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Culture of the Karakoram Region

With such an old and diverse history, it is not surprising that there are so many different ethnicities, traditions, languages, and people in the Karakoram. Despite its geography and mix of people, the Karkoram range has an identity of its own. Urdu is the main language but trekkers might be surprised to find some guides and locals who not only speak a bit of English but other European and Asian languages as well. There are also six main local languages aside from Urdu spoken by the people of the Karakoram: Bali, Burushashki, Kalasha, Khowar, Shina, and Wakhi. These languages and the people who speak them are one of the most integral parts of the Karkoram and are likely to leave a lasting impression on the traveler. Most men in these areas can be speak Urdu and one or two of the local languages, as well as English and other languages if they are working as guides, porters, cooks, etc. Women mostly speak their local language though a lot of people know bits and pieces of English words and phrases.

Balti, is a Tibetan language and Tibetan traditions, clothing, food, and way of life is evident in the Balti people of the Karkoram. The language is the spoken version of classical literary Tibetan and is closely related to Ladakhi. The Balti-pa are Shia Muslims and live in Baltistan, which lies along the Indus River, and it is one of the most popular trekking destinations in this region. Tibetan men work as porters, cooks, and guides for trekkers.

The Burusho speak Burushashki a language unrelated to any other. They live in Nagyr and Hunza, as well as the Yasin Valley. The dialect differs slightly even within these regions. Minority groups in Nagyr and Hunza include the Bericho who speak Dumaki. While the Burusho are Muslim, the Hunza and Yasin Burusho are Ismaili and the Nagyr inhabitants are Shia. The people are friendly and open-minded, and a lot of the men work as guides for trekkers.

Kalasha speakers call their language Kalashamun, which is related to Khowar, and primarily live in southern Chitral. They are the only non-Muslim people in Northern Pakistan, and are mostly farmers or herders. The Kalasha were a larger group and controlled a lot more of the land, much of which was taken by the Kho ruler in the 16th century. They retained their beliefs and traditions despite the fact that most people with similar beliefs converted to Islam in the late 1800’s.

The Kho speak Khowar and dominate Chitral, Upper Ghizar district, and Upper Ushu valley of Swat. The dialect varies within the region and has an Iranian influence with most speakers knowing at least a bit of Persian and Urdu. They are mostly Sunni except for the Upper Chitralis who are Ismailis. They are known to be a very poetic people.

Shina speaking people live in lower Ishkoman and Hunza valleys and Ghizar district, Gilgit, Diamir and the Indus valley. Those settled in Baltistan are known as Brok-pa and speak Brokskat. They are mostly Sunni but in Gilgit the population is divided between Ismaili and Shia. There are four different communities in Gilgit and Hunza valley – Shins, Yeshkuns, Kamins, and Doms.

The Wakhi, also known as Xikwor, live in the uppermost areas of Yarkhun, Ishkoman, and Hunza valleys, and above Hunza into Gojal. They speak Wakhi whose roots can be traced back to Iranian languages, and most of the Wakhi can also speak Persian. They rely on herding and livestock, which, interestingly, the women are in charge of. The men work as guides and high-altitude porters. They are Ismaili Muslims


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