Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Grit of Stone

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Archaeological research shows that soapstone cookware was in use around 3000 BCE. In fact, it may well be traced back much farther, leading us to contend that the first meal ever cooked by our primitive ancestors came off a soapstone crock. Easy to work, the soft stone comprising nearly 80 percent magnesium takes a long time to heat. Once done, it conserves the heat keeping its contents warm for a considerable duration. Those who use it believe it lends a subtle but distinct flavour to the food.

Detail of ornamentation created using a rasp on the exterior of a kwat
Discoveries in Indus Valley cities of Pakistan show baked soapstone beads in use 5,000 years ago. Though we find no crockery from the same material at the time, there is every likelihood it was in use. What we do know for certain is that from Chitral in the west to Baltistan in the east, communities in the mountain country were using soapstone pottery when the first European explorers ventured into our northern mountains. As little as 40 years ago, soapstone cooking utensils were still to be found in many homes. Today, these pieces, long disused, sit dust-laden in museums.

Thoqmus, northeast of Khaplu in Baltistan, sits under a great knot of high peaks and glaciers within earshot of the cannons going off on Siachen. Here, in one of the narrow alleys bordered by stone structures, Ghulam Haider sits in the street leaning against the wall of his home as he chips away with a simple hammer-like tool at what seems to be the making of a lid for the kwat or cooking pot lying next to him.

A disused and ruinous house by the road running through Thoqmus serves as a store room for Ghulam Haider’s artistry, the Himalayan ibex and blue sheep among them
At 65, he has worked soapstone into crockery for half a century. It was at his father’s knee that he and his elder brother learned this fine art. That was a time when the roads into Baltistan were just barely passable, permitting only jeeps and pack animals and industrial produce of the low country could only reach Baltistan in tiny quantities. Consequently, down country metalware was hard to come by. Until then, Haider and his brother assisting their father found a ready market for all the kitchenware they could produce. It was a good life as hard work brought in reasonable income.

Chipped nails and calloused fingers
evince five decades of dedication to
the art of crafting soapstone crockery
They were not alone, says Haider. Only three decades ago, there were 35 other soapstone artisans in Thoqmus, all equally busy. Thoqmus was then just one of many villages where this industry thrived to feed a demand across the length and breadth of Baltistan.

Every morning, Haider or his brother climbed a hill just outside the village, an hour out and an hour back, to quarry a lode of soapstone. The path was precipitous and unsuitable for pack animals and the brothers had to man haul the loads. Though there were other veins, this particular one was famous for the very fine quality stone with the right mix of talc, making it soft enough to be worked easily with hand tools. Cutting the blocks into manageable sized ones, the young men carted home loads of up to 30 kilograms each. The trips have gradually dwindled to once a week, says Haider, who now hauls back only 20 kilograms of stone.

Road improvement in the early 1960s ushered in lorries laden with all sorts of cargo into Baltistan. Soon the markets were flooded with cheap aluminium kitchenware at a fraction of the price of soapstone crockery. Demand for the ancient craft collapsed of a sudden. Now it was only the traditionalist in a family who preferred stoneware.

With expertise only in this ancient craft, Haider diversified. While he produced crockery on demand, he began to dabble with animal forms. The Himalayan ibex was his prized product, followed by a somewhat poorer image of the blue sheep. His first statues put on display by the road passing through the village were quickly picked up by army officers travelling to or from Siachen. If the crockery business dried out, Haider knew which way to turn his talent.

Today, he gets regular orders from passing officers and military suppliers and contractors. The larger animal figures take up to a month or more to produce but can fetch him Rs 20,000. Meanwhile, with the flow of Aga Khan Foundation employees coming into the area, Haider has found a small market for his traditional crockery as well. Nevertheless, with profound sadness in his voice, he says things could have been better if only this backwater of Baltistan had some tourist traffic.

If that were ever to occur, he would get an electric-powered lathe to work the harder variety of soapstone with considerably greater output. But the slackness of turnover as well as paucity of funds prevents him from getting the lathe for he is uncertain of the length of time it will take for him to simply recover his investment.

The simple tools of the soapstone crockery maker. With these, the master works intricate detail into his creations
According to Haider, he and his brother worked among elderly men some three decades ago. Today, none of them is alive. And Haider and his brother, 10 years his senior, are the last practitioners of the ancient craft. None of the brothers’ children are interested in learning the art and prefer instead to work outside Baltistan. And now, in the evening of his life, Haider knows that after him the art will be a thing of the past.

With stoic resolve, Haider says he has no difficulties. God has been kind to him and will likely be calling him back soon. But only when he has completed the work he has in hand will he go in peace. And with him the craft too will die. ‘So be it,’ he says without emotion.

Previous: Silence in Kosh Kalat, That Riot of Colour

Ghulam Haider can be contacted at 0581-646-1005

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 March 2016 at 20:39, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

A usefull information


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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