,” remarks Abdul Khaliq Kumhar while shaping the clay on his mechanised pottery wheel.

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