CultureDevelopmentEducationGilgit - Baltistan

[Book review] Karakuram in Transition

Book Title

 Kreutzman, Hermann, ed. 2006. Karakoram in Transition: Culture, Development and Ecology in the Hunza Valley. Karachi: Oxford University Press.  

Review [by Nosheen Ali] 

Since the late-19th century, the Hunza Valley has been the subject of much academic and popular writing. British administrators were intrigued by this region due to its strategic location at the northern frontier of their empire, which had to be guarded against the advancing Russians in the “Great Game” of imperial rivalry. Traversing the majestic peaks and glaciers at this frontier, discovering and describing its uncharted terrains, and investigating the racial and cultural connotations of why the main language of its inhabitants (burushaski) was a linguistic isolate, were all curiosities that added to the mystique of Hunza for Western explorers. Today, the Hunza valley forms a major tourist hub in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, and continues to pique the interest of travelers with images of the ancient silk route, rare wildlife species, the famed longevity of its dwellers, and of course, its breathtaking landscapes.

In the last three decades, the political and socio-economic landscape of Hunza valley has been significantly transformed by a variety of factors including the opening of the Karakoram Highway, the abolition of princely kingdoms leading to more direct control by the Pakistani state, increase in donor-funded development projects, and the marketization of the economy. Such processes of change have been extensively studied by a collective of mostly German researchers under the “Culture Area Karakoram” (CAK) project.[1] The edited volume under review continues this focus on “transition,” and includes articles by several authors that were associated with the CAK project. Hence, it reads like a continuation of this project even though it is not presented as such. 

“Karakoram in Transition” approaches the theme of historical as well as contemporary transition in the Hunza Valley from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including geography, geology, environmental studies, anthropology, history, urban planning, and architecture. The wide scope makes it a uniquely rich collection, but also one that tends to lack coherence. The twenty-nine chapters of the book are grouped into three sub-sections: environment and resources, history and memory, and culture and development. 

The articles under “environment and resources” are predominantly concerned with glacial transformation. Glaciers cover nearly one third of the Hunza Basin, and critically shape the ecology of the region. In his article on Hunza glaciers, Kenneth Hewitt attends to a timely concern by exploring the links between glacial processes, natural hazards, and climate change. Hewitt argues that since the 1920s, there has been a general reduction in the ice cover in the Hunza basin as well as in the incidence of large ice dams and outburst floods. At the same time, there have also been periods in which several large ice masses have thickened. As Hewitt points out, any meaningful proposition about the relationship between glacial and climatic processes cannot be offered, unless a comprehensive and long-term process of monitoring is put in place. The role of human influence is also important to understand, as emphasized by Derbyshire and Fort in their examination of geohazards (e.g. floods caused by glacier advances). They argue that the vulnerability of local populations to geohazards has increased in recent years due to rising urbanization and the expansion of settlements into relatively unsafe areas. 

Apart from chapters on glaciers, the first section also includes one article each on Hunza’s vegetation, wildlife, and forests. The article on Hunza forests by Udo Schickhoff is particularly insightful, as it draws upon the science, history, and politics of forest use in the Hunza Valley to provide a rich, interdisciplinary analysis of forest degradation in the region. We learn that the first reports of excessive forest use in Hunza were linked to the firewood needs of Kashmiri troops stationed in Gilgit, and that forest regulations were subsequently instituted precisely to service these military needs. We also learn that the logging intensity has considerably increased over the last three decades, a period that coincides with a deeper integration of the Northern Areas into the Pakistan state as well as an increased monetarization of living conditions. Schickhoff investigates the regional variance in forest conditions within the Hunza valley, pointing out that areas with similar population density often have diverging forest conditions. Consequently, he discounts neomalthusian accounts that attribute forest degradation to population growth, and instead, examines factors such as state structures, community organization, accessibility of valleys, and political and economic demands from the lowlands to explain the complex state of Hunza forests. However, some factors in his analysis could use more elaboration. For example, the intriguing point that “the forest legislation of the Northern Areas virtually favours forest exploitation” is asserted instead of being substantiated. Similarly, the link between Shia-Sunni religious tensions and lack of market-oriented exploitation of forests in Manu Gah is rather tenuous, and needs more than a passing mention. 

The next section on “history and memory” is exciting in its variety of subject as well as method. Everyday tales, local songs, colonial photographs, and rock inscriptions are some of the objects that are employed for historical inquiry, to answer a range of questions: for example, how does the historical and the mythical fuse together in oral accounts of the past, or, how can changes in the physical and cultural landscape of a place be captured through the act of reading old photographs alongside contemporary ones. Some articles particularly stand out for presenting arguments that challenge dominant understandings of Hunza. For instance, Jason Neelis demonstrates how epigraphic records from the Hunza-Haldeikish rocks point to the historical importance of the Hunza Valley as a route for cultural transmission, traversed by traders, pilgrims, and adventurers from diverse regions of South Asia, Iran, Central Asia, China and Tibet. This was the situation 1500-2000 years ago, and was made possible by a context of permeable geographical boundaries, as well as a network of small capillary routes with seasonal passes. Such historical depictions serve to temper the discourse of “inaccessible mountains” that was central to colonial accounts of the Karakorams, and continues to survive in official and popular representations of the Northern Areas. Similarly, Irmtraud Stellrecht challenges Sidky’s famous thesis that political centralization in the Hunza state was primarily achieved through the construction of irrigation channels and subsequent control over newly cultivated lands by the ruling Mirs. Instead, he compellingly argues that a decisive external factor which enabled state-formation in Hunza was the rising political significance of the passage to Central Asia, as it created conditions in which the Mirs could take advantage of “route politics” for consolidating their power. Moreover, as Stellrecht emphasizes, the history of princely statehood in Hunza also needs to take into account less-emphasized internal factors such as the “marital politics” of the Hunza Mirs through which political alliances were forged and loyalties secured. 

Another interesting contribution in this section is a chapter by Beate Reinhold, which provides a discussion of linguistic transition in the upper Hunza region of Gojal. The Gojali language of Wakhi has attracted significant academic attention in recent years, with the result that Wakhi vocabulary, grammar, and oral traditions are fairly well-documented. However, as Reinhold points out, less attention has been paid to how Wakhi is spoken in everyday life, particularly by women. She goes on to analyze how linguistic habits and preferences are changing in the contemporary context of migration and modern education in Gojal. For example, certain phrases – such as a Wakhi phrase that means “I shall eat your pain” – are traditionally used by older women to affirm respect and devotion. However, younger women and school girls who increasingly borrow from Urdu and English in everyday speech, refuse to use such phrases, and even make fun of them. Moreover, the vocabulary regarding traditional work in the fields is constantly diminishing as the number of people actively engaged in agro-pastoral lifestyles continues to decline. An analysis of such historically structured links between linguistic patterns and socio-economic contexts provides a unique take on “history and memory” as well as on “transition.” It is also heartening to learn that the linguistic transition that Reinhold elaborates has also entailed initiatives for strengthening the knowledge of Wakhi, by a new local organization called the Wakhi Tajik Cultural Association (WTCA). The WTCA organizes festivals of Wakhi oral history and poetry as well as other events that serve to enhance young people’s exposure to their linguistic heritage. As Reinhold points out, however, the fact that women are not directly involved with the organization and also do not take part in its public performances might impede efforts to preserve and celebrate the Wakhi tradition. Such gendered meanings and implications of “transition” are critical to understand, but apart from contributions by Reinhold and Felmy, are conspicuously missing from the edited volume. 

The final section on “culture and development” is different from the other sections in at least two ways. First, it includes articles not just by academics, but also by practitioners who have been actively involved in key development projects in the Hunza Valley. Second, it also includes perspectives from local researchers, instead of just foreign ones. Both this factors bring a refreshing diversity to the volume. Thematically, there is a prominent focus on the built heritage of Hunza in this section, and particularly on the work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Stefano Bianca’s article, for example, elaborates how the AKTC has sought to unite concerns of culture as well as development, by undertaking the conservation of monuments, village settlements and public spaces in Hunza with the participation and ownership of local communities. The work of AKTC has enhanced local awareness about managing urban sprawl, and also led to a revitalization of traditional building techniques. In their contribution, Amin Beg and Khawaja Khan provide an overview of another pioneering initiative called the Karakoram Area Development Organization (KADO). This community-based organization has sought to bring about, as well as manage the process of change in the Hunza Valley, by creating institutions such as the Hunza Environmental Committee which addresses Hunza’s growing solid waste management needs, providing trainings and organizing festivals for the encouragement of local music and performing arts, and creating income-generating opportunities for artisans and women through handicrafts development. 

A number of insightful articles in the final section also investigate the varying dimensions of economic development in the Hunza Valley. Abdul Malik and Mujtaba Piracha argue that while a market-based economy and NGO-led development has led to rising incomes in Hunza, there has also been a simultaneous increase in inequality and external dependency that needs to be addressed through collective action. David Butz presents a fascinating account of how despite being highly valued as sources of income, tourism-related portering labor in Shimshal nevertheless raises mixed perceptions among villagers due to concerns of inequity, resentment at the disruption of subsistence activities, and fears of Western influence on local culture and morality. Porters themselves also raise reservations about the attitude of tourists, and express a desire for what Butz calls “transcultural reciprocity” in which porters are treated with respect and cordiality rather than as beasts of burden. Hermann Kreutzmann – who is also the editor of the volume – provides a comprehensive analysis of how the agricultural and pastoral economy of Hunza has changed over the last seventy years. His article is rich in archival research as well as ethnographic detail, and like Schickhoff’s article on forest degradation discussed earlier, illuminates an understanding of agricultural science, history, political economy, and social relations in unique and compelling ways. We learn that animal husbandry in the Hunza region was of tremendous importance historically, as grazing taxes in the form of livestock and their products constituted a chief source of revenue for the Hunza state, and were thus critical for its sustenance. This gave a measure of power to affluent nomadic communities in upper Hunza, and also resulted in frequent conflicts between communities and the Hunza Mir over the control of pastures. Today, the appeal and practice of animal husbandry has declined substantially, as more and more people choose to seek off-farm employment. The value of commonly owned village pastures, however, has continued to increase in part because they are now seen as biodiversity zones and are sought after by state institutions and international organizations.

The preface of Karakoram in Transition mentions that it is particularly aimed at the “young generation of students and scientists in Pakistan and in the Northern Areas in particular as a basis for further research efforts.” In this, it surely succeeds as it provides an excellent index of current research on the Hunza Valley. At the same time, topics that are not discussed in this substantial volume also indirectly point to areas that need further study. For example, the political history of the Hunza state commands considerable attention, but there is no research on the region’s complex political trajectory since partition and the forms of marginality that it suffers due to its entanglement in the Kashmir dispute. Similarly, while aspects like language and built environment constitute key topics in the study of Hunza “culture,” those like religious identities and gendered relations remain understudied areas of inquiry. 

Overall, Karakoram in Transition includes rich contributions that would interest scholars from a wide range of disciplines, and particularly those who work on conservation and development issues in the mountain societies of Central and South Asia.

[1] See, for example, Perspectives on History and Change in the Karakoram, Hindukush, and Himalaya (1997) and Karakorum-Hindukush-Himalaya: Dynamics of Change (1998).


Nosheen Ali is currently studying at Cornell University.

Related Articles


  1. Thankx Nosheen for the review and sharing on this link. Detail comments can only be possible after reading the Book throughly, The review shows it is a conclusion that, this will be a base line for further research as u mentioned in the last paragraps.

  2. Dear PT Readers,
    It is one of the thorough book review and wonderful contribution by the researchers, travelers and academicians. Thanks for the authors and contributors to display it to the modern world.

    Thanks and regards

    Sharif khan

Back to top button