SMALL ETHNIC MINORITIES IN NORTHERN PAKISTAN
Historical literature since the time of Pliny and Ptolemy in Greco-Roman times has referred to a group of people called the Dards who live in the upper Indus Valley. Descriptions of the Dards living around the Gilgit area described them as a people that practiced hunting, herding and farming. They had large extended families, engaged in polygamy, and migrated between winter and summer pastures. as far as can be determined there was never a distinct group known as the Dards.
The Dards are best viewed as a group of peoples that speak “Dardic languages” (Indo-Aryan languages spoken in northern Pakistan). Of these, Kashmiri are the most well known, Others include the people that live in the Gilgit Valley, Hunza, Chitral, Yasin, Nagar, Panyal, Kohistan, the Astore Valley and the part of the upper Indus Valley between Bunji and Batera.
The people who live around Nanga Parbat are Shinas. They live is small secluded kingdoms in each valley. Their native language, also called Shina, is close to ancient Sanskrit. Some Wakhi- clan Tajiks live in northern Pakistan. The Wakhi Tajiks are a Muslim tribe related to Tajiks that live in China near the China-Pakistan border off the Karakorum Highway. The Gujars live in Kohistan.
The Kohistani occupy Kohistan, a mountainous area between the Indus River and the Afghanistan border that extends as far north as Gilgit and includes the former kingdom of Swat. The Kohistanis speak Dardic languages (Torwali, Gawri, and Eastern and Western Kohistn) and raise maize, millet and other crops in irrigated fields and herd goats and sheep between winter valleys at around 1000 meters and summer pastures as high as 4,500 meters.
The Kohistanis were originally Buddhist, then Hindu and now are mostly Muslim. There is some cultural give and take with local Pashtun tribes. The valleys the Kohistani occupy are largely independent and beyond the reach of Pakistani law. Honor is an important concept. They are also known as Dard, Duberwal, Killiwal ("villager"), Mayan, Mayr and Patanwal.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Kohistan is a mountainous area lying between the Indus River and the Durand Line that forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; it stretches northward from 35° N and the former kingdom of Swat as far as Gilgit. The Kohistanis have also been called Dards because they speak four languages of the small Dardic branch of the Indo-Aryan Subfamily: Torwali, Gawri, Eastern and Western Kohistani (but not Kashmiri, the most important language of this branch). Like the Gujars, who are also found in Kohistan, the Kohistanis practise transhumant pastoralism of sheep and goats; but in the fertile valley bottoms they are also able to plow and irrigate fields. A few low-lying areas produce wheat or rice; but only one crop a year is possible. Thus Kohistanis move around seasonally between farmlands at about 1,000 meters and summer camps.. Cattle and water buffalo are kept at the lower elevations. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“The history of this area has been as varied as the terrain. The earliest mention of Swat can be found in the Rig Veda, and then in Greek (327 B.C.) and Chinese (A.D. 519) records. The area has successively been Buddhist, then Hindu, then (since a.d. 1000) Muslim. To some extent individual Pashtuns have been absorbed in recent times into the Kohistani ethnic group, which perhaps numbers 50,000 today, although cultural influence has mostly flowed from the Pashtun to the Kohistani. |~|
“Because the area is so diverse geographically, it tends to be politically fragmented, even anarchic, and control by the Pakistani government is minimal at best. Kohistani villages are made up of several minimal lineages, each of which has representation on a village council, which tends to be the highest authority. Aside from the farmers, a village population normally includes blacksmiths and carpenters (Pashto-speaking) and a few farm laborers or tenants. The Kohistanis are Muslims. They are motivated by a reverence for the Quran and its teachings, as well as by izzat (male honor). The seclusion of women, however, is rather problematic because of their importance in farm work.” |~|
The Chitral Valley is located between the Karakoram Range and the Hindu Kush near the Afghanistan border. While most much the region along the Afghan is unsafe for travel quite a few tourists visit the Chitral Valley which is towered over by 7,878-meter (25,550-foot) -high Trichmir, the highest peak in the Hindu Kush. The southern part of the Chitral Valley is more heavily forested than the north.
The valley has rich alluvial soil is especially beautiful in the autumn when birch and willow erupt in blaze of yellow and orange. The large open fields of Shandur Top between Gilgit and Chitral is where Roof of the World Polo matches are played in July. There are scores of lovely places for trekking, when the area is safe.
The Chitral Valley is 322 kilometers (200 miles) long and features rugged mountains, sulphur springs, rivers teeming with trout, orchard-dotted slopes, friendly people and enchanting annual festivals. Chitral District is bounded on the north, south and the west by Afghanistan and is separated from the Tajikistan by a narrow strip of Wakhan, a province of Afghanistan and, from China by Gilgit Baltistan. It lies between latitude 35 51 N and longitude 71 47’E.. It is easily accessible by air from historic city of Peshawar.. [Source: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. tourism.gov.pk ]
Chitral is one of the most isolated places in the world. When winter snows stop flights and close the passes the valley is completely shut of from the outside world. Villages have changed little since the time of Alexander. It is not unusual to see people with blue eyes and blonde hair. Water is directed through channels that not only irrigate crops but also turn water mills that thresh and grind grain. To the south are Pathan tribal areas. The town of Chitral is reached via a hair-raising road from Gilgit with some steep drops to rivers, sometime hundreds of meters below. It takes about two days to traverse this route. .
Chitral District covers an area of 14504 square meters (5,600 square miles) and lies at elevations ranging from 1278-7700 meters (3700-25264 feet).. Summers are generally pleasant but the winters are extremely cold. Chitral has unpredictable weather during spring with frequent rains and snowfall. Autumn is pleasant with mild temperatures.. Ideal time for visiting Chitral is from June to September.
The Population of the Chitral Valley is around 160,000 people. Majority of the people are Muslims. The only non-Muslim ethnic minority in the Chitral valley are the Kalash. Numbering about 2,500 to 3,000 they inhabit Birir, Bumburet and Rambur valleys in the south of Chitral. Their life style is characterized by their own ancient and religion.. The local dialect is ‘Khowar’ (Chitrali). Urdu is understood by a large number of people while Pushto is spoken and understood in Chitral and Drosh.. The women wear ‘shalwar-kameez’ (long shirts with baggy trousers) and ‘dupattas’ (flimsy scarves draped round the Shoulders).. In winter the man wear ‘shuqa’, loose ,long woolen gowns with long sleeves. The popular headdress is ‘pakol’ which is also of woolen material..
History of the Chitral Valley
Alexander the Great and his army of 70,000 men march through the Chitral Valley on their way to India in 323 B.C. The valley lies near an important Hindu Kush pass and is situated on an invasion route used by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and others. Ruined forts here and there are a reminder of this era. During the Afghanistan War Chitral town became flooded with Aghan refugees and became a smuggling center and boom town.
Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The Chitral Valley “guards an important chain of passes on the ancient Silk Road linking Western Asia with China. In the 19th century, the area loomed large in the Great Game, the spy-versus-spy shadow play between the Russian and British empires. The exercise of local rule, however, remained with the Ulmulk royal family, whose reign extended from 1571 to 1969, when Chitral was incorporated into Pakistan. It was in reference to the Ulmulks that the British political agent, Surgeon Major George Robertson, wrote in 1895: "Their excesses and revengeful murders went hand in hand with pleasant manners and a pleasing lightheartedness." [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, January 2007]
“The region's tribal warfare and religious strife reach back millennia. At the same time, the towering mountains and labyrinthine passes have isolated some peoples in time warps all their own. If you roam around, you can find tribes who claim descent from Alexander the Great's army, or meet a wizard who summons snow fairies from the mountains in a ritual that predates even the Macedonian conqueror's time.
“As it happened, it was during my first visit that President Clinton ordered the bombing of Osama bin Laden's suspected headquarters in a cave just across the border in Afghanistan. In response, the mullahs in Chitral called for the killing of all foreigners in town after Friday prayers. And so a mob of extremists screamed for our blood as they marched through the bazaar — but the paramilitary police herded me and the few other foreigners around into a hotel until we could be flown out to safety a few days later.
Chitral Valley Tribes and Princes
Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The Chitral Valley’s “Muslim tribes have a centuries-long history of enthusiasm for feuding — especially the Ulmulk royal family, entrenched in their capital back at Chitral. "Many of the mehtars [kings] of Chitral have waded to their thrones through streams of blood," the British historian C. Collin Davies wrote in 1932 in The Northwest Frontier. The book is in the Ulmulk family collection in Chitral, along with several others containing equally intriguing descriptions of the royals. When I wonder aloud whether the Gilgit polo team stands a chance against the descendants of such cutthroats, Siraj smiles with princely modesty. “"Whenever a king died or was murdered, his sons began killing each other until one gained the throne," he elaborates. "Once there, he was never secure, because the surviving brothers usually plotted to kill him and seize the throne." [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, January 2007]
“He takes me to a fort beside the swirling Chitral River. The fort's 25-foot walls are made from mud reinforced with timber and rocks, and one of them has been blackened by fire — a reminder, Siraj says, of extensive royal bloodletting in the 1890s. "We've given up fighting with guns and swords, and now do battle on the polo field," he says. The change has done wonders for Ulmulk longevity, at least judging from Prince Khushwaqt Ulmulk. The prince, who happens to be Siraj and Sikander's father, is 94. He lives in a modest bungalow beside a fort in Mastuj, on the Chitral side of the Shandur Pass. The following day I head out with a guide on a four-hour trip over a precipitous dirt road shadowed by 20,000-foot peaks to visit him.
“Following Chitrali tradition, Khushwaqt was appointed governor of Mastuj on the day he was born. A month later, his father sent him there to be raised by a noble family. "I grew up knowing the people and languages of the place I'd one day rule," the lively old man tells me. "When I was 4, my father married me to a 6-year-old noble girl. When I met my father again, at age 9, instead of greeting me, he pressed a lighted cigarette against my face. He was testing my toughness." Khushwaqt went on to become an army colonel under British rule, charged with subduing rebellious Pashtun tribesmen in the Northwest Frontier Province. He says he loved the rough and tumble. Even now, he invests his memories of royal infighting with nostalgia. "When the British put an end to it, they spoiled the fun," he says.
“When our talk turns to polo, he tells me that a win in this year's match is vital for his son's pride and reputation. "If Sikander loses again this year," he says, "the villagers all the way to Chitral will pelt him with tomatoes and curses as he and the team bring home their horses." He pauses, then adds with a wry smile: "That's better than putting him to the sword, like they might have done in years past." We sip tea beneath a steep slope where ibex gambol, and our talk turns to tactics. "The Gilgit team uses black magic to win," Khushwaqt says. "But we spurn such evil."
The Baltis are the inhabitants of Baltistan. They are interesting in that are a Muslim people of Tibetan descent. The language of Baltistan, an archaic form of Tibetan, is unwritten. It is not an Indo-European language like most of the languages spoken in Pakistan. For the most part Baltis are Shiite Muslims. In the 1980s, when they did read something it usually the Quran which is written in Arabic. At that time dates were not important. Few Baltis knew the year of their birth. Things have changed since then. [Source: "Baltistan" Galen Rowell, National Geographic, October 1987 ♦]
The ancestors of the Baltis are believed to have arrived from Tibet via Ladakh in present-day northern India. Little is known about them. Buddhists also came to the area from the Silk Road; Aryan herdsmen brought them animals; and Hunzakuts and adventurers from other groups no doubt passed this way. Islam arrived in the area in the 15th and 16th century.
Skardu, Baltistan was once a lovely capital city with palaces, aqueducts and gardens created by Queen Mindok while her husband King Ali Sher Khan was away fighting battles. When he returned he said, "You have built a wonderful aqueduct and for that you should be rewarded. But you have also constructed a path for my enemies to my fort, and for that you shall be hanged!" She was eventually spared but her city was not. It was destroyed by Sikhs in the 18th century.♦
Baltistan is part of the disputed area, which includes Kashmir, that both Pakistan and India claim. This for one means that Baltis can not vote in Pakistani elections — ro at least that was the case in the 1980s. ♦
Baltistan is a 25,900 square-kilometer (10,000 square-mile) region in the heart of the Karakoram ranges highest peaks, including K2. Bordering China and Kashmir, it is one of the remotest and poorest parts of Pakistan but also one the most mystical and beautiful places as well. The region is dominated by snow capped peaks and walls of sheer granite that rise into pinnacles and razor sharp ridges. Shangri-La towns, that hang from the cliffs and nestle into the valleys, occupy the only spaces of green in an otherwise barren and sandy landscape. Irrigation from rivers is what enables the villages to grow crops and fruit trees. Jeep roads connect some of the towns but to reach the most beautiful mountains and the most picturesque villages you will have to set out on foot, at times, on some quite hair-raising trails.
Baltistan's 230,000 people are of Tibetan and Indo-European origin. They were Buddhists up until the 15th century when they were converted and became Shiite Moslems. For a brief time in the 16th century Baltistan was the center of Himalayan kingdom that stretched from Tibet to what is now Afghanistan. But that was a brief flicker in an otherwise sleepy and isolated existence. The men traditionally wear kaftans or turbans and baggy trousers while Balti women sometimes wear colorful headdresses and embroidered clothing.
Baltistan can be reached by flights to Skardu or very rough road from the Karakorum Highway at Gilgit that follows the Indus River. The road is mostly within a gorge that hides views of the mountains until one reaches Skardu. There are snow leopards in Baltistan. The pictures of the animal in the wild were taken in the region and a villager tried to sell a pelt to a National Geographic writer Galen Rowell for US$600—the equivalent of a year's income. The animal was killed after it had taken a village goat. [Source: Galen Rowell, National Geographic, October 1987]
Skardu (7,500 feet), with 25,000 people, is Baltistan's largest town. Located in a dry, dusty and windy area, it was the capital of the 16th century kingdom but all that remains from those days is part of an aqueduct. As late as the 1970s it was a forgotten town where the sound of vehicles made people run for the hills but now, thanks mainly to the war between India and Pakistan on the Sichuan Glacier, and the influx of trekkers, it bustles with car, truck and motorcycle traffic.
Shaded by popular trees and located on the confluence of the Indus and Shigar Rivers, Skardu comes alive in the summertime with mountaineers and trekkers. There is not a lot in Skardu but there are a couple of things worth checking out. The view from mud-walled Kharfocho fort to the green fields and rivers below is worth the short uphill hike. At Buddhist rock on Satpara Road are some old carvings which date back a time when the Tibetan empire stretched this far. Along the same road is a picturesque lake with an island. Also stop by the New Shangri-La resorts which has converted a crash-landed DC-3 into a honeymoon suite.
Flights from Islamabad to Skardu are famous for their thrills. After following the same air route that connects Gilgit to Islamabad the plane turns right and flies over a gorge in the Indus River. Enormous rock faces rise on either side of the plane and at times it seems as if the wing tips of the plane would almost scrape against them. They never do. It used to be rumored that to get through one section the Boeing 737's and Folkker turbo-props used to have to tilt 45̊ to make it through..
Balti Men, Women and Marriage
Balti men follow herds, work as porters or trade with other villages, while women cook, wash, carry water, milk goats, sew and do most of the work in the fields except for irrigation and plowing. Several generations usually live under one roof and no one is ever alone or unattended. Men take an active role in rearing their sons but if the first wife fails to produce a son, the man often takes a second wife. [Source: Galen Rowell, National Geographic, October 1987 ♦]
Many Balti villages observe the custom of purdah, which segregates women from unrelated men. When visitors come to a Balti house the husband acts as the host and the wife is veiled and never even introduced. A meal is prepared by the wife then handed to the husband who serves it. ♦
Balti wives will often marry her husband's little brother. This way a woman can stay in her home and her family and in laws remain together. The wife will often have several children by the first husband and several more by the second and everyone lives happily together under the same roof.♦
Children have no toys to speak of. If a child has a plow it is to use in the fields. Girls have real babies to take care of instead of dolls. One girl met by Barbara Rowell was 13 when her parents married her off to a man of 40.♦
In the Balti version of Bon in Baltistan, deities such as lha (gods), klu (serpents or dragons) and lhamo (goddesses) are worshipped, and many legends about these deities still exist among the local population.
Balti Life and Poor Health
Most Balti homes are heated by dung or wood fires. Many dwelling don't have a chimney to prevent the heat from a fire from escaping. Thus there is a lot of smoke. Years of exposure to smoke and fumes has to lead to high incidence of lung and eye diseases
The Baltis eat lots of roti (unleavened bread) and drink tea flavored with pepper. They keep goats and cattle for cheese and curd. Fuel comes from fire wood and animal dung. It is a common sight to see people walking around with huge bundles of firewood strapped to their backs.
Baltis in the town of Askole often spend most of their day on the roofs of their houses performing chores like spinning wool and sifting grain, and socializing. Possession of property is handed down from father to son which dispenses with the paper work. [Source: Galen Rowell, National Geographic, October 1987 ♦]
Baltistan used to be famous for its polo matches. But since everyone takes jeeps and horses are no longer used for transportation the source of polo ponies has dried up. Their inflated goatskin rafts, known as zahks, are also being replaced by rafts made from rubber inner tubes.♦
In the 1980s, teachers in the small villages of Baltistan had no schools. They mainly taught in someone's house. In one village only six boys out 40 that were of school age tended classes. The girls couldn't be taught because boys and girls were not allowed to attend the same classes. Many parents believed their children should be working in the fields not wasting time studying.♦
In the 1980s, Baltistan had appalling rates of infant mortality. Rowell visited one family in the village of Askole who had lost seven of ten children. An educated Balti said the solution of his people was women to produce as many offspring as possible during their child bearing years to offset the children that died.. Some of the health practices at that time were disturbing. People drew water from drainage ditches near where animals defecated. One village leader had taken eight pilgrimages abroad, yet seven of his children died. [Source: Galen Rowell, National Geographic, October 1987 ♦]
The fertility rate is lower at high altitudes. Ignorance also causes quite a few health problems. Lack of iodine, for example, in the Balti diet makes goiters a common sight. Although iodized salt is available villagers often use rock salt instead.♦
Balti Transportation and Economics
Many of the mountain trails in Baltistan wind along sheer cliffs. To construct the trails where there is only cliff logs and timbers are wedged into cracks in the side of the cliff so that the logs stick out. Stones and dirt are then placed on the logs. As you can imagine these trails are quite treacherous. While journalist Galen Rowell was in Baltistan writing a story five Baltis fell to their death. Bridges spanning rivers are made of twisted together twine. [Source: Galen Rowell, National Geographic, October 1987 ♦]
Road building in Baltistan is slow and dangerous. On the main highway from Islamabad to Skardu hundreds of laborers have lost their life, most of them swept away by landslides. The dirt for the roads is moved with shovels and stone foundations are laid by hand. When the roads are completed it not unusual for them to collapse under the weight of a fully loaded truck.♦
Most Baltis are farmers and herdsmen. They raise wheat and maize. The harvest season begins in September in the lower reaches of the valleys and is progressively later as one moves upwards in elevation. The grain is threshed using livestock tied to a central pole. The animal, usually a yak or oxen, tramples the crop under its hooves. The same technique was use by the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians.
Livestock is moved between summer highland pastures and winter valleys. Most of shepherds are boys who don’t have dogs. To move the animals they throw rocks and their aim is quite good.
Most Baltis that get ahead sign up for contract labor in the Middle East oil countries, work for a year or two, and with the money saved up return to buy a truck or start a small business.♦
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022