Guf Kral — the endangered legacy of Kashmiri potters as they struggle to keep the art alive

Guf Kral is a Neolithic site located at Banmir village in Hurdumir area of Tral which is 40 kilometers from the summer capital of Srinagar. ...

Guf Kral is a Neolithic site located at Banmir village in Hurdumir area of Tral which is 40 kilometers from the summer capital of Srinagar. Gufkral is a combination of two Kashmiri words ‘Guf’ (means cave ) and ‘Kral’ (means potter). Gufkral is one of the oldest caves in Kashmir and its origin has been traced to 2000-3000 BCE. These caves of gufkral have been inhabited by these potters for a very long period of time. These potters represent the Kashmiri lineage of the family known as ‘Kumars’. Kumar is considered an under-privileged lower caste even though the caste system in Kashmir is not so rigid and complex but we can’t deny the fact that Kashmiri society is not a caste-free society.

Assadullah Kumar inside a neo-lithic cave at Banmir village in Pulwama district. Image procured by author

The site of Gufkral was first excavated in 1981 by the Archeological Survey of India and it was revealed that the site had been occupied for about five periods from the Neolithic to Megalithic periods. The caves of Gufkral have been an heirloom to these potters. This art of pottery is the only income-producing practice for these potters. To them, it is not only a form of art rather an important part of their lives. Something to which they have devoted their lives. But it has now become more like an endangered legacy of these potters and is dying a slow death.

‘’ We have been in this business since ages, it is way more than a source of income to us. We don’t only make earthenware for eating and drinking purpose but other pottery items as well which play an important role in the lives of Kashmiri people like firepots (known as Kangris), musical instruments known as ‘Tumbaknaaris’, flower vases and other decorative items. The government has never taken interest in preserving this art and now it is slowly losing its essence and value.’’

Ab Rashid Kumar showing a clay urn. This art of pottery is the only income producing practice for these potters. Image procured by author

‘’Even though we have inherited these caves from our ancestors still we face a threat from the government about taking over of these caves on the pretext of conserving the Neolithic heritage. We have been living here for ages and cannot give up our homes just for a mere travesty.’’

‘’Our craft is no more intriguing now since the earthenware has now been replaced by other metals like aluminum, copper, steelware etc. The firepots or kangris have now been replaced by heaters, electric blankets etc. Similarly, people no more use earthenware as utensils rather other metallic types of equipment are used. The earthen pots that we prepare for these Kashmiri kangris fetch us a meagre 10 rupees each but the government doesn’t care.’’ –Abdul Khaliq Kumar, 65.

Abdul Khaliq Kumar enters into the cave to fetch the earthen pots that he has stored inside. Image procured by author

The Gufkral site is a key source of understanding the Hunter-gatherer era of Kashmir. It is also considered as the place where the first men reaching the valley in the early Neolithic period settled. When it was first excavated, many artifacts were discovered like polished stone celts, both finished and unfinished, stone points, pounders etc. The site carries immense archaeological importance.

Apart from all this, Gufkral is home to people who are being forced by the government to leave it.

‘’The significance of pottery is degrading day by day. Due to which our future is at stake. We appeal to the government to take steps for the revival of the art of pottery so that this endangered legacy of ours is saved. No matter what we do the government is not bothered. ‘’

‘’My whole family survives on what I earn from my pottery business. I have two family members who suffer from chronic illness and all their medical expenses are coped through this mere business of pottery. This is our home and we have been surviving here for over 1400 years. We don’t have any extra land for cultivation purposes, our business is all we have. Still, the government is pushing us to leave these caves. Where are we supposed to go? ‘’ — Asadullah Kumar, 75.

Assadullah Kumar makes a coal bowl for a hubble bubble. This sells at rupees 5 each. Typically, Kumar makes around 50such bowls a day. Image procured by author

The state of the site of Gufkral is very disappointing. The area around these caves is shrinking and the unexcavated sites are disappearing from the scene. The potters of this region do not want their homes to get vandalized just on the mere pretext of conserving the sites. The concept of the conservation of these sites is invisible and unimportant to the government. These caves are the identity of these potters and there are no policies that would help these potters in any manner. The government needs to consider the intensity of the situation that these potters are going through. The concerned departments and authorities have different predilections and conflicts of interest on the conservation of these sites.

The general public has inadequate knowledge and information to understand and evaluate the worth and importance of these sites and the art associated with them. For everyone, this is just another unproductive area. If these sites are conserved with the interests of these potters taken into consideration, it will provide a sense of identity and belongingness. Moreover, the link with our ancestors will also be preserved.

Since the site of Gufkral is still looked after by all these potters, they shouldn’t be asked to leave. Because these caves have now become a part of their routine and lifestyle and are also an important part of the local inheritance. The government should now realize the value and significance of these sites and be a little more responsible. The basic responsibility should be taken into consideration and this art of pottery should be embraced and endured.

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