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Digging Gilgit-Baltistan’s Buddhist Past

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The rise of Buddhism during the reign of emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC) in India had seen it spread to the neighbouring lands as well. The outreach of the proselytizing king’s message can be gauged from the fact that “there are legends about Ashoka in most major Asian languages- Sanskrit and Pali, but also Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Tibetan, Thai and Sinhala”, according to professor Sunil Khilnani. Besides the 84,000 stupas he reportedly built, messages of humanism and pluralism of his rule expressed as Dhammas or universal truths/laws, were engraved on the rock slabs and stone pillars across the length and breadth of his territory. The “federation” of satrapas that he ruled is considered as the largest central government in Indian history.

According to Sherbaz Ali Bercha, a noted historian on Gilgit-Baltistan, a stone pillar most probably containing Ashoka’s edicts had remained fixed at the center of Gilgit city.  The relic was shifted to Lahore Museum to make room for a commercial market in early 2000s. Assuming that the jurisdiction of Ashoka existed where there were distinctive pillars with edicts, there is no other evidence to point to Ashoka’s rule in GB besides the iconic pillar mentioned. Moreover, classic descriptions found in the writings of the colonial literature are silent about the religion of the region’s earliest inhabitants or autochthons. Yet beyond the particular religious symbolism, Gilgit-Baltistan has a treasure trove of archeological insignia suggesting an era when Buddhism, among other faiths, flourished. There are rock images of Buddha in Gilgit  and Skardu and a footprint of Buddha in Ghizer. Moreover, there are hundreds of epigraphs and engravings elsewhere. The inscriptions found on stone slabs across GB are records of names, journey details, the era of the time, the particular king’s reign etc according to Ahmed Hasan Dani, a late well-known archaeologist.  

 From the corpus of archaeological symbols, it can be assumed that Buddhism spread in GB after the era of Ashoka, probably during the era of king Kanishka of Kushan Empire in the early 1st century. Perhaps the most significant hallmark of GB’s Buddhist past is found in the Kargah area of district Gilgit. It is an image of Buddha sitting in a meditative state or Bodhisatva. This is locally known as “Yachani” or a female demon. According to Japanese scholar Dr Haruko Tsuchiya (as per a GB archaeological department account) “the figure resembles that of Chamba style, the only and other image of this type is found in Mulbe, Ladakh. There is no record of such kind of carvings in the records of Gandhara artefacts”. Kargaah is adjacent to Naupur (local name Nafoor), where a cache of ancient writings termed  Gilgit Manuscripts were discovered in 1931. Written in Sanskrit, Prakarit and Pali on Bhoj or birch tree (bhoja putra), no complete deciphering has so far been made. Most of the papers are preserved at the National archives of India. The available interpretations of these documents bespeak of Buddhist dynasties in the 1st to 6th century AD (most prominent being the Patola Shahi dynasty) and their relationship with the neighbouring world. However, the religious, social, political and cultures moorings of the era and its interface with the ensuing period of various Indian kings and Muslim missionaries remains a mystery.

There is learnt and assumed ignorance about classical history in GB. Most of us cannot describe our family lineage beyond the grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Where it is known in a few cases, the descendants are unsure about the faith, customs or culture of their ancestors. Some ruling families trace the root of their family tree to Shri Badat, a cannibal semi-mythical king, implying a super natural heritage. Three Budhisatvas can be seen on a brownish rock in Manthal area of Skardu. A government information board dates the carvings to the 9th century without referencing any source for this information.

Oral historical tradition in the region often mentions a “Buddhist university” in the Darel area of Diamer district, in all probability referring to a monastery. However, no chronology exists as to when or who built it. Whereas information about other monasteries in India, most prominently about the one located in Nalanda, northeast India is well recorded.  Similarly, popular legend about a cannibal king, Shri Badat, considers him a Buddhist. Though a wide range of accounts exist about the king, his persona has been described in legendary/folklore terms thereby avoiding any historicity to it. By the same token, themes like Buddhism’s inroads into GB, its proliferation, engraving of Bodhisatvas and it’s decline and disappearance are glaring unknowns.

The apathy towards the Buddhist past in particular and the rest of the antiquity in general necessitates an academic quest. In the absence of particular findings, some writers and scholars have attempted to fill the gap by extrapolating and borrowing historical facts from research available on the neighbouring regions of GB e.g. Kashmir, India, Afghanistan and China without subjecting it to local socio-political dynamics.

Having studied in government schools and colleges until the HSSC, we were never taught about the history of the region in the course books such as Maasharti Uloom or social studies or later on Pakistan studies. Nonetheless, there were visceral historical descriptions of how Mohammad Bin Qasim conquered Sindh in the 8th century. The past and present answer to the question “What was the socio-political state of Gilgit Baltistan in the 8th century” would be a negligent “we don’t know”. In the hindsight, to be a student in a region without being given an opportunity to know or inquire about its past was a demoralizing experience. It was as if someone had forsaken his ancestors or was forced to disown them. Thus the appetite for knowledge about the past is killed early as the young minds are taught selective versions of history at schools and colleges duly censoring the non-Muslim part of it. The truncated history focus (or “murdered history” as KK Aziz would say) underplayed the diversity and rich past of the new country let alone that of GB. Thus thousands of children like me, who studied from government educational institutes, were  “forced to imbibe the truths of officialdom, many of its literate citizens have opted for the comforts of ignorance, habits of skepticism, and, most troubling of all, a contagion of belief in conspiracy theories. Instead of critical thinking marked by cautious optimism, which might be expected of a people who have weathered many storms in their country’s short but eventful history”, according to Ayesha Jalal. Before 1947, the GB’s historiography by the colonial writers was essentially presentist in essence, focusing mostly on the strategic issues faced by the British Raj. In some cases, when the past was discussed it was done to highlight the region’s connection to Europe, the birthplace of the writers or it was linked with mythical characters such as the king Shri Badat. The reference was apparently made to normalize colonialism as a phenomenon not unbeknown to the region. For example, a prolific writer Dr GW Leitner  wrote: “Herodotus (484-430/420 BC) is the first author who refers to the country of the Dards (Dardistan), placing it on the frontier of Kashmir and in the vicinity of Afghanistan”.  If the colonial writers tried to portray the region’s past through the eyes of European chroniclers, the post-colonial ones left out the significant portion of it pertaining to non-Muslims e.g. the Indus Valley  Civilsation or Ashoka and later  kings or dynasties. Without knowledge of the past or selectively studying it we may be deluding ourselves about it.

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Arts, Culture & Heritage

Traditional women’s dresses of Gilgit-Baltistan

Gilgit Baltistan Dress



gilgit baltistan dress

The Evolution of Gilgit Baltistan Dress, From Necessity to Culture: The primary purpose of the clothing was to protect people from extreme weather conditions and other harsh environmental elements. Ancient humans were covering their bodies with leaves, animal skin, fur and other materials. Reasons for wearing clothing changed over time. People started to wear cloths for decoration, tribal affiliation, and symbol of profession or rank.

Archeological Research has discovered that weaving had started around 27 thousand years back. Traditional and cultural dresses provide important information and knowledge about the cultural and historical heritage of a society. Traditional dresses or clothing are influenced by geographical, religious, economical and moral factors.

Exploring Gilgit-Baltistan Dress Origins

Gilgit Baltistan has a diverse cultural heritage. Because of the geographic location the region traditional dress of Gilgit Baltistan has some link to the traditional dresses of central Asia, China, Iran and Turkey. With passage of time and new geographical linkage the traditional dress also gradually changed.

Wearing a traditional dress is one way to show our real appreciation for our culture and to represent human diversity. By dressing in traditional clothing we can show our interest to preserve the cultural heritage and understand the life style of our ancestors.

Components of Gilgit Baltistan Attire

shalwar kameez gilgit

Trousers or shalwar (phirwal, tumboon, Chanalay)

The name shalwar is derived from the Turkish word salvar for trouser. This was later adopted in Urdu and other local languages. The Traditional shalwar of Gilgit Baltistan is very similar to Turkish salvar. It is loose, long, baggy trouser. Traditionally, silk, cotton and velvet fabric was used.

The trousers are loose but narrow and fitted around the ankles and shins. The narrow ankle part of the trousers were sometimes tucked into colorful traditional hand knitted socks. The shalwar was best designed according to local needs. Traditionally horses were used to travel from one place to others.

The loose trousers were comfortable to ride on saddle horseback. The narrow part around the ankle would protect against the cold air. And the loose upper part was perfectly comfortable to ride. In addition this dress was also suitable for working in fields and sitting in traditional way in home. The loose part makes it easy for the wearer to bend while working and sitting on the floor.

womems dress gb

Kameez  (kurtani , peeran, Cheelo)

Kameez or tunic is the upper part dress. Traditional kameez is loose fitted and heel long. The collar of the kamiz was high and was designed as a modern day man’s shirt collar. The Islamic tradition of covering the full body is fulfilled by this design. For bridal dresses colorful embroidered bands were stitched around collars and the lower end of the shirt and sleeves. A small pocket was attached in front or sides of kammeez. A fabric with floral pattern is used for kameez and plain fabric is used for trouser.

women cultural dress gilgit baltistan

Dopata or shawll  (phatek, cheel)

Dopata or shawl is an integral part of the traditional ladies dress. Different color of dopata is used. Young ladies wear bright colors while elder ladies prefer dark colors.

baltistan traditional dress

Completing the Look: Traditional Cap in Gilgit Baltistan Dress

The most elegant part of the women dress of Gilgit-Baltistan is the traditional cap. Various types of caps are used. The most popular cap is the beautiful embroidered Iraghi cap with traditional piece of jewel called silsila. Many other types of caps are used in various regions. Please refer to my article my cap my pride published in The Karakoram. Over time the local dress has changed considerably. 

The reasons for these changes are inevitable. Modernization, globalizations, regional and global influences are the main reasons for these changes. On one hand this change is very important to keep ourselves update with modern world at the same time it is also important to keep our cultural heritage alive. We can keep these traditions alive by giving them a modern touch but preserving the actual tradition.

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Shuqa Simple but amazing winter clothing of Gilgit-Baltistan



BOYS IN SHUQa- shuqa traditional dress of gilgit baltistan

The traditional dress of Gilgit Baltistan is unique and has its links to a rich history spanning many centuries.  The traditional clothes are closely connected to the way of life, limited available local resources, climatic conditions, and local cultural values.  Over centuries   Silk, cotton, woolen, and leather materials have been traditionally used to make traditional dresses.

Because of cold climatic conditions woolen clothing is an important part of the traditional winter clothing.. Shuqa is the most distinct winter clothing of the region. Shuqa has remained unchanged and perfectly functional for centuries. Historically it has its roots in mountainous region of Tajikistan, pamir, Badakhshan and Iran.

Assemblage of garments as Worn by Tajik men in the Pamirs

Photo from encyclopedia Iranica ,courtesy of J. Maïtdinova

Shuqa is made from local woollen fabric called patti. This fabric is prepared by hours of hard work by local people. Sheep’s are raised by the local farmers. Wool is obtained by shearing the sheep. The nex stage is to card the wool and spin the thread. Weaving the fabric in the local vertical loom is a long hard work. Sewing the garment into desired design of shuqa , coats,jackets and traditional caps is only the last stage. In the past local women were preparing the garment by hand stich. Hand stiching was finer than todays machine stich. The clothing which sewn by hand use to last for years. Unlike the modern age  people of the area who have multiple sets of cloths for day to day use , the people in the past probabably had a single or a couple of shuqas which they expected to last for years. That is the reason for shuqa to be so durable. In addition the design of the traditional cloths are very efficient. Because of the cost of the fabric only very little or no cloth was wasted while cutting and sewing.

shuqa gilgit baltistan tradtional dress
Photo, With thanks to Hunza Gilgit Arts and Crafts International

Shuqa is designed to fulfill the multipurpose tasks. It is full length and usually worn on other dress. It covers the body from shoulder to ankles  protecting against harsh cold weather. The longs sleeves of shuqa are very useful. They are designed in a way that they can be used muffler, scarf or mittens. Sometimes the farmers use shuqa sleeve to carry wheat, fruite or other stuff. Shuqa was a very usful clothing for long travels. In the past horses were used for long travel through the mountainous valleys. Shuqa was designed in a way it was easy for horse riding. One can easily ride on a horse back wearing this warm garment. It coves the whole body of the rider and still remains comfortable. Shuqa could also be used as an emergency blankets by travelers, hunters and shepherds.

shuqa wintere clothing gb

Local Hunter ( shikari) wearing shuqa  ready to go for hunting.

Shuqa are of different color. White shuqa is popular for ceremonial use  or formal dressing . For work and daily use brown or gray shuqa is used more.

Embroidery on shuqa is eye catching. Normally Qalami embroidery is used on chest, back and corners. Beautiful designs of embroidery are used on shuqa specially prepared for groom.   Presenting cloths to a guest is sign of hospitality and honour in GilGit Baltistan. People present cloths to their relatives and guests in the time of weddings. Presenting shuqa to honorable national or international guests is a local custom.

Locals, dancing wearing tradional shuqa.

In summary, shuqa is efficiently designed according to the social, cultural, and climatic needs of the area. Much can be learned from these historical designs of dresses.

Shuqa presented to the President of Pakistan

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Traditional houses Gilgit-Baltistan

Traditional houses Gilgit Baltistan



traditional houses gilgit baltistan

Energy-Efficient and Multi-Purpose Traditional Houses Gilgit-Baltistan

The mountainous region of Gilgit Baltistan is incredibly rich in diverse cultural heritage and traditional houses are one of them.  This cultural heritage of the region manifests itself in its traditions, music, handicrafts, architecture, and the famous free style polo of the region. Because of diverse ethnic backgrounds there is cultural diversity among different region but over all the cultural heritage of Gilgit Baltistan is unique, natural and simple. The traditional house Gilgit Baltistan (ha, door, khoun or go’at) is a very important symbol of this cultural heritage. For some one with an untrained eye, the traditional house is just a very basic structure. On the other hand if someone critically analyzes the design keeping in view the climatic conditions, local traditions and limited recourses in past, this simple structure is reflection of thousands years of wisdom.

traditional houses gilgit baltistan

Traditional House of Gojal, Hunza, Nager, Gilgit and Ghizer

The history of traditional houses of Gilgit Baltistan (Khoun, Ha, Go’at, Door) is two thousands old.

According to history, the traditional house was designed around 2000 years back in the era of Legendary Aryan king Jamshid.  In order to protect his people from extreme cold conditions architects of king Jamshid   designed a simple, earthquake proof, multipurpose self-contained and self-sustained house. Even after thousands of years this design is still functional and very useful.  Similar houses are still found in the pamir region and parts of Tajikistan and Badakhshan and other parts of central Asia. No modern architecture design can replace the traditional houses of Gilgit Baltistan to full fill the local needs and traditions.  There are slight differences in the design in different regions but the basic concept and structure is same.

hunza traditional homes

The Walls and outside

The out side is very simple. The walls of old house are built with stone and mud. The walls are very wide and thick as compared to the modern houses. The wide walls provide good insulation both against hot and cold. Usually there is a small courtyard outside the house. A veranda covers the front side of the house.  In old houses there are no windows on the outer wall, instead there is a beautifully designed square skylight called (sagam, som,sum, komal, eyechan)in different regional langauges . This opening acts as a window for light and air, and exhaust for the smoke.  Because the opening lies horizontally and there is layer of warm air below the opening, cold air hardly reaches inside the house. The warm air from inside pushes the cold air up and out. This design is very much according to the rules of physics, as we know warm air is lighter and tends to move upwards. This design is extremely energy efficient.

local guest house gilgit baltistan

In some old traditional houses once you enter the main door there is a small lobby, used for sitting, eating or sleeping in summer. This small lobby is called Dahlanz. From dahlanz a door leads to the main room.

homestay gilgit baltistan


The main entrance door has a symbolic importance.  The house itself is the symbol of universe. A door is the entry to the house as well exit from the house. The door separates two distinct areas, inside the door there is safety, security and blessing. Out side the door there is open world, opportunities, dangers and risks. When a new member of the family (a bride or a new baby) enters the door he/she is welcomed with prayers for good luck, good health and blessings. Similarly when a family member goes on a journey or goes out to start something new he /she goes out through the door with the prayers of his parents for his safety and success. In the ancient houses, the traditional lock ( Naghli, Sarikuch, chayeish) was made of a wooden bar, which could lock the door both from inside and out side.

The doors of traditional houses of Gilgit Baltistan are relatively shorter to preserve heat. Woodcarving is found on the doors of the old houses.

room gilgit baltistan


The structure of traditional house basically stands on four main wooden pillars plus one to three additional small pillars. These pillars are made of juniper, apricot, walnut or other locally available wood. These pillars are often covered by geometric patterned woodcarvings. The traditional geometric designs on these pillars are inherited over centuries.  Because of its unique wooden frame the house is earthquake resistant. If even the walls were peeled outward during an earth quack the frame would remain standing, protecting the main structure.

kitchen gb


The roof is made of several groups of wooden beams of different sizes. Each group has their specific sizes and specific names and number. The two longest beams (laid over the two main pillars on each side are called sanjeer in some areas. Three to four thick but short beams ( patari)are laid diagonally on the main long beams. The skylight or the open space in center of the roof is designed with four square layers of small beams laid one above other. The squares are diagonally placed and the size of squares gradually decreases as it rises up towards the final opening. The opening is located exactly above the fireplace. Because of this shape of the roof snow does not stay longer on the rooftop and there is less chances of leakage during rainy season.

Floor Plan of Traditional houses in Gilgit-Baltisan

Every single area inside the main room has a specific name. If you name a specific part of the house, a local will know exactly what are you referring to. There are slight variations in the design in different regions but overall it is more or less similar.

The floor is divided into different parts, There are raised platforms of different heights. Every platform has different purpose and use. The first part immediately after entrance is the (Haqai, yourch, shom ). It is used for keeping shoes and preparing fire wood and dancing during traditional ceremonies like weddings. In most of incient houses, a wood beam, called, sanj separate the working area from the sitting area.

Traditional House Fireplace and Sitting Area in Gilgit Baltistan

The next is the sitting area. In the center there is fire place ( dildang, Daang, sagam ) . Fireplace is used for cooking and keeping the room warm. Sitting area on right side is called band. The sittiing  area is a square area around the fire place. The Males members sit on the right side. Sitting arrangement is in specific order. The guest, elderly or religious leaders people get the priority to sit.  These most respected people sits fist than the young one sit and than the children sit.  Female sit on the left. Similar hierarchy rule is also followed on the female side of the sitting area. Two elevated platforms on right and left (Sheeti, mun, nukh ,raj  thali) were used for relaxing or sleeping during winter. There is narrow platform for with wooden cabinets for pots and pans. Two half height walls or wooden cabinets separates the right and left elevated platform. These walls are called Chardagez or Mandal . The floor is usually made of wood or mud. Floors are covered with thick locally made carpets. Concrete floor does not suite the climatic conditions and local life style. It cannot maintain the warm temperature and can cause joint pain in cold climate.

Storage room (Ulha, Gonj, gonji, Ghanz)

 A smaller store room is usually attached to the main traditional home. The basic structure as more or less same like the main room but it is usually less sophisticated. The main purpose of this is to store grain, fruits and other food items, but during wedding and other ceremonies it was used for sitting and cooking also. This room also has four pillars and the structure of the roof is similar to the main room. There is area for fireplace in the center.

The main room and storage room are the basic requirements of the traditional home Gilgit Baltistan. Additional rooms are added according to the requirement and socioeconomic conditions.

Traditional houses in Baltistan

The old houses in various mountainous regions of Baltistan are designed  according to local requirements and traditions..  There is Tibetan and Kashmiri influence in the architecture of this region. Old houses in mountainous villages of Baltistan are built in two levels. The lower level is for storage or animal pen. The living area is built in the upper level comprises of large kitchen, bed room, living room etc. The numbers of rooms depends on various factors, like socioeconomic factor, number of family members etc. Wood, stone, and mud are used to build these houses. Large wood columns and beams are used to make the house earthquake proof. Kashmiri style wood carving is found in these old traditional houses.

In summary, the design of traditional houses of Gilgit Baltistan is very efficient and multipurpose to fulfill the traditional and climatic requirements of the area. This tradition has been passed on to us over centuries.  Now it is the duty of this generation not to completely abandon this tradition.  These designs can be innovated and updated according to the needs of modern times.

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