The northern areas of Pakistan are breathtakingly beautiful in many ways. Amongst the different mountain ranges and valleys, there exist remnants of old civilizations. Just within the area of Gilgit-Baltistan, there are eight distinct languages, which show the land’s richness and diversity.
Of these areas, Hunza Valley is one of the most popular destinations for both local and foreign tourists. The main village of Karimabad has become quite popular through social media, and is bustling with newcomers throughout the summer season. However, few people know that if you take the road down from Karimabad, you will come across another astonishing village named Ganish.
Ganish is one of the oldest settlements in the region, lying on the Ancient Silk Route, which passed by the Northern Areas around 180 BC – 10 CE. It is a prime example of a living, breathing heritage site. The community of Ganish has received two UNESCO awards, in 2002 and 2009 for Cultural Heritage Conservation in Asia Pacific.
The entrance of the community is marked by a recently-built Imam Bargah, that is also home to a library, dispensary, and center for cleaning and shrouding the dead. The entry for visitors has been formalized in recent years, with a Rs.300 fee. There is a friendly old tour guide who takes you around the village while narrating its story.
Ganish was originally built as a fortified colony to guard against outsiders. At the time it was founded, the back side of the community had a cliff overlooking a river, which made it easier to survey. Since then, due to land sliding and other natural disasters, the river no longer flows there, and large parts of site were destroyed. Originally, there were around fourteen watch towers, but now only a few remain. At the entrance of the village walls, there was a pond where children could be seen swimming and playing, and its memory serves as a strong reminder of the village’s sense of community.
The word “Ganish” is not to be confused with the Hindu god “Ganesh”, which is often a common misconception. “Ganish” itself has several meanings, but most likely originated from the local language of Burushaski, in which it means “gold” or “gold reserve”. It also means “plain” or “plateau”, which makes sense, given that this region is flatter than its surrounding areas.
The structure and layout of the community is quite interesting. Firstly, it has compact homes and streets, with very small entrance doors. They used to place their livestock near their entrances, in order to keep the indoor area more insulated during the harsh winters. Another reason was that, in case of an invasion, the animals would alert the villagers.
There are also multiple mosques built within the complex, which are only about 200 years old (which make them recent, compared to the village’s 1000-year old history). These came from later periods, when the region was ruled by local Muslim rulers. There are two fascinating things about these mosques which makes them distinct. Firstly, these were built by different rulers because they wanted to be remembered. But the size of these mosques are very small, meaning they only fit a few people at a time. Secondly, the wooden relief work on the arches outside some of the structures is exceptionally interesting, and peculiar to this village.
For example, a mixture of motifs can be found within a single arch, such as Buddhist lotus flowers, a Hindu swastika, Chinese cloud symbols, and Islamic geometric patterns. It highlights the fact that many cultures were interacting within this region, and that the craftsmen were from diverse backgrounds had influences within the area. Although much work has not been done on it, the symbolism within this relief work has a lot of potential to be researched further.
The restoration work done here was initiated by the local community, and supported by the Aga Khan Cultural Services Pakistan (AKCSP). Most of the funding for the preservation came from foreign donations, including the Norwegian Embassy. After the recognition by UNESCO, many other communities in the area have been motivated to preserve their culture as well.
This article is written by Mahnaz Shujrah and originally published at Youlin Magazine