Semthan - The Prehistoric Period of Kashmir
by Arjan Dev Majboor
KASHMIR is a vast subject of cultural research. Very little has been done so far to delve deep into the prehistoric period of Kashmir. The subject is very important and interesting too. Let us examine Semthan, the internationally known place in this context.
Bijbehara, old Vejeshwara, is situated some 60 kilometres away from Srinagar on the National Highway. The town is historically well known. Away from this town, only two kilometres is situated the famous place of Semthan. It seems that the word is originally Simhasthaana, i.e. the place of tigers. Near this town, there is a small hillock, though silent but telling a tale of hundreds of years. The name of this hillock is Chakdar (old Chakradhara), i.e. Vishnu. This name is mentioned in Nilmat Purana and Vitasta Mahatmeya also. The famous historian, Jonaraja, has said that a Vishnu temple existed at this place.
The wooden barrier and the structure of the temple could not remain intact for a long time. On the Chakdar hillock, there is a place called Haathi- Dwara, i.e. the gate of an elephant. The Chakradhara temple had been burnt many a time in the past but history is silent about the renovation of this temple, by the public or some king, from time to time.
According to 'Encyclopaedia Kashmirina' Volume I, the Chakradhara temple was burnt when the Nagas stormed the city of Narpur, the capital of the kingdom of Raja Nar. This capital was situated on the banks of Vltasta, near the Bijbehara town. The eatables and other commodities were brought to this city by big barges and were sent to various places from here.
During the times of Kashmiri king Susal (1112 to 1120 C.A.), when the royal army was defeated by his opponents, the people of Vijaykhetra came to the rescue of the Chakradhara temple. The enemy tried to break the surrounding wall of the temple, but could not do it. At last, one Janak Raj burnt the whole wooden wall. Numerous persons died and were injured in this assault. The dead were cremated on the hillock of Chakradhara.
According to Jonaraja (1389-1459), Sultan Sikandar broke the image of Vishnu kept in this temple. Lalitaditya, the famous king of Kashmir, planted some persian wheels here to pick up water from the Vitasta for the paddy fields of this place.
There is a tomb on this hillock, called the tomb of Totak Shah. A chinar also stands lonely near this tomb. Terracota pieces and lots of broken earthen- pots are seen nearby. This confirms the richness of the ceramic industries in that age of Kashmir. While looking at the valley, the peaks carrying treasures of snow can be seen glittering near the famous spring of Konsar Nag on the old mountain of Peer Panchal.
History of the Land
After one of my articles was published in Srinagar Times, an Urdu daily, the Central Archaeological Department took up the excavation work at this forgotten place and the dug-out articles by the department shot up its importance. This excavation took place during 1977-78. Besides some Greek coins, the coins of Parthian and Kashmiri kings were found there. The catch included some old pieces of earthen-pots. All this material throws light on some important points of the history of the land.
According to the journal, Indian Archaeology, the excavation work was first supervised by Shri H.K. Narayan. He was assisted by Shri Sardari Lal Shali, an eminent Kashmiri Pandit archaeologist. During the digging, a 50-centimetre layer of earth was excavated. Under this layer, a mud-plaster layer was observed which was mixed with white-coloured earth. The ochre-coloured pots found here belonged to the early historic period of Kashmir. Flower vases, earthen plates and some bowls were also found. A drain of bricks was observed which might have been constructed to get water from some nearby spring. From the first layer, some important articles were excavated, which included the images of men and animals. In the animal images were seen monkeys, oxen and horses. Some nails made of red copper were also found.
The work of excavation was resumed in 1978-79. Shri S.S. Jaiswal, Shri G.S. Gode, Shri J.S. Thapar, Shri Balbir Singh and Shri R.K. Koul, besides Shri Narayan and Shri Shali, supervised the work of further excavations. After even digging 10.5 centimetres deep, the original base of earth was not reached. But the finds which were got this year revealed a chain of a particular cultural evolution.
In the first period, some snake-umbrella plates, flower vases and earthen-pots for cooking rice, etc., were found which were without the upper necks. In these finds, beads of various metals, iron implements and some copper coins were also dug out. A seal in Brahmi script was also seen. Among the pots of this age, two big pieces of black-coloured vessels of northern region, clean black, simple red and brown- coloured pots were obtained from the spot.
Earthen Pot Industry
The second period represents the ochre-coloured earthen-pot industry. Among the pots of this age, some shining pieces of earthenware are worth seeing. In the red-coloured big pots, the mouth is moulded inwards. These include bowls, button lids, inkpot- like lids and small flower vases.
In the third period, the regional art of pot-making had flourished. The utensils are almost the same but the finish had improved artistically. It seems that this period extends to the artistic age of stone art.
Archaeological experts started research work on the finds in 1980-81. This work continued under the supervision of Shri R.S. Bisht. According to this research, the earthenware of the first period were divided into five stages. After this division, it was found that pots of the second period were made of soft earth on the potter's wheel. The colours of this period are brown and deep red. These include cooking and eating pots, open-mouth long pots and flower vases also. In the first stage, two kinds of pots were recorded, i.e. brown thick-layer and ordinary brown-coloured pots. The later stage pots were made of common soil mixed with particles of sand. There are no patterns on these pots. It was also found that wheat and paddy crops existed in this period in Kashmir. Green devdar trees, which are not found here at present, existed then.
From these finds, it was clearly seen that A.B.P. earthenware existed along with ochre-coloured pots (in archaeological terminology, A.B.P. ware means the black finish pottery of northern India). These finds shed light on the cultural relations of Kashmir with the rest of India at that age. A wall of pebbles was also seen. A coin-making mould confirmed the making of copper coins then.
The important fact about the third period is that the pots are very thin, clean and beautiful. Patterns are carved on these pots and the colour is red and orange. The seal found here speaks about the Indo- Greek relations.
The significance of the fourth period is seen in beads made from costly stones and implements oi copper and iron, besides earthenware. The fifth stage glorifies the richer temple architecture of Kashmir.
According to 'Man and Environment' year 1982 No. 6, two cultures meet at Semthan. One is related to the written historical period and the other is connected with the early historical period of Kashmir, viz A.B.P. With this research, the gap between the Neolithic culture of Burzahome and Indo-Greek culture is filled to some extent. The Burzahome culture has been dated at 1500 B.C., whereas the Indo-Greek culture starts from the second centuary B.C.
Shri Shali has put forth the view of some scholars, who do not agree with the fact that Ashoka had ruled over Kashmir, but with the excavation of two particular types of pots at Semthan, it seems that Kashmir was an integral part of India when Ashoka's rule was in vogue. Thus the Semthan finds add a new chapter to the old history of Kashmir.
Accordingly, the reference in this connection given by Kalhana in Rajtarangini stands proved.
The Semthan excavations bring the following facts to light:1. The Greek rule over Kashmir and Semthan was a place of importance in that period. The Greek coins and a Greek stone image confirm that fact.Thus the place known as Chakradhara became known as Semthan in the sphere of archaeology.
2. According to the chain of two cultures, Kashmir was connected with Northern India in the fields of art and evolution of civilisation.
3. The staple diet in tbat period was wheat and rice in Kashmir.
4. The ceramic industry was flourishing during this period.
5. The copper coins and iron implements were in use.
6. Devdar trees were found at the places where we cannot imagine those at present.
7. The planting of chinars stalted after the Devdar trees.
Books consulted1. Rajtarangini by Kalhana.
2. Archaeological reports of the period mentioned in the article.
3. Rajtarangini by Jonaraja.
4. Nilmat Purana by Ved Kumari Ghai.