“Deosai has… a wildness to it,” a friend mused as we sat at the darkening edge of Lake Sheosar and contemplated supper and the great themes of existence—as one is wont to do at higher altitudes. Just after tea, two of our camp had announced their intention to skirt the lake’s perimeter. An hour later, we could see small figures in the distance having got about halfway but manfully trudging onward. Nowhere does proportion take on a more Wonderland-esque feel than here.
Deosai’s seeming ability to bend light, shadow, and distance gives one the sense of being entirely removed from the grubbier trappings of human civilisation and, in turn, an inimitable romance that has fed and fattened mythology and folklore since Herodotus. Deosai: Land of the Giant is Salman Rashid’s attempt to situate Baltistan’s highest plateau within the historical imagination. Importantly, it is not just a travelogue, but also an effort to communicate the fragility of Deosai’s ecosystem. His long-time friend, the photographer Nadeem Khawar, spent several months capturing the turn of the season, the area’s wildlife, its waterscapes, the local gujjars’ seasonal traverse with their cattle, and the hamlets that punctuate the lower outskirts of the plateau.
Rashid gives an exhaustive account of the origins of the fable of Deosai in antiquity, tracing it to the well meaning—if largely fantastical—Histories, in which Herodotus talks of a “sandy desert” near the ancient Indic city of Caspatyrus. What piques the historian’s fancy is the rumour of giant ants said to throw up gold while burrowing. The gold, he says knowingly, is gathered up by the natives and loaded onto their waiting camels.
Defanged, declawed bears flailing against a pack of dogs are considered entertainment
Thus begins the legend of Herodotus’s golden ants and, subsequently, more than a millennium’s worth of attempts to triangulate the location of this extraordinary site. A range of possibilities emerge in the accounts of classical and mediaeval writers—from that of the Greek diplomat Megasthenes to Haider Daughlat, author of the Tarikh-e-Rashidi—but as Rashid points out, most of them failed to reach any consensus on the precise location of Deosai.
Rashid’s love for the linguistic webs that connect geographies are characteristic of his writing. Present-day Baltistan, he notes, was known variously as Dardistan by the German scholar Leitner and as Boloristan by Daughlat; to the Mughals, it was Little Tibet. It is not until the nineteenth century with the swashbuckling Godfrey Thomas Vigne that Deosai’s gold-digging ants are linked with the small golden marmots that dash in and out of their burrows with all the clockwork regularity of the White Rabbit.
Rashid traces the plateau’s name to the local gujjar legend of a giant (a deo or dev) who, chancing upon the plateau, tried to cultivate crops and churn butter as the gujjars themselves did. “Dev Vasai” thus became “Deosai”—the land inhabited by the giant. The legend is one to which Khawar’s work does justice. He captures the flow of Deosai’s glass-cut streams, the grace of birds in flight, and the beguiling nearness of the horizon almost in homage to the plateau’s numinous beauty.
It is not just a travelogue but an effort to communicate the fragility of Deosai’s ecosystem
Khawar’s own narrative runs independently of Rashid’s but each dips smoothly into the other at intervals. The crimson and ochre of a gujjar wedding procession alternates with Rashid’s stories of nineteenth-century skulduggery and skirmishes with brigands. He recounts conversations with Balti elders who can remember encountering bears foraging for food at lower altitudes, while Khawar gives us the portrait of a lone bear and her flailing cub.
Here, Rashid brings us to contemporary Deosai and the first efforts by conservationists Vaqar Zakaria and Anis ur Rahman to observe the bears coming out of hibernation. While the attempt yielded no bears, it catalyzed the establishment of the Himalayan Wildlife Fund (HWF) and, through its efforts, the Deosai National Park. A series of research expeditions was organized to track the population of 600 bears so optimistically claimed by the Wildlife Department. As Rashid wryly points out, the bears existed only on paper. The actual population was staggeringly small—less than 30.
The expeditions also unearthed a wider range of fauna than expected: wolves, foxes, fish, and birds, all vulnerable to the human instinct to kill or capture for pleasure. Rashid’s bitter condemnation of the “sport” of bear-baiting is a grim reminder that, even 20 years after the establishment of a protected national park and HWF’s crucial conservation work, the spectacle of defanged, declawed bears flailing against a pack of dogs is little more than an entertaining spectacle.
Between Rashid and Khawar, it is their ability to etch the minutiae of both contemporary and historical human interaction with the environment that compels. These are the images one is left with: the mysterious columns of stones piled up by a passing Balti raja’s army to commemorate his dead soldiers; a moving cameo of the last Raja of Kharmang who now lives on a minuscule stipend of Rs 6,000; and the beaming postman with satchel and cap, standing outside the highest post office in Pakistan against the unlikely backdrop of glimmering green and white hills.
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
Labels: Books, Deosai, Deosai: Land of the Giant, Nadeem Khawar, Travel Photography
posted by Salman Rashid @ 9:00 PM,
At January 18, 2014 at 10:07 PM,
Nayyar Julian said...
At January 19, 2014 at 8:11 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
Indeed. Maheen Pracha is a trekker herself. She has done a good deal of walking in the region and knows the place well.
At January 18, 2015 at 5:12 PM,
It is a great learning from your review.
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