Although we are eager to enjoy the benefits of increasing access to the outside world, we feel a strong obligation to preserve our unique physical and cultural environment. As members of one of Pakistan’s few mountain communities that retain a strong commitment to a surplus-oriented economy based on transhumant livestock herding and agricultural production, we also retain beliefs, knowledge, and practices relating to nature that has been lost elsewhere. These reside mainly in the community’s traditional Wakhi culture, which, because of Shimshal’s remoteness from the rest of Pakistan, has remained relatively intact, and continues to bear strong traces of the community’s fascinating history.
According to one of several popular histories of the community, the village of Shimshal was founded some four centuries ago by Mamu Singh, a Burusho from Baltit (Central Hunza), and a member of the Wazir’s (prime-minister’s) family. Mamu Singh was sent to Sarikol, Central Asia, as ambassador, but later fled Sarikol with his Wakhi wife Khadija, when relations with Hunza deteriorated. They were pursued into the Upper Hunza River Valley, as far as Avgarch Pasture on the slopes of Qarun Pir, where they made their home for several years before migrating into the lower reaches of the Shimshal Valley. There Mamu Singh built up his flocks of sheep and goats and explored up the Shimshal Valley, eventually discovering a hole in the ground, whose mouth was covered with a great piece of slate. When he succeeded in removing the stone, water gushed from the hole and flowed along with the remains of a channel that had been built by earlier travelers who had passed that way on their way over Pamir to Chinese Turkestan. Here in disrepair, but already constructed, was a channel from which Mamu Singh could build a village. At this time he was an elderly man, without children. However, after a miraculous visit from a holy man named Shams, Khadija gave birth to a son, by the name of Sher. Sher grew quickly to be big and strong, and an especially fine hunter. On one of his hunting trips, he wandered up a side valley onto the Pamir, where he met a group of strangers, who had with them a number of horses and one small yak. Both Sher and the party of strangers claimed the Pamir as their own.
Eventually, they agreed to resolve the dispute with a polo game, using all Pamir as the playing field: if Sher drove the ball over Shimshal Pass toward Shuwert, he would win title to all territory from Shimshal to Raskam; if the Chinese succeeded in carrying the ball to Shuijerab, Sher must relinquish all lands from Pamir to the Hunza River. Riding the yak, against the strangers’ horses, Sher succeeded in driving the ball over Shimshal Pass and beyond Shuwert. Having won the territory Sher began at once to explore it as far as Roskam. Half a year later, when his family had finally given him up for lost, Sher returned to Shimshal. He eventually married Wakhi women from Sarikol, who bore him several sons, the descendants of whom founded the three main lineage groupings of Shimshal: Gazikator, Bakhtikator, and Baqikator. Soon after, our forefathers established fealty with the ruler of Hunza, becoming the first Wakhi-speaking community in Hunza, the first permanent settlement in what is now Gojal (Wakhi speaking upper Hunza), and one of Hunza’s first communities to be a mix of Wakhi and Burusho social and cultural organization from its origin. Fifteen generations have passed since Sher’s adventures. Late in the last century, a missionary from Sarikol ventured into Hunza and preached the Ismaili gospel to the ruler of Hunza, who accepted the faith and endeavored to convert his subjects. We have been devout Ismailis since then.
More recent historical events are also recounted in local stories and are corroborated in the published accounts of foreign visitors. Some dozen parties of foreigners visited our community during the period from 1891 to 1975. Since the mid-eighties foreign and down country travelers have visited Shimshal with increasing frequency. Early exploration accounts stressed our community’s isolation, its apparent autonomy from the kingdom of Hunza, its usefulness as a place from which to stage raids across Shimshal Pass on caravans traveling the Leh to Yarkand route, and its susceptibility to catastrophic glacier dam-burst floods. The most recent of these floods occurred in 1964, destroying many terraces and half the original clustered settlement. Since then we have rebuilt on a dispersed pattern, and have redoubled our land settlement efforts, extending the area of terraced fields, improving (and re-improving) pasture areas, and developing terraces and plantations in some pastures and along the route into Shimshal.
Historical events are remembered in detail in songs and stories, and some parts are re-enacted in skits at community festivals. These provide us with guidance for the appropriate stewardship of our landscape and infuse our practices with meaning and an ethic of conservation, which is strengthened by a more general Islamic religious ethic of nature stewardship and respect for nature as God’s ultimate creation. (3) Hunting practices, which complement farming and herding as traditional sources of livelihood, exemplify this commitment to conserving nature. We have never hunted indiscriminately, and indeed only men with special reserves of inner peace and compassion were encouraged to hunt. Most hunting has always been collective: at the high pastures, hunters were required to distribute games among households, keeping only the breast and organ meat for themselves; in the village, the game was hunted and eaten only on ceremonial occasions, or to feed volunteers working on community projects. Hunters were admonished to shoot only the oldest animals, only one animal per hunting excursion, and never pregnant or nursing females (on pain of divine retribution). Indeed, one of our most treasured songs recounts a sad conversation between a baby ibex and her dying mother. In the past two years, we have, on our own initiative, abolished all hunting, except for a small number of ibex to feed the men responsible for herding yaks through the winter at Pamir, and have instituted a system of fines to enforce this ban on hunting.
Despite a strong and responsive local ethic of conservation and stewardship, we fear that changes wrought by the completion of the road, the introduction of hydro-electricity, the slow but steady flow of foreigners into the community, and the increasing orientation of our youth toward Pakistan’s urban core, will result in the degradation of our natural surroundings, and the loss of our culture. We also fear that external conservation efforts, like Khunjerab National Park (KNP) and Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP), both of which include parts of Shimshal, will impose rigid and contextually inappropriate restrictions, that will themselves be destructive of what we perceive as our special and historically-sanctioned relationship with nature. The Shimshal Nature Trust outlined below is the most recent of our efforts to improve our quality of life in a culturally and environmentally sensitive way, while retaining indigenous control of our environment. Since 1993, under the auspices of the “Shimshal Environmental Education Programme,” we have enlisted the help of local school children to collect survey data about household composition, income and occupation, herding, hunting and agricultural practices, wildlife and natural resources. We feel that we are now in a position to develop a comprehensive program that will (a) allow us to benefit from increased access to the outside, while (b) retaining the most valued aspects of indigenous culture and environmental practice, and (c) facilitating the proliferation of those natural resources valued by the international environmentalist community (i.e., endangered large mammals).
As the preceding paragraphs indicate, our community is well-positioned socially, politically and culturally, to succeed in this endeavor. We have a long history of collective organization and consensual decision making, originally developed to regulate the use of agricultural, hunting, forest and herding resources, and more recently mobilized for modernization efforts. Our existing political structure needs only to be adapted slightly to match the characteristics of a formalized nature management plan. Similarly, as we are already practicing sound nature stewardship, many of our indigenous customs need only be formalized, perhaps somewhat more regulated, and articulated in a way that resonates with the larger Pakistani and international ecological movement. Our largest challenge is not to develop a system of utilizing the natural surroundings sustainably, but rather to express our indigenous stewardship practices in language that will garner the financial, technical and political support of the international community, and that will persuade Pakistani authorities that we are indeed capable of protecting our own natural surroundings.
We feel that it is especially important to convince Pakistani authorities of our ability, and our prerogative, to care for our own environment. Numerous documents dating from before and after independence stress Shimshal’s continuous occupation, and single-minded stewardship, of our territory. Granting legal recognition to the Shimshal Nature Trust would be a productive way for the Northern Areas administration to recognize both our committed stewardship of Shimshal territory and our devotion to the greater glory of Pakistan, to which we are united in loyalty
The Writer, CEO & Founder of Pakistantourntravel.com is a passionate traveler with a deep love for exploring the breathtaking landscapes and hidden gems of Northern Pakistan. From the majestic mountains to the vibrant cultures, he takes great delight in immersing himself in the rich experiences and sharing captivating tales from his journeys. You can catch him as he unravels the wonders of this enchanting Pakistan and inspires fellow adventurers to embark on their own unforgettable expeditions. Connect with him @ [email protected]