Tibetans in Baltistan

Published: September 26, 2011
The writer is author of Jhelum: City of the Vitasta (Sang-e-Meel, 2005)

The writer is author of Jhelum: City of the Vitasta (Sang-e-Meel, 2005) salman.rashid@tribune.com.pk

Until the beginning of the 8th century CE, Baltistan was a country inhabited by the Indo-European Shin tribe. This was a time when the superpowers of the region were China and Tibet, both vying for supremacy in High Asia. Only shortly before, the Chinese had ousted the Tibetans from what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang. But then the T’ang Dynasty was briefly interrupted by the New Zhou Dynasty (690-705) and Chinese imperial aspirations were laid low for the time being.

Emboldened by the situation, the Tibetans began to expand westward. They annexed Ladakh and following the Sindhu River reached Baltistan. For the next five decades this country remained under their firm control. Intermarriages between the new comers and the original tribes were common to such an extent in the next fifty years that there arose a race of a fine mix of Aryan and Tibetan blood — the current people of Baltistan. It was for this reason that an anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century called Baltistan ‘a living anthropological museum’.

The original Shina, the language of the Shins that sounds so very like Kashmiri and Punjabi, was almost completely swamped out of existence by Tibetan. Modern Balti, spoken over most of Baltistan, is therefore an archaic form of Tibetan. Shina continues to hold out in pockets across the country, however.

Aside: until some years ago Balti was under threat. Then one proud Balti — and he has my deepest gratitude — Hussain Singghe, worked very hard to revive the old Tibetan script. It is now coming back into vogue and signs in the streets of Skardu and Khaplu are frequently written in the old script.

Not content with holding Baltistan alone, the Tibetans expanded westward. They took Gilgit and advancing along the Ghizer River, went up the Yasin valley. The head of this valley, north of the little village of Darkot, is blocked by a huge mass of snowy mountains. In their midst there hangs a glacier among several others which can be traversed due north to reach what we now know as Upper Chitral.

The icy grip of the Darkot Glacier gives way in the north to an area that suddenly reminds one of the title Bam-e-Dunya — Roof of the World — that the high Pamirs are known by. Here on the fringe of the Pamirs, the landscape consists of rolling downs, lakes and peaks which, after the jagged towering crags of the Yasin valley, seem deceptively low giving one the impression of being on the roof. The rock wall to the north is cleaved by a saddle that has for a very long time been known as the Broghal Pass.

It was to this country that the Tibetans came by way of Yasin and Darkot. Then across the 3,800-metres-high saddle of Broghal, they reached Wakhan, the home of Tajik and Kirghiz herdsmen. Here in the bleak and wind-scoured landscape where the Oxus River is but a piddling stream, the Tibetans established a large garrison to stake out their claim to the land.

Time went by and far away in the east, China was once again peaceful under the brilliant new T’ang king Xuanzong. Turkestan was in control and the Chinese knew that their adversaries, the Tibetans, had annexed Baltistan and maintained a garrison in the high Pamirs. If they were permitted to remain in this region, the hardy warriors of the Tibetan highlands were very likely to attempt to sneak into Turkestan by, in a manner of speaking, the back door.

That was not acceptable. And so in the winter of 746-747 the capital of Chang’an (Xian on modern maps) saw a flurry of meetings between the emperor and one of his most able generals, Kao Hsin-Chih. Interestingly, the general was not Chinese but Korean. If the western border was to be secured, the Tibetans, it was resolved, needed to be routed from their Wakhan strongholds. General Kao, so the emperor ordained, was to lead a cavalry division, ten thousand strong, mounted to the man, into the vast tundra of the Pamirs to overthrow the Tibetans.

And as the snows of winter gave way to the verdure of spring in the year 747, the emperor’s army gathered under the watchful eye of General Kao Hsin-Chih in the fortress of Chang’an.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th,  2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (14)

  • Adil Mulki
    Sep 26, 2011 - 9:14PM

    Salman sahib,
    Splendid read.
    Thanks for a delightful writ-up
    Adil Mulki


  • Ashok
    Sep 26, 2011 - 9:47PM

    Yes, Gilgit Baltistan is a very interesting territory. For some odd reason, the cultural legacy of this place is not something that seems to inspire many historians in the Indian subcontinent as finding material on the subject is somewhat difficult. I thank Mr. Salman Rashid for providing his readers with an informative write up.


  • A Rehman
    Sep 26, 2011 - 10:07PM

    Interesting, informative and well written. Hope there’s more on the way!


  • Sajid
    Sep 26, 2011 - 10:33PM

    Thank you, would like to see more on the topic please


  • AD
    Sep 26, 2011 - 10:37PM

    Thank you once again. Brilliant…


  • Enthralled
    Sep 27, 2011 - 1:01AM

    Lovely piece, very well written. Hope that the end is a cliff-hanger and a sequel if forthcoming.


  • gt
    Sep 27, 2011 - 2:03AM

    Ashok, there is PLENTY of material, you should go to the right quarters. There are many eminent Tibetan historians, teaching in English, in New Delhi, London, the USA, etc. Begin there. My honored teacher, Prof. Stanley Weinstein’s “Buddhism Under the T’ang” should offer yet more pointers.

    If you choose to pick up some Tibetan, Bangala or Sanskrit, you will have widened the field you can consult with profit in India. In the mid-600s, Song bstan Gampo, the Tibetan monarch, not only entered Bengal up to the Ganga, he occupied Xian and attempted to extract an Imperial Chinese princess as a bride.

    In 642, after Harsha’s death, we have the first recorded unilateral Chinese intervention into the affairs of the north Indian empire, launched from the Tibetan capital. All of these events and the exact circumstances, the whys & wherefores are all recorded in great detail.

    It all depends on your level of interest and your level of application to the subject.Recommend

  • Ashok
    Sep 27, 2011 - 5:38AM

    Thanks gt – I guess my search was limited to the world wide web.


  • elo
    Sep 27, 2011 - 5:43AM

    very interesting indeed.


  • Sep 27, 2011 - 2:51PM

    All above history reaveal that, Tibet is an independent country which isn’t belong to a part of China…. Hope China govt. should realiseRecommend

  • Anonymous
    Sep 27, 2011 - 3:17PM

    really, iz a true one n feels great to see this post. thank you very for this.Recommend

  • Irshad Khan
    Sep 27, 2011 - 5:01PM

    A piece of good research work from historical records.


  • Cynical
    Sep 30, 2011 - 11:52PM

    Brilliant, simply brilliant.


  • Cynical
    Oct 9, 2011 - 2:03AM

    @Tenzin Chokey

    I agree with you on the Tibetan sovereignity question.
    But Pakistan alongwitny other countries support China’s claim to Tibet.


More in Opinion