Documenting habitats

June 16, 2024

Tracing Gilgit-Baltistan’s journey from a geopolitical hotspot to a modern cultural and academic hub

Documenting habitats


ilgit-Baltistan was catapulted from relative oblivion to the centre stage of the Great Game with the subjugation of Inner Asia by the Russian Empire on the one hand and the conquest of the Indian subcontinent by the British Empire on the other.

Though China was a mammoth in terms of its size and population, its influence in High Asia had dwindled. This was the period when the Great Game between the three empires was played in the mountains and passes of the Karakoram, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs.

In addition to the geo-strategic interest of the empires, Gilgit-Baltistan attracted the attention of explorers, geographers, cartographers, spies, officials and historians serving the empires.

This led to the production of administrative reports and knowledge about the societies and communities inhabiting the various valley domains in High Asia. One of the salient features of the scholarship during the Great Game and colonial period is that after the conquest and subjugation of local societies, the appetite for knowledge about some areas in Inner Asia dwindled and other areas became the focus of orientalist scholarship in Gilgit-Baltistan.

For example, after the subjugation of Chilas, the British showed no interest in Kohistan and Shinaka to the south - Diamer, Nagar and Puniyal - as those were landlocked and had no geo-strategic appeal for the colonial administrators.

Yasin in Ghizer Valley was one of the strategically important zones in the pre-colonial period due to its proximity to Wakhan and Badakhshan. This is why Marc Aurel Stein described Yasin as the “historically important route which forms the nearest connection between Oxus and Indus.”

This is evidenced by the historical moment when Tibetan forces used Yasin as an escape route to Gilgit after their defeat at the hands of Chinese forces in Wakhan in 747 CE. Fast-forward to 1860, when the ruler of Yasin, Gohar Aman, died. Yasin fell to the Dogras from Kashmir. Consequently, the region became subservient to the Dogra rule.

It attracted British attention after the murder of explorer George Hayward and his five companions on July 18, 1870, in Barkulti village. This high-profile murder led to administrative reports investigating the incident. Yasin was soon relegated to oblivion in the administrative, military and scholarly circles of the British Empire and Dogra Raj in Gilgit-Baltistan.

It was in this same village that Susan York undertook her field study 112 years after Hayward’s murder. Her work, A Mountain Oasis: Daily Life in a Village in the Yasin Valley, Pakistan, documents life in Barkulti village in 1982-83. The book is divided into 11 chapters and is peppered with maps, figures, graphs, photographs and tables.

For non-local readers, the book provides a glossary of local words. The foreword is penned by the eminent scholar, Professor Hermann Kreutzmann. He provides a chronology from ancient history through the colonial and post-colonial periods to the development initiatives in Yasin at the end of the Twentieth Century.

The book documents, in Susan’s words, “the social and economic life in a remote “mountain oasis’” by detailing “the core subsistence activities that sustained these communities, which at that time, had limited access to incomes and markets beyond the valley’s economic sphere.”

The writer included a prologue and an epilogue in the book. The prologue helps situate the book in its context, while the epilogue explains the author’s impressions 41 years after the field study.

While reading the book, it is imperative to consider the time when Susan York undertook her ethnographic study. The 1980s were characterized by the opening of society to exogenous lifestyles, ideas and opportunities.

As a result, there was noticeable emigration for education or work. Though the focus of the research remains on Barkulti village, it represents a microcosm of Yasin society.

The book begins with an explanation of the village layout, the profile of the household-focused mountain economy, housing layout and clans in Barkulti. It provides detailed descriptions of life’s daily routines determined by seasonal variations – spring, summer, autumn and winter.

It explains how the habitat and the habitus influence each other in this unique setting.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to habitus as “a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception and action common to all members of a group or class.” Susan situates the habitus – the entire economy, social structure, worldview and cultural practices of the people in Barkulti village – within the backdrop of the climate, geography and ecology of Yasin.

By doing so, the book unveils the social outlook typical of a subsistence agricultural society that views the order of things not in the long term but on the cyclical basis of yearly produce and subsistence strategies. The book provides a glimpse into the process where sociological practices are embedded in the geography and ecology of the location.

At the same time, the book captures the social hierarchies of Yasin society by situating people according to their clan and profession. Susan notices a discriminatory attitude towards and maltreatment of the professional musicians in the village. Interestingly, this discrimination is predominantly exhibited by men, as woman do not express such antagonism towards the musician class.

From the description of the household economy, one can easily see the intrusion of market forces and a shift from a local resource-based to a consumer-based society in Barkulti in the 1980s.

The book notes increasing references in daily discussions to household consumables such as “kerosene and matches; personal items such as combs, hair grips for women, mirrors and plastic shoes; cotton material for making clothing and quilting; cigarettes; Dal á, rice, sugar, sugar cane, rock salt and subsidised iodised salt.”

The book follows the tradition of the ethnographic principle of Clifford Geertz, aiming to capture a “thin description,” which provides factual accounts without interpretation.

Despite the expanding market, in 1982-83 the village still retained traditional practices of utilising everything and wasting nothing.

The village comprised Burushaski-speaking people. An important inference from the book is that, unlike the Burushaski speakers of Hunza and Nagar in Gilgit-Baltistan, the Brusho women in Yasin manage high pastures on behalf of the community.

This indicates that the Brushos of Yasin remained immune to the influence of the Sheen cosmological doctrines’ notions of impurity prevalent in the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan. The influence of traditional power structures is still palpable in the social practices of the people. For example, during social gatherings such as Navroz, polo matches, marriages, and games, hierarchy and social status are still observed.

The villagers still place importance on the knowledge of clan status and history, deriving legitimacy from it. The influence of the centuries-old power structure of kingship in Yasin was strong in 1982, despite its formal abolition. This is evident from Susan’s observation that some houses carefully preserved and displayed photographs of the former rulers of Yasin from the 19th Century.

Within the tribal structure, men retained the position of knowledge and memory of the clan. They were seen as the custodians of authentic knowledge of genealogical links to the founding fathers of their clans.

An important point noticed by the author is that “a man’s status depended on the household and clan he was born into. Before marriage, a woman’s status depended on her birth household.” After marriage, the woman’s history was effectively erased by the family she married into. Hence, women did not have social identity in the strict sense.

Susan points to the diverse origins of the clans inhabiting Barkulti and Yasin. This goes against the grain of contemporary discourse in the Yasin valley, which projects the notion of a pure Brusho race belonging to the soil they inhabit.

For example, the Burduqé clan came from Hunza, and the Begalé clan from Thui. Many people who settled in Barkulti came from Shignan in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan.

A close reading of the book shows that the spring season brings new hopes but remains the toughest period as households deplete their food stock. During this season, the situation borders on famine. In olden times, this scarcity of food was famously called the “spring famine.”

The summer season is marked by hectic agricultural activities from dusk to dawn. As a result, there are not many festivities and sports, except for a few religious events of modern origin.

In contrast, the autumn season is marked by a flurry of activities, including polo matches, events, games, music, festivities and an abundance of food and produce. This is evident from the fact that the bazaar becomes full of dry fruits and other local products.

Winter brings all outdoor activities to a standstill but increases the workload of women within the house.

The seasonal cultural events and practices show remnants of an old mythical worldview. For example, “if, while cooking, a woman spilled water on the fire, making it hiss and thus in danger of going out, she would be chastised loudly by any men or elder women present. She would be called a ‘dirty woman’ or ‘stupid woman.’”

Another example is the fumigation of shelters with smoke from burning junipers to encourage parí (spirits) to leave after their winter residence, thus allowing humans to stay there during the summer.

Household relationships pivot around the power of the male figure, relegating women to a secondary position. As girls come of age, they are expected to assist their mothers, while boys are encouraged to go out and explore.

Readers may find the number of pictures distracting at some points and superseding the written account at others. However, these images serve as important visual records to gauge changes in the material culture and lifestyle.

In the photographs, one can easily see the dirt roads, traditional wooden shops, traditional attire, female caps, traditional houses, narrow lanes, water channels along footpaths and basic consumables. This was a period when transformational initiatives and projects were just around the corner.

Susan recorded the life world of Barkulti at the cusp of change. Thereafter, the development initiatives of non-government organisations and the infrastructure and structural investments of the government brought the oasis of Yasin into the mainstream economy and society of Gilgit-Baltistan and the country.

At first glance, the book appears to lack analytical rigor, but when seen in the light of the author’s intention to document the daily rhythm of life, it makes sense. It follows the tradition of the ethnographic principle of Clifford Geertz, aiming to capture a “thin description,” which provides factual accounts without interpretation.

Local scholars have a duty to write a “thick description” by providing cultural context and meaning to human behaviour in the specific social settings of Barkulti village.

The book fills a significant gap in the modern knowledge of Gilgit-Baltistan, bringing a peripheral area into the limelight of global academia. Unfortunately, the region is still outside the mainstream of Pakistan’s publishing industry. Even the infrastructure of knowledge has its peripheries.

A Mountain Oasis: Daily Life in a Village in the Yasin Valley, Pakistan.

Author: Susan York.

Publisher: Brill, 2023

Pages: 289

Price: EUR €155.00

The reviewer is a social scientist interested in the history of ideas. Email:

Documenting habitats