Silk Road did go through Gilgit Baltistan


 Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the regions in High Asia that has historically attracted travellers, preachers, soldiers, traders and writers for more than two millennia. The accounts of these travellers are recorded in the shape of travelogues, folk tales, literature, and more than 40000 rock carvings found in the region.

In modern times, the increased connectivity of the region with the outside world has attracted different writers who have explored various facets of history, culture and society of Gilgit-Baltistan. Among the diverse milieu of writers, modern travel writers have played an important role in the representation of Gilgit-Baltistan, creation of perception and formation of discourse about it. However, most of these writings are bereft of academic rigour, scholarly depth and anthropological empathy. As a result, the region has become victim of discourses that spring from subjectivity or created to serve the colonial power and postcolonial interests.

It results in depriving Gilgit-Baltistan of its historical connections with neighbouring regions and events in High Asia and makes the history of region subservient to the subjective definition of others.

The Silk Road was a network that encompassed diverse cultures, regions, ethnicities and religions. There was not only trade of goods, but also exchange of ideas, skills, cuisine, lifestyle and religions.

One of the examples of subjective pronouncements about the status of the region is the reiteration of the claim by some writers that historically the Silk Road did not exit in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Recently, a writer has published an article in an English daily where he claims to debunk the myth of the Silk Road. This article is in continuation of his articles published in English dailies since 2011, in which he rejected the idea that the classical Silk Road went through the region that is now Gilgit-Baltistan including Hunza. Since then the esteemed travel writer of Pakistan is hell bent upon proving existence of the Silk Road in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral as a myth. One can respect his opinion while disagreeing, but the derogatory tone of the writer using words and phrases like ‘pygmy’ ‘patent rubbish’, ‘ignorant tour operators’, calling doings of his distractors ‘the barking of dogs’, and condescending statement that he does not read anything written on the Silk Road by the average Pakistani’ smacks of imperial arrogance than the attitude of an earnest academician.

This article is an ordinary attempt to debunk this subjective history that manifests orientalist mindset, which takes upon itself to define and represent “Others”, and rejects indigenous knowledge as oral rubbish.

The writer’s attributing the claim of non-existence of the Silk Road in Gilgit to Dr Herald Hauptmann in an earlier article is totally false as it goes against the very research of Hauptman on Gilgit. Hauptmann in his paper ‘Pre-Islamic Heritage in the Northern Areas of Pakistan’ shows different streams of movement along different arteries of the Silk Route. Basing his historical research on rock carvings and inscriptions he states, “Gilgit, the ‘gate to India’, served as the main hub interconnecting the north-south routes from China to the Punjab with the west-east routes between Iran and Kashmir and Ladakh, via Chitral.” He further claims, “The new Karakoram Highway (KKH), opened in 1978, more or less follows one of the main old north-south connections along part of the Indus and Hunza rivers.”

Also, epigraphic evidence from different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan testifies to the existence of Silk Route in the region. Historically, the Silk Road comprised different arteries connecting to main routes. Hunza, Chitral and Gilgit were one of the routes of the Silk Route. Jason Neeli’s paper ‘Hunza-Haldeikish Revisited: Epigraphical Evidence for Trans-regional History’ claims that “such networks of capillary routes connected the main arteries of the northwestern Indian subcontinent (sometimes called the Uttarapatha: ‘northern route’) with the silk routes of eastern Central Asia.”

There are thousands of names of ancient travellers and dates of travel inscribed on the thousands of rocks scattered from Haldikish in Hunza to Thalpan Das in Chilas. Irmtraud Stellrecht identifies primary and secondary routes nets between Central and South Asia in Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral. Among the secondary route-nets one was the easternmost link-route that connected Hunza and Gilgit to Pamirs in Kashgar.

Though the terrain of High Asia is harsh, it did not deter streams of caravans to traverse across Central and South Asia. The writings of travellers who travelled in the region almost one and half millennium ago bear testimony to connections of Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral with the Silk Road. Famous among these are descriptions of the region by Chinese travellers Fa Hsien, Songyun and Hiuen Tsang.

It is an established fact that Gilgit became the fulcrum of fight between Chinese and Tibetan states to control the Silk Road in the eighth century AD. Gilgit was called little Balur at that time. The queen of Gilgit was a Tibetan princess who got married to the king in 740. There are reports that many people from Balur were part of Tibetan army. Susan Whitfield in her book Life Along the Silk Road claims, “Tibetan had established their rule over the small valley kingdoms that controlled the route between the Silk Road and the Gilgit river valley which led to northern India.” She brilliantly shows the altercation between China and Tibet in 747 with special reference to the tale of a Tibetan soldier Seg Lhaton who was defeated by Chinese in Gilgit.

The Silk Road was a network that encompassed diverse cultures, regions, ethnicities and religions. There was not only trade of goods like silk, gems, brass, leather, opium, slaves, perfumery, spices etc., but also exchange of ideas, skills, cuisine, lifestyle and religions. Among the variety of exchanges, the state of Hunza was notorious for selling slaves in the markets of the Silk Road in Central Asia.

German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen termed the whole gamut of activities and networks of trade routes the ‘Silk Road’. Perhaps it is because of the heterogeneity of activities and exchanges at the level of trade and culture that Peter Frankopan divides chapters of his recent book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World into roads of faiths, a Christian East, revolution, concord, furs, slave road, heaven, hell, death and destruction, gold, silver, Northern Europe, empire, crisis, war, black gold, compromise, wheat road, genocide, cold warfare, etc.

Among the array of goods and exchanges on the Silk Road, the writer cherrypicks only silk to reject the entire history spanning over more than 1700 years.

There are Chinese annals, which show a relative of Mir of Hunza delivering gold dust to the Chinese as a tribute. According to Irmtraud Stellrecht, “in reciprocity the number and quality of Chinese gifts were fixed.” According to Susan Whitfield the numbers of Chinese and Tibetan soldiers who fought the famous war of mid eighth century in Gilgit were 10000 and 9000 respectively. She provides details of how logistic arrangements were made for the armies. Given the large number of soldiers traversing the then principalities in Gilgit-Baltistan, it is wrong to assume that they did not bring silk or other merchandise of the Silk Road with them.

Even the assertion of silk not being traded in Gilgit and Hunza does not hold true, if we analyse the folk tales, poetry, indigenous knowledge, culture, and more important agriculture, horticulture and livestock. In Brushashki and Shina languages raw silk is called chusi. The popular chusheay chapos (silk quilt) is made of raw silk. Silk cloth is called sikim. It was considered a precious gift, and used in royal ceremonies, public events and weddings. For silk yarn, silk worms are reared on mulberry trees.

Historically, mulberry tree played a crucial role in the settlement of new villages on barren lands in Gilgit-Baltistan. When the king of a principality wanted to irrigate a barren land and settle people there, the first thing people would do is to plant a sapling of mulberry tree for three reasons. First, it provides shade from the scorching sun during summer, secondly it provides mulberry as food and, lastly, and it provides fuel wood in winters.

It is probable that mulberry tree was imported from Eastern Turkistan. Old people in Hunza, Nagar and Gilgit still narrate how women used to tend silk worms to prepare silk yarn. Even if we surmise that those women from Kashgar settled in Gilgit and Hunza as brides, it still supports the claim that the region of Gilgit-Baltistan had cultural connections with major trade centres located along the Silk Route. When the cultural exchange was so extensive, it is improbable that people were not engaged in trade, however miniscule. It is possible that the practice of rearing silkworm in Gilgit disappeared with the decline of trade over the land routes of the Silk Road when the maritime trade increased phenomenally after the sixteenth century.

To this day, the old routes of the trade are surviving in the border areas of Brughal and Garam Chashma in Chitral, and Chipurson in Hunza. Until now, Muslims of Xinjiang use Gilgit route for haj pilgrimage. Indeed when the Chinese started the construction of Karakoram Highway, they had clear idea that it was like rejuvenating the old Silk Road. That is why the then Chinese Premier China Zhou Enlai in 1960s discussed with Pakistan to use the port city of Karachi as a trade conduit for China and agreed with the proposal that it would help rediscover “an ancient trade route but lost to modern times, not only for trade but for strategic purposes as well.”

According to historical documents, this was the genesis of Karakoram Highway (KKH). If Aga Khan Cultural Services Pakistan has erected the signboards of the old Silk Road along KKH, it did so because it can feel the pulse of history.

There are rich sources in the cultural domain to substantiate the arguments in favour of existence of the old Silk Road in Gilgit. The oral folk literature is studded with exquisite poetry, which profusely uses silk (sikim) as a metaphor for refined beauty and delicacy of the beloved. Ustad Abbas Hassanabadi in his Brushashki lyric goes lyrical about the beauty of silky hair of the coquette who spread her hair like a net to captivate his heart. Jan Ali, a populist poet of Shina language, in one of his songs wishes to be hanged on the refined silky hair of his beloved for whom he has abandoned all his kith and kin. A poet from Chilas sings of his yearnings for his beloved in these verses: “Arranging silky adoration for you as bride, You will leave your abode, Jingling the silver-made necklace over thine neck, I will surrender under your doorstep, When you would have been carried as bride.”

In olden times, silver and iron were meager in the region. Scarcity of these metals compelled the people to rely on raw material and sometimes skills imported from Kashgar and other areas of Xinjiang the erstwhile Eastern Turkistan and Central Asia. Even today the utensils of households include old samawars from Eastern Turkistan. Kashgar, being the hub of Silk Road, had close commercial and cultural connections with Hunza and Gilgit. These connections facilitated exchange of goods and skills typical of the Silk Route trade.

For example, the first consignment of guns in Hunza was delivered from Central Asia. When the king of Hunza faced threats from British and Dogras, he hired the services of Adina Baig from Yarkand to make a cannon. Owing to scarcity of iron, the then Mir of Hunza ordered to collect every item made of iron from all over Hunza. In response, every household contributed iron in the shape of utensils and other iron items. With the help of his handyman, Adina Baig made the famous canon of Hunza in 1862, which was later used in the Anglo Hunza-Nagar war in 1891.

The concept of culture not only encompasses humans but also covers animals as well. The kind of animals used in Gilgit and Hunza for travel and trade shows the nature of trade routes and commonalities with the Silk Road. Before the advent of road, packhorses, ponies, yak, camel and donkeys were used for trade on the Silk Road networks crisscrossing High Asia including Gilgit-Baltistan. Among all the animals the double humped Bactrian camel became the symbol of caravans on the Silk Road. It was the best-suited animal to navigate through rugged mountain terrain and harsh cold weather, and it can carry more than 450 kilos of load. Because of this it is called the workhorse of the Silk Roads.

This animal has become part of culture and agriculture of Gilgit. As a child I still remember caravans of Bactrian camels entering Gilgit city on Karakoram Highway in the early 1980s. With the increase in traffic on KKH, the Bactrian camel disappeared from the region. The former governor of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pir Karam Ali Shah, owned the last remaining Bactrian camel, the last of which was slaughtered in 2014.

The purpose of highlighting examples from the domains of culture and livestock is to show that Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the historical Silk Road. Like other spheres of life, the Silk Road has also undergone many changes. Today, the KKH has been transformed into a corridor, but it is not the end of the Silk Road; rather it’s an expansion and continuum of historical process in which regions of Inner and High Asia are experiencing expansion of local horizons into regional and global one.

It is high time to critically evaluate the knowledge about Gilgit-Baltistan that is produced either to serve the powers during colonial times or by impressionist ramblers who have assumed the charge of authority about the history of the region in the postcolonial period.

We are what we think. The collective cultural and historical memory testifies to the fact that the Silk Road did go through Gilgit-Baltistan. 

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