While the forces of globalisation may be Westernising other Himalayan tourist hubs like Kathmandu, Leh and Dharamsala, they are helping to shape a new identity in Baltistan.
The cold winter nights in the Karakorum are warmed by Radio Pakistan’s Skardu broadcast of the life story of Ali Sher Khan Anchan. At a time of growing sectarian and political divisions, the 17th-century Balti king is one figure everyone shares a love for. Other heroes include Hazrat Ali (the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad) and the legendary Tibetan folk icon, Gesar of Ling, the latter although Baltistan’s traditional links with the Tibetan plateau have been severed for the past 50 years.
But despite being on the margins of the Pakistani nation state, the pace of cultural change in what the Mughals once called Tibet-i-Khurd (Little Tibet) is quickening. In recent decades, Balti identity has been re-shaped by ties with the Iranian Revolution and Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated culture. But as the new generation enters the information age, in Baltistan’s de facto capital, Skardu, more and more Baltis are dreaming of the day when the ceasefire lines will no longer separate them from their Himalayan kin in Ladakh and Tibet.
The agrarian communities that inhabit the valleys of the Indus, the Shyok, and their tributaries, have cultural affinities that stretch from Lhasa to Tehran. Linguists say that Balti may be one of the most archaic forms of spoken Tibetan. Its closest relatives are Purig (spoken across the ceasefire line in Kargil), Ladakhi and the Amdo dialect of Eastern Tibet. Over the centuries, Balti has become mixed with Persian, Urdu and Arabic, for here in the arid valleys of the Karakorum lie the historic junction of the Buddhist and Islamic worlds. Since 1948, the region has been under Pakistani control, and is now part of its federally administered Northern Areas, a region yearning for recognition and political rights
On Pakistan’s periphery
Although its earlier [titular] Tibetan, and later Ladakhi rule, the five main valleys of Baltistan (Skardu, Shigar, Rongdu, Khapalu and Kharmang) were more often principalities left to the rule of maqpons, or ‘dukes’. Baltis are proud of Ali Sher Khan Anchan (1590- 1625) of the Maqpon dynasty as the king who unified Baltistan and briefly expanded its frontiers up to Ladakh and Western Tibet in the east, and Chitral in the west.
In 1840, Baltistan was annexed by the Dogras of Jammu as part of their conquest of Kashmir. Their rule is chiefly remembered for its exploitation, with Balti villages forced to pay tribute to masters in Srinagar in the form of forced labour (begar) and heavy taxes. After the British conquered Punjab, they allowed the Dogras to keep nominal control over Baltistan under the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar, but maintained a watchful eye on the Maharaja’s domains. Imperial Russia was expanding its Central Asian frontiers, and nearby Leh and Gilgit had become key listening posts in the ‘Great Game’.
Baltistan’s traditional cultural and trade arteries to Ladakh, Kashmir and Yarkand were severed by the 1948 war between India and Pakistan. The 1949 UN Ceasefire Line, which is regularly rocked by cross-border shelling, erected a solid barrier to what was once a most natural trade route
Isolation, the ceasefire line, and the subsequent wars between Pakistan and India (1965 and 1971) have ensured Baltistan’s absorption into the Pakistani nation state. Regular Boeing 737 flights and the completion of an all-weather highway connecting Baltistan to the Karakorum Highway have made integration into Pakistan more of a reality both economically and politically. Out-migration by Balti men due to the region’s high birth rate and small land-holdings are also contributing to the integration.
Baltistan has seen some development projects in recent years, but most locals believe that these have been provided more due to the region’s strategic importance than because of Islamabad’s concern for the welfare of Baltis. But for the ongoing problem with the Siachen Glacier, they believe there would be minimal infrastructure. It is also a fact that the presence of the Pakistan army in Baltistan provides a major boost to the local economy, particularly in winter when trekkers and tourists are scarce. Indeed, the army, and particularly the Northern Light Infantry (a successor to the British-raised Gilgit Scouts), is the largest employer in Baltistan.
Pakistan’s Golden Jubilee celebrations on 14 August, 1997 were met with indifference by the 400,000 residents of Balti-yul (yul = ‘land’ in Tibetan). A week later, the Baltistan Students Federation (BSF) organised a ‘black day’ to highlight the fact that Baltis are still denied basic rights such as voting in national elections and the ability to approach a higher court.
The Baltis’ disillusionment with Pakistan lies in the 1947 uprising which overthrew the Dogra rulers of Jammu and Kashmir. Since the mid-1800s the Dogras had also exercised nominal suzerainty over neighbouring Gilgit. The British, keen to protect their frontier from
Russian expansion, formed the Gilgit Scouts as a local paramilitary force, trained a group of young men from the region’s feudal families as Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs), and placed a British Political Agent in Gilgit.
When the British left India, they handed control of Gilgit over to the (Hindu) Maharaja of Kashmir two weeks before the partitioning of the Subcontinent. The Muslim majority of Gilgit favoured joining Pakistan, and when it became known that the Maharaja of Kashmir had declared accession to India, Gilgit saw an insurrection on 1 November 1947. The Dogra governor was imprisoned, and the Gilgit Scouts, together with a Muslim company of the State Troops, took over the local garrison. A provisional local government was established in Gilgit under the presidency of Raja Shah Rais Khan, a member of a former local ruling dynasty.
Before the insurrection, the officers of the Scouts had asked for assistance from Pakistan’s ailing founder, Muhammad Ali Jinah. He couldn’t help due to the pressing problems faced by his new government. However, the insurrectionists were determined to join Pakistan, and, two weeks later, a Pakistani representative flew in and took over as Political Agent for Pakistan. Serious differences emerged immediately between the Political Agent and the local leaders since the Agent stripped the latter of all power, and it was only after they backed down that Agent withdrew his threat to return to Karachi.
The fighting was on, and the local troops, hastily enforced, continued their advance. Soon the fighters reached Skardu where they found the local populace eager to force the Dogras out. Balti irregulars armed with matchlock rifles helped lay siege to the Dogra soldiers in the Skardu Cantonment. Others were trained as guerillas and sent ahead to capture Ladakh. Despite having little by way of rations, they fought through the winter of 1948, seizing Kargil, Dras and the strategic Zoji-la Pass. One group reached within 16 kilometres of Leh before being pushed back by India’s better-equipped forces. Another occupied Padum in Zangskar for six months after the ceasefire of 1949, unaware that a truce had been signed between India and Pakistan.
Pakistan’s chunk of the erstwhile Maharaja’s domains which are not technically termed “Jammu and Kashmir” include Baltistan and Gilgit. In 1949, the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) Government officially delegated powers to Islamabad to control both regions through the
Pakistani Political Agent. Baltistan and Gilgit were then governed under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). The arrangement was remarkably similar to the one that existed in colonial times, with the local rajas and mirs allowed to maintain their power and continue to tax their subjects. Little had changed.
Until, that is, the 1970s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the only Pakistani politician who is regarded well in Baltistan, abolished the FCR and ended the oppressive system of land revenue. By then, the entity known as the ‘Northern Area rising of Baltistan’s two districts, Skardu and Ganche, as well as Gilgit, Ghizar and Diamar. But despite Bhutto’s reforms, there has been little commitment to resolve the political bind that the people of the Northern Areas find themselves in. Administratively, they are ruled by the federal government while constitutionally they are attached to Azad J&K.
The completion of the Karakorum Highway to China/Tibet in 1978 brought rapid change to the once-isolated Northern Areas. NGOs such as the Aga Khan Foundation have transformed it into a busy nest of development activity,and the region has emerged as Pakistan’s chief destination for tourists and trekkers.
But unlike other trekking regions in the Himalaya, Baltistan is not characterised by tourist ghettos, Bob Marley blaring out of cafes, or leather-jacketed local youth trying to pick up Western women. The graffiti and billboards in Skardu make it clear that Western influence is regarded with suspicion.
The Shias, who represent roughly 60 percent of the population, turn to Iran for education and guidance. Shia imams also offer formidable resistance to the forces of cultural change sweeping South Asia. There are no movie theatres in Skardu, satellite dishes are frowned upon, and even the all-pervasive video shops are scarce.
Skardu’s Urdu graffiti extols the virtues of prayer and Qur’anic study, with the occasional anti-US slogan thrown in. There are numerous reminders to visitors to keep their bodies covered. A recent poster called for a day of mourning to mark the 1967 Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city. As in so many other parts of Pakistan, a growing population of educated unemployed youth is fuelling the transformation of Balti culture via religious politics.
Bolstered by the success of the Iranian Revolution, the imams have become active politically and are represented by the Tehrik-i-Jaffaria Pakistan (TJP), a party which promotes Shia interests. Although Balti loyalty once rested with the Pakistan People’s Party, of Bhutto’s willingness to abolish feudal power, the TJP emerged as a significant force in the 1994 National Assembly Council elections. They now hold four of Baltistan’s nine Council seats (the other five are held by the PPP and independents) and are a force to be reckoned with in Skardu and Shigar.
Rinchen to Sadruddin
The hold of Islam on Balti consciousness cannot be doubted. But there is also another identity that Baltis cling to – the pre-Islamic one that looks to Tibet and Ladakh.
European historians claim that the original inhabitants of Western Tibet, Ladakh and Baltistan were the so-called Aryan ‘Dards’. And have suggested that Bolor (the name for Gilgit and Baltistan) was once a centre of Bon shamanism, the indigenous religion of the High Himalaya.
Buddhism came into Baltistan with the advent of the Mons, an Indo-Aryan tribe which arrived with Buddhist missionaries in the second century. Mons today are “low-caste” musicians and carpenters. Later, as the Indus Valley began to feature as an important artery of the ‘silk route’, Baltistan served as the conduit for the diffusion of Mahayana Buddhism from India into Central Asia and China.
The spread of Islam in the area can be traced to rGyalbu Rinchen (or Rinchana Bhoti), a Tibetan prince who ruled Kashmir from 1319-1323. Inspired by the example of a Muslim sage, Bulbul Shah, Rinchen converted to Islam and changed his name to Sadruddin. By the late 1300s, Sufi preachers had begun to arrive from Persia, ushering in the Islamic era in Kashmir and Baltistan.
But despite the Islamicisation of Baltistan, intermarriages between the royal families of Ladakh and Baltistan were common. Buddhist kings took Muslim wives and raised some of their sons as Muslims. Even Baltistan’s legendary Ali Sher Khan Anchan is said to have given his daughter Gul Khatoon (aka Mindoq rGyalmo) to the Ladakhi King Jamyang Namgyal (r.1560-1590).
Arrangements between the two religions may have been flexible; official records are not so accepting. Ladakhi songs in praise of its royal families omit the names of princes who converted to Islam. A.H. Francke, a Moravian missionary writing in 1907, speculated that, in turn, the maqpons of Baltistan may have fabricated their pedigrees with more Muslim names in a firm attempt to erase pre-Islamic history.
Reclaiming the Tibetan
Things are changing though. There are Baltis who lament the loss of pre-Islamic cultural practices, which have disappeared under pressure from the imams. Meanwhile, wedding rituals have become more ‘Pakistani’. Traditional dancing and pre-Islamic Balti festivals such as Me-phang (literally ‘throwing fire’) have almost disappeared.
A small liberal set, which includes local scholars and a growing section of educated youth, are now making attempts to re-establish links with all things Tibetan or Ladakhi in a last-ditch attempt to save their culture from total Iran-style Islamicisation. Besides, they claim, culture is more than a question of being Islamic and non-Islamic.
One man involved in the renaissance is Syed Abbas Kazmi. As part of his dedicated efforts to save Baltistan’s heritage from extinction, he prefers to eat out of a photoh, a traditional wooden bowl that today one only finds in Skardu’s antique shops. Kazmi has erected a barbed wire fence around Skardu’s ancient Buddha carvings to protect it from vandals and has plans to excavate monastery ruins above Shigar.
The real threat, says Kazmi, is Pakistan’s dominant Punjabi culture. “We have lost our link with the past. To wear our traditional woollen clothes, or even to speak Balti is considered a sign of backwardness. We dress like and eat like the Punjabis even though many of their customs are just as foreign to us as those from the West.”
For Mohammad Hasnain, a textile engineer settled in Lahore who goes by the Tibetan nickname “Senge Tshering”, cultural erosion began with the arrival of the first Islamic missionaries, who introduced the Arabic and Persian languages as the media for religious instruction. This erosion continues in the modern era because of Baltistan’s Position in the Pakistani scheme of things.
Says Tshering, “I feel sad about the drastic changes that have taken place in the last 30 to 40 years, and particularly since the Iranian Revolution. We have been destroying our culture and losing our identity.” With the help of email that is available in Lahore, Tshering now communicates with Tibetan scholars and activists worldwide.
Tshering, whose chosen name is understandably unique in the city he lives in, believes that it is important to bring back the Tibetan script. Arabic is quite inadequate to bring out the richness of the Balti language in the written form. The Balti inferiority complex is rooted in education, he believes. “Government schools use Urdu as the chief medium for instruction. So children learn Balti at home, then Urdu at school, and now English medium schools are confusing them further. To preserve our unique history and culture we have to learn the Tibetan script again.”
After centuries of Persian and now Pakistani influence, Tshering, Kazmi and others like him seek to reconstruct their community’s bonds with the Tibetan- speaking world. They gather books, videos and anything to do with Tibet in an effort to reconstruct the long-lost past. One of the latest video hits in Skardu has been the development documentary film, Learning from Ladakh, brought in by Western trekkers. A film made by the development activist Helena Norberg-Hodge which emphasises the cultural and economic strengths of Ladakh, Learning from Ladakh allowed Baltis a rare glimpse of their kin across the impenetrable border.
Local scholars have taught themselves how to read the Tibetan script and have initiated a dialogue with their counterparts in Ladakh. They research and publish mostly in Urdu, on topics ranging from the ancient Bon tradition to the Gesar epic. Kazmi feels the tide is slowly turning. “Young people have begun to come to me to learn more about our cultural heritage. They ask me to teach them the Tibetan script. Recently, I encouraged the Baltistan Students Federation with ‘Stika’, our ancient Bon symbol of prosperity, as their logo. There are signs of change.”
Despite the geo-political barriers, the prospects of communication may soon improve. Flights from Karachi to Kathmandu have spawned a trickle of trade in turquoise, a jewellery item that once came to Baltistan from Ladakh. Trekkers and climbers bring information from the other end of the Himalaya. Frustrated for the past 50 years by poor communications, the imminent arrival of email and Internet facilities in Skardu could also change things for Baltistan significantly.
The process of Islamicisation of Baltistan was gradual. Tibetan Buddhism and Bon were replaced over the course of centuries. But Baltistan’s absorption into Pakistan and the modern era of improved communications have quickened the pace of change. While the Iranian revolution is re-shaping its identity, the information age and current soul searching may help Baltistan embrace its ancient diversity.
An arranged marriage
With the capital of the Northern Areas situated in Gilgit, and Baltistan’s increasing economic reliance on the Karakorum Highway, Baltis now find their fate inseparably tied to that of their neighbours in Gilgit. This is a change from earlier times when Baltis traded exclusively with Yarkand, Ladakh and even Tibet’s Changthang plateau. For, although Baltistan had controlled Gilgit in the mid-1600s, travel in that direction was avoided for fear of the hostile Kohistani tribes.
This modern-day union betwen Gilgit and Baltistan is not, however, a natural one. Compared to other districts in the Northern Areas, Baltistan is relatively homogeneous. The other districts have an almost equal mix of the Sunni, Shia and Ismaili sects, and a variety of languages such as Shina, Burushaski, Gojali and Khowar are spoken. The sects and ethnic groups have been forced into co-existence in Gilgit town. In contrast, Baltistan’s lingua franca is Balti, and Skardu’s predominant Shia culture is obvious to any visitor.
Historically, Baltistan’s settled communities contrasted with the pastoralists of Gilgit, who maintained a strong pagan tradition until their conversion to Islam. The Baltis’ term for the Shins of Gilgit is brokpa (highlanders), as nomadic Shina speakers have inhabited the high pastures of Baltistan for centuries. It is believed the Shin were brought as captives by Ali Sher Khan Anchan to protect their high passes from outside attack. Over time, the term brokpa became synonomous with ‘uncivilised’.
On die other hand, Gilgitis themselves find the Baltis a strange breed: poor, untrustworthy, resistant to change. To prove their point Gilgitis emphasise the low literacy levels in Baltistan – 35 percent for males and 3 percent for females, in contrast to much higher levels in other areas of the Northern Areas.
Baltistan is roughly 60 percent Shia, 30 percent Nurbakshi Sufi and 10 percent Sunni. But this is a recent division. Much like the syncretic versions of Hinduism and Buddhism in the hills of Nepal, Baltistan’s Islamic heritage reveals a close relationship between Shia and Sufi practice. Both trace their origins to the Persian sage Amir Kabir Syed Ali Hamdani. Hamdani is believed to have visited Srinagar in 1374 and introduced Sufism to Kashmir and neighbouring Baltistan. His khanqah, or retreat centre, is said to be the oldest standing Islamic shrine in the Srinagar Valley.
The Nurbakshis take their name front one of Hamdani’s successors, Syed Mohammad Nur Baksh (1393-1465), a Sufi revolutionary who was tried and exiled from Persia a number of times for preaching the Sufi way. But by the 16th century, a unique Shia-Sufi synthesis had taken place through the political and military rule of the Safavid dynasty. The Nurbakshis of Baltistan are a remnant of this synthesis, their traditions preserved by the isolation of the Karakorum.
While historians doubt whether Hamdani or Nur Baksh ever visited Baltistan, they agree that one Sufi practitioner, Mir Shamsuddin Iraqi (d. 1526), was likely the first to successfully propagate the faith in Shigar, Keris and Khapalu in the late 1400s. By the end of the 17th century, all of Baltistan had accepted Islam. The Nurbakshi version, with its emphasis on tolerance, divine love, and union with Allah, seemed to supplant Tibetan Buddhism with relative ease.
Syed Ali, a Nurbakshi leader, explains that conversion was never forced. “When the Sufis built the chaqchan, our oldest shrine in Khapalu, it was on top of a Buddhist temple. The departing lama asked us to protect the holiness of the shrine by not destroying the Buddha statues. So we are told they were buried intact under the shrine, and one Buddha was placed inside the mihrab which we still pray towards.”
By the 17th century, Baltistan had become a haven for Persian Shia clerics seeking refuge from Mughal persecution. With their base in Skardu and Shigar, they discouraged Sufi meditation, song and dance, and encouraged a more rigid purdah system. The Shia claim the Nurbakshi as their own, contending that Sufi orders are not sects but rather contemplative practice lineages that exist within both the Sunni and Shia sects. The Nurbakshi are quick to reject this assertion though, and talk of forcible conversion by the Shia over the centuries.
Even with the spread of mainstream Shia practice, the two groups for the most part have co-existed peacefully. But, in 1986, sectarian violence erupted over the issue of control of the Khapalu chaqchan. Since then, Nurbakshi tolerance has been wearing thin. In Khapalu, where the Nurbakshis constitute 90 percent of the population, there has been a strengthening of Sufi customs such as etikaaf (meditation) retreats, and song and poetry recitals (mehfils). Nurbakshi leaders estimate that over a 1000 of their youth participated in the intensive etikaaf retreats last year.
“Until recently we had been very lax about our tradition. The recent troubles have made us redicover who we are,” says Syed Ali. Under pressure to define their uniqueness, meditation is once again becoming the hallmark of the Nurbakshi identity in Baltistan
Imam vs Imam
Aurat ki be-pardagi, mard ki be-ghairati. (A woman out of purdah reflects her man’s lack of honor.)
-Skardu wall graffiti
Although the majority of Baltis are Shia, the population of the Northern Areas as a Whok is an almost equal mix of Shias, Sunnis and Ismailis. The Ismailis, an offshoot of the Shia, follow their own imam. The present one, Prince Karim Aga Khan, is a Paris billionaire whose teachings are more secular than theological. Ismailis refer to him as imam-e-zamanat (Imam of the time’) who has appeared in a distinctly, modern form to address the modern needs of his followers.
In the early 1980s, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) began the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in the Northern Areas to improve the living standard of the rural poor through social organisation, farming technology extension and access to credit. To manage it, the Aga Khan recruited one of Pakistan’s rural development gurus, Shoaib Sultan Khan.
Initially, there were suspicions that the Programme was a front to convert Sunnis and Shias and to help create a new state that would link to Ismailis in Central Asia. (Ismailis live in almost contiguous areas that extend from Iran to Chitral and the Northern Areas through Tajikistan’s Gorno Badakshan, Afghanistan’s Badakshan province and Wakhan corridor.) Rumours abounded of such a nation-state in the making, called “Nuristan”.
Overcoming such deep suspicions, the AKRSP was able to successfully organise villagers to complete sell-help infrastructure projects such as the construction of irrigation canals and link roads. By 1986, AKRSP had begun operating in the non-Ismaili areas of neighbouring Chitral and Baltistan as well. In fact, local politicians, and even some imams, helped usher AKRSP into Baltistan.
The Programme has now reached the majority, of Baltistans villages and has offered swift development solutions in areas largely neglected by the government. AKRSP claims to have contributed to the doubling of the average income in the Northern Areas over the past 10 years through its development packages which include micro-credit, agriculture extension, and land development through irrigation.
Today, however, fatwas condemning AKRSP come fast and furious, and sometimes, by fax all the way from Iran. Opposition from influential imams is based on the belief that AKRSP’s credit facilities are un-lslamic (the charging of interest being forbidden in Islam), and that its female staff are a corrupting influence on local women. Rumours of down-country Pakistani consultants flouting local purdah norms, coupled with the sight of women and men driving together in jeeps, has generated resentment.
In the summer of 1997, a visiting imam from Karachi issued a fatwa, claiming that charging interest and promoting women’s development activities were unislamic. He called on the people to resist AKRSP. While some residents were willing to ignore the fatwa on the grounds that the imam was an outsider, AKRSP’s work in the Skardu and Shigar valleys ground to a standstill. Village women’s organisations stopped gathering together, and the Programme’s female staff remained at home. In January 1998, another imam, this time a Bahl, issued a scathing indictment of AKRSP, in which he claimed that its female staff had disgraced their husbands and fathers with their work
Communities seeking AKRSP’S development packages are thus having to choose between the word of the imam and that of AKRSP. In turn, AKRSP, despite donor pressure, is being forced to take a more cautious approach to women’s development.