Gojal area of the Karakorum mountains
community activities
culture and customs
employment and income
environmental knowledge
family life
food security
social change
social institutions
social relationships
spiritual beliefs
traditional skills



introducing the area

 the themes
 the partners
 the testimonies

mountain landscape in Shimshal, PakistanNorthern Pakistan borders Afghanistan, China and India and is home to three significant mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush, the Western Himalaya, and the Karakoram. The Karakoram mountain range contains the greatest concentration of high peaks in the world and the longest glaciers outside the Polar region. Five of the world's 14 peaks over 8000m are in Northern Pakistan, including the world's second highest mountain K2, and there are some 82 peaks over 7000m within a radius of 180 kilometres. The region is also characterised by much diversity in terms of language and culture. There are more than 10 different languages, several different Islamic sects (including Ismaili, Sunni and Shia), and several communities belonging to non-Islamic belief systems.

move cursor over image for local map
The testimonies in the Pakistan collection are from Shimshal, a community whose territory makes up a significant part of the Karakoram mountain range in Northern Pakistan. It includes many peaks over 6000 metres, numerous glaciers and productive alpine pastures. "We have something…that others don't: beautiful nature - the mountains and glaciers, and independence," says Inayat, conveying the pride and attachment Shimshalis have for their environment.

mountain lake in Shimshal, PakistanShimshal village lies at 3100m and most of the cultivatable area lies between 3000 and 3300 metres. The short growing season at this altitude allows only one crop to be cultivated in a year; the major crops are wheat, barley, potatoes and peas. Shimshal is one of the few communities in Pakistan's Northern Areas that grows enough agricultural produce to feed itself. It is the sole steward of vast areas of high-altitude pasture, and extensive herding of sheep, goats, cattle and yaks allows Shimshalis to earn much of their income from the sale of livestock and livestock products.

Shimshalis trace their ancestors back 14 generations to their "grandfather" Mamusing who settled in the area with his wife. Their son, Sher, claimed rights over the Pamir - the pastures - after winning a polo match against herders from Kyrgyzstan. Several narrators describe this story in detail. Others recall the era when Shimshal was part of the independent principality of Hunza, ruled and taxed by the Mir. In 1974, President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto declared an end to the remaining princely states in Pakistan, including Hunza.

two men talking in Shimshal, PakistanShimshalis are Wakhi speakers and Ismaili Muslims. Members of the same cultural-linguistic group live in other valleys in Northern Pakistan, as well as the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan, and parts of China and Tajikistan. Ismailism is a branch of Shia Islam and Ismailis follow their living Imam (spiritual leader), currently the Aga Khan.

the themes

The influence of Ismailism and the Aga Khan is clear from the testimonies. The commitment to education - especially female education - can be attributed partly to guidance from the Aga Khan. Many of the social institutions in Shimshal are Ismaili-based and the key development organisations in the region are Aga Khan institutions.

Many narrators describe in detail the festivals and systems of work that have been integral to people's lives. In particular, they talk about nomus, the philanthropic system of community development unique to Shimshal. Those with sufficient wealth "sponsor" a bridge, trail or building, for the community's benefit, by providing resources for the project and food for those who give free labour. Nomus is carried out in the name of a relative and to generate blessings from God.

mountain scene in Shimshal, PakistanSince 1974 there have been plans to include most of Shimshal's pastures in the Khunjerab National Park. Khaliq describes the community's response: "When this Park was established it created much worry in the village, because they were trying to deprive us of our grazing and agricultural lands…which we have been using for hundreds of years." Rather than simply oppose the authorities, some of the younger generation decided to "prove that we are the best managers of this land". They established the community-based Shimshal Nature Trust (SNT) and developed their own environmental management plan to communicate to the authorities how they have always managed their environment sustainably - and will continue to do so.

In 2003, after the interviews were collected, a road linking Shimshal with the Karakoram Highway was completed after 17 years. The hazards of the old journey to and from Shimshal are vividly described by many narrators. People welcome the development benefits the road will bring, but are concerned that increased migration and economic opportunities will further erode the unity, cooperation and independence of Shimshal. Such hopes and fears echo people's more general comments about the changes in recent decades. Muzaffer's personal story illustrates the pace of those changes: "Fifteen years ago, I was a shepherd in the village; today I am an executive officer."

women in Shimshal, PakistanMale migration has affected gender roles, with women becoming responsible for tasks previously carried out by men. In recent years female primary education has become almost universal, and several young women are currently completing their education outside Shimshal. Women are now invited to participate in most village institutions.

Many men work during the summer as porters for trekking and mountaineering groups throughout the Northern Areas. Their wages make up a large part of Shimshal's overall income. Whilst everyone appreciates increased standards of living, there is concern that this is leading to greater individualism. Yet the testimonies suggest that the way of life in Shimshal is still relatively collective and cooperative.

Although the narrators are all from one community, there is much variety in age, occupation and experience. Narrators include farmers, teachers, a world-class mountaineer, a yak herder and a development professional.

the partners

The Shimshal Nature Trust is a community-based organisation which was originally established to formally respond to the plans to include most of Shimshal's territory in the Khunjerab National Park. SNT developed their own environmental management plan to communicate to the authorities how Shimshal as a community has always sustainably managed their environment, and how they will continue to do so in the future. SNT has a broad vision of the environment, which includes social, cultural and economic concerns, and its activities reflect this.

SNT coordinated the collection of over 60 testimonies; 34 were translated into English. The interviewers were Rahmat Nazar, Momin Shah, Farman Ullah, Majnoon Khan, Mohammed Amin, Samim Shah, Hajat Shah, Hussn Bibi, Taj Begum, Nighat Paree, Abdullah Bai, Mohammed Khaliq, and Jamila Inayat. The testimonies were translated by Johar Ali, Yasmin Farman Ali, Dure Yasmin, Inayat Ali, Mehboob Ali, and Sher Ali. SNT are producing radio programmes in Wakhi, based on the recorded interviews, for local broadcast, and their own English-language booklet should be completed in 2006.


Voices from the mountain: Pakistan

A selection of oral testimonies from a Wakhi-speaking Ismaili community in the far north of Pakistan
> Download booklet (pdf, 685 kb)

the testimonies

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location  
Summary Transcript   1   Khaliq   male/30s   head teacher   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   10   Muhammad Baig   male/67   farmer/weaver   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   11   Farman   male/   journalist   Islamabad  
Summary Transcript   12   Aman   Male/41   teacher trainer   Gilgit  
Summary Transcript   13   Chughbai   male/65   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   14   Bashi   male/67   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   15   Wafa   male/49   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   16   Laili   male/32   farmer/herder   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   17   Gulshad   female/40   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   18   Shadi Baig   male/64   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   19   Hussn   female/31   teacher   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   2   Inayat   male/27   development professional   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   20   Khayal Baig   male/55   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   21   Roshan   female/42   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   22   Mushk   female/50s   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   23   Rajab   male/51   mountaineer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   24   Qudrat   male/31   mountaineer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   25   Gonik   male/55   farmer/numayindar   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   26   Yeenat   female/51   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   27   Gulbika   female/65   farmer   Gilgit  
Summary Transcript   28   Qurban   male/60   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   29   Muzaffer   Male/32   development professional   Islamabad  
Summary Transcript   3   Asmat   male/55   driver/retired soldier   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   30   Shogoon Muhammad   male/60s   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   31   Amjad   Male/50   bank employee   Karachi  
Summary Transcript   32   Gul   female/95      Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   33   Shaheen Karim   male/21   student   Hill Park, Karachi  
Summary Transcript   34   Raza   male/37   teacher   Gilgit  
Summary Transcript   35   Johar Ali   male/43   engineer   Lahore  
Summary Transcript   4   Qandoon   female/57   farmer   Lupghar pasture, Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   5   Shafa   male/47   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   6   Baig Daulat   male/75   farmer/numberdar   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   7   Bari   male/27   mountaineer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   8   Chiragh Ali   male/48   farmer   Shimshal  
Summary Transcript   9   Hayat Begum   female/60   farmer   Shimshal