Gilgit-Balistan), formerly known as the Northern Areas, is the northernmost territory administered by Pakistan. It borders Azad Kashmir to the south, the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the west, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan to the north, the Xinjiang region of China, to the east and northeast, and the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast.
The territory of present-day Gilgit-Baltistan became a separate administrative unit in 1970 under the name “Northern Areas”. It was formed by the amalgamation of the former Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan district and several small former princely states, the larger of which being Hunza and Nagar.
Gilgit-Baltistan covers an area of over 72,971 km² (28,174 sq mi) and is highly mountainous. It had an estimated population of 1,800,000 in 2015. Its capital city is Gilgit (population 216,760 est). Gilgit-Baltistan is home to five of the “eight-thousanders” and to more than fifty peaks above 7,000 metres (23,000 ft). Three of the world’s longest glaciers outside the polar regions are found in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The Hanzal stupa dates from the Buddhist era
“The ancient Stupa – rock carvings of Buddha, everywhere in the region is a pointer to the firm hold of the Buddhist rules for such a long time.”
The rock carvings found in various places in Gilgit-Baltistan, especially those found in the Passu village of Hunza, suggest a human presence since 2000 BC. Within the next few centuries after human settlement in the Tibetan plateau, this region became inhabited by Tibetans, who preceded the Balti people of Baltistan. Today Baltistan bears similarity to Ladakh physically and culturally (although not religiously). Dards are found mainly in the western areas. These people are the Shina-speaking peoples of Gilgit, Chilas, Astore and Diamir while in Hunza and in the upper regions Burushaski and Khowar speakers dominate. The Dards find mention in the works of Herodotus, Nearchus, Megasthenes, Pliny, Ptolemy, and the geographical lists of the Puranas. In the 1st century the people of these regions were followers of the Bon religion while in the 2nd century they followed Buddhism.
Between 399 and 414, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian visited Gilgit-Baltistan, while in the 6th century Somana Palola (greater Gilgit-Chilas) was ruled by an unknown king. Between 627 and 645, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang travelled through this region on his pilgrimage to India.
According to Chinese records from the Tang dynasty, between the 600s and the 700s, the region was governed by a Buddhist dynasty referred to as Bolü (Chinese: 勃律; pinyin: bólǜ), also transliterated as Palola, Patola, Balur. They are believed to be the Palola Sāhi dynasty mentioned in a Brahmi inscription, and are devout adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism. At the time, Little Palola was used to refer to Gilgit, while Great Palola was used to refer to Baltistan. However, the records do not consistently disambiguate the two.
In mid-600s, Gilgit came under Chinese suzerainty after the fall of Western Turkic Khaganate due to Tang military campaigns in the region. In late 600s CE, the rising Tibetan Empire wrestled control of the region from the Chinese. However, faced with growing influence of the Umayyad Caliphate and then the Abbasid Caliphate to the west, the Tibetans were forced to ally themselves with the Islamic caliphates. The region was then contested by Chinese and Tibetan forces, and their respective vassal states, until the mid-700s. Rulers of Gilgit formed an alliance with the Tang Chinese and held back the Arabs with their help.
Between 644 and 655, Navasurendrāditya-nandin became king of Palola Sāhi dynasty in Gilgit. Numerous Sanskrit inscriptions, including the Danyor Rock Inscriptions, were discovered to be from his reign. In late 600s and early 700s, Jayamaṅgalavikramāditya-nandin was king of Gilgit.
According to Chinese court records, in 717 and 719 respectively, delegations of a ruler of Great Palola (Baltistan) named Su-fu-she-li-ji-li-ni pinyin) reached the Chinese imperial court. By at least 719/720, Ladakh (Mard) became part of the Tibetan Empire. By that time, Buddhism was practiced in Baltistan, and Sanskrit was the written language.
In 720, the delegation of Surendrāditya; pinyin: sūlíntuóyìzhī) reached the Chinese imperial court. He was referred to by the Chinese records as the king of Great Palola; however, it is unknown if Baltistan was under Gilgit rule at the time. The Chinese emperor also granted the ruler of Cashmere, Chandrāpīḍa (“Tchen-fo-lo-pi-li”), the title of “King of Cashmere”. By 721/722, Baltistan had came under the influence of the Tibetan Empire.
In 721–722, Tibetan army attempted but failed to capture Gilgit or Bruzha (Yasin valley). By this time, according to Chinese records, the king of Little Palola was Mo-ching-mang (Chinese:; pinyin: méijǐnmáng). He had visited Tang court requesting military assistance against the Tibetans. Between 723–728, the Korean Buddhist pilgrim Hyecho passed through this area. In 737/738, Tibetan troops under the leadership of Minister Bel Kyesang Dongtsab of Emperor Me Agtsom took control of Little Palola. By 747, the Chinese army under the leadership of the ethnic-Korean commander Gao Xianzhi had recaptured Little Palola. Great Palola was subsequently captured by the Chinese army in 753 under the military Governor Feng Changqing. However, by 755, due to the An Lushan rebellion, the Tang Chinese forces withdrew and was no longer able to exert influence in Central Asia and in the regions around Gilgit-Baltistan. The control of the region was left to the Tibetan Empire. They referred to the region as Bruzha, a toponym that is consistent with the ethnonym “Burusho” used today. Tibetan control of the region lasted until late-800s CE.
Turkic tribes practicing Zoroastrianism arrived in Gilgit during the 7th century, and founded the Trakhan dynasty in Gilgit.
In the 14th century Sufi Muslim preachers from Persia and Central Asia introduced Islam in Baltistan. Famous amongst them was Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani who came via Kashmir while in the Gilgit region Islam entered in the same century through Turkic Tarkhan rulers. Gilgit-Baltistan was ruled by many local rulers, amongst whom the Maqpon dynasty of Skardu and the Rajas of Hunza were famous. The Maqpons of Skardu unfied Gilgit-Baltistan with Chitral and Ladakh, especially in the era of Ali Sher Khan Anchan who had friendly relations with the Mughal court. Anchan reign brought prosperity and entertained art, sport, and variety in architecture. He introduced polo to the Gilgit region and from Chitral he sent a group of musicians to Delhi to learn Indian music; the Mughal architecture influenced the architecture of the region as well. Later Anchan in his successors Abdal Khan had great influence though in the popular literature of Baltistan he is still alive as dark figure by the nickname “Mizos” “man-eater”. The last Maqpons Raja, Ahmed Shah, ruled all of Baltistan between 1811–1840. The areas of Gilgit, Chitral and Hunza had already become independent of the Maqpons.
Before the demise of Shribadat, a group of Shin people migrated from Gilgit Dardistan and settled in the Dras and Kharmang areas. The descendants of those Dardic people can be still found today, and are believed to have maintained their Dardic culture and Shina language up to the present time.
In November 1839, Dogra commander Zorawar Singh, whose allegiance was to Gulab Singh, started his campaign against Baltistan. By 1840 he conquered Skardu and captured its ruler, Ahmad Shah. Ahmad Shah was then forced to accompany Zorawar Singh on his raid into Western Tibet. Meanwhile, Baghwan Singh was appointed as administrator (Thanadar) in Skardu. But in the following year, Ali Khan of Rondu, Haidar Khan of Shigar and Daulat Ali Khan from Khaplu led a successful uprising against the Dogras in Baltistan and captured the Dogra commander Baghwan Singh in Skardu.
In 1842, Dogra Commander Wasir Lakhpat, with the active support of Ali Sher Khan (III) from lKartaksho, conquered Baltistan for the second time. There was a violent capture of the fortress of Kharphocho. Haidar Khan from Shigar, one of the leaders of the uprising against the Dogras, was imprisoned and died in captivity. Gosaun was appointed as administrator (Thanadar) of Baltistan and till 1860, the entire region of Gilgit-Baltistan was under the Sikhs and then the Dogras.
After the defeat of the Sikhs in the First Anglo-Sikh War, the region became a part of the princely state called Jammu and Kashmir which since 1846 remained under the rule of the Dogras. The population in Gilgit perceived itself to be ethnically different from Kashmiris and disliked being ruled by the Kashmir state. The region remained with the princely state, with temporary leases of some areas assigned to the British, until 1 November 1947.
First Kashmir War
After Pakistan’s independence, Jammu and Kashmir initially remained an independent state. Later on 22 October 1947, tribal militias backed by Pakistan crossed the border into Jammu and Kashmir. Local tribal militias and the Pakistani armed forces moved to take Srinagar but on reaching Uri they encountered defensive forces. Hari Singh made a plea to India for assistance and signed the Instrument of Accession.
Gilgit’s population did not favour the State’s accession to India. The Muslims of the Frontier Districts Province (modern day Gilgit-Baltistan) had wanted to join Pakistan. Sensing their discontent, Major William Brown, the Maharaja’s commander of the Gilgit Scouts, mutinied on 1 November 1947, overthrowing the Governor Ghansara Singh. The bloodless coup d’etat was planned by Brown to the last detail under the code name “Datta Khel”, which was also joined by a rebellious section of the Jammu and Kashmir 6th Infantry under Mirza Hassan Khan. Brown ensured that the treasury was secured and minorities were protected. A provisional government (Aburi Hakoomat) was established by the Gilgit locals with Raja Shah Rais Khan as the president and Mirza Hassan Khan as the commander-in-chief.
While the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan expressed a desire to join Pakistan after gaining independence from Maharaja Hari Singh, Pakistan declined to merge the region into itself because of the territory’s link to Jammu and Kashmir.
Gilgit-Baltistan is administered as three divisions and ten districts
Gilgit-Baltistan is administratively divided into three divisionswhich, in turn, are divided into ten districts, consisting of the four Baltistan districts of Skardu, Shigar, Kharmang, and Ghanche, and the four Gilgit districts of Gilgit, Ghizer, Hunza and Nagar and two districts of Diamer and Astore are part of Diamer Division. The principal administrative centers are the towns of Gilgit and Skardu.
Combined population of Skardu, Shigar and Kharmang Districts. Shigar and Kharmang Districts were carved out of Skardu District after 1998. The estimated population of Gilgit-Baltistan was about 1.8 million in 2015 and the overall population growth rate between 1998 and 2011 was 63.1% making it 4.85% annually.
Gilgit-Baltistan borders Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province to the west, a small portion of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan to the north, China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to the northeast, the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast, and the Pakistani-administered state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir to the south.
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to all five of Pakistan’s “eight-thousanders” and to more than fifty peaks above 7,000 metres (23,000 ft). Gilgit and Skardu are the two main hubs for expeditions to those mountains. The region is home to some of the world’s highest mountain ranges. The main ranges are the Karakoram and the western Himalayas. The Pamir Mountains are to the north, and the Hindu Kush lies to the west. Amongst the highest mountains are K2 (Mount Godwin-Austen) and Nanga Parbat, the latter being one of the most feared mountains in the world.
Three of the world’s longest glaciers outside the polar regions are found in Gilgit-Baltistan: the Biafo Glacier, the Baltoro Glacier, and the Batura Glacier. There are, in addition, several high-altitude lakes in Gilgit-Baltistan:
The Deosai Plains, are located above the tree line and constitute the second-highest plateau in the world at 4,115 metres (14,500 feet) after Tibet. The plateau lies east of Astore, south of Skardu and west of Ladakh. The area was declared as a national park in 1993. The Deosai Plains cover an area of almost 5,000 square kilometres (1,900 sq mi). For over half the year (between September and May), Deosai is snow-bound and cut off from rest of Astore and Baltistan in winters. The village of Deosai lies close to Chilum chokki and is connected with the Kargil district of Ladakh through an all-weather road.
Rock art and petroglyphs
There are more than 50,000 pieces of rock art (petroglyphs) and inscriptions all along the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan, concentrated at ten major sites between Hunza and Shatial. The carvings were left by invaders, traders, and pilgrims who passed along the trade route, as well as by locals. The earliest date back to between 5000 and 1000 BCE, showing single animals, triangular men and hunting scenes in which the animals are larger than the hunters. These carvings were pecked into the rock with stone tools and are covered with a thick patina that proves their age.
The ethnologist Karl Jettmar has pieced together the history of the area from inscriptions and recorded his findings in Rock Carvings and Inscriptions in the Northern Areas of Pakistan and the later-released Between Gandhara and the Silk Roads — Rock Carvings Along the Karakoram Highway. Many of these carvings and inscriptions will be inundated and/or destroyed when the planned Basha-Diamir dam is built and the Karakoram Highway is widened.
The climate of Gilgit-Baltistan varies from region to region, surrounding mountain ranges creates sharp variations in weather. The eastern part has the moist zone of the western Himalayas, but going toward Karakoram and Hindu Kush, the climate dries considerably.
There are towns like Gilgit and Chilas that are very hot during the day in summer yet cold at night and valleys like Astore, Khaplu, Yasin, Hunza, and Nagar, where the temperatures are cold even in summer.
The economy of the region is primarily based on a traditional route of trade, the historic Silk Road. The China Trade Organization forum led the people of the area to actively invest and learn modern trade know-how from its Chinese neighbor Xinjiang. Later, the establishment of a chamber of commerce and the Sust dry port (in Gojal Hunza) are milestones. The rest of the economy is shouldered by mainly agriculture and tourism. Agricultural products are wheat, corn (maize), barley, and fruits. Tourism is mostly in trekking and mountaineering, and this industry is growing in importance.
In early September 2009, Pakistan signed an agreement with the People’s Republic of China for a major energy project in Gilgit-Baltistan which includes the construction of a 7,000-megawatt dam at Bunji in the Astore District.
The Trango Towers offer some of the largest cliffs and most challenging rock climbing in the world, and every year a number of expeditions from all corners of the globe visit Karakoram to climb the challenging granite.
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to more than 20 peaks of over 20,000 feet (6,100 m), including K-2 the second highest mountain on Earth. Other well known peaks include Masherbrum (also known as K1), Broad Peak, Hidden Peak, Gasherbrum II, Gasherbrum IV, and Chogolisa, situated in Khaplu Valley.
The Karakoram Highway connects Islamabad to Gilgit and Skardu, which are the two major hubs for mountaineering expeditions in Gilgit-Baltistan. Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) offers bus and jeep transport service to the two hubs and several other popular destinations, lakes, and glaciers in the area. Landslides on the Karakoram Highway are very common. The Karakoram Highway connects Gilgit to Tashkurgan Town, Kashgar, China via Sust, the customs and health-inspection post on the Gilgit-Baltistan side, and the Khunjerab Pass, the highest paved international border crossing in the world at 4,693 metres (15,397 ft).
Gilgit-Baltistan is a multilingual region where Urdu being a national and official language serves as the lingua franca for inter ethnic communications. English is co-official and also used in education, while Arabic is used for religious purposes. The table below shows a breakup of Gilgit-Baltistan first-language speakers.
It is a Dardic language spoken by the majority in six tehsils (Gilgit, Diamir/Chilas, Darel/Tangir, Astore, Puniyal/Gahkuch and Rondu).
It is spoken by the majority in five tehsils (Skardu/Shigar, Kharmang, Gultari, Khaplu and Mashabrum). It is from the Tibetan language family and has Urdu borrowings.
It is spoken by the majority in four tehsils (Nagar 1, Hunza/Aliabad, Nagar II, and Yasin). It is a language isolate that has borrowed considerable Urdu vocabulary.
It is spoken by the majority in two tehsils (Gupis and Ishkomen) but also spoken in Yasin and Puniyal/Gahkuch Tehsils. Like Shina, it is a Dardic language.
It is spoken by the majority of people in Gojal Tehsil of Hunza. But it is also spoken in Ishkomen and Yasin Tehsils of District Ghizer. It is classified as eastern Iranian/ Pamiri language.
Others Pashto, Kashmiri, Domaaki (spoken by musician clans in the region) and Gojri languages are also spoken by a significant population of the region.
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to diversified cultures, ethnic groups, languages and backgrounds. Major cultural events include the Shandoor Polo Festival, Babusar Polo Festival and Jashn-e-Baharan or the Harvest Time Festival (Navroz). Traditional dances include: Old Man Dance in which more than one person wears old-style dresses; Cow Boy Dance (Payaloo) in which a person wears old style dress, long leather shoes and holds a stick in hand and the Sword Dance in which the participants show taking one sword in right and shield in left. One to six participants can dance in pairs.
Polo in progress with the shandur lake in background, Shandur Ghizer.
Many types of sports are in currency, throughout the region, but most popular of them is Polo. Almost every bigger valley has a polo ground, polo matches in such grounds attract locals as well as foreigners visitors during summer season. One of such polo tournament is held in Shandur each year and polo teams of Glgit with Chitral participates. Though very internationally unlikely, but even for some local historians like Hassan Hasrat from skardu and for some national writers like Ahmed Hasan Dani it was originated in same region. For testimonies they present the Epic of King Gesar of balti version where king gesar started polo by killing his step son and hit head of cadaver with a stick thus started the game they also held that the very simple rules of local polo game also testifies its primitiveness. The English word Polo has balti origin, that is spoken in same region, dates back to the 19th century which means ball.
Other popular sports are football, cricket, volleyball (mostly play in winters) and other minor local sports. with growing facilities and particular local geography Climbing, trekking and other similar sports are also getting popularity. Samina Baig from Hunza valley is the only Pakistani woman and the third Pakistani to climb Mount Everest and also the youngest Muslim woman to climb Everest, having done so at the age of 21 while Hassan Sadpara from Skardu valley is the first Pakistani to have climbed six eight-thousanders including the world’s highest peak Everest (8848m) besides K2 (8611m), Gasherbrum I (8080m), Gasherbrum II (8034m), Nanga Parbat (8126 m), Broad Peak (8051m).