is separated by a 100 km thick wall of majestic mountains from China in the north. To the south is the mysterious Deosai Plateau (Deosai National Park) lying between Kashmir and Baltistan. In the East lies Laddakh and in the west is Gilgit and Hunza. Within an area of 28,000 sq. km lie 60 mountain peaks of above 7000m.
Baltistan contains some of the highest mountains and longest glaciers in the world. Further, the rivers and streams have formed numerous valleys over the course of time, which are inhabited and cultivated by the residents. Innumerable rivers and rivulets including Shyok, Siachen, Saltoro, Suru, Shingo and Shigar rivers, augment the mighty Indus River, which after bisecting Baltistan enters Gilgit. Glacial lakes are abundant in Baltistan and are of high touristic value. The glaciers – the longest in the world outside the Polar Regions, reaching to a length of 90 kilometers – surround Baltistan in the north and west directions, separating her from China and Gilgit.
Baltistan has four seasons; a short spring, summer and autumn, with a longer winter. As winters approach, temperatures drop to –25 degrees Celsius in the residential villages and towns. Rainfall is less than 300 millimeters per annum as the region falls outside the monsoon zone. Vegetation is scarce in Baltistan and found only in areas fed by streams and rivulets. The Deosai Plains, also called Ghybersa in Balti, around 5,400 square kilometers of sheer plateau at an elevation of 14,000 feet from sea level, are a refuge for the most endangered wildlife species both flora and fauna, including the magnificent snow leopard.There are five main valleys in the district Baltistan, Shigar, Khaplu, Rondu, Skardu and Kharmang. All of these valleys produce apricots, peaches, pears, grapes, mulberries, and apples in such profusion that this region is known as the land of apricots and apples. From tourism standpoint, there is no region close to equaling Baltistan for its natural and cultural heritage. Baltistan presents unrivaled natural beauty and culture. Its ancient rural settlements, grand forts and palaces, intricate wooden carving, Buddhist relics, shimmering valleys, civilized and peace-loving communities, idyllic lakes and high altitude wildlife laden plateaus such as Deosai make it a solid contender to qualify as a world top notch tourist and heritage site.
Tibetan Khampa and Dardic tribes came to Baltistan prior to civilization, and these groups eventually settled down, creating the Balti people. It was believed that the Balti people came under the Sphere of influence from the kingdom of Zhang Zhung.
Baltistan came under the control of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. Under Tibetan cultural influence, the Bön and Animist Baltis began to adopt Tibetan Buddhism from Indian Buddhism. Religious artifacts such as the Gompas and Chörtens were erected, and Lamas played an important role in the lives of the Baltis. Ruins of Buddhism are found at Niali Shigar, Skardu and valleys of Kharmang, Khapulo and Rondu.
Islam was first introduced to Baltistan in the 16th century with the conversion of the prince Gyalbu Ringchen, although mass conversions did not take place until the reign of the ninth Maqpoon King Gotacho Senge. It was not until the reign of the 15th Maqpon king Ali Sher Khan Anchan did the Balti people look forward to expand their territory and fostering relationships with the Mughal emperors.
With the decline of power of Central Tibet during the 11th century, Baltistan came under the control of the Shigari, Rmakpon and Namgyal royal families, and fostered a close relationship with Ladakh in the east. Similar linguistic and cultural characteristics of Baltiyul and Ladakh helped in forging an administrative unit that existed until 1948 when Baltistan was annexed by Pakistan. The Dogra Maharajas of Jammu kept the administrative unit intact and converted it into a province called Ladakh Wazarat (a province composed of Baltistan, central Ladakh, Purik, Zanskar and Changthang areas). Skardu, capital of Baltistan became the winter capital of province while Leh, capital of Central Ladakh became the summer capital. The province was divided into three districts namely Skardu, Leh and Kargil.
Centuries of Tibetan, Islamic and Indian influence have shaped the Balti culture into its modern form. Islam plays an important role in Balti culture.
Tibetan infuence can be seen in its architecture, where houses with flat roof painted white and sloping inwards are built, and 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. Like the Ladakhi Muslim architectures, older mosques show a mix of Iranian and Tibetan architecture, although strong Iranian and modern influences can be seen in the newer mosques.
Little remains of the pre-Islamic Buddhist culture of Baltistan, largely destroyed and supplaced by the dominant Punjabi and Iranian culture which arrived with Islam; this can be evidenced in the near-extinction of traditional Balti festivals such as Maephang, Mindok Ltahnmo and Srup Lha. Folk literature such as those of Lha Kesar and works of Ali Sher Khan Anchan prevail among the Balti literature, which has experienced a revival in recent years.
Although climatic conditions are harsh and inhospitable, people of Baltistan are among the most friendly and hospitable of mountain peoples in Pakistan. Evolved out of 106 years of slavery under the Dogra rulers and innumerable decades under local despotic Rajas, the predominant population of today’s Baltistan is religiously and ethnically homogeneous.
Baltistan is proud of her thousands of years of rich civilization. Her architecture, costumes, cuisines, festivals, dances, language, script and epics make her unique among her neighbors, especially within the contemporary Northern Areas. The local culture is a blend of that of Ladakhi and Islamic rituals, identical to that of Indian Ladakhi Muslims. Since partition, the residents of Baltistan have remained essentially people of Baltistan’s soil. They are devout Muslims, and in effect including two generations borne since the annexation of Baltistan to Pakistan have never distanced themselves from the cultural and linguistic ties to what ninety percent of the Baltis regard as Ladakhi cultural and linguistic heritage.
Of late, modern Balti scholars such as Ghulam Hassan Lobsang, Ghulam Hassan Hasni, Syed Abbas Kazmi and Mohammad Senge Tshering Hasnain have contributed greatly to the re-discovery of the Balti culture. Plans for the excavation of an ancient monastery and the preservation of the Buddha rock are planned, as the Balti go through a process of merging their culture with those of their brethren in Ladakh.
Recently a book, Balti Tamlo has been produced by Ghulam Hassan Hasni that contains 900 Balti/Ladakhi proverbs, idioms and expressions. Further, books have been written by authors including Hassan Lobsang on local Bon traditions and pre-Buddhist Baltiyul.
Brahmi was used for written Balti between the 5th to 6th century. However, with the introduction of the Tibetan script under king Khri Getsung-Brtan in the 727 AD, Balti literature flourished. It remained in use until the 16th century, when the Persian script replaced the Balti script. However, Persian script is not appropriate for Balti language as it restricts accurate pronunciation of the words due to deformation in writing form.
Sandwiched between the Karakoram, the Himalayan and Ladakh mountain ranges, the Baltistan region is highly valued for its strategic geo-political location. Its trade routes in the past have served as economic lifelines for the inhabitants of this region, who bartered goods while visiting East Turkestan (Sinkiang), China, Central Asia, the Indian Sub-continent, Central Tibet and beyond. Today, the region is sandwiched between three nuclear powers of Asia: China in the north, India in the east and south, and Pakistan in west.
Skardu, the urban capital of Baltistan, is located at 7,400 feet above sea level. Formerly the capital of the Rajas of Skardu, it is the widest valley in the whole of Karakoram mountain belt, and is the site of the longest airplane runway at such an elevation.
Several historical trade routes under utilization by Baltis for thousands of years open towards Leh, Kargil, Srinagar, Shimla, Manali, Yarkand (to China through Karakoram Pass), and Tibet. However since the war between Pakistan and India in 1971, the local population hasn’t been able to access the trading regions in the east and north, which has had a significant impact on the local economy.
Subsequent political events in Pakistan and the severe government policies have minimized the opportunities for infrastructure development. Baltistan has remained one of the most poverty stricken areas in Pakistan. Subsidized supplies from other parts of the country are the only source of essential goods when the region is cut off for months due to avalanches and land slides affecting the only road linking Baltistan to rest of Pakistan. This road was only built in 1982, prior to which the only source of transportation to Baltistan (which has an area three times the size of the Kashmir Valley) was by air, and dependent on good weather.
The literacy ratio in Baltistan is very low, approximately 20 percent for males and 3 percent for females. In valleys like Basha, Braldo etc. female literacy is almost non-existent. Health facilities are severely limited and joblessness has compelled many to leave the region over the years.
Baltis are agriculturalists, however, being a mountainous region, availability of cultivable land is scarce. Subsistence farming and animal husbandry are the main sources of livelihood for the Baltis. They grow wheat, barley, millet and buckwheat, and raise goats and sheep for wool, and yaks for hair, meat, milk and skin. These animals are also traded for cash. Horticulture also forms a significant source of income for the Baltis. However, there is only an average of two acres of land per household available for cultivation. Security issues compel the villagers to store rations for both humans and animals, which is then utilized during the long winters. During the six or seven months of long winter, economic activities virtually cease to exist.
Balti staple cusine includes Cha-phe (Tsampa), Ladakhi salt tea (Balti Cha), Marzan (cooked dough and yak butter); Thsodma (greens) and Chuli-Chhu (apricot juice). Cereals are planted in late spring and at lands with elevations not above 2,500 m, particularly along the Indus (Sengge Chhu) and Shyok river.
During the years when it is relatively calm and peaceful, a modest number of tourists both local and international visit Baltistan, providing much needed financial support. The region lacks major industry.
The re-opening of roads eastwards linking Baltiyul with Ladakh and Kashmir would allow the local economy to improve and thousands of divided families of Ladakh and Baltistan to reunite. Per capita income, which is a quarter of national Pakistani average (US$ 120) may also increase as trade opportunities and tourism catch pace.