Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

January 2009

John Vincent Bellezza

New Year’s Greetings
Happy New Year! May 2009 bring much joy to all of you, a time for attainment and illumination. One could despair of the current world economic troubles, but new opportunities in the way we structure our societies are presenting themselves as well. No one should underestimate the pivotal nature of the period in which we live. If only our collective efforts are redoubled in the face of the financial crises more sustainable systems of resource management, a better regulated global economy and enhanced international relations, to speak in broad terms, can all be attained. As at any crossroads in the long march of history, much will depend on the moral and intellectual stature of individuals and constituent nations. May we rise to the challenges of our time, thereby ushering in a golden age in the 21st century. Provided that our noble efforts are sufficiently brought to bear on the problems at hand, the potential for human betterment is boundless.

Doings in December
In the first half of December, I labored upon my new book, an account of Zhang Zhung civilization designed for the non-specialist. I am endeavoring to compose a work that all those interested in Tibet’s ancient past can happily read. In the second half of December, in addition to Holiday celebrations, I was busy with archival work sorting out photographs and other research materials. Around the New Year, Quentin Devers, a Ph.D. student in archaeology and GIS, and I worked on improving the geographic coordinates of the 678 archaic sites I have documented in Upper Tibet to date. By using the latest Google Earth satellite imagery we were able to more accurately determine the positions of some sites. Google Earth now provides images with an estimated resolution of five meters for a few select areas of Tibet (the older imagery has a resolution of around 50 m). These constitute the most accurate maps of Tibet available to all but the military. The most exciting thing was being able to actually see a few of the ancient citadels in the satellite images.

It was also pleasing to see the remnants of defunct agricultural fields in the satellite imagery of northwestern Tibet. I was able to corroborate that the spread of agriculture in this area was at least as extensive as estimated during my many ground surveys. Where there are now small bands of pastoralists and subsistence farmers working a few parched fields there were once thriving agricultural communities. The ancient agricultural society of northwestern Tibet was sufficiently prosperous and advanced to establish a string of fortresses and temples at least one thousand years before Buddhist domination. Contrast this with the Buddhist epoch when only a handful of monasteries were established in northwestern Tibet. Why the region’s headlong decline into obscurity? The biggest culprit appears to be long-term climate change. Northwestern Tibet has become progressively cooler and drier over the last three or four millennia of the Late Holocene. While this degradation of the climate has been an alinear process, the results are unmistakable: the rains have lessened, the glaciers have shrunk or entirely disappeared, and many streams and rivers have run dry. Without water the glorious Zhang Zhung civilization faded away, leaving a wasted and sparsely populated land behind. While we cannot directly relate the demise of Zhang Zhung to the hazards of climate change facing the contemporary world, they serve as one of many precautionary tales informing our own predicament.

From My Old Journals: A Hindu Kush Retrospective
Chitral, October 16, 1985
A day near the home side. I went to see Shahji at the government high school and we had a little talk. I bought a new hat which effectively retires my old one from service. I had bought the old one in Muree more than two years ago. A tailor altered my new woolen pants and gave me a bag of Chitrali dried fruits and refused all payment. I brought him a cake from the bakery in an attempt to reciprocate his kindness. I watched a little polo in the afternoon. Later on in the evening Hakim, Inteaz and another brother sat in my tent talking and listening to music. The main musical fare for the night included selected works by Mumbara Khan, a Chitrali musician and poet. Mumbara Khan is also a local politician. There are not many places in the world like Chitral where the poets are also the politicians. That is because it is not easy to find people with the degree of sensitivity and perceptiveness that the Chitralis possess. The Chitralis (other mountainfolk also) appear to be great readers of human character and emotion. This, in my experience, has always held true for a people at the threshold of literacy. When you cannot not rely on literary sources of information perhaps you become that much keener in the recognition of environmental cues. In the day and in the night, I had talked with Chitralis about their views on national and world politics. In a word they feel betrayed. On all fronts they see corruption, perfidy and covetousness, and they do not see that auguring well for the state of the world and its peoples. Really, all Chitralis have is Chitral and it is enough for them.

Chitral October 17, 1985
Really, all Chitralis have is Chitral and it is enough. The question, then, is what about the rest of us? Many countries just don’t seem happy with what they have. It is a personal problem and it is a national problem. The Chitralis who are sufficiently educated to know or care about the world situation are that much more thankful for being Chitrali or they leave. Chitral has seen one wave of invaders after another come (and sometimes go). It is a veritable catch basin for the historical movements of people. This is readily evident in their main language, Kohar, an amalgam of many different linguistic elements including Turkic, Persian, Sanskrit and Dardic. As isolated as Chitral is it is still a cosmopolitan center. That is because as backward as Chitral is it is also a vanguard region. In this light, we come to see Chitral not as a backwater area but as a geographic and historical nexus. Chitrali is an articulate culture and one that has its priorities correctly ordered. This is inherent in subsistence cultures but there is something more in Chitral, a certain sophistication emanating from the central position that Chitral has played in the historico-geographical development of Central Asia. I could never say enough about the general character of Chitral. It has impressed me as few other regions have.

Kalam Kohistan, October 29, 1985
I got another early start this morning. In a series of three transports and a period of six hours I reached Kalam, the capital of Kalam Kohistan. The valley was very broad and the mountains small and barren up to about Bahrain. Beyond Bahrain the valley narrowed and the coniferous and oak forests gradually came down to meet the road and the valley floor. The upper valley is extensively forested. I guess this is why Swat reminds some of the Swiss Alps. I am currently in the little bazaar of Kalam in the midst of eating my lunch. I plan on continuing up the valley. First, I will buy a few food provisions and from there I will just see what I find upside. I understand that there are a few villages located further up. I have come at the right time of the year to witness the harvesting of what might be the only cash crop of this lofty region, that of potatoes.

I did indeed purchase a few provisions and was off up the side valley to the northeast of Kalam city. Before getting underway, however, I left some extra clothes at a hotel. The manager of the hotel said he would be good enough to store them for me while I was on my walking tour. For about the first five miles of the walk I remained on a series of minor trails that traced their way through villages and woods. About five miles from Kalam I began to walk on the road. This road is wide enough to accommodate trucks. Trucks are being currently used to transport potatoes from the Kalam Kohistan villages to the down country markets of Pakistan. I walked the road for several more miles. By this time it was getting late. A group of young native men treated me to a cup of milk in the village of Ushu. I failed to note that earlier on I met a young mullah and some of his villagers. They were all very nice people, and they even went to the trouble of making tea for me. A mile or two up from Ushu saw me to the major market village of this upper valley called Matiltan. I secured a charpoy for the night at the local hotel. I also had dinner and bought a few more supplies for my hike tomorrow.

The Kalam Kohistanis seem to be a more turbulent group than their immediate neighbors to the north (Chitral and Gilgit). The bazaar of Matiltan was full of boisterous social activity for several hours beyond the time it got dark. To my knowledge, the Kalam Kohistanis are the only northern Pakistanis who wear their hair on the long side (note: some Baltis also wear their hair long). The Kalam Kohistanis are reputed not to be above dacoity. In Hugh Swift’s “Trekking in the Himalaya and Karakorum”, Mr. Swift issues only one warning about robbers and that is when dealing with a trek through Kalam Kohistan. He says that the shepherds of the alpine country are potentially dangerous. My personal feeling about the Kalam Kohistanis is that they are unruly tribesmen tempered by their deep faith in God and Islam. I can see both the saint and robber in them, but I must add that robbing was probably at one time functional for them. Hence it cannot be considered common thievery. It must be remembered that most people did not voluntarily opt to inhabit the inhospitable upper reaches of valleys but were pushed their by stronger and more aggressive groups of people. A beleaguered people must resort to any tactic that works to insure their survival…

Previous Post

Next Post