[Media Feature] Wonder Valley-Gilgit

By: Basharat Hussain

 gilgit_river

Located at an altitude of approximately 1,500 meters in the north-east of Pakistan, Gilgit had been a central point of trade and political activity from as early as first century AD. Since then it has been a strategic point for neighbouring countries surrounded by the massive Karakoram Range.

Gilgit is a small valley with a population of 500,000. It is the administrative and commercial capital of the Northern areas of Pakistan. This quaint little town has spectacular scenic beauty and the peak tourist season is from May to mid-October, though one can spot tourists there round the year.

Gilgit-Baltistan, in addition to its great mountains and beautiful valleys, is also famous for its rich cultural heritage. In the land of Gilgit-Baltistan, at least six major languages are spoken and as many cultures and ethnicities exist. Most local people practice some form of agriculture and their beautiful orchards, wheat and potato fields are fed by glacial waters.

People dwelling in this region have a common memory of gaining independence from the Dogra Raj on November 1, 1949. These diverse people who also proudly claim distinct cultural heritage, however, find unity in many important dimensions of their respective cultures such as the commonality of musical instruments, their tunes and unique  dance performances. These people can also be uniformly identified from their headgear and the long coat Shoqa, and of course in their food.

The best part of the region is its stunning beauty. Just 10 kilometres from the town of Gilgit, is a Buddha carved into a stone face, a remnant of the era over 700 years ago when Buddhism held way across much of what is now the North-West Frontier Province, the Northern Areas and Afghanistan. To see this rock carving, it is best to take a local van west of town, continuing past numerous walled compounds, green, terraced fields and the suburb of Napur to the Kargah Nala. South of the main road and up this nala, a large rectangular niche, well above the trail, frames a 10-feet-high standing Buddha. The Kargah Nala is now a game sanctuary. You could take a day hike up this nala, for it has many trees and makes a pleasant walk.

You should always be accompanied by a local guide to show you the way, whether the route is clear or not, especially in the high pastures, and as you proceed farther south you will come to a region inhabited by Kohistanis. Another nearest valley to Gilgit is Gulapur which is not far from the valley of Sher Qila. There are many schools here, and a small polo ground where local people play polo.

Centuries of Tibetan, Islamic and Indian influence have shaped the Balti culture into its modern form. Tibetan influence can be seen in its architecture, where houses with flat roofs, painted white and sloping inwards are built, and the most notable artefacts of the Balti/Ladakhi architecture include Kharpocho in Skardu, Khapulo Khar in Khapulo, Chakchan and Shigar Khanqah and Baltit fort of Hunza. Like the Ladakhi Muslim architecture, older mosques show a mix of Iranian and Tibetan architecture, although strong Iranian and modern influences can be seen in the newer mosques.

Little remains of the pre-Islamic Buddhist culture of Baltistan largely destroyed and replaced by the dominant Punjabi and Iranian culture which arrived with Islam; this can be evidenced in the near-extinction of traditional Balti festivals such as Maephang, Mindok Ltahnmo and Srup Lha.

Although climatic conditions are harsh and inhospitable, people of Baltistan are among the most friendliest and hospitable of mountain people in Pakistan. They evolved out of 106 years of slavery under the Dogra rulers and innumerable decades under local despotic Rajas. The predominant population of today’s Baltistan is religiously and ethnically homogeneous.

Baltistan is proud of its thousands of years of rich civilisation, architecture, costume, cuisine, festivals, dances, language, script and epics make her unique among her neighbours, especially within the contemporary Northern Areas.

Since Partition, the residents of Baltistan have remained essentially people of Baltistan’s soil. They are devout Muslims, and in effect include two generations born since the annexation of Baltistan to Pakistan, who have never distanced themselves from cultural and linguistic ties. source

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