Open Access
1 May 2008 Karakoram in Transition—Culture, Development and Ecology in the Hunza Valley
Adam Nayyar
Author Affiliations +

Karakoram in Transition—Culture, Development and Ecology in the Hunza Valley, edited by Hermann Kreutzmann. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 2006. vii + 419 pp. PKR 895.00. ISBN 0-19-547210-1.

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This compendium is the work of 34 contributing authors—although the dust cover lists only 29—and comprises 28 contributions loosely divided into 3 sections, “Environment and Resources,” “History and Memory,” and, finally, “Culture and Development.” The sections do not follow the sequence given in the title, which favors Section 3.

Both the preface and the introduction are by the editor, who provides a much-needed roadmap of the book in the introduction (pp 2–4). While attempting a conceptual framework, the introduction injects political overtones by referring to the “failure of the communist modernization project” and criticizing both the command economy and globalization approaches (p 1). Hunza's position as a centerpiece is emphasized by tracing its evolution since colonial times and placing it as a central node in a complex network (p 2).

Section 1 deals primarily with the geology and geomorphology of the Karakorum, with glaciation as a major theme. Mike Searle's concise opening article in Section 1 provides a broad technical overview of the geology, noting that the “Karakorum is surprisingly quiet seismically” despite the northward movement of the Indian plate into the Asian mass. He also notes that erosion effectively offsets the rise of the Karakorum Mountains. Lewis Owen, in Chapter 3, addresses the crucial issue of glacier fluctuations; conclusive evidence regarding which climatic processes determine these is still awaited. Chapter 4 by Matthias Kuhle summarizes the knowledge base on glacier history, identifying the gaps in absolute datings of past glaciation. In Chapter 5, Kenneth Hewitt takes up the glacier fluctuation issue again, describing a wide number of variables and providing a 160-year chronology of glacier lake outburst floods (p 68), but primarily claiming that the moraine complexes mapped by previous researchers are actually not moraines but paraglacial rock avalanches (p 69)—a claim that Owen notes is not yet assessed (p 17). Edward Derbyshire and Monique Fort address natural hazards in Chapter 6, running the whole gamut of geohazards from outburst floods (pp 87–89) to debris flows (pp 89–90) to the ever-present rock-falls and rockslides (p 91). Chapter 7 by Lasafam Iturrizaga is a case study of transglacial landforms in the Shimshal Valley containing valuable instructional material on these landforms through clear graphics (pp 99–100, Figures 7.3 and 7.4) connected with 6 photographic examples from the research area (Photos 7.1 to 7.6, pp 101–106). All articles reveal that prognosis of future events lacks precision.

Section 1 contains 3 more articles. Chapter 8, by Einar Eberhardt, W. Bernhard Dickoré, and Georg Miehe, describes the altitudinal zonation of vegetation, modified by effects of ice-masses and cold-air currents, with periglacial habitat as a “barometer” of climate change (p 119). Expanding human settlements are the primary load on the carrying capacity of vegetation (p 120). Chapter 9, by Udo Schickhoff, bemoans the degradation of evergreen conifer forest cover by indiscriminate timber extraction, while appreciating mitigative measures of wood production by fast-growing species (p 141). The placement of the wild goat (Capra falconeri) in a rapidly degrading forest habitat is the subject of Chapter 10, by Ruedi Hess, with its future salvation seen in such diverse avenues as trophy hunting and its high status in local folklore (p 153).

Section 2 opens with Chapter 11, in which Jason Neelis analyzes and refines the readings of the Sacred Rock of Hunza (Dani 1985), extracting evidence of Hunza as the crossroads of transregional movement and intercultural transmission (p 167) between Pakistan, Iran, China, and Central Asia (p 160). He notes that this rock contains the highest number of Kharoshthi inscriptions in the Gandhari language, testifying to a Buddhist heritage. Iranian (Sogdian), Chinese and Tibetan inscriptions are also to be found (p 164). Moving on to the living culture, Chapter 12 by Wolfgang Holzwarth traces the oral history of the region between the 16th and 19th centuries, as recorded in recent times with folklore as the primary source. In Chapter 13, Irmtraud Müller-Stellrecht challenges the “myth” of Hunza as a center of regional power, asserting that it grew from a small cluster of 3 villages influenced by “testicle squeezing” of external factors (p 197) that gave an impetus to internal solidarity and the growth of irrigation and defense infrastructure. This led to the evolution of a military organization capable of brigandage and slave trade (p 205), culminating in state formation in the early 19th century. Jürgen Wasim Frembgen tells the “other side of the story” of the British annexation of Hunza (and Nager), juxtaposing Knight's (1893) account based on oral traditions recorded during fieldwork, reaching the conclusion that despite fragmentary and contradictory oral history, a picture of indigenous actors emerges (p 223).

Hugh van Skyhawk's contribution in Chapter 15 is a text analysis of a manuscript which validates local claim to royal descent. The language of the text is phonetically transcribed with an English translation, although the author fails to mention that the transcribed language is Burushaski. This is followed in Chapter 16 by a brilliant contribution by Georg Buddruss on Hunza's unique linguistic diversity. This article covers a wide spectrum of spatial and temporal language structure, distribution, research and growth, pointing out future rewarding avenues of research in texts of Shina, Burushaski and Wakhi (p 242). Chapter 17, by Beate Reinhold, on Wakhi in upper Hunza, mainly focuses on language awareness among the speakers. Chapter 18, by the editor, is the longest in the section and is a prime example of empiricism in action, showing how qualitative data can be reduced to numerical and spatial representation. Studded with inventories, charts and semi-statistical data, the article intertwines strands of language, ecology and demography to trace the settlement history of the Hunza Valley. The final article in this section, by Julie Flowerday (Chapter 19), traces six decades of history by presenting photographic evidence from the colonial period, and dynamically juxtaposing this base with two subsequent layers taken by the author in the 1990s.

The third and last section, on culture and development, begins with an article by Stefano Bianca (Chapter 20) which presents the philosophy of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture of grafting modernity onto tradition (p 287) and broadly describes the achievements of donors in the sensitive restoration of important built structures in the Hunza Valley. This is followed by a more concrete article (Chapter 21) on the conservation of the Baltit Fort in Hunza by Richard Hughes and Didier Lefort, which follows the philosophy of the previous chapter by strengthening traditional architecture (cator and cribbage, p 299) while ensuring community participation. Chapter 22 by Masood Khan takes up the thread of community participation in a broad geographical swathe encompassing areas beyond Hunza, outlining the strands of social organization at all institutional levels with a detailed topography. Anna Schmid's theoretically strong vignette on the musician and artisan settlement of Mominabad (Chapter 23) notes that the traditionally disadvantaged status of this group does not change immediately through its integration into the physical infrastructure (p 327) of the dominant groups. Chapter 24, by the editor, addresses agrarian transformations, noting that the opening up of the area has resulted in the destruction of the traditional agrarian and livestock economy, with increasing reliance on off-farm income and the exacerbation of conflicts centered around scarce resources (p 351). This issue is supported in Chapter 25, by Abdul Malik and Mujtaba Piracha, which provides data on the increase of per capita income, bringing into focus that the Hunza Valley spends more than its neighbors. Chapters 24 and 25 both note the radical shift from traditional cropping of buckwheat and barley to potatoes and maize, with an increase in fruit trees (p 364).

Turning to education, Chapter 26 by Sabine Felmy provides an informative overview of Pakistan's educational policy (pp 371–372) and then focuses on the Northern Areas of Pakistan, noting that the literacy rate is higher there than the national average. Finally addressing the Hunza Valley, she shows that increased female literacy and the burgeoning educational standards are the direct result of enlightened policies of Aga Khan III (p 373). Chapter 27, by Amin Beg and Khwaja Khan, addresses more specific issues of civil society empowerment, convincingly presenting the Karakorum Area Development Organization (KADO) and its subsidiary bodies as the prime movers in institutionalizing enterprise efforts in artisanship. Chapter 28, by David Butz, concentrates on the high porters of the comparatively peripheral settlement of Shimshal, showing that, although porterage increases village income and reciprocal learning between trekkers and porters, there are concerns about the erosion of indigenous culture and self-identity (p 399). Pakistan's premier mountaineer turned politician and social worker, Nazir Sabir, closes this volume in Chapter 29 with a brief look at the recent development history of the Northern Areas.

Despite the fact that the volume is littered with typographical errors (for example, p 84 refers to a missing Figure 12A), low-resolution reproductions, and inconsistent systems of measurement symptomatic of the publishing house, this book is low-priced and should be recommended reading for anyone working in the Northern Areas of Pakistan or any other high-mountain zone.



A. H. Dani 1985. The Sacred Rock of Hunza. Journal of Central Asia 8 2:5–124. Google Scholar


E. F. Knight 1893. Where Three Empires Meet. A Narrative of Recent Travel in Kashmir, Western Tibet, Gilgit and the Adjoining Countries. London, United Kingdom Longmans Green. Google Scholar
Adam Nayyar "Karakoram in Transition—Culture, Development and Ecology in the Hunza Valley," Mountain Research and Development 28(2), 178-180, (1 May 2008).
Published: 1 May 2008
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