Other Thematic Areas

Human Records on the Karakoram Highway: BOOK REVIEW

June 25, 2018

By Fazal Amin Beg


The book I reviewed entitles “Human Records on the Karakoram Highway” written by late Professor, Dr. Ahmad Hassan Dani, a very distinguished scholar of Pakistan in the fields of history, archaeology/anthropology and linguistics.

This sizeable book of 105 pages is comprised on 21 sections. It means there are in average 5 pages per section. From the onset in the preface, Dani justifies publication of the second edition of this book, mainly because of adding more flavor (e.g., new format with colored pictures) and sharing newly discovered/deciphered knowledge: for instance, gold waist-band in Kohistan (telling something about the Scythians’ movement); Haldeikish (i.e., Sacred Rock of Hunza) revealing some historical facts about the Tarakhanids (successor of the Patola Shahi, a local dynasty of Gilgit-Baltistan) and the coming of a Chinese envoy en route to Hunza Valley. Reading this book gives a quick and clear insight not only into the old history of the mountain communities in the upper Indus River Valley, but rather across its border with China and Central Asia along the famous Silk Road.

This fascinating book can basically be categorized around three thematic areas: 1) introduction to (full orientation with) the physical geography of the mountain regions of South and Central Asia; 2) exploration and description of the old “Silk Roads” and historic voyage of the three famous Chinese pilgrims; and 3) traveling/touring to know the physical landscape and cultural sites (esp. the rock arts) in the upriver Indus Valley while driving along the neo-Silk Road (i.e., Karakoram Highway) in the present context.

In the first portion (section 1), the author narrates and illustrates the cultural significance of the upriver Indus Valley that remained, according to Dani, “ as backwater for humanity” due to the most difficult mountain terrain but ultimately the region and the humans were connected with the down-country (Pakistan) after construction and opening of the marvelous Karakoram Highway (KKH) in 1978. The author pays sincere tributes and appreciates the wonderful work carried out by the Sino-Pak engineers as many workers lost their precious lives, during its construction, for the sake of facilitating human connections and mobility. Dani therefore recommends that construction of the KKH ought to be deemed as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

The author then describes the critical role of the great mountain ranges of the world that sprout out of the Pamir Knot to all directions like the rays of the Sun. He aesthetically illustrates and interprets significance of the nature: mountain ranges (such as the Karakoram, Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Kun Lun, Tien Shan, Altai, Alai and Ghissar), the glaciers, rivers/streams and the deserts. On the other, he links these phenomena with the human history: for instance, the Gandharan Civilization and the Buddhist emissaries’ travel through the high passes of the mountains towards China and the Far East.

In the second portion (section-2), the author provides a detailed background of and explains the famous old “Silk Road” that started from Changan (today’s Xian) taking its routes through the giant deserts and enticing oases of the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang) to Central Asia, passing on to the Middle East and reached at the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea: thus, finally connected with Europe.

In section-3, Dani specifies the travel routes of three well-known Chinese pilgrims known as Fa-Hian (in 400 CE); Sung Yu ( between 518-520 CE); and Hiuen Tsung (between 630-640 CE). These historical figures came to Gandhara via the arduous and life-threatening mountain terrains of Gilgit-Baltistan region. These pilgrims, although did not or could not clearly mention/identify the indigenous toponyms to write in their travel itineraries/travelogues, they however mentioned about some cultural features of the mountain communities living in harsh climatic conditions. As the native toponyms in the pilgrims’ accounts cannot be found explicitly, Dani therefore tries his level best to follow their travel routes on the maps and in their narratives. Dani however links the Chinese given names for the places starting from Xinjiang up to Central Asia (e.g., Kokand, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Merve, Bactrian, Bamyian, Kapisa etc), and from there onward to the Gandhara and Gilgit-Baltistan.

It seems sometimes that in the first two portions of his book, Dani is trying to engage his audience for a kind international workshop or conference for a week or so, on “The Old Silk Route and Gandharan Civilizations”. Then in the last portion, he seems taking them (readers) on a study tour (in the field) or an excursion to the upriver Indus Valley (Kohistan and Gilgit-Baltistan) by following the neo-Silk Road (i.e., KKH). The aims for the book readers seems: 1) exploring and finding the human records along highway; and 2) enjoy the nature (beautiful as well as horrible even in the present context; (although, today, the motorized vehicles go through the swerving road in a sharp contrast to the previous mode of travel for thousands of kilometers on foot or somewhere on animals’ back). The last portion (section 4-21) of the book is therefore very lively and fully devoted for this purpose.

Before commencing the voyage from the starting point towards the upriver Indus Valley, the author for a while explains the significance of Taxila—Taksha-sila, i.e., the hill of the serpent (king Taskha)—that remained as a historical convergent point for the routes coming from Northern Asia and Central Asia towards the Indian Gangetic plains, Dani adds. Today’s Islamabad was previously a suburb of the historical Taxila while presently the old Taxila is an industrial suburb.

Dani suggest his audiences to start their journey from Taxila by either of the three roads advancing and ascending on the Karakoram Highway. The first option he gives is from the Taxila Museum towards the old ruins of Sirkap, Jandiala and Sirsukh to the old monasteries of Mora Moradu and Juilan and then to reach at Haripur via the Khanpur dam on Haror River. Second is by entering in the Taxila city and proceed through the Heavy Mechanical Complex, continuing ahead and arriving at the highway (five miles before Haripur). The third follows the Grand Trunk Road towards Peshawar and by leaving behind the luring Mughul Wah garden and the holy Sikh shrine of Panja Saheb, the road turns towards the north at Hassan Abdal, named behind a Muslim Sufi Baba Hassan Abdal or Wali Qandhari, Dani adds. The road thus carries ahead and joins the other two proceeds. Meeting in Haripur, it continues and reaches Havelian.

Driving on the KKH, Dani takes the readers to Abbotabad and then Mansehra. En route, he explains the meanings of those places, even though at some places he either avoids or forgets to explain meanings of the places. He stops at Mansehra, shows and explains the significance of this place because of its position being a crossroad: towards the north to Kohistan and Gilgit-Baltistan; to the south with Abbotabad and Taxila; and to the east with Kashmir as well as Kaghan/Naran Valleys. Along with KKH, he thus shows the readers and reads out the important commandment of a Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka, inscribed in Kharoshti script on the rocks (in 3rd century BCE). These commandments are mainly focused on different facets: for example, positively marinating the Empire’s administration and the morality as well as the subjects’ rights and ethicalities, and tolerance, especially religious tolerance. Such noble features of the old civilizations therefore invite today’s humans in the so-called modern states to learn lessons out of their ancestors.

The voyage is resumed from Mansehrah onward. Via Shinkiari and Darra Farhad over Chatarplain, the author takes us down to Battagram, a drive of more or less 2 and a half hours. Here Dani identifies sites, especially at Pishora and few others, where the people had an old settlement that was abolished and converted to terraces. Besides, some caves, stupas and drawings of horses and people in prayer postures are witnessed.

Descending to Kat Galai and showing some natural and cultural sites along the Indus valley after crossing a main bridge over the Indus River, called Thakot bridge, and Basham the author reaches Kohistan.

The author explains the physical and cultural characteristics of Kohistan (or also known as Yaghistan). It is this region (now a district within Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa) that was the ancient “Golden Girdle Find of 16kg” of Scythian period was discovered in Pattan.Pattan is also important for its old fortress having different portions such as residential quarters, watch towers and boundary walls.

Driving ahead from Patttan, one reaches at Komila-Dasu bridge (the second important bridge the KKH) where from one has to cross towards Dasu on the left bank of River Indus. Proceeding ahead for more than two hours drive, the author takes us in Shatial, a very important cultural site in Kohistan. He thus explains the rock inscriptions written in diverse languages such as Kharoshti, Soghdian, Brahimi and in Chinese. Besides. There are also enormous petroglyphs found here in Shatial that depict stupas, drawings of Jatakas, hunting people, wild-animals and the like.

After leaving this rich village of cultural sites, Dani moves towards Chilas and Thalpan but on the way, he also shows us the rock arts at Hodur, Thor and so on. It is important to note that so far over 50,000 petroglyphs and more than 5,000 inscriptions have been discovered in the upriver Indus Valley through Ladakh, but the most important and more in quantity are found here between Kohistan and Diamar (a district of Gilgit-Baltistan) up to the Raikot bridge—the third important bridge of the KKH on the Indus River. Among these discovered archeological knowledge sources, majority of the rock arts are found in Chilas and Thalpan. The author therefore focuses his attention more on these sites and explains them in details: for examples, the stupas, rock inscriptions in the diverse languages as mentioned above.

From Chilas, the author carries on towards Gilgit, the center of the former Little Balor and the present Gilgit-Baltistan. Besides others, Dani explains about the Buddha of Kargah valley in Naupur and the Mughal Tower above the mountain in the south of Gilgit city.

Dani then follows the KKH again, after coming from the Gilgit city, and crossing the Danyor bridge on the KKH towards Hunza-Nagar district, the last valley of the cultural sites but a pivotal strategic valley connecting Pakistan with both China and Afghanistan. On the way showing and explaining some important sites, Dani crosses the Hindi Bridge, the fith major bridge on the KKH and reaches in Central Hunza—almost 115km from Gilgit city. Arriving at Aliabad, the author skips the KKH part of Aliabad and travels upward and arrives at Karimabad (the capital of Hunza) where he introduces the famous Baltit and Altit forts besides other sites and villages. He then descends at Ganish villge on the KKH and follows the KKH towards Haldeikish, or according to Prof Dani, The Sacred Rock of Hunza, almost 1 ½ km from Ganish. After crossing the Ganish bridge on the Hunza River, he reaching at Haldeikish. The author takes more time here because of the most significant features related with these rocks. Inscriptions are found in six languages such as Kharoshthi, Brahmi, Soghdian, Bactrian, Chinese and Tibetan. The graffiti that he deciphers are more than 120 and are about the multicultural and trans-regional interactions in terms of religious missions, trades and military campaigns/expeditions between Central and South Asia and China. Furthermore, he explains the diverse petroglyphs engraved on the rocks.

Afterwards, Dani leaves for Upper Hunza called Gojal magistracy. En route he explores, finds and explains the rocks art starting from Ayinabad, the first village of the magistracy, to Shishkat, Gulmit and onward to Sost and the valleys of Chipursan, Misgar and Khunzhrav Pass. In Gulmit, the headquarters of the magistracy, the author interestingly finds a huge boulder whereon ibexes were engraved but this important boulder is unfortunately no more present as it has been blasted by the owner of the land where it was standing. It is to be noted that presently the villages of Ayeenabd and lower Shishkat are unfortunately, completely under the Hunza River Lake due to the Attabad disaster on January 4, 2010 that blocked the Hunza River which ultimately transformed the river into a lake of more than 25km (and 400feet depth).

After Gulmit, Dani follows the KKH again and mentions about some sites in different villages such as Passu, Bamladas in Chipursan valley and some in Misgar. He then continues on the KKH towards the Khunzhrav Pass (more than 16,000ft high above sea level) and the international border between Pakistan and China. This great voyage thus ends here.

There always remains room for improvement in any academic pursuits. What I observed in going through this impressive and knowledge-enriched book was lacking of mentioning the distances among the places he mentions.

Second, there are also some toponymical errors as I could see, at least, in the context of Hunza valley. The places names are probably misperceived and therefore the spellings went to wrong directions. For instance, he mentions Srikot for Shishkat, Amanabad for Ayeenabad, Sust for Sost and Khunjerab for Khunzhrav. When the spellings of proper nouns change, the meanings possibly in the respective languages also change. For instance, Khunjerab (as distorted by many scholars/writers) means blood-socks; while originally the valley’s name is Khunzhrav that means “the stream of blood” because of the torrent river that took lives of many natives in summer while going up to or coming down from the Khunzhrav pastures. However, it’s also noteworthy that Khunzhrav in Wakhi also means “stream of the home or house” with various connotations.

Third, the author has explained the meaning of different toponyms (place names), but has not mentioned that which languages the place names come from.

In conclusion, I must mention that this marvelous book, without doubt, is a gem for those who are true knowledge-seekers. The author, being a competent authority on his subjects, was a genius in deciphering the old and typical languages’ scripts. He interpreted those unknown inscriptions/graffiti and petroglyphs for the sake of scientific construction of ancient history which is a great asset for humanity that provides us knowledge of the past. I would highly recommend for the scholars and students alike this to read analytically, understand well the related interpretations and get maximum benefits out of it.



Note: This impressive book I had reviewed during my PhD Coursework in 2011 from the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilization (TIAC), Quaid-i-Azam Universsity, Islamabad. At that time, my eyesight was though weakened significantly but it could read the books (hard copies) with the help of a table lamp. But for the soft copies, I had not that much big issue, although laptop screen with white background was highly panic and I had therefore changed the colour scheme as “High Contrast Black.” However, I was compelled to read the PDFs or scanned copies in soft form that negatively effected on visual power and finally I ha to see almost the dark cloudy world in my life after qualifying my doctoral coursework in July 2011. But it’s noteworthy that although I’ve become visually handicapped and cannot see literally, I adjusted myself strategically since April 2014 and do read and write with the help of a marvelous talking software called Job Access With Speech (JAWS. Thanks to the great scientists/software developers for such a great help and contribution. )

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  • Reply Ahmed Jami Sakhi July 28, 2019 at 4:43 pm

    Mr. Fazal Amin Baig is like an authority on Social Anthropology, Linguistics, History and orthography of the native languages in GBC. His analytical review of a well-known Prof. Dr. Ahmed Hasan Dani is a treasure for students of History, Culture and Linguistics. We would like to see more such reviews from Mr. Baig in future as well. Stay blessed and keep enlightening your followers!

    • Reply fazalamin August 1, 2019 at 8:47 am

      Thanks Jami Sakhi Sb for your kind words of appreciations.It counts a lot for me, indeed. We all are learners in this world for our entire life and have to learn from each other. It’s not possible for anyone to encompass the whole parts of knowledge and finally one has to leave this world with a desire to learn more and more but without acquiring any authority on the subject matters. Thanks once again for all your compassions and valuing the little work I’ve been publishing on this website. I hope and request you to kindly contribute your parts on various grounds as you’ve invaluable potentials in varying fields of your intersts in academic realms.

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