Gilgit, Encyclopedia Britannica: 11th edition, Published 1911

GILGIT, an outlying province in the extreme north-west of India, over which Kashmir has reasserted her sovereignty. Only a part of the basin of the river Gilgit is included within its political boundaries. There is an intervening width of mountainous country, represented chiefly by glaciers and ice-fields, and intersected by narrow sterile valleys, measuring some too to 150 m. in width, to the north and north-east, which separates the province of Gilgit from the Chinese frontier beyond the Murtagh and Karakoram. This part of the Kashmir borderland includes Kanjut (or Hunza) and Ladakh. To the north-west, beyond the sources of the Yasin and Ghazar in the Shandur range (the two most westerly tributaries of the Gilgit river) is the deep valley of the Yarkhun or Chitral. Since the formation of the North-West Frontier Province in 1901, the political charge of Chitral, Dir and Swat, which was formerly included within the Gilgit agency, has been transferred to the chief commissioner of the new province, with his capital at Peshawar. Gilgit proper now forms a wazarat of the Kashmir state, administered by a wazir. Gilgit is also the headquarters of a British political agent, who exercises some supervision over the wazir, and is directly responsible to the government of India for the administration of the outlying districts or petty states of Hunza, Nagar, Ashkuman, Yasin and Ghizar, the little republic of Chilas, &c. These states acknowledge the suzerainty of Kashmir, paying an annual tribute in gold or grain, but they form no part of its territory.

Within the wider limits of the former Gilgit agency are many mixed races, speaking different languages, which have all been usually classed together under the name Dard. The Dard, however, is unknown beyond the limits of the Kohistan district of the Indus valley to the south of the Hindu Koh, the rest of the inhabitants of the Indus valley belonging to Shin republics, or Chilas. The great mass of the Chitral population are Kho (speaking Khowar), and they may be accepted as representing the aboriginal population of the Chitral valley. (See Hindu Kum.) Between Chitral and the Indus the " Dards " of Dardistan are chiefly Yeshkuns and Shins, and it would appear from the proportions in which these people occupy the country that they must have primarily moved up from the valley of the Indus in successive waves of conquest, first the Yeshkuns, and then the Shins. No one can put a date to these invasions, but Biddulph is inclined to class the Yeshkuns with the Yuechi who conquered the Bactrian kingdom about 120 B.C. The Shins are obviously a Hindu race (as is testified by their veneration for the cow), who spread themselves northwards and` eastwards as far as Baltistan, where they collided with the aboriginal Tatar of the Asiatic highlands. But the ethnography of " Dardistan," or the Gilgit agency (for the two are, roughly speaking, synonymous), requires further investigation, and it would be premature to attempt to frame anything like an ethnographical history of these regions until the neighbouring provinces of Tangir and Darel have been more fully examined. The wazarat of Gilgit contains a population (1901) of 60,885, all Mahommedans, mostly of the Shiah sect, but not fanatical. The dominant race is that of the Shins, whose language is universally spoken. This is one of the so-called Pisacha languages, an archaic Aryan group intermediate between the Iranian and the Sanskritic.

In general appearance and dress all the mountain-bred peoples extending through these northern districts are very similar. Thick felt coats reaching below the knee, loose " pyjamas with cloth " putties " and boots (often of English make) are almost universal, the distinguishing feature in their costume being the felt cap worn close to the head and rolled up round the edges. They are on the whole a light-hearted, cheerful race of people, but it has been observed that their temperament varies much with their habitat - those who live on the shadowed sides of mountains being distinctly more morose and more serious in disposition than the dwellers in valleys which catch the winter sunlight. They are, at the same time, bloodthirsty and treacherous to a degree which would appear incredible to a casual observer of their happy and genial manners, exhibiting a strange combination (as has been observed by a careful student of their ways) of " the monkey and the tiger." Addicted to sport of every kind, they pursue no manufacturing industries whatsoever, but they are excellent agriculturists, and show great ingenuity in their local irrigation works and in their efforts to bring every available acre of cultivable soil within the irrigated area. Gold washing is more or less carried on in most of the valleys north of the river Gilgit, and gold dust (contained in small packets formed with the petals of a cup-shaped flower) is an invariable item in their official presents and offerings. Gold dust still constitutes part of the annual tribute which, strangely enough, is paid by Hunza to China, as well as to Kashmir.

Routes in the Gilgit Agency

One of the oldest recorded routes through this country is that which connects Mastuj in the Chitral valley with Gilgit, passing across the Shandur range (12,250). It now forms the high-road between Gilgit and Chitral, and has been engineered into a passable route. From the north three great glacierbred affluents make their way to the river of Gilgit, joining it at almost equal intervals, and each of them affords opportunity for a rough passage northwards. (1) The Yasin river, which follows a fairly straight course from north to south for about 40 m. from the foot of the Darkot pass across the Shandur range (15,000) to its junction with the river Gilgit, close to the little fort of Gupis, on the Gilgit-Mastuj road. Much of this valley is cultivated and extremely picturesque. At the head of it is a grand group of glaciers, one of which leads up to the well-known pass of Darkot. (2) 25 m. (by map measurement) below Gupis the Gilgit receives the Ashkuman affluent from the north. The little Lake of Karumbar is held to be its source, as it lies at the head of the river. The same lake is sometimes called the source of the river Yarkhun or Chitral; and it seems possible that a part of its waters may be. deflected in each direction. The Karumbar, or Ashkuman, is nearly twice the length of the Yasin, and the upper half of the valley is encompassed by glaciers, rendering the route along it uncertain and difficult. (3) 40 m. or so below the Ashkuman junction, and nearly opposite the little station of Gilgit, the river receives certain further contributions from the north which are collected in the Hunza and Nagar basins. These basins include a system of glaciers of such gigantic proportions that they are probably unrivalled in any pact of the world. The glacial head of the Hunza is not far from that of the Karumbar, and, like the Karumbar, the river commences with a wide sweep eastwards, following a course roughly parallel to the crest of the Hindu Kush (under whose southern slopes it lies close) for about 40 m. Then striking south for another 40 m., it twists amidst the barred feet of gigantic rock-bound spurs which reach upwards to the Murtagh peaks on the east and to a mass of glaciers and snow-fields on the west, hidden amidst the upper folds of mountains towering to an average of 25,000 ft. The next great bend is again to the west for 30 m., before a final change of direction to the south at the historical position of Chalt and a comparatively straight run of 25 m. to a junction with the Gilgit. The valley of Hunza lies some to m. from the point of this westerly bend, and 20 (as the crow flies) from Chalt. Much has been written of the magnificence of Hunza valley scenery, surrounded as it is by a stupendous ring of snow-capped peaks and brightened with all the radiant beauty that cultivation adds to these mountain valleys; but such scenery must be regarded as exceptional in these northern regions.

Glaciers and Mountains

Conway and Godwin Austen have described the glaciers of Nagar which, enclosed between the Murtagh spurs on the north-east and the frontier peaks of Kashmir (terminating with Rakapushi) on the south-west, and massing themselves in an almost uninterrupted series from the Hunza valley to the base of those gigantic peaks which stand about Mount Godwin Austen, seem to be set like an ice-sea to define the farthest bounds of the Himalaya. From its uttermost head to the foot of the Hispar, overhanging the valley above Nagar, the length of the glacial icebed known under the name of Biafo is said to measure about 90 m. Throughout the mountain region of Kanjut (or Hunza) and Nagar the valleys are deeply sunk between mountain ranges, which are nowhere less than 15,000 ft. in altitude, and which must average above 20,000 ft. As a rule, these valleys are bare of vegetation. Where the summits of the loftier ranges are not buried beneath snow and ice they are bare, bleak and splintered, and the nakedness of the rock scenery extends down their rugged spurs to the very base of them. On the lower slopes of tumbled debris the sun in summer beats with an intensity which is unmitigated by the cloud drifts which form in the moister atmosphere of the monsoon-swept summits of the Himalaya. Sun-baked in summer and frost-riven in winter, the mountain sides are but immense ramps of loose rock debris, only awaiting the yearly melting of the upper snow-fields, or the advent of a casual rainstorm, to be swept downwards in an avalanche of mud and stones into the gorges below. Here it becomes piled and massed together, till the pressure of accumulation forces it out into the main valleys, where it spreads in alluvial fans and silts up the plains. This formation is especially marked throughout the high level valleys of the Gilgit basin.


Each of these northern affluents of the main stream is headed by a pass, or a group of passes, leading either to the Pamir region direct, or into the upper Yarkhun valley from which a Pamir route diverges. The Yasin valley is headed by the Darkot pass (15,000 ft.), which drops into the Yarkhun not far from the foot of the Baroghil group over the main Hindu Kush watershed. The Ashkuman is headed by the Gazar and Kora Bohrt passes, leading to the valley of the Ab-i-Punja; and the Hunza by the Kilik and Mintaka, the connecting links between the Taghdumbash Pamir and the Gilgit basin. They are all about the same height-15,000 ft. All are passable at certain times of the year to small parties, and all are uncertain. In no case do they present insuperable difficulties in themselves, glaciers and snow-fields and mountain staircases being common to all; but the gorges and precipices which distinguish the approaches to them from the south, the slippery sides of shelving spurs whose feet are washed by raging torrents, the perpetual weary monotony of ascent and descent over successive ridges multiplying the gradient indefinitely - these form the real obstacles blocking the way to these northern passes.

Gilgit Station

The pretty little station of Gilgit (4890 ft. above sea) spreads itself in terraces above the right bank of the river nearly opposite the opening leading to Hunza, almost nestling under the cliffs of the Hindu Koh, which separates it on the south from the savage mountain wilderness of Darel and Kohistan. It includes a residency for the British political officer, with about half a dozen homes for the accommodation of officials, barracks suitable for a battalion of Kashmir troops, and a hospital. Evidences of Buddhist occupation are not wanting in Gilgit, though they are few and unimportant. Such as they are, they appear to prove that Gilgit was once a Buddhist centre, and that the old Buddhist route between Gilgit and the Peshawar plain passed through the gorges and clefts of the unexplored Darel valley to Thakot under the northern spurs of the Black Mountain.

Connexion with India

The Gilgit river joins the Indus a few miles above the little post of Bunji, where an excellent suspension bridge spans the river. The valley is low and hot, and the scenery between Gilgit and Bunji is monotonous; but the road is now maintained in excellent condition. A little below Bunji the Astor river joins the Indus from the south-east, and this deep pine-clad valley indicates the continuation of the highroad from Gilgit to Kashmir via the Tragbal and Burzil passes. Another well-known route connecting Gilgit with the Abbottabad frontier of the Punjab lies across the Babusar pass (13,000 ft.), linking the lovely Hazara valley of Kaghan to Chilas; Chilas (4150 ft.) being on the Indus, some 50 m. below Bunji. This is a more direct connexion between Gilgit and the plains of the Punjab than that afforded by the Kashmir route via Gurais and Astor, which latter route involves two considerable passes - the Tragbal (11,400) and the Burzil (13,500); but the intervening strip of absolutely independent territory (independent alike of Kashmir and the Punjab), which includes the hills bordering the road from the Babusar pass to Chilas, renders it a risky route for travellers unprotected by a military escort. Like the Kashmir route, it is now defined by a good military road.


The Dards are located by Ptolemy with surprising accuracy (Daradae) on the west of the Upper Indus, beyond the head-waters of the Swat river (Soastus), and north of the Gandarae, i.e. the Gandharis, who occupied Peshawar and the country north of it. The Dardas and Chinas also appear in many of the old Pauranic lists of peoples, the latter probably representing the Shin branch of the Dards. This region was traversed by two of the Chinese pilgrims of the early centuries of our era, who have left records of their journeys, viz. Fahien, coming from the north, c. 400, and Hsiian Tsang, ascending from Swat, c. 631. The latter says: " Perilous were the roads, and dark the gorges. Sometimes the pilgrim had to pass by loose cords, sometimes by light stretched iron chains. Here there were ledges hanging in mid-air; there flying bridges across abysses; elsewhere paths cut with the chisel, or footings to climb by." Yet even in these inaccessible regions were found great convents, and miraculous images of Buddha. How old the name of Gilgit is we do not know, but it occurs in the writings of the great Mahommedan savant al-Biruni, in his notices of Indian geography. Speaking of Kashmir, he says: " Leaving the ravine by which you enter Kashmir and entering the plateau, then you have for a march of two more days on your left the mountains of Bolor and Shamilan, Turkish tribes who are called Bhattavaryan. Their king has the title Bhatta-Shah. Their towns are Gilgit, Aswira and Shiltash, and their language is the Turkish. Kashmir suffers much from their inroads " (Trs. Sachau, i. 207). There are difficult matters for discussion here. It is impossible to say what ground the writer had for calling the people Turks. But it is curious that the Shins say they are all of the same race as the Moguls of India, whatever they may mean by that. Gilgit, as far back as tradition goes, was ruled by rajas of a family called Trakane. When this family became extinct the valley was desolated by successive invasions of neighbouring rajas, and in the 20 or 30 years ending with 1842 there had been five dynastic revolutions. The most prominent character in the history was a certain Gaur Rahman or Gauhar Aman, chief of Yasin, a cruel savage and man-seller, of whom many evil deeds are told. Being remonstrated with for selling a mullah, he said, " Why not ? The Koran, the word of God, is sold; why not sell the expounder thereof ?" The Sikhs entered Gilgit about 1842, and kept a garrison there. When Kashmir was made over to Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu in 1846, by Lord Hardinge, the Gilgit claims were transferred with it. And when a commission was sent to lay down boundaries of the tracts made over, Mr Vans Agnew (afterwards murdered at Multan) and Lieut. Ralph Young of the Engineers visited Gilgit, the first Englishmen who did so. The Dogras (Gulab Singh's race) had much ado to hold their ground, and in 1852 a catastrophe occurred, parallel on a smaller scale to that of the English troops at Kabul. Nearly 2000 men of theirs were exterminated by Gaur Rahman and a combination of the Dards; only one person, a soldier's wife, escaped, and the Dogras were driven away for eight years. Gulab Singh would not again cross the Indus, but after his death (in 1857) Maharaja Ranbir Singh longed to recover lost prestige. In 1860 he sent a force into Gilgit. Gaur Rahman just then died, and there was little resistance. The Dogras after that took Yasin twice, but did not hold it. They also, in 1866, invaded Darel, one of the most secluded Dard states, to the south of the Gilgit basin, but withdrew again. In 1889, in order to guard against the advance of Russia, the British government, acting as the suzerain power of Kashmir, established the Gilgit agency; in 1901, on the formation of the North-West Frontier province, the rearrangement was made as stated above.

Authorities. - Biddulph, The Tribes of the Hindu Kush (Calcutta, 1880); W. Lawrence, The Kashmir Valley (London, 1895); Tanner, " Our Present Knowledge of the Himalaya," Proc. R.G.S. vol. xiii., 1891; Durand, Making a Frontier (London, 1899); Report of Lockhart's Mission (Calcutta, 1886); E. F. Knight, Where Three Empires Meet (London, 1892); F. Tounghusband, " Journeys in the Pamirs and Adjacent Countries," Proc. R.G.S. vol. xiv., 1892; Curzon, " Pamirs," Jour. R.G.S. vol. viii., 1896; Leitner, Dardistan (1877). (T. H. H.*)