BRI Carries Religion Through Gilgit Baltistan – Essay
By Deedar Karim
A connectivity route, primarily an economic venture of one of the key economies of the world, is also simultaneously enabling two scattered segments of a community spread across two countries to reach back to their abandoned counterparts. The project is China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), enabling the Chinese Buddhists to travel and visit the Buddhist relics in Gilgit Baltistan (GB), Pakistan. Similar is the case of Ismaili Shia Muslims of GB. For them, the possibility of visiting their community members in Tushkurgan – the autonomous region of Xinjiang Province in China, has increased manifolds. The legacy of these communities is far grounded in history that dates back to not just the Old Silk Route but even way before than that.
CPEC, under the broader umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), passes through the ethno-cum-sectarian multifaceted region of Pakistan – Gilgit Baltistan. GB is situated in the far north of Pakistan and shares a direct border with China. The CPEC’s potential to unite the Ismailia Shias on both sides of the border and provide a land route for Chinese Buddhists to visit GB are less talked about in the mainstream discourse surrounding CPEC, but on my recent visit to Hunza, GB, I discovered this unique aspect of CPEC through what I heard from the locals.
Travelling from Islamabad, I reached Gilgit city in ten hours. For an alien person, these travelling hours are gut testing owing to the narrow and winding route. In some places, allowing only one vehicle to pass at a time. The land road connecting Pakistan to China is the mighty Karakorum Highway (KKH). On the stretch of 1330 km, KKH is a massive construction project that is frequently referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. Often called the “Friendship Highway,” it is a symbol of the friendly ties between Pakistan and China.
The infrastructural vis-a-vis economic benefits of CPEC for the snow-capped GB are worthy of mention. Nonetheless, the project also offers a long-awaited opportunity for the people of GB to connect with the people of Xinjiang where Wakhi speaking Tajik Ismaili Muslims and Kashghar population are living for centuries.
Sectarian Demography of Xinjiang and Gilgit Baltistan
Before my trip to GB, I had read Peter Frankopan’s book The Silk Roads: A New World History, where I found that Xinjiang is privileged to be part of an ancient Silk Road. Moreover, the Silk Road was also the passage way for Muslims to travel to China.
Geographically, through the administrative region of GB, Pakistan shares direct borders with China’s Xinjiang province. However, demographically, both GB and Xinjiang differ from their respective heartlands in terms of population composition: more than half the population of GB is Shia Muslim. There are approximately 2 million people living in GB. Of this, 39% are Shia, 27% Sunni, 18% Ismaili and 16% Noorbukshi; divided into four groups according to their sectarian affiliations. Taken together, the Shia (followers of twelve Imams) and the Ismaili Shia make the Uyghur GB a Shia-dominated region. This contrasts with Xinjiang, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims.
After having learnt about the above-mentioned sectarian differences in the GB and Xinjiang, I tried, out of curiosity, to find out about the first Muslim journey to these mountainous regions, thousands of kilometres away from the Arabian land.
Early Muslims in China
To my surprise, the literature on early Muslim settlements in the GB and China is very fluid. Nonetheless, the relations of Arabs and Persians with China date back a distant history. Certain existing Chinese and Chinese-Muslim sources, along with Arabic and Persian ones, offer several suggestions regarding the origins of these encounters and the early Muslim settlements in China. A custom described in Taba’I’ Al-Hayawan by Marwazi (The Nature of Animals, c.1120) tells the tale of Shi’ites who supposedly fled Khurasan in 749 as a result of oppression by the Umayyads. They eventually settled in China and served as brokers between Chinese and Western people in business. Even more fictitious tales assert that Islam arrived in China as early as when Prophet Muhammad was alive. We find from early scriptures that Sa’ad ibn Waqqas, one of the Prophet’s companions, was sent to China.
Whomever first visited China, the remaining traces of the ‘Old Silk Road’ along the Hunza River speak loud that the journey was along this ancient route, which passed right through Hunza.
Upon entering the valley and after some interaction with the locals, the powerful winds and nostalgia of the ancient Silk Route hit me hard. In Hunza, it was surprising to see women roaming freely in the market, running cafes and shops in the heart of the commercial centers. Further, after reaching to Khonjarab top (where Pakistan shares its border with China), I found that Hunza is the gateway of the CPEC. In addition, Hunza is known for its picturesque beauty, higher literacy rate, people’s longevity of lives and a tourist-welcoming culture.
Dr Naik Alam (a well-known religious preacher of Ismailia sect and a historian) during our interaction at Karimabad – tourist center of Hunza, narrated that history is the guardian of the year 1891, when after Anglo-Burosho war or Pamir Crisis, Hunza was one of the final territories that fell to the British colonial sphere of influence in India. Earlier on, the Hunza Valley’s chiefs – the Mirs considered themselves technically independent under Chinese rule due to Hunza’s close geographical proximity to China. The Mirs hightailed from Hunza to Xinjiang after the British were victorious in the Anglo-Burosho war. Later, they were lured back by the prospect of acquiring more power and privilege.
Later, on YouTube, I watched a video of Dr. Hasan H. Karrar (an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan) mentioned in his talk to The University of Hong Kong that unquestionably, a little road connected Kashgar and Hunza. Cross border trade and movement was frequent between Hunza and Kashgar thus as recently as 1947, Hunza considered Chinese Turkestan to be its ideal cultural partner. On its way to Tashkurghan, the route passed by the charming little village in upper Hunza, Misgar (which has the oldest post office in the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region, dating from the 1890s), travelled through the breathtaking beauty of pastures with poetic names like Potehil, Yaram Goz and Ronhil and then climbed over Mintaka Pass ( 4,684 meter high from sea level).
In addition, history has also witnessed that the Mir of Hunza allied with China in 1847. This short-lived alliance came about as a consequence of Mir Ghazanfur Khan helping China combat Uyghur separatist Afaqi Khoja revolts in Yarkand; as a result, China gave Hunza a jagir (Land grant) in Yarkand and gave the Mir a stipend.
Furthermore, appealingly, the local gossips among the people of Hunza made to realize the linguistic based division. The Sheen (people who speak Shina language) live in lower Hunza, followed by the Burusho (those who speak Buroshaski language), mainly residing in Hunza proper (administrative and commercial center of Hunza), while Wakhi speaking people are based in upper Hunza. Intriguingly, same Wakhi speaking people are also living in Tajikistan, China and in Afghanistan.
The Xinjiang province has the Wakhi speaking Tajiks who are Ismaili Muslims unlike the majority Sunni Uighurs. Musa Khan (a trader who is a frequent visitor to Xinjiang province) told me that, unlike the Uighur Sunnis, the Ismaili Muslims in China are happy with Chinese policies and development projects in Xinjiang.
Notably, China’s largest Shia group, the Tajiks (Ismailis), make up a very small percentage of the total population. The Ismailis in Tashkurgan have a specific spiritual connection to many of the mazurs in the region. Typically, langar mazur refers to the final resting site of a saint, preacher, or pious man. In colloquial language, a shrine and the surrounding environment are referred to by the Persian word langar, which means, “anchor.” The Tizneff langgar in Tizneff Town area, about 5 km to the northeast of the county town, the Saidula, Landscapes of Spirituality 356 Wacha langgar in Wacha Township, 80 kilometres to the south-east, and two langgars in Tung Township, 180 kilometres to the east of Tashkurgan, are the most notable ones among them. Due to their popularity, these shrines draw tourists from all across Tashkurgan County. While Shah Talib, an Ismaili preacher, was buried in the tomb of Tizneff Langgar. arrived to the area a long time ago; as a result, the location is also known locally as Shah Talib mazur.
Having come to know the deep roots of Ismaili Islam in China, it is fair to say that once the CPEC is completed, the Ismaili communities of Hunza and Tashkurgan will be able to interact with each other freely.
Additionally, on strategic point of view, Hunza serves as a ‘buffer zone’ between the Sunni extremists of Xinjiang and mainstream Pakistan. Hunzais neither buy the radical version of Islam nor subscribe the Jihadist literature. Therefore, it is safe to say that the Hunza will be working as a filter of extremists sneaking in and out of China once the movement of people across the border starts upon completion of the CPEC.
Sectarian Violence and the CPEC
After the visit to Hunza and the discovery of a unique relationship between CPEC and religion, the rest of my journey was revolving around the theme of; CPEC and religion.
The first thing that caught my attention was the sectarian violence. I found that the problem of sectarian conflict in GB is not new. In the area, there has long been a dispute based on religious divides. Different sects, namely Shia, Sunni, and Ismaili, have historically lived in GB, although conflicts between them increased in the 1970s and later decades.
Shockingly, the prolong geo-sectarianism had rotten the social structure of the GB to its core. Resultantly, the bloody bi-partisan between Shia’s and Sunni’s has turned the scenic valley into a hub of sectarian based killings. Since the Jalalabd massacre, the Shias were targeted in GB on different occasions. In addition, Shias killed Sunni’s in revenge.
Notwithstanding, people of GB in general think that this tit-for-tad game between the Shias and Sunnis ended when CPEC was officially launched in 2015. Thus among the people of GB, CPEC is a blessing that halted the decades-long sectarian violence. Nonetheless, the extremists tendencies in GB are one of the major challenges, the CPEC has to confront with.
On the other hand, the extremist tendencies in Diamer district are yet to be subdued. History tells us that the Chinese do not have a good experience in this district. For instance, in June 2013, nine tourists, including Chinese, were gunned down at the Nanga Parbat base camp, and the responsibility was claimed by the Tehreek-eTaliban Pakistan (TTP) at that time. Recently, just next to Diamer district, at Dasu, Khyber Pashtun Khowa (KPK), 13 people were killed in a bomb blast, of which nine were Chinese engineers. On the Dasu dam attack, Pakistani state officials said it was a combined project of TTP and East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
The example mentioned above illustrates that the extremist circles of the Diamer district serve as a bridge and springboard for the ETIM terrorist to wage attacks on Chinese workers.
After reading about Diamer area, my inner voice encouraged me to go there. When I reached Chilas (the administrative center of Diamer), I found a remarkable story: Diamer District is the center of Buddhist scriptures, as are Gilgit and Hunza.
Gilgit Baltistan’s Untapped Religious Tourism Potential
The Buddhist relics made me realise that the unspoken but important aspect of the CPEC is religious tourism. Acceptably, Pakistan, in general, and GB, particularly, has ample potential for religious tourism. Through the CPEC, Buddhists from China (there are 185 – 250 million Buddhists in China) can visit the Buddhist relics of the area. Interestingly, to witness the statue of Kargha Buddha, thousands of Buddhists go annually from Japan, Korea, and other countries.
In GB, numerous figures and Buddhist relics are carved into the rocks. Three thousand inscriptions and more than 30000 Petroglyphs were reportedly found along the Karakoram Highway in 1986. (KKH). The largest collection of ancient images and writings etched into rock can be seen in Chilas up until Gilgit, starting from Shatial in Kohistan. Complete with the first discourse, one of the finest intricate statues of the sitting Buddha is still standing in Thalpan. Numerous travelers and missionaries visited the Darel and Shatial valleys, where they discovered hundreds of inscriptions written in the Sogdian language.
Besides, near the beginning of Kargah gala (just fifteen minutes travelling from Gilgit city), lies a rock-cut statue of Buddha on the fringes of Gilgit city. The nine-foot-tall statue is built. According to UNESCO, the Gilgit manuscripts are among the oldest still in existence. These manuscripts make up the sole corpus of Buddhist writings in the Sub-continent.
The memorable, adventurous and knowledge-packed trip ended with the return journey to Islamabad, directly from the district of Diamer.
On the whole, the history of GB, ongoing rapidly socio-economic changes (tourism-led economic boom) in the region and prospects, suggesting that the CPEC may work as a binding force of religions between GB and China. Though the challenges and hurdles are, need to be dealt with effectively and through peaceful means as, by nature, the people of GB are peace-loving and famous for their great hospitality culture.
Those people who are allied with extremist organizations could be lured by providing them with a sustainable livelihood, education system and health facilities. Admittedly, development is the key to eradicating religious extremism of any kind. Yet, the development should be planned, well-worked out and channelled, unlike the underway unplanned urbanization and development of Gilgit, Skardu and Aliabad cities of Gilgit Baltistan.
Deedar Karim works as a Research Associate at South Asian Times (SAT)