Stories & impact

Saving the Thalpan Rock Carvings in Pakistan

  • Date
    January 31, 2023
  • Country
  • Project coordinator
    Abdul Ghani Khan & Dr. Marike van Aerde

The Karakorum rock art is the only remaining evidence of historical trade connections through the Himalayas from the Indian Subcontinent to China. They are unique sources of information regarding the connectivity, trade, and migrations that shaped these regions. The rock art also contains some of the oldest known and undocumented Buddhist heritage in the world. These petroglyphs are soon to be inaccessible, though, as new constructions in the area will cause flooding. The site is also at risk from ongoing looting, illicit trafficking, and acts of vandalism. Recognizing the colossal and irreversible loss of knowledge on the horizon, we supported our partner Abdul Ghani Khan in an urgent documentation mission in 2020 through our emergency response mechanism. Together with his team in Gilgit-Baltistan, and with the support of his cohorts at Leiden University, they set up an urgent mission to prevent the loss of the region's rock art.

Our partner on this project, Ghani, discovered that the threats to the site were rooted in a lack of awareness and understanding of the significance of these cultural treasures within the communities that reside near the carvings. To address this, the team designed a safeguarding project that marks the community's status as guardians of the region's archaeological heritage. The project included workshops with individuals from nearby villages of Chilas and Thalpan, adapting the documentation methodology to enable its use by 20 newly trained individuals, developing educational material for each village in the region, and acknowledging the labour of these participants through financial compensation.

The project resulted in a team of paid volunteers from the adjacent villages that continue carrying out the full documentation of the site and a greater awareness of the need to protect culture in crisis. Additionally, a substantial impact came while documenting the carvings; the volunteers, who earned their living as shepherds, observed something important while doing their fieldwork. While documenting the carvings, they noticed their current ways of living were illustrated in the inscriptions laying before them. Through their fieldwork, the volunteers observed that the methods they inherited from previous generations went back further than they had previously known. Not only were they impressed with what the new timeline provided by the inscriptions, but they also began to observe the similarities drawn between their Muslim values and those of Buddhism depicted on the rocks. Soon after, it became clear that the carvings act as a bridge across time and religion creating an emotional connection between the present and the past emphasizing similarities instead of differences between the different communities in the region.

Together they were able to document 642 inscriptions and 142 boulders and rock cliffs at Chilas II and III, as well as learn more about the similarities that unite them.

... this outreach effort among the local communities of the Gilgit-Baltistan region has had a significant impact on a) limiting the human-inflicted damage to the ancient rock art (resulting from vandalism and superstition, especially of the ancient Buddhist carvings), and b) the sharing and expansion of knowledge about the historical heritage and its value to the Karakoram region, which is ongoing, and the content of which was met with positive reactions during the workshops.

Abdul Ghani Khan

Upon returning for a follow-up mission to assess the potential damage caused by the recent catastrophic September 2022 floods, the team found that most of the inscribed rock surfaces and boulders no longer existed. The construction in the area was further along than expected, and for at least one of the sites, Ghani’s team from 2021 possesses the only record to exist of the inscriptions that used to stand there.

Having seen their fears for this heritage come to life at their 2021 documentation sites, Ghani and his team are now in a race against time to locate and document the remaining inscriptions across the Karakorum mountain range before it is too late. With the recent unprecedented rainfall and disastrous floods in the area, the team must now also overcome obstacles in the form of landslides, mudslides, acute inflation, unprecedented fuel prices, and a scared heritage community. We are still working closely with the team to support them in being able to access the resources necessary to work fast while also remaining safe.

CER is supporting the urgent safeguarding of heritage affected by the floods through its Pakistan Action Plan. CER's Pakistan Action Plan draws on the findings of the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) and builds upon UNESCO's three-phased approach toward the recovery of the cultural sector. Our support primarily includes stabilization and damage assessment efforts with follow-up action for future full rehabilitation. Given the scope of the disaster and cultural heritage under threat, our Action Plan also focuses on intangible heritage through connections with the local craft sector. More information is coming soon.

The Impact

This case exemplifies four main areas of impact: strengthened local infrastructures, project sustainability, community outreach, and increased social cohesion. Local infrastructures in the Gilgit-Baltistan region are being strengthened by our partner's approach to creating on-site educators that understand the importance of safeguarding cultural heritage as a connection between historical contexts and current region lived experience. By creating an Action Plan rooted in long-term thinking and the site's full rehabilitation, our support is focused on the sustainability of the project and of our partner's efforts. Lastly, increased social cohesion is demonstrated by the volunteer's unifying response to their region's heritage shown in the inscriptions, as well as the coordination of a fully local response team proving successful in community outreach.

The fact that our field work team consisted entirely of young Pakistani archaeologists, led by Abdul Ghani Khan and with remote academic and organizational support from the Netherlands by Dr. Marike van Aerde, increased the accessibility to the communities thanks to language and cultural connections. A large part of the success of our approach is down to these personal connections and the rapport established with both the local governments and the communities themselves. These bonds allowed us to implement a much more effective form community outreach.

Abdul Ghani Khan

Having understood the connection between the historical context of the upper Indus region’s petroglyphs and their current lived experience of the region, these community stakeholders are now able to act as on-site educators and “guardians of their own historical heritage”. The project also demonstrates the importance of local partners in helping create the relationships and personal connections necessary for safeguarding heritage without endangering its connection with its stakeholder communities. These relationships and emotional investments are what make an intervention sustainable following a project’s conclusion. Through this project, our partner has been able to safeguard that connection and provide the foundation of its sustainability.

As previously mentioned, the shepherds and residents of Chilas and Thalpan, while documenting the carvings, observed that some of what they were seeing reflected their current working methods and way of life. They were able to see that the methods they had inherited from previous generations went further back than they had initially realized. This connection allowed the site to transcend its former position in people’s minds as a one-dimensional place of Buddhist heritage, into serving as tangible evidence of the community’s connection to the land that they have called home for generations. This shift has opened the possibility of the site functioning as a tool of social cohesion rather than one of division. Considering this is relevant when acknowledging the importance of cultural heritage in a community's identity, shared history, and general well-being, especially when equating displacement. As the region's threats continue to escalate, many communities in the Gilgit-Baltistan region are being displaced and will rely on their cultural heritage to keep afloat. For this reason, it is imperative to prioritize safeguarding their region's culture in crisis.

To respond to the current catastrophic floods, CER is setting up an Action Plan to support local partners to protect Pakistan’s heritage, for which its fundraising began during our launch as an independent organization last year. More information on our Pakistan Action Plan coming soon.

In the meantime, please consider donating here to support the ongoing work of CER in Pakistan

For this coordinated and joint support in Pakistan, we are grateful for the collaboration and contributions of the Whiting Foundation and ALIPH. Cultural Emergency Response and the Whiting Foundation have been working since 2017 to safeguard documentary heritage that is acutely threatened by recent conflict or disaster. Cultural Emergency Response has also worked closely and continuously with the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) to support local actors in Asia and Africa to protect cultural heritage endangered by conflict.

The images featured in this article are from an Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden exhibition about the project described here. More on the exhibition: Rock carvings in the Pakistani Himalayas | Rijksmuseum van Oudheden .