Gilgit BaltistanHistory

Balti people: The cultural aspect and class system

Balti People is a common term that the Ladakhi Buddhists regularly use, in particular, to refer to all Shia Muslims in the Kargil region (Grist 1998).  Balti people are a distinct community whose ancestors had moved from Baltistan to Kargil and Leh before the Partition.

By analyzing different material and cultural aspects of the past, it is concluded that the Kargil area of Pakistan and India is part of the historic Silk Route that emerged as a transit point for caravans that paved the way for the exchange of ideas leading to the transformation of society.

Most of Balti people came to Kargil as merchants, and are now known as Hatti-Pa (shop keepers). Below is a brief introduction to the Cultural Aspects of Baltis in the Kargil region.

Historian views

Kargil as a whole became known in the early days under the name Purig. Various authors have varying definitions of how the term is applied. A.H Francke maintained that the brave stock, Burig, is the original term’s extorted form.

Another renowned historian, Hashmatullah Khan, writes in his treatise that it was derived from two root words pot and rigs, meaning Tibetan stocks, and the general opinion is that the word Purig means the tube in the local language and from all four points rightly signifies its tubular valley structures.

Now the whole region is popularly known by the name of Kargil, Gar-Rkhil distorted form means staying anywhere. Once it had been a transit camp for caravans from Khotan, Yarkand, Leh, Skardu, Zanskar & Kashmir and vice-Versa.

With time, this place was gaining importance and popularity due to its strategic location. Four rivers are flowing through the district into Pakistan, i.e. Indus, Suru, Wakha, The Rivers of Shungo. Throughout winter the rivers freeze and form natural paths, such as the world-famous Chadar path.

Chou and Wazir in Bati People 

Cho and Wazir were the society’s ruling class which was considered a socially elevated party. Their job was to protect their territory and assure the protection of their subjects.

Kacho, the descendant of this ruling class, was entrusted by Dogra rulers with the duties of Zildars, and after 1950 the duties of Nambardar were assigned to the villages concerned and are still found in villages like Chiktan, Pashkum, Soth, Wakha and Mulbekh.

While their social status is not comparatively as respectable as that of the past, the word “Kacho” is prefixed with their names and sometimes suffixed with “Wazir.”

Mala Lama in Balti Culture 

Mala-Lama belonged to the priestly class in charge of carrying out religious duties such as weddings, birth ceremonies, death ceremonies, etc.

They still maintain their status within society. Sheiks, Mulanas, and Aghas are the primary components of this class today, serving as advisors or as Qazis settling Sharia-based disputes among the masses.

We have now also switched to politics and combined their religious position with governance because of the support they receive from their followers.

Who is Sagaidpa Balti People 

As a shopkeeper, ironsmith, carpenter, cobbler, weaver, mason, etc., Sagyadpa were the farmers, artisans, and traders. They have elevated their socio-economic status and are seen by dint of their education and merit in almost every government department holding key positions.

Mon and Garba in Balti People 

Mon-Garba belonged to a class of blacksmith and musicians, employed as drummers and blacksmiths. They were viewed as an inferior class and treated with little respect, but not as that of the ancient Hindu community, where Shudras had to represent the upper three classes and often had to be ill-treated.

Here in the Darbars, Mon community used to sing, marriage occasions and other ritualistic occasions, as well as polo games at the same time, and used their profession for their living.

With the advent of Islam, they shifted their lifestyle, their occupation to agriculture, and other common means of subsistence.

Apart from that concept of social equality and the right to education also allowed them to change to seek jobs in government.

Especially with the advent of Islam, social mobility was seen, in some cases, one can see that a Syed (priest) may be labor, carpenter, contractor, shopkeeper, but vice versa could not happen as a laborer, etc. was not permitted to become a priest.

Past Dressing patterns 

At times, dressing patterns seem to be inspired by religious feelings, from the past as Buddhist and Muslim cultures” displayed variations in everyday routine life in general and social or religious ceremonies in particular.

The general pattern showed Goncha (long cloak), Tipi (headgear), Papu (shoes), Ltsakpa (Hairy back cover made of animal skin) with bits of regional variations in common usage.

The Goncha used to be color white. A person colored in marron (dark red) seems to have been a decent person in society. The shoes were made of cattle leather known as Papu, the top and the bottom is known as Kradpa.

Locally woven Goncha, piece of woolen laces, Skeraks over the Goncha and pants, Sngamia or Dhorma of the same cloth formed the common dress most of the time. A piece of woolen fabric, called Fingma or Fingtoh, often used around the legs to escape the extreme cold. Hat, Tipi, knitted from the fur, was used too.

Later, clothing from other parts of the country in this region began to flourish. Another curious tradition that we have had in the recent past was that unmarried girls used to wear white pants showing their purity and non-responsibility for household activities.

The religion of  Balti People 

In the 14th-15th century, numerous Central Asian religious scholars such as Syed Ali Hamdani, Syed Mohd Norbakshah, and Mir Shamsuddin Iraqi visited Kashmir for Islamic propagation. They had converted a large number of people to Islam during their stay in Kashmir.

In Kargil, Chhos Bom lday and rGyalbom lday, who had adopted Islam during a temporary stay in Kashmir in 1373, first propagated and promulgated it in Suru-Kartse and brought some Muslim Ulemas to this area and provided them with the permanent settlement at Mulbekh and founded a mosque there known as Khachy Masjid.

Buddhism in Kargil and Baltistan

Before Islam, Buddhist faith prevailed in Kargil and Baltistan that is still practiced in various pockets of the district by considerable numbers.

Even though there are divergent views of its origin in Ladakh, the fact remains that its tantric form is present in the region where Lamas and Chomos dominate the social order among Ladakh’s Buddhists.

For centuries there existed the custom of dedicating at least one boy and one girl of the family to the monasteries to lead the celibacy life altogether.

The men who are so committed will become the Lamas and the women will become Chomos. Every village of any importance has its monastery (Gompa) which stands at the highest site available and some distance from the village.

Separate Gompas exist for the Chomos. The Lamas and Chomos reside in those Gompas which contain the usual Buddhist adoration appendages.

Before Buddhism 

There was a prevalent religious belief in Bon earlier to Buddhism. In the region, there are several Bon religious remains throughout Ladakh, such as Youn-Drung Gonpa or the Mystic Cross Monastery, Alters of Bon in several places, Bon-Yul and many superstitious rituals and customs associated with the faith. It is believed that before the Buddhist faith became common, this faith spread out from Tibet.

They were called Ponchhos or Bonchhos or “the sacred circle,” they are called Ling Chhos by Francke. Its followers called themselves Tirthakars, were in principle atheistic, believed in the spirit of water, and were superstitious, which is still traced in the existing society.

Read also: The Chaqchan Mosque of Khaplu Baltistan


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