As the government throws open one of the worst militancy-infested area of Lolab near the Line of Control (LoC) in Kupwara district for tourism after two decades, two major heritage sites in the area have fallen to anti-insurgency operations.
Once out-of-bounds for civil population, Lolab, more than 100 km north of Srinagar, was a battleground between infiltrating militants and the army for the past two decades. In the wake of dip in militancy, state tourism minister Nasir Aslam Wani on Sunday said the area will now host tourists.
"It is a historic day. We have decided to promote eco-tourism activities so that Lolab's fragile eco-system is not affected by tourist activities," said Nasir.
Besides bowl-shape valleys dotted by trees, meadows and streams, the area was known for two heritage sites --- 4-5 Kalaroos caves and just metres away Sath Baran, seven doors carved on a mammoth stones. But both seem to have fallen victim to counter insurgency operations.
"We need to assess the damage caused to the Kalaroos caves blasted, of pre-historic times, during the anti-militancy operations. The entrance to the caves is closed as it has been blasted. The damage to the caves is irreversible, a great archeological vandalisation," said Saleem Beg, Kashmir head of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
During encounters, the army had blasted openings of the caves because militants would hide in the crevices and launch assault.
Around 300 people, including dozens of militants, are buried in an unmarked graveyard in Kalaroos --- once active infiltrating routes for the militants.
Similarly, the Sath Baran site is in shambles. Beg suspects that statues seem to have been lifted from the site. "Sat Baran, the seven door-shaped openings carved in a giant stone, could have idols in it. An archeological exploration will open a new chapter in the history of Kashmir, especially about its Buddhist past," said Beg.
Beg said the bricks found at the site are the same as in Ambaran, Akhnoor (J&K). "Ambaran is Mathura school site contemporaries to the Kushan period. The terracotta tiles found at the site point towards the Bhuddist period," he said.
State tourism director Talat Pervez said, "We will undertake carbon dating of the monument to establish its link with the Buddhist stupa. If the link is proved, Lolab will emerge as a new pilgrim tourism destination," he said.
Opening of Lolab and Bangus valleys in frontier district of Kupwara after two decades is testimony to the declining militancy in the state, which has already hosted more than 12 lakh tourists this year.