Field Studies

Globalization and Mode of Exchanges: The State of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Gilgit-Baltistan region, Northern Pakistan

November 26, 2019

By Fazal Amin Beg

It was back in February 2011 when I was pursuing my PhD coursework from Quaid-e Azam University, Islamabad (Pakistan),I was invited to a conference convened by Lok Virsa, Islamabad (within the Ministry of Culture) to present a paper on the state of intangible cultural heritages of Gilgit-Baltistan there was over three weeks time, I thus begin to work on the paper entitle above: “Globalization and Mode of Exchange:The State of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Gilgit-Baltistan Region, Northern Pakistan.”
the paper therefore concentrated to provide a bird’s eye view in a broader context on the subject matter to see the phenomena on the cultural landscape of the region instead of becoming so much focused in a typical sense through a tunnel attempts to explore and find out the survival issues of intangible cultural heritages of Gilgit-Baltistan in result of modernization and globalization; and look for and propose sustaining strategies and good practices of the indigenous communities to cope with the emerging challenges and channelizing the challenges towards opportunities to preserve and promote the positive dimensions of the heritages. The scope of this paper is primarily focused on the Domaki, Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Khowar and Wakhi cultures due to the time limitation for investigation. On the other concerned cultural groups that are out of the region, research and literary development have either already carried out or are being carried out.

For this purpose, I carried out an intensive fieldwork in Islamabad-Rawalpindi with some of the related cultural communities of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral Region in addition to telephonic interviews of the key respondents of the indigenous language communities in Gilgit-Baltistan Region. The data I recorded on my voice recorders.
After processing the data, I came up with some interesting findings on the theme. I thus developed the paper and presented it in the NationalConfernce at Lok Virsa. However, it was interesting that my paper was in English and rest of them presented their papers in Urdu. I had to thus switich over to Urdu by further highlighting the crux of the findings. This paper has its base there for in February 2011 and little addition I brought in it and am going to publish it on my website here so the functional aspects will benefit the related audience and stakeholders.
The paper begins with an orientation with the mountenous region of Gilgit-Baltistan and then enters in the realm of intangible cultural then identifies some aspects of intangible heritage of cultures in line with rites and rituals, festivities and festivals,languages and music, and the like. The paper also highlights some important aspects in line with the related stakeholders of the cultural communities and reaches to the conclusion and practical recommendations.
An Orientation with the Region
Situated at the junction of Central and South Asia, Gilgit-Baltistan region is a most important crossroad among four of the modern nation states: Pakistan and India to its south, China to its northeast and Afghanistan to its northwest. This phenomenon thus makes this mountain region not significant only because of its predominant strategic position (at regional level) but rather the giant glaciers system out of the polar region and the diverse watersheds of different valleys—raised, preserved and sustained by the world’s highest and longest mountain ranges of the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush, and the Pamir Knot—makes Gilgit-Baltistan as a pivotal lifeline, in hydrological term, especially to the plains of Pakistan. The diverse valleys of the region provide passages to the different river systems such as the Indus River (coming from Baltistan) and its main tributaries such as the rivers of Tangir, Darel, Astor, Hunza and Ghizer. Apart from possessing numerous peaks above 8,000 m high, Gilgit-Baltistan is also the home of the world’s second highest peak, locally termed as Chogori and while nationally and internationally known as the K-2.
The region, being arduous and mountainous and scattered on more than 74,000 sq km, provided impressive spaces and niches to the biodiversities and humans alike since time immemorial. Along the river-basins and streams in the valleys, different groups of human population from South and Central Asia chose to get shelter, maintain their survival, sustain their generations, and shape their respective sense of communities with pride and varying entities. These entities included (and are present) as ethno-lingual, socio-political and religious. The entity-holders—led by their political systems but determined by their ethno-lingual and belief systems—are found in the valleys of Diamar district, Baltistan, Astor, Gilgit, Ghizer and Hunza-Nagar. The diverse ruling language groups were (and are found today) Shina and Khowar (belonging to the Dardic family of languages), Balti (a branch of the Tibetan language), Burushaski (language family root unknown so far), Wakhi (an old eastern Iranian language of the Pamiri group), and the like. The traditional livelihood approaches of these mountain communities resembled as they were both pastoral and agricultural, though in the current context, a great shift has come up and the traditional approaches may not be found robustly.
The geostrategic and geo-political importance of Gilgit-Baltistan could be observed significantly from the beginning of human activities from the prehistoric period in Central and South Asia when people of both regions ventured interacting with each other via this arduous mountain terrain. On the other, Gilgit-Baltistan’s critical roles during the historical times such as the eras of Buddhism, the legendry Silk Road, post-Buddhism can be testified in the rock arts galleries (graffiti and inscriptions) , when the region provided passages (safe and hazardous) to different categories of people: e.g., adventurers, traders, missionaries and pilgrims (Dani 2007, Kreutzmann 2006). Such old interactional phenomena, in addition with internal mobility, also explicitly endorse communication of the people in Gilgit-Baltistan with external people that crossed the region en route to and back from Central Asia or vice versa. These human movements depict an overall exchange among different cultural entities, though the ratio of exchange (e.g., ideas, experiences) may not be termed monstrously intensified as we could witness in this period of globalization.
Before construction of the road-infrastructures in different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan the mode of cultural exchanges among different mountain communities was latent as the people interacted with each other either by walking on-foot on the arduous treks and trails or by riding domesticated animals like horses, yaks, donkeys. But after the road links to the region during the British Indian period, and more particularly after opening of the Sino-Pak Friendship Highway, prominently known as Karakoram Highway (KKH) in 1978, more direct people to people contact in physical form intensified, in contrast with today’s world as the latter has interactions in both tangible interaction forms.
Today, Gilgit-Baltistan is a province-like administrative region within Pakistan—although legally the region is disputed as there is even no niche for the region in the country’s constitution. Gilgit-Baltistan has 10 districts namely Gilgit, Ghizer, Hunza, Nagar, Astor, Diamar, Skardu, Shigar, Kharmang and Ganche with a total population of more than than 1.5 million. The region is composed of diverse cultural groups. There are more than 12 languages spoken here that include Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Wakhi, Domaki, Khowar, Farsi, Uyghur, Kirghiz, Gujri, Hindko, Pushto and so on. Being strong carriers of the intangible heritages, these languages of their respective cultural groups, these days the stated languages along iwith other facets of intangible culture are struggling battle for their survival after being exposed to the outside world.
Tangible and Intangible Cultural Development in Gilgit-Baltistan
Before proceeding ahead towards the intangible cultural heritages of Gilgit-Baltistan, let’s stop for a while and make ourselves conceptually clear about the terms tangible and intangible cultures .
Tangible and intangible cultural aspects may also simply be termed as hardware and software or hard and soft forms of a culture. The word “tangible” comes out of the Latin word tangere means “to touch”. Tangible aspect of a culture has the intangible dimension that brings or get materialized and shapes a material being. Examples of tangible aspects of the old cultures are numerous such as foods, dresses, housing structures, architecture, musical instruments, graves, graveyards, artifacts, so on and so forth. The intangible cultural aspects include the languages, folksongs, folktales, folk-music, rites and rituals, festivities and the like.
Let’s come to the point of our discussion. Apart from the indigenous intangible aspects of cultures in Gilgit-Baltistan, the external factors (both tangible and intangible) also contributed towards the native cultures enormously. The rate of intangible cultural interventions from outside into Gilgit-Baltistan has however not been so strong in the human history as we can evidence it particularly for the last four decades with the abolition of the princely states in the first half of 1970, and subsequently after construction and opening of the Karakoram Highway in 1978.
The paces of development work, as the respondents of different cultural groups state, by the public sector organizations as well as Non-Governmental Organizations like the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the United Nations (UN), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and others on the one hand; and technological advancement and mechanization of the traditional livelihood strategies, on the other, intensified that addressed the prevalent issues. The old traditional value system in social organization however got a strong jerk where people had their robust interdependence on and corporate values of functionality by their extended family system, clans and collective communal laboring at village or cluster levels. Men, women, children and old people had their respective roles, responsibilities, and functions in the society. These specified roles and functions thus thus seem fading up gradually in all parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, the respondents add. For instance, if change and development in line with both tangible and intangible cultures were accepted soon in Hunza and Ghizer at the early stage, in other parts of the region like Nagar, Baltistan and Astor or Diamar they may came later even though in these valleys changes occurred with varying time period and varying degrees.
Although, the domestic usage of television could be evidenced in different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan maily Amazingly, for the last two decades, but more particularly for the last one decade, drastic changes are observed in the intangible cultural side of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Change is certainly a must in one’s life periods and in the lives of all lively cultures. If change does not occur in the life a culture that culture may not even be able to exist. But the important question here is how the changes are dealt with positive attitude, long views , deep understanding and by retaining, promoting, the old wisdom, knowledge, skills and entertainment of the respective cultures. Change possesses both positive and negative dimensions. Positives and negatives are predetermined by the value systems of respective cultural though their cultural lenses and measurement scales. For example, some values in one culture may not be of that value in another culture. To illustrate, mate selection in one society may be parentally arranged in one society and love marriage may not be encouraged. This is a value that pertains to the rural cultures whether in the mountain region or plains of Pakistan. On the other, love marriage or marriage of understanding between the expected life-partners may be of great value in the urban centers or western culture. Such values we could see how much they are in contrast to each other. In brief, when such values come together at once, they clash together and creates social disharmony and some times unrest at different scales. Both approaches of mate selections have their pros and cons. If managed adequately, they are positive; but if managed inadequately they could be termed negative. We therefore need to understand that change leads the cultures to evolve from one stage to another with the kpassage of time.
Endangered Intangible Cultural Heritages of Gilgit-Baltistan
The intangible forms of different cultural groups in focus in Gilgit-Baltistan have many similarities. The challenges faced by them are therefore also of similar nature due to development and globalization factors in the present context. The question of maintaining the rituals and festivities are a big question mark as, for example, we could observe replacement of agricultural and pastoral strategies versus the festivities, and the folksongs, folktales, folk music and so on linked with those festivities are at the brink of extinction in the near future.
The festivities in all the focused cultural groups (Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Wakhi, Khowar and Domaki) are really interesting and impressive that can be categorized as per season: winter, spring, summer and autumn. The festivities include a) farewell to the winter and welcome to the spring seaon (observed in February); b) Plowing festivity (in March or April); c) pasture ascending festivity (in May); d) pre-harvesting festivity (in June); e) harvesting festivity (in July); f) polo festival (in August on the high altitude plains like Shandur Pass); pasture descending festivity (in September); h) thanksgiving festivity (September or October); and i) emancipation festivity of oppression (in December). As we could see that Gilgit-Baltistan is so rich in terms of its indigenous festivities excluding the Iranian and Arab rituals affiliated with the respective cultural communities. These rituals include the Nawruz, the two Eids , three types of anniversaries (locally called Salgirahs) of His Highness, Prince Kariam Aga Khan.
It is significant to note that the Lok Virsa, Ministry of Culture, Islamabad and the Aga Khan Cultural Service, Pakistan (AKCSP) remained proactive and helping hand in supporting financially and technically the cultural entities of Gilgit-Baltistan from the first half 1990 when the local communities formed their indigenous cultural forums such as the Wakhi Tajik Cultural Association, Hunza, Baltistan Cultural Foundation and the like. In the recent time, the local government of Gilgit-Baltistan, learning from the local communities and other key stakeholders initiated in celebrating the cultural festivals for tourism development through the Culture, Sports and Tourism Department in collaboration and partnership with the community’s coded term of “Silk Route Festival”. The Silk Route Festival remains for almost two weeks celebrated either at the end of summer or beginning of autumn. In these festivals these days, mostly the artistes come up with their modern creativities taken from different cultural entities, hypnotized and imitated from the electronic media. The indigenous festivities, folksongs and folk music are not that much presented either by the indifference of the artistes to bring some taste and attraction into them or because the indifference of audience as they are mostly either non-locals and the so-called educated with a pride of being modernists who may not appreciate and get pride of the indigenous festivities and arts. The performers of these arts then therefore look forward to make the audience happy.
The children of their focused cultural groups had their great involvement and contributions in the household economy before introduction and establishment of the schools.
The Voice of Domaki at the verge of Extinction
Domaki cultural community, having its own peculiar language speakers of more or less 1500 individuals, lives in a settlement called Mominabad (previously known as Berishal or Domdeh). This fantastic cultural group has been the old entrepreneurs, traditional engineers by making variety of agricultural and domestic tools/technologies in addition with their great art in music who have been educating and entertaining the community through their music and plays. Unfortunately, the old society of Hunza, like other societies in the region, did not acknowledge their great skills and knowledge and placed them at the bottom of the social strata.
The respondents state that soon after the abolition of the Hunza’s principality in 1974, the elders of Mominabad decided to give up their language and adopt Burushaski as their language was a source of inferiority for them in the Hunza’s society. The speakers thus relinquished speaking Domaki language. Currently, it is reported that there are lesser than a hundred speakers to whom their elders in the households have transferred the language. In Shishkat, the second village of Gojal magistracy after Ayinabad now submerged in te Hunza River Lake, there were almost 40 Domaki speakers. The youngsters now do not speak Domaki either they shy to speak due to the traditional stigmatization as Berisho (means Dom or the blacksmith) or they have totally given up their language.
It is therefore a high time to come up, encourage, appreciate, preserve, revive and promote the Domaki language, as we do for other languages of the country, otherwise it will have its last breath sooner as is at the verge of extinction.
A Serious Issue of Script and Orthography of the indigenous Languages
It was interesting to find during this study that a similarity among all indigenous languages of Gilgit-Baltistan Region that each language such as Balti, Burushaski, Khowar, S̃hina and Wakhi had divisions in line with scripts or writing their mother tongues. The initial grouping was found in contrast to each other as the supporters or advocates of right to left tradition such as Arabicized or in other word based on Arabic(as Urdu itself is Arabicized).The second group was found in line with left to right tradition such as Anglicized or based on English script (used by the common people ), as well as Greeco-Latinized (which is brought in use by the international researchers and linguists). Even among the Arabicized tradition various divisions were found.
After many years, it was interesting to critically note that the few senior officers of the Government’s establishment or bureaucracies have been evidenced manipulating and negatively influencing the indigenous communities to accept the script of their choice and will in a sharpt contrast to the majority of the indigenous communities. This was seen by the language communities as infringement of their fundamental indigenous rights of language and culture protected in the United Nations charters and conventions of which each member state itself is bound to comply with and that’s why it has become part of the Consitution of Pakistan as well.
Issues and Roles of different Stakeholders
Within the intangible cultural context, various aspects have to be dealt by various stakeholders so effectively after the issues are appropriately identified.all key stakeholders have thus their concerned roles and responsibilities that have to be carried out efficiently and on sustainable basis.let me highlight some of them in bullet form as they follow under.
1. Language script having its critical role to transfer the intangible heritage in a systematic and effective way to the generations.
2. Documentation of indigenous knowledge regarding environment, health, society and the like.
3. Preservation and promotion of folktales, folksongs, folk-music and the like.
4. Fostering poetries and music sessions among the indigenous language communities.
5. Detailed comparative studies of the festivities and rituals of the mountain cultural groups.
6. Role of the families as basic social institutions, and more particularly roles of parents with regard to mother tongues.
7. Role of the indigenous civil society organizations for the purpose of preservation and promotion of intangible heritages.
8. Critical role of the native researchers and local linguists for cultural heritage preservation at different scales.
9. Role of political and religious institutions
10. Role of the cultural organizations of the government
11. Role of the electronic media: Radio Pakistan Gilgit and the need of TV channels in the region
12. Role of the information and computer technology on the subject.
13. Role of the international organizations like UNESCO, ICIMOD, AKDN and others.
Best Practices for preserving and promoting the intangible cultural heritages in the mountain societies

1. Initiative of local TV channels: for example, Suju Hunzu TV in central Hunzaand other cable networking groups.
2. Initiative of curricula development: for instance, an initiative of Wakhi language in the community English medium schools such as in Gulmit (Hunzavalley)
3. Documentation and Preservation of the intangible cultural heritages through the already introduced indigenous initiatives: for instance,Wakhi Tajik Cultural Association (WTCA); Shina language and cultural society; Khowar language and cultural promotion society (Chitral); Baltistan Cultural and Development Foundation, the local band groups , and the like.
Conclusion and Recommendations
In historical and current perspective, the roles and functions of the respective political and religious institutions remained and are critical with regard to the preservation or demonization and promotion or demoralization of any respective cultural and language group. That kind of phenomenon therefore had either its positively or negatively effective results, as the Domaki language is before us. Second, in the name of pure Islamic traditions, some indigenous social practices or oral narratives or festivities can be witnessed either extinguished or on the way to extinguish the last kindling. As the ritual of Vul (literally as smell) in the Wakhi culture can be evidenced in the contemporary period that has been sanctioned by the religious clergies.
After construction of the road-links in Gilgit Baltistan and more particularly abolition of the principalities as poltical entities and opening of the Karakoram Highway in the 1970s, multiplied by the development interventions by the different organizations and institutions, and in the recent decade by the robust intervention of the information and computer technologies such as electronic media, computer and internet, and the mobiles, some positive intangible aspects of the respective cultures are at risk of extinction. It is therefore a high time for the stakeholders to deliberate deeply and come up with logical and positive solutions regarding the challenges and issues. The information and computer technoliges are the need of the time, but how to use them positively as an opportunity to learn the updated knowledge and skills whereby to also preserve, document and promote their cultural heritages, intangible and tangible. In this manner, the past cannot be segregated and there cannot be mislink between the past and present, and the present and the future.
Keeping in view the above discussed issues and analysis, the following important recommendations are made to take practical steps in addressing the current and upcoming challenges emerged due to the globalization.
1. Domaki language along with its other facets of intangible and tangible culture is at the verge of extinction. It is therefore a high time to stand up, preserve, revive and promote the Domaki language.
2. It is an obligation upon the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly to fully patronize all cultural and language groups of its region from all perspective. GBLA therefore needs to come up and positively play its role with regard to legislation on various cultural themes, more particularly the scrip issues to be carried out according to the will, consent and resolve of the vast majority of the cultural communities as for instance Wakhi community of the region have their genuine resolve for Anglicized script (based on English as well as Balti has its historical Agai script).
3. The related public sector organizations, bureaucracies and establishment of the country and region need to be sensitive enough of the fundamental needs and rights of the concerned cultural communities .
4. Karakoram International University and Baltistan University in the region needs to promptly establish centers of excellence for the languages and cultures of Gilgit-Baltistan whereby research, teaching and development of the native languages shall be carried out at advance level.
5. Series of regional conferences and workshops needs to be convened on the cultural heritages (both intangible and tangible forms) of Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and Kohistan in order to sensitize different stakeholders and pave a way to formulate collective strategies on all aspects. In addition, it is also imperative to invite the native scholars and researchers and related orientalists of the respective cultural groups in order to mutually share and frame the future challenges effectively.
6. The folk music and folksongs of all cultural groups needs to be explored and documented and promoted through lively folksingers at different levels.
7. The native writers, researchers, poets and the like of the respective cultural groups need to be brought together on a platform to build a consensus on the burning issue of their scripts and orthography of their native languages according to the need of the present time and future so that the languages should be introduced on pilot phases in the community based schools and in the aftermath should be introduced in all schools (initiated at primary level, which would then gradually move up).
8. The critical role of electronic media is a must. It is this category of media that have their strong effects (both positive and negative) on the native cultures. The electronic media therefore needs to play its dominant roles in sensitization and promotion of the native cultures.
9. A holistic approach needs to be taken with regard to the preservation and promotion of the indigenous cultural heritages, particularly focused on the intangible cultural form. All respective ministries such as the Ministries of Culture, Sports, Education, Environment, Religion and others need to allocate special funds and grants for the research, documentation and promotion of the indigenous knowledge related with the concerned ministries.
10. All concerned ministries need to allocate funds, especially to the community based and private schools involved in the mother-tongue literacy programs.
11. The international organizations like UNESCO and other related agencies of the United Nations , International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), prominent NGOs like the AKDN, IUCN, WWF and others need to come up and join hands not only in preserving and documenting but rather also promoting the intangible cultural heritages of the region.
12. Formally and informally, the students and related professionals need to be sensitized and given a pride to use the information and computer technologies positively and innovatively for the preservation and promotion of their intangible cultural heritages.
13. The folksongs, folktales and different facets of languages documentation need to be intensified and promoted among the respective communities.
14. An umbrella organization for the respective languages and cultures in Gilgit-Baltistan is the need of the time so that to advocate for and promote the urgent and genuine needs of the cultural communities in the mountain region.
15. The cross-border cultural exchanges are imperative to the cultural communities of Gilgit-Baltistan so that to share and learn mutually from each others experiences. In this regard, the respective governments should help facilitate and encourage cultural exchanges.
16. The native cultural entities in Gilgit-Baltistan run on voluntary basis and they are involved mainly with few thematic areas of performing arts. These cultural and language forums need to bring good governance within themselves in abiding by their bylaws and bringing timely and democratic change in their cabinets or boards of directors so that to provide opportunities to the young and fresh youth of the region, too. This will bring an energetic approach and ownership to the respective cultural groups rather than few lobbies’ monopoly.

Thanks to Lok Virsa Pakistan for their kind invitation. I’d like to pay my gratitude to all respondents and key informants of the indigenous language communities who proved to be so friendly while in the field.
I’m particularly thankful to my sincere friend Dr. ramzan Ali of Ghizer District, Gilgit-Baltistan (who was at that time doing his M. Phil in Mathmatics and in the aftermath did his PhD from Germany and currently doing his Post doctorate from Oxford University UK and is a faculty member of University of Central Asia). He was so supportive all time during my PhD coursework and on the occasion of this field study. I’m also indebted to my friend Dr. Hussain Gohar of Hunza district for his facilitation (who was also in M.Phil in Mathmatics in our University and did his PhD from Poland in the aftermath).
I can never forget and owe sincere indebtedness to Sayirah Uddin of Hunza, who was doing her masters at that time in anthropology from Quaid-e Azam University and was so compassionate, helpful and supportive to me during the time of conference.

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