Punial in Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan is known for its oral history, folklore, visual culture, looming Hindukush mountains, verdant and sprawling villages, nullahs (side valleys) full of pastures, gushing Gilgit River coursing through Punial valley and, of course, the hospitable people who live there.
Many villages in Punial valley are famous for one reason or the other. Two villages – or rather towns – Sher Qila and Singul are worth visiting. Sher Qila boasts of some buildings of historical significance, particularly those that were built by the rulers of Punial. All these structures now stand neglected. The most neglected of these is the fort which was believed to have been built during the Tarkhan Dynasty and later was occupied by Burushai rulers of Punial.
The Burushai rulers trace their ancestry from Shah Burush, grandson of Raja Khushwaqt. An eminent Burushi governor of Punial, Akbar Khan, built an impressive wooden mosque at Sher Qila. According to the inscription at the mosque, it was built in 1841.
I first saw this mosque in 2000 and later in 2009. It was in its original shape. During my recent trip to Sher Qila in the first week of August, 2019, I found that the old mosque had been demolished and a new one was being constructed. Likewise, the old mosque of Shakyot village, also built during the reign of Burushai rulers of Punial, has been rebuilt by the local community.
There were several wooden mosques which were built by the Burushai rulers of Punial in their state but today none of these mosques is in its original form. Most of them have been reconstructed.
Sher Qila mosque was noted for beautiful geometric and floral designs. A tree motif was carved on one of the pillars of its veranda. A tree motif was the common design which was found in many of the wooden mosques in Punial, Thor, Darel, Tangir in Gilgit Baltistan and Harban, Sazin, and Seo valleys in Kohistan district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The other town, which is the headquarters of Punial tehsil, is Singul. Surrounded by majestic mountains, it is two-hour drive from Gilgit. Four tribes – Shin, Yeshkun, Syeds and Gushpur – inhabit Singul. Shina is widely spoken in the area.
The Gushpurs are descendants of the raja who ruled over Punial valley. Ismailis and Sunnis are the two main sects represented in Singul. The town lies along the Gilgit-Chitral road and is connected to Gilgit through a metaled road.
It is a prominent tourist attraction for those traveling between Gilgit and Chitral. During the Shandur festival, tourists descend on Singul in great numbers to shop and take pleasure in the sights. Punialis earn considerable amount of money during festival times. However, they lament the lack of tourist facilities in their town.
Singul is filled with natural beauty which unfortunately has not yet been tapped for tourism. Local communities believe that in order to facilitate tourists, the authorities should construct good hotels on the main road leading to Chitral, provide people with guidance and information about tourist attractions in Singul and its environs.
There are many tourist sites in Singul which people do not know of. Many have not heard of the waterfall north of Singul village, on the way to Singul Nullah. A tourist hut on the main road can lead them to the waterfall to enjoy the atmosphere there. A reasonable motel is also desperately needed near the waterfall.
Despite the shortage of facilities, people do come here to see the waterfall and go hiking in Singul Nullah. Singul is also popular with hikers. Members of the local community believe that once the accommodation problems are solved, tourism would flourish in Punial valley.
Singul Nullah has some beautiful summer pastures; Keenagah, Pilagah, Siragah Thapas and Kurgozo. People of Singul, Gohrabad, and Gech take their livestock here for grazing. Residents of Damas, Thingdas, Silpi, Golo Das, Gurnjo, Bubur (a village famous for Buddhist remains), Gulmiti and Japuke use Singul Nullah as grazing grounds.
This scribe has been documenting the folklore, oral history and festivals and customs of Punial valley in general and Singal in particular since 2001. Of these, Shisho Goth and Duman Khia are prominent festivals.
The festival of Shisho Goth is celebrated either in the last week of May or in the first week of June. One or two days before the harvest of crops, a Numbardar (headman) of the village announces that in the evening of the following day, crops will be harvested. On this particular occasion, people bring their crops, particularly wheat and barley, from the fields and mix them in milk. Then the headmen of the households give two drops of that milk to each member of their families. Special food is cooked on the day which is then distributed among the kith and kin. The crops are harvested the next day.
Duman Khai is another important festival celebrated in Punial valley in general and Singul in particular. The festival is celebrated in the second week of November, when people gather or keep all the crops at home. On this occasion, the Numbardar announces the Duman Khia (celebration of gathering crops) the next day. After that, people leave their livestock to graze in the fields and people cook special food in the evening. Traditional bread “goli” is prepared to be taken with meat and rice. After the meal, the head of the household gets up and takes an axe and hits them twice gently against right pillars of the house. While hitting the pillars, he utters the following words in his native language: “Shokhia sopia te nakhey bo” (you ate well, drank well, now leave our home). The head of the household says these words to a demon. He hits the pillars with axe again and utters following words in Shina “Peshon pho nelto waps wa” (return when the Peshon flowers grow).
Women wash the dishes in which the family eats. The dirty water is taken out by the head of the household. He utters the same words there as he throws away the dirty water: “You ate well, drank well, now leave my house”. The ritual ends with aerial firing.
In order to drive the demon out of the house, the head of the household has to dress in a way that he himself looks like a demon. It is believed that if he dresses this way, only then can he see the demon and will succeed in driving it out from his house.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org