National and International Issues

Harnessing New Opportunities: Conserving the Cultural Heritage in the Impact Area of Diamer-Bhasha Dam

“The power sector in Pakistan has been facing shortages of electricity generating capacity due to low pace of development of new power plants to meet the growing demand for electricity. This has been aggravated by the rising price of oil, shortage of natural gas and lesser focus on hydropower development. The effect of the large gap between demand and supply of electric power has led to massive load shedding in Pakistan. DBDP is the major step to reduce this energy deficit.” 
                                                           —Diamer-Bhasha Dam Project Report, Volume XI EIA and Resettlement, NEAC Consultants, 1984.



Rock art sites do not only follow the routes along the Indus itself, but also grace important mountain passes and the valleys of the Indus tributaries including the Gilgit River up to Yasin and the Hunza Valley. A main cluster, however, occurs between Shatial in Indus-Kohistan and Raikot Bridge extending over more than 100 km. The heart of this complex lies at the foot of the Nanga Parbat (8,125 m) and in the area around Chilas and Thalpan, Diamer District. So far, more than 50,000 rock carvings and 5,000 inscriptions have been discovered ranging from the Late Stone Age and Neolithic Era (9th-6th millennium BC) to the coming of Islam from the 16th century AD onwards in this particular area.


In the case of Diamer-Bhasha Dam, the current Chairman, Lt Gen Muzammil Hussain (R), has given a firm commitment towards protecting the ancient rock carvings and is aware of the linkage between the need for conservation of culture, capacity building of the local community to protect, interpret, and display it, as well as the linkages between cultural conservation and the generation of revenue through tourism which will, in turn, serve as an engine for livelihood creation such as the establishment of cottage industry for the production of crafts unique to the region, and the provision of services to tourists, both local and international.


A mega-project conceived over thirty years ago, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam is located on the Indus River at Bhasha, some 40 km downstream from the town of Chilas, 82 km upstream from the town of Dasu, and 315 km upstream of Tarbela Dam. Geographically the dam is to be located between longitude 73° to 75° east, and latitude 35° to 36° north. The Indus River at the site forms the border between the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).
The project involves the construction of a 272-meter-high concrete gravity dam and two large underground power schemes located in either bank of the Indus River, each with an installed capacity of 2,250 megawatts (mw). The dam will create a reservoir approximately 105 km long and rising to a maximum of 1162 meters above sea level (masl). The reservoir will regulate the flow of the Indus River to supply water downstream to irrigation areas and to generate electrical power.
Unfortunately, the same reservoir will also submerge approximately 35,000 ancient rock carvings out of the 50,000 documented by the Pak-German Archaeological Mission (PGAM) in a period of thirty years.  What is the significance of these carvings? Why should they be saved? In fact, can they be saved?  How will the communities, the state, the nation, and the world benefit from conserving these ancient etchings and inscriptions which yield a wealth of knowledge of those who traversed these dangerous routes forming part of the complex chain of Silk Roads leading from China to the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and even Europe?
Amongst the great civilizations of the world, Pakistan cradles one of the most significant: the 5000-8000-year-old Indus Valley settlements which stretch throughout the length of the country, flourishing at different points in history around the fertile plains of the Indus River.  The geographical context of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam Project lends itself to the understanding that human settlements flourished at the site of the headworks as well as in and around the reservoir area.  The research conducted by the PGAM in the region of Diamer and in further side valleys has revealed a rich treasure house of over 50,000 rock engravings and more than 5,000 inscriptions in 14 ancient languages.  The documentation yielded by this research provides evidence that the banks of the Indus River were hosts to settlements, staging posts, loading areas, trading areas, look-out or observations posts, river crossings, fortified encampments, and possibly even monasteries and stupas.  Such a wealth of information charting the development of human history must be valued for all times and for all people, as cultural heritage is a universal asset and must be treated as such.


 


The impact of large dams has been found, in most cases, to have significant adverse effects on heritage through the loss of local cultural resources (places of worship, sacred elements of the landscape, ancient pathways and routes with their resting and control posts, settlements, graveyards, and other archaeological monuments) and the submergence and degradation of archaeological resources (paleo-anthropological, botanical and zoological remains). Dams can also cause loss or damage of cultural heritage through land reclamation and irrigation projects and the construction of power lines, roads, railways, equipment and maintenance yards, and workers’ colonies.  In many cases, no or inadequate measures have been taken to minimize or mitigate the loss of cultural and historical resources linked to the communities where the project is to be built. However, with the case of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, the proponent, Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) took a keen interest during the stewardship of two former Chairmen, Mr. Shakil Durrani who commissioned the Impact Assessment on Cultural Heritage, and Mr. Syed Raghib Shah, who commissioned the Cultural Heritage Management Plan for the impact area of the same dam.
The study of lost or buried cultural heritage resources not directly linked to local people has been more difficult to estimate, largely due to a lack or even absence of local ownership and/or understanding of these resources, but that does not diminish their significance. The reality that no investigation of cultural and archaeological resources has taken place as part of the planning process of some dams has resulted in the irrecoverable loss of vital heritage resources. Given that river valleys often hosted the most ancient civilizations, the importance of losses from existing dams can be assessed by default, on the basis of the quality and quantity of finds in areas affected by dams where some cultural heritage assessment did take place. In the case of Diamer-Bhasha Dam, the current Chairman, Lt Gen Muzammil Hussain (R), has given a firm commitment towards protecting the ancient rock carvings and is aware of the linkage between the need for conservation of culture, capacity building of the local community to protect, interpret, and display it, as well as the linkages between cultural conservation and the generation of revenue through tourism which will, in turn, serve as an engine for livelihood creation such as the establishment of cottage industry for the production of crafts unique to the region, and the provision of services to tourists, both local and international.
Given the high significance of this region in terms of its unique cradling of one of the world’s largest rock art galleries, and given the appreciation of the many diverse cultures which exist in that region today, it is imperative that a deeply thought out and appropriate plan of action be designed which would not only conserve this unique heritage, but also enable local communities to gain economic benefit from its conservation. Several plans for the conservation of cultural heritage (Cultural Heritage Management Plan or CHMP) were prepared for WAPDA.  The last one was submitted in 2014, and was contextualized within the framework of international conventions on conservation of cultural heritage as well as with the guidance of the principles of sustainable and participatory development. This plan provides a blue-print for the protection of this landscape and includes conservation activity as part of the resettlement action plans' scope for the provision of livelihood to the potentially affected communities.  The world-renowned German archaeologist, Dr. Harald Hauptmann (Sitara-i-Imtiaz), Director of the Pak-German Archaeological Mission, was the advisor on the writing of the plan, along with significant input by Distinguished National Professor Emeritus Dr. Qasim Jan, who shared his vast knowledge and understanding of the geology of the area, and Ms. Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s renowned architect, CEO of Heritage Foundation, recipient of countless honours, including the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, who guided the documentation of built heritage (Chilas Fort and Thor Masjid).  In 2015, an effort was made to upgrade the 2014 CHMP, and this time we were able to determine that, indeed, the area is rich with buried archaeology which needs further investigation before the landscape is changed forever.  Once again, WAPDA reiterated its commitment to conserve significant cultural resources in the impact area, and a press release was issued to this effect.


Several plans for the conservation of cultural heritage (Cultural Heritage Management Plan or CHMP) were prepared for WAPDA.  The last one was submitted in 2014, and was contextualized within the framework of international conventions on conservation of cultural heritage as well as with the guidance of the principles of sustainable and participatory development. This plan provides a blue-print for the protection of this landscape and includes conservation activity as part of the resettlement action plans' scope for the provision of livelihood to the potentially affected communities.  


The formulation of a CHMP shall provide a master plan for the conservation of the area to be affected by the proposed project, and should find legal sanction through relevant provincial bodies such as the Federal Department of Archaeology & Museums, and the Culture Department of the Gilgit-Baltistan government as well as of Department of Archaeology and Museums, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  It is absolutely essential that such a plan, based on the identification of resources and the development of a management database, be accepted and recognized as a framework within which all conservation actions are to be designed, at pre-project, during construction, and operation phases.  Project proponents shall have to work in consonance with local government to develop the capacity of the local population to undertake the recommendations of the plan, underscoring an approach to conservation which includes sustainable development in its understanding of long-term benefits to local communities. It is also necessary to accept that conservation work must be as non-interventionist as possible and must respect heritage values such as authenticity, value, integrity and significance.  The CHMP must become an integral and integrated part of the overall planning of the project, and should not be seen as an inessential part of the engineering works, separate from or unrelated to the construction process.
What is at Stake?
Gilgit-Baltistan is bordered by a series of extremely high mountains which form a part of several important ranges: the adjoining Hindu Kush, the western Himalayas, and the Karakoram.  One of the world’s largest rock art provinces is situated here, spread all along the banks of the Upper Indus. Numerous petroglyphs of unique diversity cover cliffs, rock faces, and boulders accompanying the Indus River from Indus-Kohistan to Baltistan and reaching as far as Ladakh and Tibet.
Rock art sites do not only follow the routes along the Indus itself, but also grace important mountain passes and the valleys of the Indus tributaries including the Gilgit River up to Yasin and the Hunza Valley. A main cluster, however, occurs between Shatial in Indus-Kohistan and Raikot Bridge extending over more than 100 km. The heart of this complex lies at the foot of the Nanga Parbat (8,125 m) and in the area around Chilas and Thalpan, Diamer District. So far, more than 50,000 rock carvings and 5,000 inscriptions have been discovered ranging from the Late Stone Age and Neolithic Era (9th-6th millennium BC) to the coming of Islam from the 16th century AD onwards in this particular area.
The tremendous diversity of the rock carvings not only permits insight into the history of different ethnic groups with varying social-cultural and political traditions as well as religious beliefs but also discloses the strategic importance of the region. These high mountain areas have been, at all times, a crossroads of important trade routes connecting China and Central Asia with the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Meandering through the gorges of the Indus, its tributaries, and across high mountain passes, the trails are part of a highly frequented branch of the legendary Silk Road which commences in the most ancient Chinese imperial city of Chang’an and extends as far as historical Northern India, while passing by emporia and Buddhist centers such as Dunhuang in the Gansu Province as well as Turfan, Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar in the Tarim Basin.
The rock carvings can be attributed to seven different main stages. The earliest group originating from the Late Stone Age to the Neolithic (9th-6th millennium BC) and Chalcolithic Period comprises images representing the world of prehistoric hunters and gatherers. A large complex depicting giant figures and masks of a shamanistic background, which have parallels in Central Asia, can be dated to the Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC). The third group from the Early Iron Age shows images in the Eurasian animal style and is a testimony of an invasion of Scytho-Sakan tribes since early 1st millennium BC. With the expansion of the Persian-Achaemenid Empire during the 6th century BC, Iranian influence is reflected in the depiction of warriors, stylized horses and mythical creatures. With the beginning of the early Buddhist phase (1st-3rd century AD) the region enters the stage of history, as seen in the images of stupas and the first inscriptions in Kharosthi. The Golden Age of Buddhism (4/5th-8th century) saw the existence of three kingdoms: Little Palur, Great Palur and the principality of the Dards, as attested by inscriptions in Brāhmī. During this period the region reached the climax of its historical importance between Tibet and China in the north, and the Kashmiri and Indian kingdoms in the south. This stage of prosperity is reflected in delicate images of Buddha and stupas with their worshipers. Scenes depicting episodes of Buddha’s former lives are most striking owing to their artistic excellence. More than 700 inscriptions in Sogdian, and also in Bactrian and Parthian, testify to the importance of the upper Indus Valley as a southern branch of the Silk Routes for Central Asian traders, mainly from Samarkand. The last group comprises simple drawings of warriors and horsemen with their symbols of the battle-axe and sun-disc, and indicates an anti-Buddhist movement starting from the 9th century. An absence of inscriptions dating to this period is significant.  The images that follow are reproduced here with permission from the PGAM.
The ‘Pak-German Archaeological Mission to the Northern Areas’ (PGAM) has accomplished the topographical survey and archaeological documentation of all sites along the Upper Indus between Shatial in Indus-Kohistan and Alam Bridge. The main objective of the project, which included also the regions northwest of Gilgit up to Yasin and Ghizer as well as Hunza, was the completion of the archaeological survey in the most endangered region, the future Diamer-Bhasha reservoir. This was achieved in 2012. During the last research seasons, some of the tributary valleys in the Diamer District and other archaeological sites and rock carving assemblages in the district, threatened by the upgrading of the KKH and other building activities, have been surveyed and documented. The last campaign of 2013 was concentrated on additional field research in Baltistan.
The tradition of pictorial images came to an end, but simple drawings of hunt and game are still produced until today. After the building of the Karakoram Highway, damage and destruction of the rock carvings has accelerated in recent years due to increased ease of access, human behaviour, in particular the hostility to iconography embedded in the rise of fundamentalism, and weathering and other natural phenomena. In past few years, a new trend has been witnessed where such rocks are being used as quarries of building material. 
According to the CHMP of 2013, a conservation method recommended for the rock carvings is the three-dimensional (3D) scanning of the significant rocks. This method allows for documentation as a conservation tool, and also provides data which, once consolidated, can be used for the exact replication of the carving in a portable and durable material such as fibre glass.  The CHMP 2013 suggests that the replicas of the carvings that shall be submerged by the reservoir be displayed at the Chilas Fort, while some free-standing boulders (such as Figure iv) can be lifted and repositioned at the Chilas Fort.  While this relocation of the artefacts brings into question the conservation values of integrity and authenticity, as conservation in situ is more desirable, it may be a conservation method used in some cases only.
While it is extremely important for the proponent of the project to provide energy and water for our country to proceed towards achieving economic stability, it is imperative that the natural and cultural heritage of the impact area be protected in order to protect not just the physical environment of the region but also to preserve a vast treasure house of human history and records of the movement of people seeking knowledge, religious wisdom, and wealth across the many Silk Roads traversing this ancient land.  For the Water and Power Development Authority, this is a unique opportunity to showcase the world’s largest rock art gallery with the longest time span ranging from 9000 years Before the Common Era to the 9th century of the Common Era.  Preserving this amazing continuum of rock carvings signifying human endeavour, aspirations, and knowledge would make us richer in terms of our understanding of who we are, and how we are inextricably linked to humankind, for heritage is universal, owned by all, and must be preserved for all the generations to come.


The writer is a Cultural Heritage Management Specialist and has worked on the impact assessments and management plans of Diamer-Bhasha Dam and Dasu Hydropower Project as a consultant.
E-mail: [email protected]

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