John Vincent Bellezza
The Fate of Tibet
After last month’s civil demonstrations and disturbances throughout the Tibetan cultural regions of the People’s Republic of China, the central and provincial authorities have opted for a series of staunch measures. Nevertheless, only if the PRC government shows much restraint can the Tibetan Autonomous Region and adjoining regions reach an even keel. It must be observed: the use of strong-armed tactics that adversely affect the basic human rights and dignity of the Tibetan population will prove counterproductive in the long run. It is in the interests of the PRC to uncover the sources of dissatisfaction, and to do all in its power to bring succor and reassurance to the Tibetan population. If the PRC proceeds cautiously and moderately, opportunities to make progress in their Tibetan policies and administrative apparatus are likely to present themselves. Otherwise, there is the real prospect of growing instability in Tibetan areas, the realization of which could have many unintended consequences. A downward spiral of Tibetan dissent followed by knee-jerk reactions on the part of the government would be very unfortunate for all concerned. On the diplomatic front the PRC also faces stark choices, which will help to define its future political trajectory. As regards Tibet, one thing is for certain in this run-up to the Beijing Olympics; business as usual is not the best option for the leaders of China.
Focus on Baltistan
In this month’s newsletter, I have elected to provide a little background information on Baltistan (Tibetan: sBal-ti, Persian: Belor), that cultural crossroads region in northern Pakistan. The data I present here was mostly collected from oral sources in August and September, 1990, and represents but a tiny fraction of my research efforts. My single most notable informant was Sayed Abbas Qusami, a well known scholar who hails from Skardu.
Ethnic Groups of Baltistan
Tibetans make up an estimated 60% of the racial mix of Baltistan. Sayed Abbas Qusami believes that the Tibetans are the aboriginal inhabitants of Baltistan. He bases his supposition on the overwhelming preponderance of Tibetan place names in the region. Other scholars such as A. H. Francke hold that the Burushos (an early Indo-Iranian group?) or the Dards are the aboriginals of Baltistan. The oracles of the Balti Tibetans are known as kahin (Persian) and meektung (Tibetan: mig mthong). They still go into trance where they see the figures of mountains close by and hear the voices of the lha and lhamo spirits.
The Burushos are a Caucasian group who arrived in northern Pakistan several millennia ago, probably from adjoining areas. At least some of the ancient grave sites found in Baltistan are likely to belong to this group. Burushal, the land of the Burushos was almost certainly larger 1000 years ago than it is today. Burushaski place names are scattered throughout Baltistan.
The Dards, Shina-speaking pastoralists moved into Baltistan after the collapse of Tibetan imperial power. Their nomadic lifestyle was particularly well-suited to such a migration. They appear to have filled a political and social vacuum, which was created by disintegration of the Tibetan empire with the assassination of Lang Darma. A second wave of Dards came in the 16th century as captives of Ali Sher Khan Anchan, the great maqpon (Chieftain, Tibetan: dmag-dpon) of Baltistan. These later-arriving Dards settled in high valleys as sentries and as a buffer against possible Moghul incursions. As they lived in inaccessible regions they came to be known as Brokpas (Tibetan: ’Brog-pa). Virtually all the Brokpa settlements are located on the left side of the Indus River (in places such as Satpura, Golturi, etc.). There are about 25 Brokpa villages in Baltistan. Unlike the Burushos who have retained no cultural or linguistic traces apart from their Balti identity, the Brokpas have maintained their language and cultural identity. Until recently, marriages between The Brokpas and Baltis were looked down upon, because the Brokpas were perceived as uncultured. The Brokpas have their own dances (brokchus) and shamans (ban).
The Mons are the low caste musicians and craftspeople of Baltistan. The Mons have darker complexions and ‘Aryan’ features and are similar in appearance to Punjabis. After the great Buddhist council of Jullundara presided over by Kaniska, missionaries from north India were deputed to north to preach the Dharma. Sayed Abbas Qusami believes that their descendants may be the Mons of Baltistan and Ladakh. Mon-yul is a Tibetan name for many Western Himalayan and Transhimalyan regions. The Mons may have been relegated to a low status when there was a resurgence in Bon religious traditions in the 10th to 12th century. As that time they may have been forced into menial occupations. In the time of Ali Sher Khan several Mons rose to the rank of provincial ministers, and were referred to as Mondakpas (Tibetan: Mon bdag po) among other names. The Mon have preserved a classical dance form called Monchas (literally: Mon Creed). The position of Mons in Balti society is gradually improving.
The Horpas (Dwellers of the Land of Hor) originally came from Mongolia and Turkistan. They migrated to Baltistan centuries ago. The royal family known as Yabghu was one of the most notable among the Horpa immigrants. Some words of Turkic origin have been introduced into the Balti language (such as azok, a bread used during travels). The steppe Turkic and Mongol features of some Baltis is unmistakable.
The Kachis (Kashmiris, Tibetan: Kha che) first came to Baltistan has craftspeople. They are now culturally well assimilated into Balti society. Kashmiris that emigrated to Baltistan during the Dogra Raj have maintained their Kashmiris names and some Kashmiri customs and traditions.
The Shakoris are Indo-Greeks who migrated into Baltistan after the fall of Bactria. According to their folksongs, the Shakori were the rulers of Baltistan between the collapse of the Tibetan empire (mid-9th century) and the Maqpon period (post-16th century). The Shakoris are now well assimilated into the Balti racial mix. Perhaps those Baltis who are extremely fair carry Shakori genes.
The Yeshkuns are a prominent tribe of Gilgit also found in Baltistan. Sayed Abbas Qusami theorizes that the Yeshkuns were given this name by the Burushos to refer to Gandhara immigrants. This word may be derived from yatch or yatcholo, a class of demons in early Balti mythology.
An Example of Ethnic Diversity in Baltistan Place Names
Balti: Chogori (Big Mountain, the K2)
Tibetan: Chomo Lhari (Jo-mo lha-ri, Divine Mountain of the Mistress)
Turkic: Karakorum (Black Rock)
Burushaski: Hara Mosh, Brum, Zil
Khanqahs are the indigenous mosques of Baltistan. Originally, they were the abodes of Sufi preachers. The meditation cells in the khanqahs are a unique Sufi feature. The khanqahs were the focus of communal feasts and other social gatherings. At the khanqah of Alchoni there are the remains of a giant vessel used to cook communal meals. The khanqahs resemble Tibetan Buddhist gonpas (Tibetan: dgon pa) in three important ways (architectural similarities notwithstanding): 1) the residence of holy men, 2) site of group and solitary religious practices, and 3) the focus of social events. Swastikas (facing in both directions), a sign of peace and prosperity in Baltistan, have been carved into the woodwork and incorporated into the latticework of palaces and khanqahs.
A particularly well-preserved and beautiful khanqah is called Chak Chang in Upper Khaplu. It is attributed to the great pir who brought Islam to Baltistan in the 16th century: Kabir Amir Sayed Ali Hamdiani. According to local legend, there used to be a Buddhist temple on the site of the Chak Chang masjid. Some say it contained an idol in the form of an iron horse. Pir Hamdiani captured the lama of the temple, who was trying to escape on a flying horse, by throwing his shoe at him. The defeated lama was made to relinquish control of the region, thus Islam came to Khapalu.
The Raja of Khapalu, August 31, 1990
Raja Zakaria Ali Khan is a fair-haired and light-eyed man who invited me to sit with him in his guest house. Through the course of our approximately three hours together, I came to see that the Raja of Khapalu is a real gentleman. He speaks softly and has a gentle manner. He seemed willing to answer any questions I had. A man of first rate manners and sensibilities, I am happy to report. Raja Zakaria, aged 36, is the son of the late Fateh Ali Khan and the grandson of Nazir Ali Khan. Officially, Raja Zakaria was divested of his power and authority by Prime Minister Z. Bhutto in 1973. Bhutto [nonchalantly] came for tea, and then went to the polo ground to announce that Khapalu was now fully part of Pakistan.
Raja Zakaria works as a police sub-inspector, a middling position in the provincial hierarchy. He quite candidly told me that he had a certain nostalgia for the old days when he would have been the government. The Raj of Khapalu used to include Thalle, Doghoni, Saltoro, Khundur, Hushe, and Shyok up to Surmo. Raja Zakaria showed me his family genealogy, but his knowledge of his family history seemed scant. He told me that his late father was the expert on family history. He recommended Hashmatullah’s book, Tariq Jamu-u-Kashmir to me. Its author had consulted with his father on local history. Raja Zakaria belongs to the Yabghu dynasty which originated in Turkistan. The Yabghus came via Kashgar and the Ailing Naula, and originally settled in Halde and then Seling. There seems to have been some intermarriage between the Yabghus and the old ruling dynasty of the Sultans of Khapalu. What I can’t figure out is why there about 80 names in the combined genealogies of the Sultans and Yabghus of Muslim origins, when Islam was only introduced in Baltistan 400 years ago. Could it be that each raja only ruled for an average of five years – highly unlikely. Intermarriage between all the ruling families of Baltistan took place, and also occasionally with Ladakhi rulers.
Again, I heard of Wazir Gulam Maadhi, the great Balti scholar who died recently. I hope that some local history has not been irretrievably lost with his passing. I was the guest of the Raja for a good dinner. Trucks first reached Khapalu in 1990 and TV to Skardu (Baltistan capital) also this year. This is a good indication of the changes in communications and transportation occurring in Baltistan. Raja Zakaria walked me back to my camp with a lantern. He offered me a place in his home, but I said I was fine in my tent.
What Next? August 30, 1990
I was not even out of Hushe when I met three porters from Kande who were on their way home after accompanying the Trinity Peak expedition. One of these three delightful chaps offered to carry my bag to Kande for 20 rupees. At a price like that I decided to take him up on his offer. I know that it is customary for porters to receive ½ wages on their way back home, so in a way the Trinity Peak expedition was subsidizing my porterage. The tallest of the three men and I had a discussion on religion. The villages of Hushe, Thalle, Saltoro and some in the Shyok Valley belong to the Noorbaqshi subsect of Shia. They trance their imam lineage back to the great progenitor of Islam in Baltistan, Amir Kabir Sayed Hamdiani. Their present religious leader is Pir Bahan of Khapalu. I may try to meet him. Recently there have been some tensions between the Shias and the Noorbaqshi. I asked [my companions] why there have been sectarian problems in the Northern Areas in the last decade. The unanimous reply was that certain elements from outside the region have stirred up communal hatred and violence. There is much validity in this. What happened [recently] in Ladakh is a good example. Hard core ideologues and fundamentalists from down country have disturbed the religious peace of the region. In the Northern Areas where various sects of Islam live in close proximity this is especially unfortunate.