From picturesque valley to concrete jungle

Jalaluddin Mughal reports from the Neelum Valley on the threat to its heritage and environment from land-grabbing and construction

From picturesque valley to concrete jungle
Activists and experts on archaeological heritage in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) have raised grave concerns over the construction of a private guest house by an influential individual at the Sharda Sangam, one of the sacred sites associated with the Sharda temple – where pilgrims used to take a last ritual bath during their Sharda Yatra in times gone by.

“It is unfortunate that the people in power are grabbing land in the area for their financial interests and encroaching upon the unprotected archaeological sites of religious and historic importance,” says Dr. Rukhsana Said Khan, Assistant Professor at the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, who actually did her Ph.D. research on the archaeological importance of Sharda.

The construction for the guesthouse at the bank of the Surgan Nullah — which was previously known as “Madhumatti”—was started back in 2015. But after civil society elements launched a protest campaign, authorities imposed a ban on any kind of construction along the Neelum River, aka the “Kishanganga”. Dr. Khan, a researcher at that time, wrote a series of letters to the civil and military administration in the region, highlighting the importance of the issue. On the military administration’s intervention, the local civil administration imposed article 144 on construction along the entire length of the river – but this has not lasted, unfortunately.

Some recent photos circulating on social media show that excavation has again been started at the junction of the Surgan Nullah and the Neelum River, some 2 km north of the Sharda Temple site, and some temporary shelters have also popped up overnight.

Temple in the village of Sharda, Azad Kashmir

“Once known as Sharda Sangam, the site has a historical and religious affiliation with the Sharda Temple,” says Dr. Khan. “At the junction, pundits from all over Kashmir performed a final ritualistic bath during their annual visit to the Sharda Temple”

In recent years, the picturesque Neelum Valley has seen an increased influx of domestic tourism, multiplying the interest of investors—most of whom are bureaucrats or politicians—in the area. They have grabbed most of the available land by managing to get it allotted or by purchasing a small piece from a local owner and then grabbing as much as they could in adjacent areas.

“It is a common practice among influential people,” notes Khawaja Muhammad Akbar, an activist in Sharda town. His view is that most of the bureaucrats and politicians are protecting each other’s interests and supporting each other in a race to convert the Neelum Valley into a concrete jungle.
"Sharda has a multilayered importance - cultural, religious, historical and environmental. Encroachment at any such site, like the Sharda Junction, is a clear violation of the UNESCO Antiquity Act 1970," Miss Khan notes

“They don’t realise the historic, cultural and environmental importance of the area and are simply grabbing every available piece of land,” Akbar believes.

According to Dr. Khan, these immensely important heritage resources are fading out due to human vandalism in the form of unregulated tourism and encroachments in the Neelum Valley. For her, the solution is clear: immediate attention from the concerned authorities. All ancient archaeological sites must be declared “protected” by force of law.

Arguably, measures from the government would have to include attempts to regulate tourism and devise a capacity-building and consultancy mechanism for the local population about construction near important archaeological sites.

“Sharda has a multilayered importance – cultural, religious, historical and environmental. Encroachment at any such site, like the Sharda Junction, is a clear violation of the UNESCO Antiquity Act 1970,” Dr. Khan notes. “Local authorities from the department of tourism and archaeology should take notice of this encroachment and impose a ban on allotment as well as any kind of construction at sites of such historic and cultural importance.”

Locals believe that if the authorities will not take the issue seriously, every piece of land in the Neelum Valley might well be converted into a concrete jungle in the years to come.

That outcome would bring about immense environmental devastation and trigger land-slides in an area already declared ‘’vulnerable to climate change’’ by experts.

Also, encroachment at sites of religious-historical importance would do little to improve Pakistan’s image internationally.

Jalaluddin Mughal is a journalist, blogger and activist based in Islamabad and the Neelum Valley. He can be reached at