The subject of rock art is not well explored in Sindh in general and the Sindh-Kohistan region in particular. Not a single site in Sindh-Kohistan was previously reported by any of archaeologists or anthropologists. I am the first anthropologist to discover and report a rock art site from the Sindh-Kohistan region in Sindh province.
It was in 2012 when I made a discovery in Maher Valley in Karachi and found painted rock shelters. That discovery later led to find more rock art sites in Sindh-Kohistan. In 2013, I also discovered rock paintings in a cave at Tak Makan in Thano Bula Khan
Karachi district, which is topographically part of Sindh-Kohistan, is actually quite rich in terms of rock art sites. But compared to rock carvings, the rock paintings are very few in Karachi district. The only known rock paintings are located in Maher Valley and the other at Tak Makan in Jamshoro district. Paintings are found in a rock shelter at Lahut Jhudo in Maher Valley while at Tak Makan paintings are found in a cave.
Anthropomorphic figures are very few and found at both the rock art sites of Lahut Jhudo and Tak Makan. There are many myths related to both the rock art sites. Paintings are found on the entrance as well as inside the cave.
The local Hindu community venerates the cave of Tak Makan and it has become a shrine for them as they believe that their Pir (saint) disappeared in this cave. This cave is called Pir Khudi by Hindus of Thano Bula Khan. According local Hindu community, their Pir used to worship in the cave and one day he disappeared and would reappear, a story which was also prevalent and widespread among Ismailis and other Shia Muslim communities. It seems that some of the families of Hindus might have been connected to Ismailism in the past. Ismaili Pirs are likely to have preached amongst the Hindus here. There was a tradition among the Ismailis that they carried a dual identity and concealed their actual identities to save themselves from Sunni persecution. Only a few close disciples knew the actual identity of an Ismaili Pir. This cave at Tak Makan might have been used by an Ismaili Pir to preach to the Hindu community – and he might have hidden himself there in the guise of a Nath Yogi. We know that Ismaili Pirs adopted the guise of a Yogi or Sufi to continue to preach their doctrine safely.
The connection of Hindus and Ismaili Muslims to this cave of Tak Makan is a separate debate which I will discuss in another article. Here I discuss only rock art.
There are anthropomorphic figures painted in black and red on the entrance wall of the Tak Makan cave. Unfortunately, due to a lot of superimposition, some of the figures are not very clear. A few others have been vandalized.
This cave at Tak Makan might have been used by an Ismaili Pir to preach to the Hindu community – and he might have hidden himself there in the guise of
a Nath Yogi
However, a few anthropomorphic figures are quite clear. They appear to be shown in movement. Likewise, a few anthropomorphic figures at Lahut Jhudo rock shelter also appear to be in movement and they are shown close to the figure of a deity. This figure is very expressive, with two circles on either side of the chest, representing that it is female and hence I called it ‘Deity of Maher’ in my book Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh. This deity was worshiped by the people who inhabited the Maher Valley in Mesolithic and Neolithic period. This figure was retouched with white colour in a later period. It was venerated in the medieval period by Nath Yogis as there is also an anthropomorphic figure on another panel which appears likely to have been associated with those Yogis – and I also call it ‘Deity of Nath’ in my book. It was painted in ochre colour: that symbolizes renunciation and is associated with world-renouncers, particularly Nath Yogis and other Hindu ascetics. There are also many other anthropomorphic figures which have been superimposed with white colour.
Geometric designs are found at both rock art sites. At Tak Makan, swastika and trident symbols are found on the entrance and inside the cave. Symbols inside the cave are of modern time which were probably painted by Hindus who venerate this cave as Pir Khudi.
There are a few small rock shelters and simple boulders which are also venerated by Muslim castes. One such small rock shelter is located 10 kilometers east of Tak Makan and is locally called Wat Pir (literally meaning-Stone Saint). At this place, I found some cores and flints of the Mesolithic period. There are flags which are found at the ‘Wat Pir’. Local people come here and seek the blessings of this ‘Stone Saint’ (Wat Pir).
Geometric signs at Lahut Jhudo in Maher Valley include tridents which are found at different spaces in rock shelter. Some are found near the painting of the figure of the Maher deity and on three other panels. Some dots are painted in the Lahut rock shelter. It is difficult to say anything about why they were painted. Are they related to the trident of the female figure which I call the Maher deity? What is the significance of these dots? It is quite difficult to interpret!
I have also discovered rock carvings at Thado Dam, Gidran waro Gharoto, Lahut Tar, Ali Ahmed Gabol, Suhri Jhap etc. I will only discuss the rock carvings of Suhri Jhap in this article.
Suhri Jhap is located about 3 km east of Gadap town. Apart from rock carvings, this site is also home to eight square and circular structures which are locally called ‘Koteras’. Some structures have illegally been excavated by local people in the hope of finding treasure beneath the monuments. Unfortunately, two circular tombs have also been excavated. Due to illegal excavation, the stone circular structure’s circular pit is also exposed – suggesting that it was probably a burial, but no evidence of a human skeleton or bones were found from the site.
Rock carvings are found at some places which are in front of the grave of Naugaza Pir and near the stone structures. All these rock carvings belong to the Historic period. A majority of petroglyphs are of recent times, engraved by pastoral nomads who have also left their signatures at some of the engravings. Axe petroglyphs are numerous – which have also been made by herders who raise their cattle in the valley. These petroglyphs are symbols of herders/shepherds who in their free time always make engravings of axes. Some of the herders were interviewed and asked about their reasons for engraving the axes. Most of the herders responded that since axe is an identity of a herder who carries it with himself, they first engrave the axe as a novice. Once they become an established artist, they also engrave other signs and symbols. They believe that they see themselves in the carvings – which become their identity. Axes are engraved either as individual or in a group by the engravers. Sometimes, an axe is found with shoeprints. Shoeprints are also found at the Suhri Jhap rock art site.
The symbol of the fire altar has lost its original association with Zoroastrianism and people identify it as ‘Mal jo dagh’ (cattle brand)
Apart from shoe petroglyphs, one also finds some geometric designs at Suhri Jhap. Some of the signs and symbols are also very enigmatic and the others are known to the local community as ‘mal ja dagh’ (cattle brands). These are signs of tribal identity and ownership which are also depicted on bodies of animals particularly cows and camels in Sindh-Kohistan and other regions of Sindh. Each of the brands shows affiliation and ownership of animal to certain tribes.
Some signs are interesting and look more like Zoroastrian altars. There are at least eleven such signs of altars at Suhri Jhap site. Some signs appear more like tamghas (tribal brands) which appear ancient as compared to the axe and shoe petroglyphs. Of all these, however, the signs of fire altars are perhaps most interesting. ‘Mal ja dagh’ (cattle brands) as people call them, are actually fire altars – which are now used as cattle brands in Sindh-Kohistan and other regions of Sindh. Likewise, many of the Indus-period signs are also used as cattle brands, which show that these signs still continue to play a pivotal role in the pastoral communities of Sindh. These signs and symbols show the identity of certain tribes in Sindh. People recognize castes and tribes through them. Hence, when these signs and symbols are used as cattle brands, they are actually tribal identity makers. Through this indigenous sign system, the tribes and castes have saved their cattle from theft. Even if they are stolen, they are easily retrieved as the people recognize through the cattle brands the names of the tribes and castes in Sindh.
I believe that these signs and symbols, a majority of which are derived from the Indus script and from other religious communities, were used by the local community and now they are known merely as cattle brands – losing the original association with certain religious communities. Likewise, the symbol of the fire altar has lost its original association with Zoroastrianism and people identify it as ‘Mal jo dagh’ (cattle brand). These fire altars are found almost at every rock art site in Karachi. Sometimes, they are engraved together with other engravings, and at other times separately engraved. In some of the cases, one finds these fire altars engraved close to the religious structures which I believe were fire temples.
Some engravings of game boards are also found at the rock art site of Suhri Jhap. Local people still use these game boards. One of the recently engraved game board is called ‘Nau Tin’ – a game which is played between two players. ‘Nau Tin’ game boards are found almost at every rock art site in the Sindh-Kohistan region in the province of Sindh. There are also engravings of mosques in the rock art of Sujhri Jhap, which are locally called kharoth.
The author is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Excerpts have been taken from the author’s book “The Rock Art of Karachi”. All photos are by the author