Where the Gujjars Rest

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro on the intricately carved wooden coffins and grave railings found in the verdant valley of Naltar

Where the Gujjars Rest
Naltar is a valley located about 35 km northwest of Gilgit. About 2 hours’ drive from the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, it is famous for its undulating alpine slopes, majestic snowclad peaks, verdant meadows and serene lakes.

It is a paradise for trekkers and ski lovers. The government is making serious efforts to promote tourism in the valley, for which they are constructing a road up to Bashkiri Lake. This is the first of the three lakes in the valley. Naltar valley is heaven for skiers and trekkers. The trekkers go from Naltar to the Pakora Pass in the Ishkoman valley of Ghizer district.

There are two main villages in the valley, Naltar Bala where Gujjars and Pakhtuns reside in a mainly Sunni village. Naltar Pain, where Shins and Yeshkuns live, is chiefly a Shia village. Both villages are further subdivided into small settlements. The villages or settlements of Naltar Bala include Nagar, Gumat, Jagot, Khayot, Chhoti, Dalan, Chimarso, Bishagri and Bidlo while the Naltar Pain settlements comprise the villages of Waldan, now Mominabad, Galin now Jaffarabad, Kot, Harchin, Hodin and Humre.
Muslim carved wooden coffins seem to have been inspired by the Kalasha wooden coffins

Shins, Yeskhuns and Gujars are the main tribes inhabiting the Naltar valley. However, a considerable population of the Gujjars lives in Naltar Bala. They speak both Shina and Gujri languages. They subsist on both livestock and agriculture. Potato is the main crop of the valley.

Gujjars are not the original settlers of the Naltar valley. They came to settle in the valley over a century ago in search of pastures for their livestock. Some of the families came from Osho in Kalam, Alai in Thakot and Batagram, while most of them came from Kohistan. In Naltar Bala the ancestors of some of the Gujjar families migrated from Alai in Thakot and first settled in Kohistan and later on moved in search of pastures, eventually settling in Naltar valley. The ancestors of other Gujjar families came from Osho and Kohistan.

A shepherd's hut in Naltar Bala

When they migrated from Osho, Alai and Kohistan, they also brought with themselves traditions of those areas to their new settlements. One of the prominent traditions brought by Gujjars from the valleys of Swat and Kohistan is that of carved wooden coffins or railings which were non-existent in Naltar valley before them. The tradition of erecting wooden coffins was prevalent among the Himalayan and Hindu Kush tribes. Muslim carved wooden coffins seem to have been inspired by the Kalasha wooden coffins. A closer look at both the wooden railings of Muslim communities and the Kalasha community reveal striking similarities. There has been change in the burial practices of Kalasha community in the last three decades due to the stealing of bones from the wooden coffins. Earlier they used to keep the dead body in the open wooden coffin or box. But now to prevent remains from being stolen, they are forced them to bury a dead body rather than place it in an open wooden coffin. The Muslim communities, before embracing Islam, also followed the same burial practices and a change occurred when they converted to the new faith. Hence, carved wooden coffins were placed around the graves. These wooden coffins mark the graves of the local elites and became the symbol of the political and economic power of the communities inhabiting the valleys of Hindu Kush and Himalaya.

The tradition of erecting carved wooden railings was also prevalent among certain other tribes of Gilgit, Astor, Chilas, Tangir, Darel and Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan. Apart from Gilgit-Baltistan, such forms of burial are also found in the valleys of Seo, Sazin, Harban, Kandia, Palas and Patan in Kohistan district.

Bashkiri Lake

Comparatively speaking, Darel and Tangir have more grave railings than other valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan. Unfortunately, the tradition of erecting wooden coffins has now died out in Gilgit, Astore and Hunza. However, one finds some decorated and undecorated carved wooden coffins in Sher Qila village of Punial tehsil in Ghizer district and Shakyot village of Gilgit tehsil. In Naltar valley, none of the tribes except the Gujjars erect carved wooden coffins over the graves of their ancestors.

There are three villages in Naltar where one finds graveyards with the wooden coffins/railings. Locally, the wooden coffin is called “Jhangla”. The oldest graveyard of the Gujjars is located in Dalan. Here, the wooden grave railings are decorated with floral and geometric designs – designs that are also seen in other villages in the valleys of Kohistan, Darel, Tangir and Chilas. Handprint motifs also appear in one of the grave railing. This motif is mainly represented in rock art in Gilgit-Baltistan.

There are 23 wooden coffins in the graveyard of Dalan. All the graves belong to the Gujjars. Most of the grave railings are crumbling. Nevertheless, some of the them are still in a good condition. The coffins themselves are decorated with a variety of floral designs – mostly lotus and sunflower.

There is another graveyard at Gumat with many wooden coffins of the Gujjars. This is the largest graveyard where one finds coffins made of several panels on  different faces/directions and four slender or thick turrets (guldastas) consisting of a double leg of a cot. The turrets at the four corners of the grave are also decorated with slits. On some of the graves, one finds moulded designs. There are two types of graves: simple and decorated. The simple wooden coffins belong to ordinary Gujjars whereas the decorated grave railings belong to notables and wealthy dignitaries of the tribe. The graves of the notables carry more intricate carvings and ornamentation. Almost every grave in the Gumat graveyard is decorated with jali work (perforated wooden screen with ornamental design).

Besides the graveyards of Dalan and Gumat, there is another at Khayot where such ornate carved wooden coffins can also be seen. This graveyard is close to the Jamia mosque of Khayot which was built some 30 years ago. Some of the coffins have recently been erected. The tradition of erecting wooden coffins still continues in Naltar valley and one finds a number of such new coffins in the graveyards of Gumat and Khayot too.

The author is an anthropologist and has authored four books: ‘Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh’, ‘Perspectives on the art and architecture of Sindh’, ‘Memorial Stones: Tharparkar’ and ‘Archaeology, Religion and Art in Sindh’. He may be contacted at: zulfi04@hotmail.com

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar