The living Eden

June 16, 2024

Exploring the beauty and ecology of the remote landscapes of Gilgit-Baltistan

The living Eden

Stones, plants, animals, the earth, the sky, the stars, the elements, in fact everything in the universe reveals to us the knowledge, power and will of its Originator.

— Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), Persian Mystic


The recent exhibition of photographs entitled Gilgit-Baltistan – Listen to Her: Whispers of the Valley (sponsored by the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan and ORCO in collaboration with the PNCA, Islamabad) is a journey to faraway corners of the earth for an intimate portrait of some of the world’s most spectacular natural places. From the steamy rain-soaked meadows of the Deosai Plains to the frigid lakes surrounding Ishkoman Valley, Zaheer Chaudhry, the photographer, takes us on a natural history odyssey to diverse and remote wilderness areas that reveal “what nature is capable of.”

The living Eden

Almost every culture has a myth about a place of origin where people lived innocently in a pristine land. The most famous, perhaps, appears in the Bible as Eden – the garden paradise God created for Adam and Eve, located between the Tigris and the Euphrates – one of the most fertile regions of the ancient world. That land once supported a great diversity of wildlife. However, it became overpopulated by humans and overgrazed by their livestock and is no longer a place one can turn one’s attention to when one goes in search of earth’s living Edens.

Chaudhry has spent much of the past 15 years looking for “last” (read lost) Edens, the places that have escaped environmental degradation and reveal what nature is capable of on a grand scale. His wanderings have taught him that even the most remote locations in the Himalayan foothills bear some mark of the modern world and that no place is truly untouched (read unspoilt) by human endeavour.

So, do Edens still exist? Yes and no. In the bewildering wetlands of Gilgit-Baltistan, Chaudhry was awed by what he found and left with concern for the future of species not only unstudied but unnamed in a region whose forests are being rapidly logged. Unique creatures face a threat all too common in our world: the loss of habitat, without which many may not survive much longer. Gilgit-Baltistan is an oasis of hope in a continent beset by environmental woes, but the temptation of its natural beauty and its wildlife resources present conservation questions that cannot be ignored.

The living Eden

Like the rest of the Himalayas, GB lived a self-contained existence, largely undisturbed for centuries. Despite the rigorous climate and the harsh environment, the people are by and large happy and contented. This is, no doubt, partly due to the frugality that comes with self-reliance and partly to the predominantly Isma’ili and Nurbakhshi culture.

One can share with Chaudhry his concern for the threatened ecology as he straddles through rows of tree stumps and fuelwood and ‘timber’ stacked away to be rowed down the rivers, in Haramosh.

It is easy to romanticise self-sufficient economies and traditional technologies. It is also easy to ignore their benefits, from the consolations of working the soil with draft animals rather than tractors to grinding grain with water-powered wheels instead of engines. Many archaic societies are more sustainable than our own in terms of their relationship with the earth, and their pattern of living is more conducive to psychological balance – more in touch with human nature.

The one-dimensional view of progress, widely favoured by economists and development experts, has helped mask the negative impact of economic growth. Modern technologies, based on capital and fossil fuels, inevitably lead to centralisation, cash crops as opposed to subsistence agriculture, time-wasting travel and stressful town life among strangers.

They are labour-saving only in the narrow sense since gaining one’s livelihood in new ways, which are competitive rather than communal, demands more time. Dependence on international trade for goods and materials leads to a monoculture – the same sources and resources for both material and abstract needs, from dress to music – and, increasingly, a common language (pauperised English, in most cases) and even a common set of values with corresponding dismissal and contempt for the indigenous culture. Modern education tends to belittle local resources, teaching children to find inferior their traditional culture.

Almost every culture has a myth about a place of origin where people lived innocently in a pristine land. The most famous, perhaps, appears in the Bible as Eden.

Gilgit-Baltistan, under Karakoram, is a trans-Himalayan region, a remote region of broad arid valleys set about with peaks that rise above 20,000 feet. It lies in the great rain-shadow north of Himalayan watershed, in a sere land of wind, high desert and remorseless sun.

Culturally, it is ancient – a thousand-year-old enclave of herders who learnt how to grow barley and peas and turnips and potatoes in the brief growing season at these high altitudes. Black walnut and apricot trees are maintained at the lower elevations.

The doughty way of life is made possible by skilful use of the thin soil and scarce water and by hardy domestic animals – sheep, goats, a few donkeys, and in particular, bipey, a governable hybrid of archaic Asian cattle with the cantankerous semi-wild black ox known as the yak.

These animals furnish resourceful folk with meat and milk, butter and cheese, draft labour and transport, wool and fuel. The dried dung cakes of the cattle, gathered all year, are a precious resource, supplying cooking fuel but meagre heat in the long winters in which temperatures may fall to -30 degrees C.

Zaheer Chaudhry has long been a friend of Gilgit-Baltistan and its people. What is magnificent about his photographs is their engaging anthropomorphic character – his ability to recognise and evoke human forms in nature, especially in trees and megaliths.

Such configurations are present in many mythologised landscapes across the world, but it takes a mythically sensitive eye to discern them. Understanding the symbolism of these metaphysical expressions of nature is a process of awareness requiring a depth of consciousness.

The living Eden

At the heart of these photographs lies a towering compassion and exuberant affection for the land that animates its living presence and reciprocates the life-sustaining power of its eternal embrace.

The weathered figures and forms that emerge from the trees and stones, whether they are in Naltar or in Minapin, could very well be spirits and deities making themselves known. Deep in the forest or, high in the desert, or in Kharmang, Chaudhry has felt their presence.

The glories and the beauties of form, colour and sound unite in the majestic Borit Lake – forms unrivalled even by the mountains, colours that vie with sunsets and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrops, from cataract to bubbling fountain.

You cannot see the Nanga Parbat in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted. You have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.

It is a harder region to traverse than the Alps, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task, a concept of sublimity can be achieved by years of toil.

The layers of information Chaudhry has been inspired to expose in his photographs reveal forms, shapes and feelings that he sees in nature. With that as a goal, colour remains important, but he also delves in black and white to capture the nuances and subtleties. A large number of his arboreal photographs focus on the base of the tree. This part of the tree, as he believes, most often seems to reveal the tree’s distinctive character.

The lifelong struggle of the tree to survive in its chosen circumstance is recorded in the cracks, scars and contorted surfaces at or near the base with fallen autumnal leaves all around, in the same way, that the lines, wrinkles, spots and scars of a person’s face record the joys and sorrows of a human lifetime.

The goal of this exhibition is to represent the glory and vitality of these last Edens without denying that they have been altered by human impact. That they are among the least changed makes them all the more precious and miraculous. Their survival cannot be left to chance. Isolation has been the most important factor in their persistence as separate worlds that few knew existed. That alone will no longer save them. The hope is that these great reservoirs of life will inspire a new concept of Eden. We are no longer innocent; they are no longer pristine, but there is still time for a new covenant.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

The living Eden