Baltistan is situated between three nuclear powers of Asia: China, India and Pakistan. Baltistan is the destination to some of the world’s highest mountains, and longest glaciers. In addition, the rivers and streams have in the course of time formed numerous valleys inhabited and cultivated by the residents.
Numerous rivers and rivulets, including the rivers Shyok, Siachen, Saltoro, Suru, Shingo and Shigar, add to the mighty Indus River, which enters Gilgit after bisecting Baltistan. Glacial lakes abound in Baltistan and are highly valued for tourism.
The glaciers – the largest outside of the Polar Regions in the world, exceeding 90 kilometers in length – surround Baltistan in the north and west directions, dividing it from China and Gilgit.
Weather Of Baltistan
Baltistan has four seasons; with a long winter, a short spring, summer, and autumn. As winters approach, temperatures in the residential villages and towns drop to -25 degrees Celsius. Rainfall is less than 300 mm per year because the region falls outside the monsoon zone.
Vegetation in Baltistan is scarce and found only in-stream and rivulet-fed areas. The Deosai Plains, also called Ghybersa in Balti, about 5,400 square kilometers from the sheer plateau at an elevation of 14,000 feet from sea level, is a sanctuary for both flora and fauna, including the magnificent snow leopard, the most endangered wildlife species.
Popular Valleys in Baltistan
There are five main valleys in the district Baltistan, Shigar, Khaplu, Rondu, Skardu and Kharmang. All of these valleys in such profusion produce apricots, peaches, pears, grapes, mulberries, and apples that this region is known as the land of apricots and apples.
On a tourism point of view, there is no area similar to Baltistan being equaled for its natural and cultural heritage. Baltistan showcases unrivaled beauty and culture of nature. Its ancient rural villages, grand forts and palaces, intricate wooden carvings, Buddhist artifacts, shimmering valleys, civilized and peace-loving cultures, idyllic lakes and high-altitude wildlife laden plateaus such as Deosai make it a strong candidate to qualify as a world-class tourist and heritage site.
History of Baltistan
Before modern civilization, Tibetan Khampa and Dardic tribes came to Baltistan, and these groups eventually settled down to form the people of Balti. The Balti people were believed to have come under the Sphere of influence from the Zhang Zhung Kingdom.
In the 7th century, Baltistan was under the rule of Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. The Bön and Animist Baltis started adopting Tibetan Buddhism from Indian Buddhism under Tibetan cultural influence.
Religious artifacts like the Gompas and Chörtens were erected, and Lamas played a significant role in the Baltis’ lives. Buddhist ruins are located at Niali Shigar, Skardu, and Kharmang, Khapulo, and Rondu Valley valleys.
Religion and Balti Kings
Islam was first introduced to Baltistan in the 16th century with the conversion of Prince Gyalbu Ringchen, though mass conversions did not occur until the reign of King Gotacho Senge, the ninth Maqpoon. It wasn’t until the reign of King Ali Sher Khan Anchan, the 15th Maqpon, that the Balti people looked forward to expanding their territory and fostering relations with the Mughal emperors.
Annexation to Pakistan
During the 11th century, with the decline of Central Tibet ‘s power, Baltistan came under the control of the royal families of Shigari, Rmakpon, and Namgyal, and fostered close relations with Ladakh in the East. Baltiyul and Ladakh ‘s similar linguistic and cultural characteristics helped to create an administrative unit which existed until 1948 when Pakistan annexed Baltistan.
Jammu’s Dogra Maharajas kept the administrative unit intact and transformed it into a province called Ladakh Wazarat (a province made up of areas of Baltistan, central Ladakh, Purik, Zanskar and Changthang). Baltistan ‘s capital, Skardu, became the province ‘s winter capital while Leh, the capital of Central Ladakh, became the summer capital. The province was divided into three districts, Skardu, Leh and Kargil, respectively.
Culture of Baltistan
The Balti culture has been shaped in its modern form by centuries of Tibetan, Islamic, and Indian influence. In Balti culture, Islam plays an important role.
The most notable artifacts of the Balti / Ladakhi architecture include Kharpocho in Skardu, Khapulo Khar in Khapulo, Chakchan and Shigar Khanqah and Baltit fort of Hunza. Tibetan influence can be seen in its architecture, where houses with the flat roof painted white and sloping inside are built.
Like the Muslim architectures of Ladakhi, older mosques exhibit a mixture of Iranian and Tibetan architecture, though strong Iranian and modern influences can be seen in the new mosques.
Little remains of Baltistan’s pre-Islamic Buddhist community, largely demolished and replaced by the dominant Punjabi and Iranian community that came with Islam; this can be demonstrated by the near-extinction of traditional Balti festivals like Maephang, Mindok Ltahnmo, and “Srup Lha’.”
Folk literature such as Lha Kesar’s and Ali Sher Khan Anchan’s works prevail among the literature on Balti, which has experienced a revival in recent years.
Peoples of Baltistan
Despite harsh and inhospitable climatic conditions, Baltistan ‘s people are among the most peaceful and hospitable mountain peoples in Pakistan. The predominant population of today’s Baltistan is religiously and ethnically homogeneous, having emerged from 106 years of slavery under the Dogra rulers and countless decades under local despotic Rajas.
Civilization of Baltistan
Baltistan is proud of its rich civilization, for thousands of years. Her architecture, costumes, cuisines, festivals, dances, language, script and epics make her unique among her neighbors, particularly in the Northern Areas of today. Local culture is a mixture of Ladakhi’s and Islamic rituals, identical to Indian Ladakhi Muslims’.
The Baltistan residents have remained essentially people of the soil of Baltistan since partitioning. They have devoted Muslims and, in fact, two generations since Baltistan ‘s annexation to Pakistan have never distanced themselves from the cultural and linguistic ties that ninety percent of the Baltis consider to be Ladakhi’s cultural and linguistic heritage
Modern Balti scholars like Ghulam Hassan Lobsang, Ghulam Hassan Hasni, Syed Abbas Kazmi and Mohammad Senge Tshering Hasnain have greatly contributed to the rediscovery of the Balti culture. Plans are planned for the excavation of an ancient monastery and the preservation of the Buddha rock, as the Balti are going through a process of merging their culture with those of their Ladakh brothers.
Ghulam Hassan Hasni produced a book, Balti Tamlo, which contains 900 proverbs, idioms, and expressions in Balti / Ladakhi. Additionally, authors including Hassan Lobsang have written books on local Bon traditions and pre-Buddhist Baltiyul.
During the 5th and 6th centuries, Brahmi was used for writing Balti. However, Balti ‘s literature flourished with the introduction of the Tibetan script under King Khri Getsung-Brtan in 727 AD. It remained in use until the 16th century when the script replaced the Balti script in Persia. However, the Persian script is not suitable for the Balti language because it restricts the precise pronunciation of the words due to deformation in the written form.
The Baltistan region is highly valued for its strategic geopolitical location, sandwiched between the Karakoram, the Himalayan and Ladakh mountain ranges. In the past, its trade routes served as economic lifelines for the region ‘s inhabitants, who traded goods while visiting East Turkestan (Sinkiang), China, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, Central Tibet and beyond.
Many ancient trade routes opened by Baltis to Leh, Kargil, Srinagar, Shimla, Manali, Yarkand (to China via Karakoram Pass), and Tibet for thousands of years are underused. However, the local population has not been able to access the trading regions in the east and north since the war between Pakistan and India in 1971, and this has had a significant impact on the local economy.
Subsequent political developments in Pakistan and stringent government policies have made infrastructure growth opportunities limited. Baltistan remains one of Pakistan’s most poverty-stricken areas. Subsidized supplies from other parts of the world are the only source of vital goods when the area is cut off for months because of avalanches and landslides that damage the only road that links Baltistan with the rest of Pakistan.
This road was constructed only in 1982, before which, by air, the only means of transportation to Baltistan (which has an area three times the size of the Kashmir Valley) depended on good weather. Health facilities are highly limited and, over the years, unemployment has driven many to leave the city.
The profession of Balti Peoples
Baltis are farmers; however, the availability of cultivable land is scarce since it is a mountainous region. Subsistence farming and livestock husbandry are the main livelihood sources for the Baltis.
They grow wheat, barley, millet, and buckwheat, raising goats and sheep for wool, and yaks for fur, meat , milk, and peel. They also trad these animals for cash. Agriculture is also an important source of revenue for the Baltis.
There is however only an average of two acres of land available for cultivation per household. Security issues require the villagers to store rations for both humans and animals, which are then used over the long winters. Economic operations virtually cease to exist during the six or seven months of the long winter.
The regular feature cuisine in Balti includes Cha-Phe (Tsampa), Ladakhi salt tea (Balti Cha), Marzan (cooked dough and yak butter), Thsodma (greens), and Chuli-Chu (apricot juice). Cereals are planted in late spring and at lands not above 2,500 m above sea level, particularly along the Indus (Sengge Chhu) and Shyok River. There is a lack of big industry in the area.
Read also: Natural resources of Gilgit Baltistan