You must have heard of the 8,000-plus strong Terracotta Army of Xian, in China, but have you heard of the mysterious Horsemen of the Pir Panjal?
The Pir Panjal is a sub-range of the Great Himalayan mountain system that stretches from Murree in Pakistan to the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh. Across the Pir Panjal were ancient trade routes connected by passes locally known as Galis. Strewn along these old trade routes through the passes, between the Kashmir Valley and Jammu, you will come across mysterious and spectacular sculptures of soldiers on horseback. Mostly unknown outside the region, these ancient sentinels are only known to trekkers and locals who make their way through here.
The Horsemen of the Pir Panjal are found mostly at the foot of the Galis or on the main Gali itself and they usually have a natural water spring and accompanying pond nearby. There is no doubt that these sculptures mark important strategic points on ancient routes that connected various villages in the Pir Panjal. These were probably markers to identify milestones or resting places for weary horses and men. However, little is known about who built them and when.
The sculptures are mostly of horsemen along with some other reliefs of what seem to be local Gods and Devtas. This has led to a fair bit of speculation. Locals believe that the horsemen were put here by the Pandavas from the Hindu epic Mahabharata when they visited the place millennia back. Others point to the attire of the horsemen and the unique geometric shapes, as motifs, to say that these horsemen may have Bactrian origins.
In the Jammu region these are found in the Ramban area of Jammu on the Sangaldan Gool road near Gool Village and also at Gadi Nalla and Nar area of Tehsil Gool and Sildhar area of district Reasi in Jammu. This area is also referred to as the Gool Gulabgarh area and lies at the point where the Jammu region gives way to the Kashmir region and as a consequence, has a mixed population of Dogri, Gujri and Kashmiri speaking people.
Out of these locations only the first is accessible by road, while the others require a hike up the mountains. The one near Gool Village is called Ghora Gali – an obvious reference to the horsemen sculptures. Locals claim that there are many other, off-the-road places where you can find such sculptures.
The sculptures are very detailed and the horsemen come in different sizes even at the same site. Many of the sculptures have two or even three people astride the horse. Interestingly, all the horsemen appear to be armed and carry different kinds of weapons. They appear to be some kind of warriors of an army on a campaign and these structures are representations of that. Also, there are a few reliefs showing local deities and geometrical figures but overall, it’s the horsemen who dominate these sites.
Take a look at the horsemen and you will see that they seem to be more Bactrian inspired than Indic, which is reflected in how the horsemen are dressed and the styling of the arms they carry. Even the figures of the deities etched on the stone slabs have little resemblance to contemporary deities. The geometric figures just add another element of mystique.
At the Ghora Gali site itself I counted well over 200 horsemen in various sizes and conditions. Some still standing, some broken, some lying flat on the ground and still others which appeared to be buried. Further excavation of the site will probably reveal more of these horsemen that have been completely buried over a period of time.
It is amazing that there is such little published material on these horsemen. Worse is the neglect. Many of the magnificent horsemen sculptures have just fallen to the ground as their locations usually receive a lot of rain and snow. Astoundingly, at the Ghora Gali site, there was no board of the Archaeological Survey of India, and these sculptures are not even listed on the ASI website. The state Directorate of Archives, Archaeology and Museums had, however, listed this as a protected site in 1986. In fact, three of these horsemen were taken and put on display at the Shri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar.
As of today, even the Ghora Gali site, which lies right on the road head, is a picture of neglect. More and more of these horsemen are falling over and getting destroyed. Though it seems there is something being done now to fence off the site to keep grazing livestock away. There is also talk of the Tourism Department promoting the site as a tourist spot along with other destinations in the area like the hot springs at Tatapani. Hopefully, with more visitors, these wonderful sculptures will get the attention they deserve from scholars and researchers, so that we can know more about these lost horsemen of the Pir Panjal.
This article first appeared on Live History India.