Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Land of the Giant

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Excerpt from Deosai: Land of the Giant

Wide open stretches of undulating grassland separated one from the other by elongated ridges with rounded summits, vast patches of wild flowers in beds of mauve, yellow, pink and blue. Moors with luxurious grasses rising above the knee and dotted with tarns, some over four metres deep, with crystal-clear water where snow carp glide lazily, reflect fleecy grey-white thunderheads in an azure backdrop. Snow loiters in the corries even in late July; nowhere, as far as the eye roves, can a tree be seen: only flowers, sedge and sallow. Nor too does any sign of human habitation break the ever-changing and unsullied monotony of the panorama.

 Deo nau Thuk – Peak of the Giant
Cutting across this fantasy of a landscape is a number of fast-flowing streams, frigid and clear as clear can be that teem with the sluggish snow carp. To render this dreamscape consummate, nature rimmed it with even higher crags many of which remain snow-bound throughout the year. While the plateau itself averages at 4000 metres above the sea, some of the surrounding peaks rise to 5500 metres. Snaking across it are several footpaths used by locals and trekkers and one unpaved jeep road. The latter connects Skardu in the northeast with Astore west of the plateau making Deosai a common part of the ancient lands of Bolor and Balti.

At that height the land, well above tree line, has short summers that begin in July and end as August gives way to September. Midsummer snowstorms are not unheard of and a spattering of rain every now and then is common.

Even in early September, morning frost is hard but the snow dumped by October and November blizzards thaws no sooner than the sun shines – even when it is up to fifty centimetres deep. Midwinter was once known to smother Deosai with snow as deep as six to eight metres. Climate change has reduced this somewhat. Nevertheless, the land slumbers under this snow, inviolable and pristine, until the thaws begin in June. Such is the ‘strikingly savage’ [G. T. Vigne, Travels in Kashmir] beauty of Deosai Plateau.

 A transitory camp on Chhota (Lesser) Deosai
It was the perambulatory Gujjars who gave Deosai its name. For over a thousand years, these owners of vast herds of livestock moved about the undivided expanse of pre-partition India in search of forage for their animals. Following the wheat harvest in the plains where they hired themselves out as help, Gujjar families began the long trek northward. One of the places favoured by them was the Deosai Plateau. And understandably, for here was a virtually inexhaustible trove to fatten their herds. As the first frosts began to kill the grass, they set out for the warm climes of the Punjabi plains. Generation after Gujjar generation followed this pattern. And they follow it to this day.

Such an immense wilderness that could have harboured a vast population, but being entirely devoid of human life was, naturally, the abode of spirits.This notion tickled their imagination and so in their own image, the Gujjars invented the Dev or Deo – the giant. Simple of mind and uninitiated to the ways of nature, this itinerant giant chanced upon this vast flat grassland. Here, he thought, was farmland capacious enough to meet all his food needs. And so as spring thaws began to erode the cover of snow and ice, he set about ploughing the land to sow his paddy.

The paddy grew, but only as much as the high altitude and the arctic breezes would permit. Even before it could fruit, summer began to give way to frosts that killed the crop. The Dev fretted, but fretting alone does not grow crops. A wily fox watching the Dev’s concern came around for a chat. ‘You silly Dev, you labour here for a crop that will be smothered by the snow even before it matures,’ said the smart one. ‘Why, even as you work yourself to death here, the people of Skardu are feasting on their luscious apricots.’

The Dev abandoned his doomed project, so it is related, and set off to seek his fortune elsewhere. Surely all this is not just fable. Surely the first Gujjars on Deosai would have tried their luck at raising some food and failed. The legend of the giant and the immense grassland where he had staked out a claim was attractive and it was carried to the plains by the Gujjars. This was Dev Vasai – the Land Inhabited by the Giant. The tale, told around their wandering campfires, was sprinkled across the great expanse of the Punjabi plains wherever the Gujjars went. On their own tongues it is still pronounced Devasai, but for the rest of the world it became Deosai.

Churning milk
The legend appears to have become fairly well-known even around Deosai. The Shina-speaking people around the western flanks of the plateau, who also shared the grassland with the Gujjars during the summers, have even assigned a home to the giant. In the heart of Deosai a solitary mass of rock rises about 200 metres above the surrounding plain and is known as Deo nau Thuk – Peak of the Giant. As for the Balti-speaking people, Deosai was simply Beyar-sah – Place of Summer Habitation.

From about the latter Middle Ages, there circulated in the plains of northern India vague stories of a vast table-land north of the snowy mountains of Kashmir. This high altitude plateau, so it was said, stretched flat, unbroken and treeless all the way to the deserts of Tartary. Such stories were still extant when the Great Trignometrical Survey of India was undertaken in the 19th century.

A Gujjar convoy along the headwaters of Bara Pani
In the early days of September 1835 the remarkable and rather mysterious Godfrey Thomas Vigne entered Deosai Plateau. Remarkable he was, for he was an accomplished raconteur and artist – the latter a very handy talent before the invention of the camera. And mysterious, for despite his extensive travels across the subcontinent, it is not known to this day, which master he spied for. That was what nearly every traveller did in those days and it is difficult to imagine this talented young man traipsing about the unlikeliest of places in India without such an agenda. Having worked his way north through Kashmir and entered Deosai via Alampi La in the west, he exited towards Skardu by way of the Burji La. In between, he met with Raja Ahmed Shah of Skardu.

A pearly smile and the scarlet of a heavily sequined dress
Even as he was entering Deosai, Vigne was informed by runners from the court of Skardu that the Raja was at hand having left his capital city in pursuit of some Kohistani brigands who were hiding in the neighbourhood. After a rendezvous with the Raja at the head of his troop, Vigne got to witness the proceedings from close quarters. The Balti soldiers waited in ambush and as the outlaws came within range, leapt out and set upon them. The marauders were taken completely by surprise and overwhelmed. Not one escaped for the Balti rule in such engagements evidently was to take no prisoners. The instantly dead were the lucky ones, but the wretch having the misfortune of being injured got front seat to the macabre dance of death performed by the jubilant soldiery. Vigne made careful note of the dance and the sangfroid with which the coup de grace was delivered from the Balti musket. Done recording that and the subsequent looting of the dead looters, Vigne confirmed that the plateau did indeed exist. Only it was limited on the north by the Sindhu River and not by the deserts of Tartary.

The brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) make Deosai famous
Although Deosai lies on the direct route between Srinagar and Skardu, it features in history but once. Toward the end of his reign, Shah Jehan made three unsuccessful attempts to annex Baltistan. The route used for these abortive expeditions lay over the Deosai. A good number of early European explorers and mountaineers also passed through the plateau. They were, one and all, struck by the dreary desolation of the plain. Several of these persons were possessed of that eye to spot the variety of wildlife to be seen on the plateau and its fringes. Notable among this were brown bears both on the southern fringe of as well as on the plateau itself. Their population on Deosai was ‘very numerous’ as observed by Vigne and a decade before him by William Moorcroft.

Devoid of human intervention – other than the perambulatory Gujjars, of course – as the Deosai has largely been, the plateau was indeed at some time in the past home to a large number of bears. Older men from the communities around the plateau speak of a time less than fifty years ago when walking or driving across Deosai entailed running into bears feeding by the side of the road.

DEOSAI: THE LAND OF THE GIANT by Salman Rashid, with photographs by Nadeem Khawar, (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2013), pp. 176. Price Rs 2,000

Related: Deosai Truths - Book Review by F. S. Aijazuddin, Special talk on BBC Radio

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

13 Comments:

At March 30, 2014 at 1:14 PM, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

The Gujjars are living in heaven.

 
At April 21, 2014 at 3:51 PM, Anonymous meher said...

Well said......Amardeep Singh!!!

 
At May 23, 2014 at 11:39 PM, Blogger candy said...

amazing fell in love at once the fantisies the joyful history seemed delicious ....... one thing not all of these gujars are from punjab a lot travel to the warm areas of mirpur and kotli (AJK) few have setteled there as well

 
At May 24, 2014 at 4:02 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Candy, There are indeed Gujars from Mirpur and etc. But the bulk of the ones on Deosai come from around Bhimber, Lala Musa and Jhelum.

 
At October 8, 2014 at 10:15 AM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

No article, Gujars also settled in Gugrate and the belt connected with Gugranwala and Mundibahauden

 
At June 3, 2015 at 2:56 PM, Anonymous Amna Ijaz said...

Asalam o Alikum! Sir, I finally bought your book from Sang-e-meel, Mall Road. I have gone through nearly half of it and the experience is just how it should be. Now that I'm planning a trip to Deosai in the coming months (that's why I bought it in the first place), I think I will be torturing whoever goes with me by telling the fables of the giant ants and the Dev of Deosai. :D Also, thank you for telling that the natives call it Dev Vasai. That has already created much fun among my siblings. (Y) Excellent work by you and Nadeem Khawar! God bless you.

 
At June 7, 2015 at 11:56 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dear Amna Ijaz, Nadeem and I are grateful to you. I am certain you will enjoy your trip to Deosai. But do tell the fables to your travel companions. People do like to hear these stories. Remember, you enjoyed them. So why deprive others who have not read the book. You be my spokesperson! Good luck on your travels.

 
At November 10, 2015 at 6:20 PM, Blogger Ayaz Parvez said...

Dear Salman sahib: We rediscover the real Pakistan through you every now and then. It is an unparalled service at least for overseas pakistanis like me. I have read almost all your books, yet keep discovering more of your writings........you should do some nostalgic pieces about the old glory of murree from 'kashmir point to pindi point', which is a mecca for my childhood memories at least, and I am sure many more like me. Thank you again....

 
At November 13, 2015 at 9:11 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ayaz Parvez, Murree never turned me on. Now it's a positive turn off! I am sorry, but I won't be able to help you here.

 
At November 24, 2015 at 11:04 PM, Blogger Ayaz Parvez said...

It surely is a turn off - but turn offs need to be documented too !!

 
At December 9, 2015 at 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

YOUR TRAVELOGUES MESMERIZE ME. GOD BLESS YOU
AHMED BAJWA

 
At December 10, 2015 at 4:52 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Ahmed Bajwa.

 
At June 29, 2016 at 4:49 AM, Blogger Adnan Ahmed Varaich said...

It's a privilege living in your age. And we always get the content we like to read, know, and follow. I am in contact with few 'fortunates' who are known to you and wonder if can also have such an opportunity to meet and communicate with you. Here is my contact info if you can ever be kind to me: +92 333 7651188, aavaraich@gmail .com, follow you on Twitter as @aavaraich. Keep enlightening us, Best regards

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days