Through antiquity, India was always seen as a land steeped in unbelievable riches. One of the earliest to propagate this imagery was the Greek Historian Herodotus, who in the 4th century BCE wrote about the land of the Dardai, north of the river Indus, near the modern day area of Kargil. He claimed that here you would find gold digging ants, who threw up gold dust as they burrowed into the land! While this fired up the western imagination, passion and greed over millennia, it is only recently that the mystery of these ‘ants’ was uncovered.
What were the gold digging ants that threw up gold dust?
Till 1947, Dardistan and Baltistan regions of Kashmir, now across the LOC (of which Kargil was a part of till 1947) were a part of India. Home of the ‘Balti’ people, named after the Tibetan word Sbal-ti, meaning water gorge, this area bordering Gilgit to the west, the Xinjiang region of China in the north, Ladakh on the southeast and the Kashmir Valley on the southwest, was at an important cross road.
Herodotus (484 - 425 BCE), the noted Greek historian gave a colorful account of the region in his work The Histories, written in 440 BCE. In this, he describes this region as one where gold-digging ants were found :
‘bigger than fox, though not so big as a dog were used to collect gold particles.’
One view was that he was probably referring to the Dardic people, an Indo-Iranian tribe which lived in the region. Several historians and chroniclers, who followed Herodotus repeated this myth. So was this a fantastic legend or was there an element of truth in this tale?
More than 50,000 rock petroglyphs are found in the Karakoram mountains in the northern part of PoK, in areas such as Chilas, Chitral, and Gilgit, dating from the 8th millennium BCE all the way up to 16th century CE . The petroglyphs are testimony to the antiquity of this land. This area was closely linked to the ancient Silk Route and connected the cities in the Xinjiang province of China, to the Indus valley. The Karakoram highway, that connects China & Pakistan has been built on this ancient route. But this region was especially famous among ancient Greeks for its production of gold. In fact for them, it was a kind of ‘El Dorado’ of the Himalayas!
It was only in 1984, that this mystery of the giant gold digging ants was solved by French ethnologist Michel Peissel in a book, ‘The Ants’ Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas’. He discovered that gold particles were indeed found in the Deosai region (now in PoK) of Baltistan . This was also the place where the Himalayan Marmot, large furry squirrel like mammals were found in large numbers. Locals tribes used to collect gold dust from their burrows. By the time Herodotus heard of this tale, passed on along the ancient trade routes, the marmots had transformed into spectacular giant ants. The Greeks probably got confused, as in ancient Persian, the word for marmot was very similar to that for a ‘mountain ant’.
Kargil: The Meeting Point of Faiths
The political region of Baltistan has had a chequered past. After the Dardic people, the region was ruled by Scythians from Central Asia till around the first century CE, when Dardistan and Baltistan became part of the great Kushana empire. This was the time when Buddhism thrived in the region. The Kushana rule was followed by the rule of the Huns from Central Asia.
The region finds mention in Rajatarangini, chronicle of Kashmiri kings.
Rajatarangini, the chronicle of Kashmiri kings written by historian Kalhana in the 12th century CE makes a reference to this region. Kalhana mentions that this region was conquered by King Lalitaditya of the Karakota dynasty in the 8th century CE. There are other references to the region as well. Noted Chinese travellers, Fa-haien and Hieung Tsang visited the region and wrote about the thriving Buddhist culture there. We also know that around 720 CE, there were successive invasions by Tibetan armies, which wanted to incorporate the region into Tibet.
A princess from this region would even marry Emperor Jehangir
It was in the 14th century, that Sufi preachers from Iran began migrating to the region and converting the local people to Islam. Later learned families of Sayyids, priests from Iran, settled down in the Kargil region. Even today, their descendants known as ‘Aghas’ are considered spiritual leaders in Kargil and they stand out thanks to the black turbans they wear. Till the 16th century, this region was ruled by petty chiefs, before the rise of the local dynasty of Maqpoons (meaning head of the tribes) which united the region under their rule. The Maqpoons paid tribute to the Mughal emperors and a Princess of Baltistan was even married to Prince Salim i.e. Emperor Jahangir.
Thanks of the strong Tibetan influence, this region was called Tibet-i-Khurd (Little Tibet) by the Mughals. The Muslim kings of Baltistan and Buddhist kings of Ladakh, were perpetually at war. But despite this volatility, Kargil located between the two kingdoms, became a melting point of both cultures, creating an Islamic-Buddhist culture of its own.
The local Muslims, who had converted from Tibetan Buddhism retained many traits of their pre-Islamic Bon and Lamaist rituals, which made the Islam of Baltistan and Ladakh unique from other Islamic regions. For instance, in this region the Swastika (Yung Drung) sign was considered auspicious and was carved on wooden planks of mosques. Also, local gods, Lha and Lhu (Pre-Buddhist Bon Gods) were customarily worshipped by the Muslims during many village rituals. However, all this ended with the arrival of puritanical Islam from the Middle East in 1980-90s.
In the late 18th century, the kings of Baltistan paid tribute to Lahore , ruled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh who carved a large empire far beyond Punjab. It was General Zorawar Singh, the renowned General of the Dogra armies, who conquered Leh, Ladakh, Kargil, Baltistan, Chitral and bought it under the rule of Maharaja Gulab Singh of Kashmir. It remained a part of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir till 1947, when the UN ceasefire line cut off Kargil from rest of Baltistan which was forcibly occupied by Pakistan. Today, the regions of Dardistan and Baltistan are in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
While Kargil is most often remembered as the theatre of the most recent conflict between India and Pakistan , where many young, brave lives were lost, few remember how it once represented an area of synthesis and the coming together of faiths and identities.
Cover Image: Saurabh Lall via Wikimedia Commons