Articles & Essays

Ancient Cultural Space


AYub Baloch

The province of Balochistan is blessed with numerous distinctions, geographically as well as culturally. Its land forms about 44% of the country, its coast is about 1100 km, while its strategic location (i.e bordering Iran and Afghanistan) and its positioning at the mouth of strait of Hurmuz, makes the country the "gateway" to south, central and east Asia. Similarly, Balochistan occupies a pivotal place in the history of human civilization. Its entire landmass is doted with numerous archaeological sites of substantial significance.

Most prominent among these ancient heritage sites is the 11000-years old site of Mehrgarh, excavated by the French archaeological team under the leadership of Prof. Francois Jarrige, from1974 to 1985. It was the first seat of civilization where human society attained sophistication. Its settlement pattern was unique transforming the hunting-gathering lifestyle to the settled society, characterized with domestication of animals and cultivation of crops, including cotton, formally undertaken for the first time by human race. Therefore, Balochistan can genuinely boast of being the founder (imam) of human civilization.

Balochistan also enjoys a central place on the archaeological and anthropological map of the world for its distinguished contribution, besides others, with regard to the 47 millions years old walking-whale, the 26 million years old Baluchitherium, the largest mammal of rhinoceros family weighing 30 tons, numerous ancient caves, cave paintings dating back more than 12000 years, carved rock-dwelling chambers, historic forts, kulli culture of Nal and its 2500 years old history of perfume exports to Iraq and Syria, Alexander's coastal trail of 325 B.C, the distinct nomadic culture and the Sibi cultural space. These and many more unique landmarks of Balochistan are the solid facts of the above disciplines and are well known globally, particularly to the world of scholarship.

Cultural space received prominence when in the year 2000 the UNESCO decided to protect the oral and intangible human heritage along the lines of tangible heritage. In fact the idea of recognizing and protecting cultural spaces came as a result of a wakeup call from the intellectuals of Morocco, who through their monarch, voiced concern on the depletion and loss of traditional heritage as a result of so called burger-cola development initiatives, After due deliberations the UNESCO found that many countries of the world faced a similar situation seeking proactive remedial measures. The policy of proclaiming the masterpieces of oral and intangible human heritage was therefore, adopted by the international organization for protecting, besides others, the cultural spaces, all over the world, declaring those as the "world human heritage sites". So far cultural spaces of Jemaa el-Fna Square, Morocco, Semeiskie of Russia and the Boysun District of Uzbekistan and a host of others had been ranked by UNESCO as the world heritage sites.

The Sibi cultural space is the oldest as it has its roots in the Mehrgarh civilization (9000 BC) where the remarkable human achievement of domestication of animals took place for the first time in human history. This single achievement not only contributed enormously to the survival and continuity of human race but also gave paramount strength and speed to it that influenced its entire future and subsequent cultural developments. There are interesting archaeological details substantiating the stance. However, it will suffice to confine to a few such as the refined figurines and motifs, sophisticated pottery, paintings on terracotta pots and the symbolic motif of bull, rather the Bhagnadi bull, excavated from Mehrgarh, tell the story of domestication of animals quite loudly. Piecing and deciphering of the material further leads to two more human marvels founded at this seat of civilization, namely agriculture and nomadism.

The fascinating nomadic society of Balochistan is the symbol of societal continuity of the past. Even today, like many areas of Balochistan, the surroundings of Sibi and Dhadar are occupied by nomadic and semi nomadic tribes engaged in herding and pastoralism. Bulls had a special place in the story of Mehrgarh as emerged from the excavations, particularly the shape of seals, figurines and drawings etc. Bulls occupy a focal place through out Balochistan even today. The Mehrgarh type of pottery is still made, decorated and used in Sibi and surrounding areas, establishing another undetached linkage between the past and the present. Typical embroidery with prominent Mehrgarh motifs and symbols, musical instruments made of clay etc. are still in use in the area. People have a special sense of pride and perception with regard to founding the Mehrgarh civilization. The town of Sibi therefore, genuinely boasts of the proud inheritance of numerous links that depict continuity. Reverence of both the tangible and intangible heritage is intensively found in the oral tradition of people and is expressed in folk songs, folk-tales, dramatic performance, story-telling, music, particularly, in Nad-o-sur, a duo performed by a vocalist and a flute player. Its masterpiece versions known as the "wanderings of the whirlwind" are the most important narrations on the subject.

The cultural space of Sibi attained renewed dimensions during 15th century when the famous Baloch Chief, Mir Chakar Khan Rind formally regulated the celebrations by enriching its tangible as well as intangible contents. The remnants of his fort, once the citadel of power, and the rich oral tradition, including the classical Balochi literature, establish beyond any doubt the grandeur of Mir Chakar's era when the scope of festivities were widened by including sale and marketing of animals exclusively groomed for the festival such as bulls, horses, camels, sheep, goats etc. sale of cultural objects, handicrafts, rugs and carpets, barter of agricultural and dairy products etc. as well as convening of a tribal "Jirga" (Assembly) to address and resolve inter and intra tribal disputes. Special attention was paid to promotion of music, dance, story telling, traditional sports etc. A system of reward was also in place to encourage the youth offering them the opportunity to display their talent on the prized cultural platform and contribute towards preservation and promotion of oral and intangible cultural heritage. Each year the traditional super market of Sibi exhibited its best in pursuit of a cultural tradition enshrined in time and continuously preserved by the successive generations. The cherished tradition therefore proudly continues till date.

In fact culture does not exist in the abstract but in real time and space. So there is a need to acknowledge the importance of spaces that allow the transmission of culture. In other words the cultural space is a link between physical heritage and intangible cultural heritage as well as between contemporary and traditional heritage. Sibi offers the perfect model of culture space with the distinction of linking Mehrgarh, the founding human civilization, to the contemporary times. In the historical perspective, Sibi Mela, therefore, is the manifestation of the pioneering civilizational achievement of domestication of animals, culminating in colorful cultural festivities at the Sibi cultural space.

The author is an Anthropologist.