More fiction than reality

Aziz Ali Dad

Until the explosion of information technology and developments in communication in the late 20th century, the genre of travelogue remained a vital source to acquire knowledge about exotic lands, customs and people. That is why travelogues fascinated curious minds and historians for centuries.

However, travelogues, with a few exceptions, also proved to be a source of myth-making. Salman Rashid, an eminent Pakistani travel writer, in his recent articles in English newspapers, including this newspaper, has ventured into a domain of history to prove his argument that the Silk Road did not run through Pakistan. Despite the fact that he is dealing with history, he has evinced evidence for his argument from travellers like Marco Polo and Wilhelm of Rubruck whose itinerary did not take them to the region of Karakoram. As a result, he ends up creating another myth that is diametrically opposite to what is proved by historical research on the Silk Road.

In order to get a proper understanding of the Silk Road, it is imperative to take into consideration historical research that is based on the accounts of old travellers who traversed the region as well as archaeological findings. Unfortunately, the seasoned travel writer of Pakistan does not mention the former and employs the latter to furnish his argument — that none of the rock carvings along KKH mentioned silk. Taking cue from this, he argues that it proves that no silk ever came this way. Therefore, Rashid declares, KKH being Silk Road is a fiction created by an unknown “pigmy” bureaucrat.

In fact, there were two major routes of the Silk Road spreading westward and southward. The Western route went through Central Asia to Mediterranean Sea. The Southern route has many arteries that led to Taxila and Indian heartland. Among these arteries, the Kashgar to Gilgit route was shorter and a major one. After studying new findings of archeological research on human records in Chilas and Oshibat along KKH, an eminent Indian historian Aloka Parasher-Sen in her research ‘‘Beyond Boundaries — Travellers along the Karakorum’ claims that “scholars now fully agree that this was a crucial artery of communication for centuries.”

Well before Marco Polo and Wilhelm of Rubruck, three famous Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hian, Sung-yun and Hiuen Tsang traversed the region in A.D.400, 518 and 630 respectively. They have described in detail people carrying valuable goods and gems while travelling. Fa-Hian describes a function in the region where an assembly was decorated with “silken streamers and canopies are hung out in it and water-lilies in gold and silver are made and fixed up behind the places where the chiefs of them are to sit.”

It is illogical to assume that the traders and pilgrims chiselled 30,000 petroglyphs and 5000 inscription on the rocks and boulders but did not carry silk with them on the trading route with other goods. An important point to note is that Buddhism in the valleys of Karakorum became a great trading religion. Andre Wink in ‘Al-Hind The Making of the Indo-Islamic World’ writes “in the seventh and eight centuries we become aware of the presence of Indian Buddhist traders along the southern silk route, and Buddhist contacts were maintained between some valleys of the Upper Indus (e.g. Gilgit) and the Tarim Basin.”

Contrary to Salman Rashid’s views, historians on the Silk Road employed the very rock carvings to prove that southern Silk Road passed through the region of Gilgit-Baltistan. For example, renowned historian Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani in his book ‘Human Records of Karakorum Highway’ declares Gilgit-Baltistan the centre of southern route of the Silk Road that opens a passage for trade to the Indo-Gangetic Plains. Aloka Parasher-Sen asserts that historically the region of Karakorum “saw a continuous stream of people of diverse origin and languages flock her through the high altitude passes and along the banks of the river Indus diverting to various destinations after that.” Unlike Salman Rashid who finds sub-continental Silk Road in India, this Indian scholar claims that among southern routes of Silk Road, the route of Karakorum was major one on which “trade continued unabated”.

Until the conquest of Hunza by the British, the state of Hunza arranged marauding parties to plunder the caravans plying from Kashgar to Gilgit and other regions. I have fond memories of listening to my grandfather’s stories about selection of strong men from villages to prepare a posse for attacking the caravans on the Silk Road. This was almost an annual ritual called ‘breaking of Qaratang’. If they weren’t attacking caravans, what were they out to loot in the snow-clad mountains?

The Silk Road in Gilgit-Baltistan was not only a trading route but also a major conduit for cultural and religious exchange between South and Central Asia. To sift facts about the Silk Road from fiction, we ought to take into consideration oral history, artistic and religious symbols, collective memory and modern historical research. If we ignore these, we are condemned to rely on modern travellers who spawn more fiction than reality.

The writer is a social scientist based in Islamabad. Email:

Source: The NEWS

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