Lurking on the margins

Two civilisations, two worldviews still co-exist in a small village of Hunza

Panorama from village courtesy, authors husband.

We live in a little patch of old Hunza, a prosperous, highly educated village settled some 70 years ago by the courtiers of the principality of Hunza, this is an area that used to be called Gujjar Dass. The name explains the social origins of the place, for the Gujjara are nomadic herdsmen thought to be a thousand-year-old people of Kshatriya caste wandering across the sub-continent with their animals. Doubtless, they fled the repeated invasions of those who have coveted this rich subcontinent of ours through the ages.

So this village was a transit place of the Gujjar and their animal herds, Dass meaning an inaccessible plain, on transit to the summer pastures that grow high up in the Karakorams. These high altitude pastures appear only in the summer months when green grasses and bush spring up after the rush of snowmelt and gentle rainwater. In this grand landscape, the miracle of sustenance happens one plant at a time: one tuft of blond grass, one sprig of silver-green spearmint, one cushion of artemesia, one thicket of thorny seabuckthorn, one fountain of wild rose that repeat into a plenitude - an offering to all life in the mountain wilderness, especially for herbivores that live on plant life.

This was once entirely a barren Dass of tremendous aridity, of steep inclines and jagged peaks that touch the clouds; of charcoal, chocolate, gold, russet and black rock. Boulders the size of houses slide down the shoulders of these unstinting peaks, valleys are strewn with rocks the size of pebbles and everything in between from scree to giant slabs.

It is a landscape that would frighten all but the hardiest, most stoic men and women. And it is just such people who inhabit the village. Strong and compact of stature, the Hunzukuts, or the people of Hunza, like many highlanders of the world, are a type all their own. Physically, medical science notes, their phenotype reflect especially appropriate characteristics for life in these mountains.

With high levels of oxygen uptake in their lungs, shorter legs and narrower shoulders, they seem suited for the cold, dry, high mountain terrain with smaller surface areas exposed to the elements than other peoples. The nomadic Gujjara in contrast, are long, lanky, broad-shouldered people, their easy, loping walk always to be seen beside their animals like the Maasai of the East African savannas.

So it is that this village is shaped by the eternal contest between settled and nomadic peoples. Ibn Khaldun, the eminent 14th-century sociologist of the Muslim world, explains this contest in a definitive manner in his great work, the Muqaddimah. He explains that one way of life is not superior to the other. Instead, each carries strengths different from the other, which over time, reach a peak and then carry within the seeds of its own decline. In this way, the yin-yang of nomadic and settled peoples is a cyclical ascendance and decline across time. His case study area is the Sahara desert and the Maghreb, but the theory that emerged from his work remains as true here in erstwhile Gujjar Dass as it did in the Sahara.

The nomadic peoples of the world carry few material belongings and crafts. Their most valuable assets include their animal herds for sustenance, their language, the vehicle of their history and worldview, and their clan spirit or asabiya as Ibn Khaldun termed it. They are tough, aloof, sombre-faced and often scorned by others. Less than a century ago, the Gujjara that we still see on their daily herding forays in the village, owned all this barren land.

But the Hunzukuts negotiated the purchase of the lower parts of this domain and started with a project of fundamental transformation. For unlike the nomads who do not alter the landscape, they are great water engineers and inheritors of a princely civilisation a thousand years old. A civilisation built on notions of social justice, notably for two things: the just distribution of water from glacial melt, and an even hand between men and women.

Hand-made water engineering: that is the essence of this splendid, verdant habitation now. Gushing down rock valleys carved into the landscape by the movement of glaciers, water is channelled, shepherded, cherished and adjudicated by a long unbroken chain of customary practices. Honed across centuries, these rules of use allow fair water distribution according to need and without waste, in exchange for collective labour to make and maintain the irrigation works.

The demands of working this transformed landscape from barren to water-fed and green means that all have to work the land, men and women alike. There is no purdah and sequestration of power in this society. Women participate much more in social and political life in Hunza than other places, and famously, water rights have special rules that privilege unmarried, widowed and women-headed households.

Thus two civilisations, two worldviews still co-exist in the village where we live. For now, the water engineering ways are dominant, turning this barren land to green. But lurking on the margins, waiting for change to arrive, is still the timeless way of the nomad: needing no-one, changing nothing, but so rugged that survival with the animal herds endures like a seed clinging to a crevice in the arid rocks, waiting to bloom into plenty when the time is ripe.

The writer is a Lahore-based ecologist

Lurking on the margins