Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Apricot Kingdom: Baltistan in History and Fable

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Excerpt from Deosai: Land of the Giant 

For his voluminous treatise, The Histories, Herodotus came to be known as the Father of History. Born in or about the year 485 BCE in Halicarnassus (today called Bodrum, south of Izmir in western Turkey), he was a great traveller who spent much of his youth exploring and making assiduous observations in the known world of his time. The copious notes of his journeys formed the basis of his nine-volume Histories. As an accomplished storyteller, what he lacked in first-hand information, Herodotus made up from the travellers’ tales that he heard in the inns he frequented. Some of these stories that became part of his work were, naturally, quite far-fetched. Not strange then that a somewhat less charitable title for the Father of Histories is Father of Liars.

Though his wanderings took him to Egypt and Libya in Africa; across a great part of the Levant and the eastern parts of Europe; they did not bring him to the subcontinent. What he writes of our part of the world therefore is hearsay. Among that body of fact and fiction about the subcontinent Herodotus mentions, among other things, an Indian city called Caspatyrus in the country of Pactyica. Now, Caspatyrus is variously believed to mean either Kashmir or Peshawar (or even Kabul), but the clue lies in the name of the country – Pactyica: the name is unmistakably preserved today in the names of the provinces of Paktia and Paktika in eastern Afghanistan and in the tribal name Pakhtun. It is more likely; therefore, that Caspatyrus was on the site of or near modern-day Peshawar.

In a sandy desert of this country, Herodotus informs us, there lived giant ants ‘in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes,’ that threw up large amounts of gold while digging their burrows. These ants, we are told, were ‘so swift, that there is nothing in the world like them.’ The natives routinely went out with teams of camels to collect this gold, conducting the operation during the hottest part of the day, when the gold-digging ants retired to their burrows to escape the heat. Strangely, the hottest part of the day, according to Herodotus, was not at noon but sometime about mid-morning. And so while the ants slept, the prospectors loaded up their camels most surreptitiously so as not to alert the ants to their presence. If the ants became aware of this burglary however they attacked the prospectors, even pursuing them with great speed as they escaped on their loaded camels. It is not revealed what sort of end the gold-gatherers met with if the ants caught up. But we are told that the attempt was to load up the camels as swiftly as they could and get away with a good head start.

So much then for Herodotus on the gold-digging ants. Megasthenes, a Greek diplomat who waited upon Emperor Chandragupta Maurya as the ambassador from the court of Seleucus Nikator, the Greek king of Syria, expands on the matter. Having lived in the subcontinent for a full fifteen years from 300 to 285 BCE he returned home to write his Indika that survives to this day, albeit in fragments, preserved by the geographer-historian Strabo (circa 60 BCE-20 CE). Now, in the course of his diplomatic duties Megasthenes travelled extensively about the subcontinent and collected a vast amount of factual information. But that did not prevent him from including fantastical tales in his book as well. These obviously were yarns for the eager ear spun by native storytellers he met on his various journeys.

Megasthenes goes one ahead on the ants. He tells us that the gold-rich place of The Histories was not a desert but a high altitude plateau about 3000 stadia (550 kilometres) in circuit and lay in the country of the Derdai. Subsequently Ptolemy who wrote his geographical treatise in the 2nd century CE, mentions this same tribe as Daradarai. More than a millennium after Megasthenes, we again hear of these people from a Kashmiri Pundit, Kalhana by name. About the year 1160, Kalhana completed his masterful Rajatarangni – Chronicle of Kings – a wholly interesting, if sometimes fawning and peppered with flowery hyperbole, account of the kings of Kashmir from very early times. Among homespun histories it is the Rajatarangni that makes the first ever mention of the Darada. This obviously being the Sanskrit pronunciation of the tribe’s name that Megasthenes calls Derdai.

We are told that sometime in the 5th century CE, three ‘impure’ classes of people overran Kashmir. Foremost among these were the Daradas living in Daradesa north of Kashmir who, the chronicle goes on to say, were overly fond of wine. Almost another millennium was to pass before a German Orientalist and educationist who lived in Lahore told us after a field trip to the area that the people of Gilgit Wazarat (as it was then known) or the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan (as we today call that country) were the Derdai of Megasthenes and the Darada of Kalhana’s Rajatarangni. Having come to this conclusion after a peculiarly short field trip in the summer of 1866, G. W. Leitner, who taught in Lahore’s Government College, labelled Gilgit-Baltistan as Dardistan.

Leitner’s Dardistan stretched from Chitral in the west to Baltistan in the east and the several groups that lived in this vast country were all lumped under the title of Dard by him. Among them, these people spoke languages as varied as Khowar in Chitral, Burushaski in Yasin and Hunza, Shina in Gilgit and surrounding areas, Kohistani west of Chilas and Balti along the Sindhu and its tributaries east of the 75th parallel of longitude. While Khowar, Shina and Kohistani spring from the mother lode of classical Sanskrit and are therefore Indo-European languages; Balti is an archaic form of Tibetan. Burushaski, on the other hand, is the unknown quantity being entirely unrelated to any known language of the world. Interestingly, the tribal classification of Darada had fallen out of use between the 12th century when Kalhana wrote and the 19th when Leitner visited and there were no people in the country then (or now) called by this title. Nor too was the country known as Leitner preferred to label it. This was, in fact, the first ever use in modern times of the word Dardistan to denote Gilgit-Baltistan.

Going back into time again we find mention of a country called Poh-ho in the record of Sung-Yun, a Chinese pilgrim who visited the subcontinent about 510 CE to collect Buddhist religious books. He writes that this country was situated amidst lofty mountains and its citizens dressed handsomely in leathern garments. The country, lying north of the Snowy Mountains (Himalayas), was so cold that in order to keep warm the people were compelled to share the same quarters with their livestock – a practice commonly met with during winters in Baltistan until a few years ago. A careful reading of the text shows that the pilgrim was writing not from hearsay but personal observation.

The next century saw the Chinese Buddhist teacher Xuanzang on his epic journey through our part of the world. The narrative of this journey that lasted from 631 to 645 tells of a side trip from Swat to a country named Po-lu-lo*. Thence the pilgrim returned to Swat and proceeded to Taxila. We are told that Po-lu-lo lying in the midst of the ‘Snowy Mountains’ produced sufficient gold to be rich enough to pay for other necessary supplies. The people, however, were said to be uncultured possessed of little humanity, justice or politeness. They dressed in woollen garments; their appearance was coarse and unpleasant. The country, Xuanzang wrote, followed Buddhism and there were about a hundred active monasteries to serve the spiritual needs of the people. It is remarkable that a people dressing handsomely and therefore possessed of a degree of sophistication and refinement should, within the space of a hundred years, be reduced to mere savages – despite a wealth of the noble metals. One or the other of the pilgrims, it seems, was, for whatever reason, either not very accurate in his observation or true in his reporting.

To sum up the above, Herodotus and Megasthenes only succeed in confounding their readers concerning the location of the country of gold-digging ants and the Derdai or, as Leitner classified them, the Dards. Neither gives us any telling detail of this strange land. Meanwhile, we have the geographer Ptolemy introducing yet another name relevant to this discussion. With reference to the various tribes inhabiting the mountainous country between the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya of Uzbekistan) and the Himalayas, he mentions, besides the Daradarai, one group called Byltai. In the two thousand years since Ptolemy, the name of the Balti people has not changed at all.

In giving the location of Bolor as lying within the Snowy Mountains, their term for the Himalayas, the Chinese pilgrims bring us a little closer to understanding the geography of this country. It is very strange, however, that while the Chinese travellers completely missed out the tribal names Dard or Balti, Kalhana took no notice whatsoever of the country of Bolor or Balti. Contemporary Tibetan sources mention Balti people and their country that lay on the western edge of Tibet. They do not know it by the any other names, however. This shows that these various names were in use from very early times and that different nations knew the same people by different titles.

The annals of the T’ang dynasty (CE 618-907) of China record the expansion of imperial Chinese interests to the land of Little and Great P’o-liu, a variation of the Po-lu-lo mentioned earlier. From the translation of these records by Professor Edouard Chavannes we learn that Little P’o-liu included Gilgit and the country westward as far as Chitral, while Great P’o-liu was Baltistan. That is, in medieval times the generic name for the tract of mountain country stretching from Baltistan to Chitral along the right bank of the Sindhu River on the south and the Pamir region on the north was Po-lu-lo, P’o-liu or Bolor.

Sometime between the years 670 and 690 the Tibetans, who had already been in possession of Ladakh for a long time, also took control of Bolor. Slowly they expanded westward to occupy Gilgit and Yasin valley in order to eventually maintain a large military presence as far away as Wakhan. It was not until 747 that the Chinese were able to rout them from this country. But in the fifty or so years that the Tibetans held it, they appear to have considerably altered the ethnography of Great Bolor through inter-marriages with the original population. The result, a curious mix of Aryan and Tibetan blood found in Baltistan, prompted an early 20th century anthropologist to label this country ‘a living anthropological museum.’

It was during this period of Tibetan occupation that the language of Baltistan changed from the original Indo-European Shina to Balti, an archaic form of Tibetan, that one today hears in the country. This overwhelming change was, however, confined to Baltistan alone, because two hundred and fifty years later the new language had not completely swamped the older ones in other parts of Bolor. The curtain concealing the issue of language as well as the geographical location of this mysterious land lifts a little more with Abu Rehan al Beruni, one of the greatest Oriental minds of the Middle Ages.

Al Beruni, a native of Central Asia then living under duress in Ghazni in Afghanistan, came to India in 1017 CE to spend the next two decades leaning Indian languages, arts and sciences. Beyond the plains of Kashmir near the mountains of Bolor, his Kitab al Hind (Book of India) informs us, the country was populated by Turkish people who spoke a Turkish dialect. His use of the term ‘Turkish’ implies a distinct Aryan physiognomy and an Indo-European language. Evidently then, as now, Shina was the prevalent language of Little Bolor. Among the towns of this country, he enumerates Gilgit, Aswira (Astore) and Shiltas (Chilas), thereby giving us an idea of the geographical location of Bolor. Al Beruni did not actually travel this far north but he was a most assiduous researcher to have got these geographical and ethnographic details correct. Since his book acknowledges close contact with Kashmiri Pundits, it can be adduced that his information came from that same source.

A full five hundred years after Al Beruni, a turbulent event, certainly not the first such occurrence in the region, overtook Great Bolor. Owing to trouble among the various Mongol potentates of Chinese Turkistan, an army of Sultan Saeed Khan of Kashgar came across the Asiatic Divide over the Karakoram Pass and into the valley of the Sindhu River. It was the summer of 1532 and the pretext for this invasion was, as usual, ‘the desire to carry on holy wars in the path of God.’ Nothing of course was said of the plunder that took place subsequently. The general leading this army was one Mirza Haider Daughlat, a cousin of Babur’s (founder of the Moghul empire of India).

A man of learning, a poet and a diarist, Haider Daughlat wrote a book in his latter years, naming it the Tarikh e Rashidi after his master’s son, Abdur Rashid Sultan. This work is today acknowledged as one of the best sources on the Mongols. Among other things it gives us a remarkable view of Bolor or Boloristan. Bolor, a country of infidel mountaineers who considered nothing unclean and to whom nothing was forbidden but who followed their desires without check or compunction, consisted only of mountains, valleys and defiles with scarcely any level ground, so the Tarikh records. It was bounded ‘on the east by the provinces of Kashgar and Yarkand; on the north by Badakhshan; on the west by Kabul and Lamghan and on the south by the dependencies of Kashmir.’

Haider Daughlat had his bearings out by a good deal. While Kashmir does indeed lie to the south of what we know was Bolor; Badakhshan is due west and Kabul south of west. Kashgar and Yarkand lie to the north. Be that as it may, Haider Daughlat also refers to this country by its ancient name: Balti. From his description it appears that ‘this district [of the] province of Tibet’ was distinct from the rest of Bolor. Names of towns and villages that we hear of for the first time ever are Skardu, Shigar and Khaplu. Though Dardistan still remains ambiguous and we have to rely on Leitner’s word on it, we know from Al Beruni and Haider Daughlat of a definite location for Bolor and Baltistan and their neighbourhood.

So much then for the various notices on Bolor and Baltistan in history. Going back to the gold-digging ants introduced by Herodotus and expanded upon by Megasthenes, we have farther notice on them. Inspired by this ancient legend, Michel Peissel, a French anthropologist, spent some months exploring around the upper Sindhu in the early 1980s. From the Minaro tribe of Zanskar, just across the Sindhu to the south in India, he heard that their ancestors did indeed collect gold dust from the mouth of marmot burrows. He went on to conclude that the marmots were in fact the gold-digging ants of classical legend. Peissel sites this rich lode in the Dansar Plain in the extreme east of Baltistan near the village of Marol where the Sindhu crosses the Line of Control into Pakistan.

Herodotus placed his prospecting ants in a desert near the land of the Pakhtuns, but Megasthenes moved them to a high altitude plateau among the Derdai. It is of singular interest that from the roster of scholars who have dealt with this subject, not one has remarked on the change of situation of the gold-rich country and its ants in the hundred and fifty years between the two classical writers. A careful reading of other classical sources would show that hearsay routinely became as much part of historical or geographical record as exaggeration by the writer himself. One man hoping to unravel how the Greeks got the legends of the gold-digging ants was the eminent scholar S. S. Gergan. After three decades of research among the people of Baltistan and Ladakh, he was yet unable to figure it out. How and where the story originated is a tantalising question indeed.

It must be borne in mind that the subcontinent, a land as exotic as it could get in the classical world, intrigued the western mind. A western traveller meeting with his Indian counterpart in a tavern in, say, Babylon or Byzantium would ask questions. Sensing a gullible audience, the Indian would wax lyrical concerning the wonders of his country. He would invent dog-faced men that barked, men with long ears that they used as mattress and coverlet and gold-digging ants* – all stories that became part of classical geographies. There was never malicious intent in this fanciful storytelling, only an innocent desire to impress a credulous listener. Such exaggeration is something that the people of the subcontinent even today indulge in.

Moreover, it is remarkable that the land of the Dards, an El Dorado in classical times, was impoverished within the span of fifteen hundred years: Mirza Haider Daughlat found no gold mining in his Baltistan. Even the gold panning met with by early Victorian explorers was of rather poor quality that could scarcely bring the bread home. The stories of the great lodes of gold were just that: stories.

If there is one person culpable of connecting Herodotus’ ants with the marmots it is Godfrey Thomas Vigne (pronounced ‘Vine’), the second European to set foot in Baltistan (the pioneer being the veterinary surgeon William Moorcroft a decade before him). Vigne wrote that he could not ‘help entertaining the idea’ that the marmots of Baltistan were the ants of Herodotus. Once started, this mischief simply endured on its own impetus to climax with Michel Peissel’s book The Ants’ Gold (more on this subject later).

That then in a nutshell is the story of the land that was called variously Little or Greater Bolor, Boloristan, Balti or Daradesa and by an eccentric German researcher even Dardistan. To the Moghuls of India who were aware of the mark of Tibetan culture on this country, it was Little Tibet in contradistinction to Greater Tibet. Yet another name for the country was in recognition of the sixty different varieties of apricots that are to be found here: apricots for oil, apricots whose kernel only is eaten while the flesh is discarded and the apricots whose flesh is the delicacy. It was, therefore, not for nothing that Baltistan has also been called Tibet of the Apricots.

* Experts tell us that both Poh-ho and Po-lu-lo are the Chinese pronunciation of Bolor. This was the country around Gilgit and to its westward.

* All these creatures, and many more, run wild in the pages of Megasthenes’ Indika and in an earlier book of the same name by Ctesias, the Greek physician who served the Persian kings about 416 BCE.
Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 13 March 2014 at 15:15, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Thanks for sharing the story of Little / Greater Bolor, Boloristan, Balti, Daradesa and Dardistan. There are 3 villages of the Dards in India, a community partitioned across the Line dividing India and Pakistan. I was fortunate to visit one of their villages and had written about the Dards for Asian Geographic.

At 13 March 2014 at 19:57, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Amdardeep.


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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

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