MANSEHRA, Pakistan – Twenty Pakistani university students gathered around rocks and boulders inscribed with ancient writing in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last month to learn from a Japanese researcher how to use smartphones and cameras to photograph them.
The fieldwork, involving Atsushi Noguchi of the Japanese Center for South Asian Cultural Heritage, came after his Tokyo-based nonprofit organization recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Hazara University to set up a center to document Pakistan’s archaeological heritage.
Their cooperation may have begun modestly, but it has the potential to grow into a premier project, given the need of the hour for both development and for preservation and protection of sites important to world heritage.
The center will begin documenting the archaeological sites and remains in the Hazara region, including the Mansehra Rock Edicts, which date from the third century B.C. and are tentatively being considered for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
They are cut into the surface of three large boulders on the side of a rocky outcrop close to the city of Mansehra, on what is believed to be the same route used by Marco Polo and other traders and travelers who moved between Europe and China.
The inscriptions, which record 14 edicts of the Maurya Dynasty emperor Ashoka and are written in Kharosthim, the ancient script used in Gandhara culture, represent the earliest irrefutable evidence of writing in South Asia.
“The important theme of Ashoka preaching was the sanctity of life, especially animal life,” a roadside board at the site says.
“This place was probably a Serai, an inn where travelers of the ancient silk route made stopovers,” said Mohammad Zahir of the Archeology Department at Hazara University.
The etchings must once have been visible from a afar but now only their outline can be discerned from nearby.
Once the students get a rudimentary understanding of using cameras and laptops, they will be trained in 3-D laser technology.
Pakistan has rich archaeological remnants rooted in the Indus and Gandhara civilizations, but much of it is rapidly deteriorating for lack of maintenance and due to the harsh environment.
Zahir hopes to document thousands of such inscriptions and rock art carvings now threatened with destruction by the proposed construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam on the Indus River.
The Pakistan government is toying with the idea of constructing the dam in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, but the idea is opposed by regional governments of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces, which believe the dam would rob them of their share of water needed for irrigation.
Environmentalists also oppose the project on grounds that a minimum flow of the river’s water downstream is necessary to save Sindh from desertification.
International donors are also reluctant to take part in the financing of the project because of environmental and archaeological considerations.
Environmental studies have revealed that the 200-sq.-km lake to be created by the dam would submerge thousands of rock carvings belonging to the Indus and Gandhara civilizations and displace 50,000 people from their ancestral lands.
However, the government in Islamabad is determined to bulldoze through the opposition and has announced plans to solicit foreign and domestic commercial borrowing to build the $4.14 billion project.
“Bhasha Dam was the rallying point to set up the documentation center. We should make maximum efforts to protect the ancient monuments that would be inundated by the dam,” Zahir said.
Last July, Zahir and Noguchi visited the dam site and agreed to document the carvings threatened by the dam as soon as possible.
“We are training our students in photo-geometry techniques so that we have a batch of students who can become our team members. We are not only increasing their employability, we are creating a pool of energetic enthusiastic archaeologists for our projects,” Zahir said.
The emergence of the Pakistani Taliban militancy and the more recent phenomenon of the Islamic State group have also given a fillip to the project.
The Afghani Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001 and their Pakistani allies subsequently defaced or otherwise destroyed ancient Buddhist stupas, statues and rock carvings in Swat Valley.
Islamic State group militants have also left a trail of destruction of valuable archaeological remnants in the areas that fell under their control in Syria
“It is a far cry that Taliban or ISIS will ever seize these sites, artifacts and monuments (in Pakistan). But if worst comes to worst, we should at least have a record. We need to build an archive of known archaeological sites and relics. This data can be shared with federal and provincial governments, educational institutions and (the) world at large,” Zahir said.
In 1991, personnel from the Tokyo National Museum began excavating a stupa and remnants of a monastery at Zarghari in Hazara and found utensils made of clay and a collection of nearly 150 statues stacked one on another.
It is believed that the statues were collected for repair when the whole place was struck by an earthquake or some other calamity.
“The excavation project was not completed. It was disrupted by the security situation created by (9/11) events in 2001. The license was not renewed,” Noguchi said.
Abdul Sattar, 65, who owns the land in Zarghari, has fond memories of yearly trips of the Japanese team of archaeologists.
“They came for two to three months every year and worked with nearly 70 Pakistani workers,” he said, while pointing out that he has protected the site from poachers and treasure hunters.
According to legends that have gained currency, every stupa contains a casket of remnants of Buddha or some benign king or saint, and sometimes these caskets are made of gold.
With the law-and-order situation becoming more stable in Pakistan, hopes have heightened for renewed excavation at the Zarghari stupa in Hazara, which was abandoned by Japanese archaeologists in 2002.