[Viewpoint] Cannibalism in Gilgit

Aziz Ali Dad

The question about the universality of a particular artistic production had always vexed my mind. While looking at a painting I used to ask myself: if I am not European how can I understand Van Gogh, Picasso or Dali? How art reveals world anew to us? Can an exogenous art help me to understand my lived experience in a local setting? My experiences over the last three years have provided me answer to these questions. The universal dimension of art unraveled in a hazy and chilly day in March, 2004, when I visited Tate Modern art gallery in London.

Upon entering the building of Tate Modern, ambience appears to be surrealist that takes one into its fold, thereby unfolding meaning latent in the work of art. Inside the gallery, there was an artistically produced sun shining on those watching it. Interestedly, some people were lying on the floor as if they were basking under the sun. It was a fantastic contrast to the weather outside the gallery. Here the binary opposition between abstract and tangible dissolves to form a new reality and unfolds hitherto unknown dimensions of art. While roaming from one section of the gallery to another we feel as if we are moving in a dream world where abstract ideas and forms turn into tangible entities, and tangible objects transform into rarified objects of dream.

Dreams are not product of conscious effort; rather they emanate from the unconscious. Therefore, no culture or nation, unlike cultural product, can claim to have dreams Sui generis of that particular culture or nation. Human beings lead their life at two plains: conscious and unconscious. The former is clear and the later is vague. The unconscious expresses through symbols in dream. Meaning lies hidden in the symbols. Modern psychoanalysis reaches at the hidden meaning of dream by deciphering the symbols. Therefore, Sigmund Freud lays great emphasis on the symbols in dreams. He thinks that the symbols contain particular idea and psychoanalysis attempts to reach to that idea by understanding the symbols. In a nutshell the unconscious part of our personality expresses through symbols.

The surrealist movement derives its inspiration from the insights provided by modern psychology. According to Herbert Read ‘it is the aim of the Surrealiste, whether as painter or as poet, to try and realize some of the dimensions and characteristics of his submerged being, and to do this he resorts to various kinds of symbolism.’ Surrealism emerged in the wake of World War 1, which reduced most of the physical landscape of Europe into heap of rubble and intellectual landscape into heap of broken images. The war dealt a severe blow to the hegemony of reason. Surrealists set to explore the unconscious and produce an art that is built on the heap of scattered images in the unconscious. Since the war was fought between nation states, the surrealist wanted to represent his experience through a medium that transcends the narrow boundaries defined by nation, culture or religion. Dreams provided a way out for surrealists to transcend the boundaries and limitations, and create an art that has universal meaning. Although the experience of surrealists was formed by the events in cultural and historical context of Europe, they succeeded to transform it into universal.

My realization of universality in art came through a painting ‘Autumn Cannibalism’ by the renowned surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Dali painted it in 1936, the year when Spain plunged into the civil war. The painting depicts top of two persons so interfused with each other that it is difficult to distinguish. It signifies closeness of both persons. But their action is antithetical to what their bodies convey, as both figures are feeding on the bodies of each other. The figures in the painting are holding eating utensils, such as spoon, fork and knife. One figure holds a knife pointed to the other one’s head, whereas spoon is shown as dipping into the flesh. The dipping of spoon into flesh brilliantly produces an uncanny appetite. A hand holds a knife that slices into soft human flesh.

Dali’s ‘Autumn Cannibalism’ encapsulates the apogee of civilization on the one hand, and descending of modern civilization into barbaric impulses on the other. Through this painting Dali tried to interpret the political situation in terms of psychoanalysis. The painting makes a statement that ‘despite knowing how to use knives and forks,’ writes Ralf Schiebler ‘humanity has had a relapse into some earlier stage of civilization, there has been an outbreak of atavistic impulses and human beings are returning to their oral phase.’

My encounter and understanding of Dali’s painting opened a meaning that was lying dormant in my collective unconscious. According to Karl Jung collective unconscious is racial memories we inherit. These memories include ideas, experiences, figures and situations that appear in the shape of myths and dreams. By inheritance Jung means that the structure of a person’s mind depends on the ancient experiences of his race in particular, and humanity in general. The collective unconscious and racial memory of Gilgities is also formed by myths bequeathed by their forefathers. Among the mythical fables of Gilgit, the story of the cannibal King of Gilgit, Shri Badad, is the famous one. Shri Badad was said to be a king who ruled Gilgit in the eight century. Fable has it that he incidentally developed taste for human flesh. To satiate his appetite of cannibalism, Shri Badad used to take one person as his staple diet from every household in turn. Therefore, he became a symbol of cruelty and barbarian impulses in the popular folklore and vernacular languages of Gilgit.


While observing ‘autumn cannibalism’ of Salavador Dali I felt that a new meaning leapt out and extracted some hidden material from deep recesses of my mind. The meeting of the horizons of both the Gilgiti collective unconscious and artistic production resulted in unfolding of universal aspect of art and hitherto unexplored dimensions of the mythical fable of Shri Badad. These unexplored dimensions enable us to relate and explain contemporary existential condition of the people and society in vernacular symbols. The interface between past and present will help to reinterpret past in the light of modern concerns, and explore the immutable dimension of human psychology through past. Regarding myth it is, however, important to understand that it does not deal with reality, rather it is concerned with meaning. It is nature of the myth that its purpose exceeds its origin by becoming flexible to surplus of meaning created by the concerns every age that attribute new meaning to ancient myth according to its experience.

If we study the myth of Shri Badad in the light of meaning that is unfolded by Dali’s masterpiece ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’, then we can reach at its meaning. The practice of cannibalism by Shri Badad hints at various messages. But the most likely message is that during the reign of Shri Badad there might be a famine, which forced people to cannibalism for their survival. It had created a situation of civil war where ‘everyone was in war with one another’ thereby destroying the very fabric of society by exercising individual will at the expense of collective will which is indispensable for the emergence of culture.

The tyrannical rule of Shri Badad and internal weaknesses of state and society provided an opportunity for exogenous powers to exploit them to their own benefit. Azur Jamsheed was an Iranian prince who killed Shri Badad and became king of Gilgit. His murder was made possible by Shri Badat’s daughter, Nur Bakht, and the Wazir who was foster father of Nur Bakht. Nur Bakht and Wazir were the closest people of Shri Badad, yet they turned out to be traitors who colluded with Jamsheed by divulging the secret of Shri Badat’s life. This is symptomatic of state and society that was rent by internal conflict and conspiracies. Shakeel Ahmed Shakeel, a researcher of Shina language and culture, thinks that at the climax of Shri Badat’s rule famine and much indifferent and bloody promulgation under the tendency of revival of shamanism might had forced his peoples to change their way of life and thought in response of shamanic taboos/instructions. This intruding repulse provoked their impulses to cannibalism for survival.

Taboos can be efficacious only when the collective will exists to promulgate on individual. The erosion of collective will in society paves the way for individual whims and volitions to transgress taboos to satiate his impulses. That could be the situation of Gilgiti society at the time of Shri Badad. The historical memory of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan has been formed by the events during the rule of Shri Badad. Sigmund Freud is of the opinion that memory is formed through a lasting traces. Discovery of the trace leads to the revelation of the phenomena or meaning of the myth.

The lasting trace of the mythical fable of Shri Badad can be found in Shina [1] language that has preserved the story. Shina language also holds clue to the possible situation in the time of Shri Badad. The traces are concealed in the mythical stories of Shina language. Over the centuries, the story of Shri Badad encrusted with different narratives which transformed the archetypal form of the story. In Shina ‘khock’ means ‘to eat’. The literal meaning of phrasal verb ‘ek se ek khock’ means to eat one another. Metaphorically, it means to be in a state of perpetual strife where all were at war against all. Hence, Shina language still retains the primordial meaning or nature of historical event that has been transformed into a mythical event over the centuries.

During the reign of Shri Badat internal conflict paved the way for aliens to rule Gilgit. The current sectarian violence in Gilgit has created deeper fissures in society. For the maintenance of law and order exogenous forces were called in and the helm of affairs. On the pretext of internal strife and divisions in society the helm of affairs is given to bureaucracy that personifies the centre not representative of the indigenous people. This situation is reminiscent of the state of affairs where internal strife during the rule of Shri Badad paved the way for outsiders to establish their rule in the region.

Recurrence of the dialectics of indigenous and exogenous is reflected in Shina poetry of Jan Ali. Commenting on the current internal strife, akin to that of Shri Badat era, he says: “Bays eik say eik khay dareenot moqa day”. This verse conveys double meaning. If we read it literally it says ‘by eating one another we have provided opportunity to others’. Here the emphasis on eating one another is indicative of cannibalism within same racial group. But metaphorically it refers to the state where, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “man is a wolf on a fellow man (homo homini lupus), a state of war of every one against everyone (bellum omnium contra omnes).” Thus, it can be inferred that within the semiologoical universe of Shina language cannibalism refers to a state of nature, anarchy and civil war. Recent examples of cannibalism under starvation and absence of order in society are the Donner party cannibalism in nineteenth century and Cultural Revolution in United States and China respectively.

The message and meaning of Shri Badad’s myth, conveyed by ‘Autumn Cannibalism’, became clear during the sanguinary year of 2005, when incessant sectarian strife and killings consumed lives of more than hundred people. Furthermore, it forced thousands of people, of the same race, to migrate into the areas dominated by their respective sects. The people of Gilgit had been living in peaceful coexistence for centuries, but religiosity turned erstwhile brethren into beasts who killed their own kith and kin on the basis of sects. It truly represented a picture where people relapse into sort of atavistic impulses that made Shri Badad symbol of barbarian practice of cannibalism.

To elaborate Dali’s painting ‘Autumn Cannibalism’ Ralf Schiebler refers to Sigmund Freud’s observation about cannibals. He writes ‘According to Freud, even cannibals do not eat the enemies they could in some way like. But the modern warfare has become so abstract and indirect that, in its level of cruelty, it surpasses the atrocity of cannibalism, which does at least respect the occasional taboos.’ During the sectarian violence in Gilgit, the people surpassed cruelty attributed to the cannibal king Shri Badad. The tragedy is that they transgressed the taboos of religion regarding killing of innocent people, and killed their brethren whom they loved for centuries.

The current sectarian civil war in Gilgit can be better explained through art by reinterpreting old fables, myths and symbols of the region. Art opens new horizons to see and interpret non-classical past in new ways and help explaining present through symbols of the past. New insights of art prove instrumental in diagnosing the prevailing malaise of the society. The question arises here is that Dali’s experience of civil war in Spain produced the famous painting of ‘Autumn Cannibalism’ as a commentary. Gilgities also underwent same excruciating experience, though not in scale but surely in intensity and consequences, then why we have failed to give expression to this experience in art? The answer is, because the society of Gilgit-Baltistan is in a state of amnesia under the heavy influence of religiosity. No doubt, religiosity is the opium of masses.

Amnesia is one of the effects of opium. We do not raise question about the order of things, because the manager of sacred, both secular and religious, are constantly supplying opium to masses to maintain the status quo and mental torpor. It is a fallacious to think that the practice of cannibalism has been wiped out from the face of the earth. It still exists with the difference that its practitioners, whether secular or religious, have adopted different names, but the function/act remained same. Contemporary priests of secularism and managers of sacred are modern cannibals. Their cannibalism is crueler than the old ones because it is ‘so abstract and indirect that, in its level of cruelty, it surpasses the atrocity of cannibalism, which does at least respect the occasional taboos.’

In such a situation art is the antidote to amnesia. It helps bringing forth the ineffable feeling/experience from the depth of our being. Art stems from the depth of those who experience deeply. Thus, to express a deep experience we need a medium that emerges from depth and intensity. A medium that fails to be in consonant with experiential depth fails to express a profound experience. Beauty is name of attuning. That is why art is called beauty because it has potential to create a medium that is symmetrical with experience. Art is a mode through which truth discloses. It discloses truth when we are ready to listen and see.

Unfortunately, we are mentally attuned to dogma and not ready to see what art says. We just want to lead our life within the confines of dogma. Thus, we neither create distinctively local art with universal message, nor able to appreciate and understand universality in art of other cultures. We can be able to see, hear and understand only when we free our eyes, ears and mind from the shackles of thought police that has closed the universal dimensions of every sphere of life.


 [1] Shina belongs to a group of the Dardic Languages which form a subfamily of the Indo-Iranian languages. It is spoken in all the regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, and Kohistan of NWFP. In India, Shina speakers inhabit the valleys of Dras and Gurais. Majority of people in Gilgit are Shina speakers.

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