There are many village intellectuals and oral historians in Darel and Tangir in Diamer district in Gilgit-Baltistan. These people have preserved the oral traditions of their respective valleys. During my research in 2000, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2019 on culture, society, religion and identity in Darel and the Tangir valley, I met and interviewed many oral historians. One such man was Haji Sher Zaman, who I first interviewed in 2009 and later in August 2019 when he turned 109.
Haji Sher Zaman Khan is the most knowledgeable man in Darqali Bala village of the Tangir valley. Darqali Bala was once a fortified village and tower-houses dotted the landscape of the area. Today, only a few tower-houses have survived in the village. These defensive towers or Gharis (called Shikaris in Darel valley) were built to protect oneself from the attack of an enemy as the blood feuds were very common in the Tangir valley. There are still occasional cases of blood feuds in the valley. New tower houses are still being built in the village but they are very few in number. A few of the tower houses are located near the house of Haji Sher Zaman – fortifications that belong to his relatives.
People of the Darqali Bala village come to discuss with Haji Sher Zaman their everyday problems. In Tangiri society, the old man (pono), the hunter (darus) and the village headman (justero) are considered to possess wisdom which comes through experience. Haji Sher Zaman believes that folk wisdom comes with experience which comes with travelling – which he did when he was young. He used to go to Mingora in Swat to buy salt. Before the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), life was very hard in the side valleys of Indus-Kohistan and the Diamer district. In the past, salt was not available in the area – in fact in much of Gilgit-Baltistan. It was obtained from Mingora in Swat. People used to go there to purchase salt. Haji Sher Zaman went to Mingora, Swat, some 13 times by foot. He travelled with a group of 8 to 10 people from different villages of Tangir which was called ‘Dalo’ in the local language.
It was not easy to travel alone from Tangir to Mingora. Danger loomed large while travelling even with a Dalo (group). The group faced problems and encountered robbers many times. Sometimes the robbers snatched salt and other things from Tangiris mainly at Usho valley. From Usho, the group travelled to Kalam, Bahrain, and arrived at their final destination at Mingora. Each person brought 20 to 40 kg of salt to their village. They also bought medicine and clothes from Mingora which were not available in the valley.
The route that Haji Sher Zaman travelled on with his Tangiri fellows to purchase the salt was through Khachelu Gah, a side valley which is named after Khachelu, a person who ruled in pre-Islamic Tangir. The descendants of Khachelu now live in Mushke village in Tangir valley. From Khachelu Gah, Tangiris entered into the Maidan area of Kandia in Indus-Kohistan and then via Sumay Nala trekked to Pulo Gah to arrive at the Matiltan and Usho valleys in Swat district. Pulo Gah connects Kandia with Usho Valley which starts from Sumay Nala in Kandia and ends at Usho in Swat district.
It took eight to ten days from one side to reach the other. Haji Sher Zaman also travelled by foot twice to Yashin to buy salt. When salt became available in the markets of Chilas in Diamer district and Kamila in Indus-Kohistan, Haji Sher Zaman also travelled to both cities by foot for which he used the route along the Indus River. Haji Sher Zaman told me that it was a three-day journey from one side to Kamila from Tangir.
After the construction of KKH, transportation improved and life became much easier for Tangiris. Afterwards, many Tangiris went to Gilgit, Abbottabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi to find jobs and get an education.
Haji Sher Zaman was considered to be a wise man in a simple society where people avoided going outside their valleys. He was the first person in his village to tread on a difficult path to Mingora. Because the route was very dangerous and on the way, one encountered with wild animals and robbers. Through travelling, he gained experience and as a result of which came the wisdom to influence other people. He was also expert on the cultural heritage of Tangir, Darel and Indus-Kohistan which he shares with his people. He gathered all this folk knowledge during his travelling from one region to another and from one valley to others.
In Tangiri society, the old man (pono), the hunter (darus) and the village headman (justero) are considered to possess wisdom which comes through experience
He also learned of the oral history of Tangir from his father Narang Shah. He knows how the rule of Pakhtun Wali ended: the only ruler who ruled with an iron hand in Tangir was finally killed by Tangiris at Khamikot in 1917. Three persons – Faqir Shah, Rahim Shah and Naqib Shah – all from Diamer village in Tangir valley, attacked Pakhtun Wali and killed him. Faqir Shah, who was from the Shin tribe, was believed to have first attacked Pakhtun Wali – whose grave is located near the historic mosque of Khamikot in Tangir valley.
Haji Sher Zaman knows the names of masons and woodcarvers who built the wooden monuments in Tangir. He showed me the two carved wooden coffins which belonged to his relatives that were located south of his house. He explained and enlightened me about the local terms for every element of the carved wooden coffin, a vocabulary which is now unfamiliar to the young generation in Darqali Bala village. A carved wooden coffin is locally called Sandok. Usually, three to four carved wooden planks are used to make wooden coffins. The central plank is called ‘Taipi’ in the Shina language. Both upper and lower planks are called ‘Shako’. Corner grave posts, locally called ‘Kasho’ terminate at the top in the form of turrets or guldasta, locally called Shisholi. There is a variety of designs on ‘shisholi’ (turrets) of carved wooden coffins in different villages of Tangir valley. A carved wooden coffin is placed on the base plank which is known as Kaor in the Shina local language. Kaor, the base wood, is sometimes decorated with wavy lines, called Sheli in the Shina language. Both base planks and corner posts have slits (ishkil) to hold the sandok (wooden coffin) tight.
Apart from these carved wooden coffins, there are many simple coffins in Darqali Bala which are located in different places in the village.
Haji Sher Zaman, along with his sons Hazrat Imam and Hazrat Zahid Khan also showed me the wooden mosque of the village. The arcade verandah and the interior of the mosque are ornately carved. Eight wooden columns support the wooden ceiling of the mosques. Three out of eight pillars are profusely carved and painted aesthetically. The wooden frame of the mihrab is also stylishly carved and painted. This mosque was built by famous mason and craftsman Yarmon who left his name on one of the pillars of the mosque. The carved handprint of Asil Khan of Darqali Balai is also found above the name of Yarmon the mason.
To the north of the mosque is located a carved wooden coffin. It is decorated with a floral scroll and geometric designs: a scheme of decoration which is found on almost every carved wooden coffin in Tangir valley. Such funerary symbols and signs are also found in the carved wooden coffins in Indus-Kohistan, Swat-Kohistan and Dir-Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The writer is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org