By M. Hasnain
M. Hasnain hails from Baltistan in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. He received his Post-Graduate degree from the University of East Anglia Norwich UK.
Baltiyul (generally known as ‘Baltistan’) is situated at the north-eastern most tip of today’s Pakistan. Its boundaries are defined by Gilgit in the west, Ladakh in the east (Dras, Kargil, i.e. the line of control (LOC) with India that extends to Tibet), Kashmir in the south, and to the north, along the crest of the Karakoram mountain range, is its border with Sinkiang (Xinjiang), China. The total area of Baltiyul is approximately 10,118 sq. miles with a population of approximately 400,000 . The Indus River, that rises in southwestern Tibet and is augmented by the glacial Zanskar, Suru, Shyok and Shigar rivers, sweeps through the region after covering its course in Ladakh. Baltiyul, which comprises several valleys including Skardo, Khapulo, Shigar, Rongdo and Kharmang, is part of the disputed territory of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. For a century being part of the Ladakh Wazarat (Governarate of Ladakh and Baltistan within the State of Jammu and Kashmir), today Baltiyul forms part of the Northern Areas under the control of the federal government of Pakistan. However, interestingly it has never been officially incorporated into any of Pakistan’s four provinces, i.e. Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan or North West Frontier Province.
The population of Baltiyul is a heterogeneous mixture of ethnic groups due to the fact that different civilizations including the Tibetan , Mongolian, Indo-Iranian and Central Asian converged and blended here. During the course of time, the pre-dominant community, the Tibetans, intermarried with other ethnic groups, thus forming an admixture known as the Arghon  class, a group that dominates the ethnic composition of today’s Baltiyul. Careful (local) assessment suggests that Arghons make up more than half of the population, followed by Tibetans who constitute up to 35 per cent of the population. Tatars, Mons (a North Indian people), Dards, Indo-Iranians and some Arab families are included among other minorities . The majority of the population of Baltiyul speaks Balti, an archaic dialect of the Tibetan language. It is one of the west Tibetan dialects and can be grouped along with Ladakhi, Purigi, Zanskari and Lahouli. While today there are no longer any pure Balti speakers in Baltiyul, approximately 93 per cent of the population consider Balti as their mother tongue. The remaining seven per cent are bi-lingual, speaking Purigi, Shina and Kashmiri along with Balti.
The present Balti or Tibetan language prevailed in Baltiyul following the arrival of the Tibetan tribes from eastern and northern Tibet. Professor Jampal Gyathso, a Khampa Tibetan scholar who is an authority on the famous King Gesar folk tales, believes that among the first Tibetan settlers to arrive in Baltiyul, the majority was Khampas. His assumption is based on the fact that the Balti dialect has the linguistic characteristics of the Tibetan language and resembles closely the Amdo/ Khams dialect. The geographical location of Baltiyul and its proximity to Tibet made it easier for Tibetans to settle and spread their political, cultural and religious influence in this region.
While it is not known precisely when the Tibetan herdsmen and nomads appeared in Baltiyul and in the surrounding areas, historical records show that this region remained part of the Tibetan Kingdom for a very long period of time. Indeed, prolonged cultural and religious connections with Tibet earned Baltiyul the nickname ‘Little Tibet’. According to the Tang Annals, Srungthsan Gampo (ca 617-650), the 33rd king of the Yarlungpa Dynasty, while expanding the Tibetan Empire, annexed the present day Baltiyul and Gilgit that once belonged to the Palolas during the fifth century AD. The Yarlungpas adopted Buddhism as the state religion and Tibetan became the court language. G.T. Vigne (1844) writes that in those days, Tibet extended east and west from Lhasa to Gilgit for a distance of 1200 miles . After the collapse of the Tibetan monarchy in Lhasa in the middle of the 9th century, a branch of the royal Tibetan Dynasty took refuge in West Tibet and established the State, which was known as Zhang-Zhung. Subsequently, Baltiyul and Ladakh went through an intensive Tibetanization process. It is most likely that during this era, Tibetan culture, language and religious traditions reached their zenith. Fosco Maraini corroborates this in his book as follows:
…In the second half of the first millennium after Christ (between 500 – 1000 AD), Baltiyul passed under central Tibetan rule. This era must have been a long and important one, bringing an appreciably superior civilisation to a backward people... (Maraini 1961, in: Afridi 1988:28)
During this period, the traditional five major sciences of arts and crafts, medicine, logic, philosophies and linguistics were introduced into this region. The five major branches of language that include poetry, astrology, writing style, drama and synonyms were developed. In addition, books were written on religion, secular histories and biographies.
The patrons of Tibetan culture and religion chose the modern Tibetan script  for writing as it suited practically to reveal the richness of the language and adjusted to the phonetics. In 727AD, Tibetan King Khri Lde-gTsug-Brtan formalized the utilization of the script through the royal court. Scholars produced religious books, and etchings on rocks appeared in abundance. However, the honorific language and art of writing was restricted to the educated class, with literacy among commoners virtually non-existent. Consequently, the Tibetan script had to face the persistent insecurity of threat of extinction with the change of royalty or submission to non-Tibetan regimes, especially in far-flung areas like Baltiyul.
Concomitant with the ultimate decline of the Tibetan Dynasty, Baltiyul experienced invasion by despotic Rajas from west and south Asia. From the twelfth century AD onward, and with the region now ruled by non-Tibetans, Baltiyul experienced cultural and religious transformation, albeit it was still inhabited by a predominant Arghon population . Famous among the non-Tibetan ruling families were the Shagaris, the Maqpons ( Maqpon Dynasty kings were known as Gyalpos) and the Afghans. During the 16th century AD, Persian Muslim preachers arrived in Baltiyul via central Asia and Kashmir. Foremost among them was the charismatic Syed Ali Hamadani who is believed to have arrived during the reign of the ninth Maqpon ruler Gyalpo Gotacho Sengge. Subsequent to the former’s teachings, local ruling families along with their communities converted almost en masse to Islam. Buddhism and the Bon Shamanism formerly practiced in the area slowly gave way to the new religion. Bon (pr. bern) held sway in the area prior to the advent of Buddhism .
It was the power combination of Persian religious scholars and non-Tibetan rulers that affected local language the most. The local population’s inevitable alienation from their Tibetan roots helped the non-Tibetan rulers strengthen their control. Muslim religious leaders considered the indigenous Tibetan script used to express Balti language to be ‘profane’, and on these grounds it was discarded. Demonstrating their preference for the Persian script, they persuaded the local rulers to adopt it as the court language. Persian and Arabic loan words made their way into Tibetan, and a slow process of alteration of language began. Thus there evolved a new combination of Balti, Persian and Arabic languages, which replaced the existing honorific Tibetan language.
As the art of writing was confined to but a few individuals under control of the royal families, adoption of the Persian script faced no resistance. Under the same influence, Balti poets and intellectuals adopted the Persian language and script for cultural expression. Impressed as they were by the teachings of the saints, they almost proudly abandoned their native language, seemingly unaware of the detrimental effect a foreign language would have on their own culture, history and language. Herein would lie the downfall of the Balti language. During the 17th century, the Maqpon rulers established a strong political and cultural relationship with the Moghuls of India, which further engendered Persian influence in the region. However, in 1840 AD, the Jammu Hindu Dogra ruling family that invaded Ladakh and Baltiyul continued the policy of patronizing Persian as the court language of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Subsequently, Persian along with Urdu  was taught in the schools of the Ladakh. Wazarat. It is interesting to note that throughout this time, while the foreign influences degraded the local language, they did not affect the basic core vocabulary and foundations.
As a result of the political unrest that surrounded colonial hegemony in the Indian Subcontinent, the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ further distanced Muslims from non-Muslims. As a consequence, the strong religious differences within the south Asian sphere distanced Muslim Baltis from Buddhist Ladakhis, Tibetans and other non-Muslims in the region, both politically and socially. The Islamization process extended to the point where Baltis stopped referring to either themselves or their language as ‘Tibetan’. An inferiority complex associated with being called ‘Tibetan’ prevailed because of the predominant Buddhist ‘tag’ on Tibetans. The more Baltis were associated with Ladakh, Tibet or its culture, the more they distanced themselves from the appellation ‘Tibetan’. In his book Shimla Say Baltistan Tak (From Shimla to Baltistan), Mr. Hassan Hasrat of Skardo suggests that the Baltis of Simla (India) penalized anyone who used the term ‘Tibetan’ in relation to Baltis and also fined any Balti who called himself or his language ‘Tibetan’ or ‘Bhotia’. Concomitant with these developments, Balti language suffered the most: notwithstanding, it represented indisputable proof of the Balti connection with the Tibetan and Ladakhi languages. Meanwhile, the Persianization of language, now accompanied by Urdufication,  continued unabated.
The division of India based on the Two-Nation Theory led to the segregation of ethnic communities on religious grounds, a move that affected the peoples of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Today, the Ladakhis and Baltis of Ladakh are separated from their ethno-linguistic kin across the eastern (Ladakhi) border of Baltiyul. This division - that resulted in the formation of a perceived “Berlin Wall” within the Ladakh Wazarat - has obstructed the development process of Balti culture and language. The rich folklore and the literary heritage of the Baltis including their poetry, epics, sagas, folk dances and songs, sports, and architecture have lost all patronage. All of these activities which serve to bind together any given community, are withering, in part due to the fact that oral traditions are prone to distortion, deterioration and ultimate loss if not constantly passed down, recorded and promoted.
The Balti community suffers an inferiority complex: the people feel unable to pursue their centuries old traditions and festivals as these activities lack State patronage. For Pakistan – a country created by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah to be a Muslim (albeit not theocratic) country - it is even more crucial to discourage the development of ethno-linguistic connections of communities that spread across its borders into neighboring countries. There is a presumption on the part of government that such activities could lead to conflict between language and religious identities that might undermine the more recently perceived basis of the creation of Pakistan. The recent Islamization of the Kashmir issue has further undermined the ethno-linguistic connections of communities separated by the LOC. Pakistani regimes in the past have resisted any attempts to give Baltis their ethnic and linguistic identity as they consider it inappropriate and incompatible with their Kashmir program.
As Islamization of culture continued, the immediate target remained the language. It was soon realized that the temporary adoption of the Persian script did not suit the local language due to certain phonological differences. Therefore, different scripts were invented and attempts were made to use them to facilitate Balti. This compelled scholars to increase the size of Persian and Urdu vocabulary in Balti to make it readable in new scripts. One after another, Balti language went through a form of ‘guinea pig ‘experimentation, but success remained inconsistent. No script could be made sufficiently inclusive; subsequently, most of the Balti folklore and literary heritage of necessity was passed on to the next generations in oral form. The absence of a durable script proved detrimental to the society as new cultures and social trends empowered local traditions. If the original Balti script had been consistently promoted along the line, the confluence of different cultures could have enriched the language without destroying its identity. Further, instead of Balti culture absorbing other traditions to enrich itself, it started losing its originality. For example, traditional dancing and festivals such as Me-phang (literally `throwing fire') have almost disappeared. Wedding rituals have become more `Pakistani', while wearing the traditional costume is considered a sign of backwardness. Similarly, names of several villages and towns have been Persianized.
Today, Balti is at the mercy of other languages and literatures, which have widespread readership. The national language of Pakistan, Urdu, though foreign to Baltiyul, has undermined the existence of the local dialect. The publication of books, newspapers and periodicals in Baltiyul is undertaken in Urdu or English but not in the local language. Urdu music cassettes are sold in the marketplace, not Balti. As modernization has hit the social canvas, English has empowered other languages due to its common usage in administrative offices, trade and educational institutions. Along with Urdu, English has been adopted into Balti to incorporate vocabulary for dozens of newly invented and introduced entities. For example, words like 'tissues', 'program', and ‘joggers’ now appear in daily use. With the advent of an NGO culture, global media and commercialization, the random adoption of foreign loan words has further adulterated Balti, resulting in code-switching in everyday conversation. Languages from neighboring regions including Punjabi, Pushto, Burushaski and Shina are also challenging the existence of Balti. The settlement of outsiders who now reside in Baltiyul will further exacerbate the situation.
Baltiyul, along with Ladakh, might represent the last few areas in the world where education at primary stage is given in foreign languages. In the near future, Balti and Ladakhi dialects will receive scheduled status in India; the people of Pakistan-controlled Baltiyul still await similar consideration from the government of Pakistan. Mr. Tarik A. Khan, of the Himal Magazine Nepal (1998) writes: “The Balti inferiority complex is rooted in education. Government schools use Urdu as the chief medium of instruction. So children learn Balti at home, then Urdu and Arabic at school, and now English medium schools are confusing them further.” Today, Balti is reduced to a ‘kitchen’ language (Thab Skad). The inferiority complex that has developed among the local children is due to the fact that they are not aware of their cultural legacy and cannot comprehend the richness of its civilization and language. Ironically, their mother tongue and script do not constitute an approved language to be taught in schools in Pakistan. To preserve the unique history and culture, Baltis must learn the Tibetan script again, and it must be recognized officially.
Some opponents of original Balti script consider it a hurdle in the promotion of literacy in the region. They suggest that as the children already have to learn two or three languages and scripts, the extra burden associated with the introduction of Balti would discourage students from attending school. These opponents should not overlook the fact that over the last few centuries, during which Persian script has facilitated Balti language, it has not contributed to any positive change in literacy standards in Baltiyul, for to this day, these standards are insignificant_. It should be realised that by employing the mother tongue to enhance literacy rates in any society is of paramount importance. Literacy can be best promoted in Balti, provided that it has its own script to accommodate its own linguistic peculiarities. It is a marked feature of Tibetan writing that the orthography has not changed during a whole millennium. The individual words and syllables are still written in the same way they were written in the eighth century or earlier. The pronunciation of the majority of Balti words bears a striking resemblance to how Tibetan words are written in traditional orthography. Further, the contemporary Tibetan script has formulated inverted letters to accommodate Arabic and Sanskrit words. Hence under the current conditions, Tibetan is the only adequate script for Balti, which can be promoted to bring out all the richness of the language. I agree that children in Baltiyul have to learn three or four languages at the primary stage. But one need not sacrifice the mother tongue and script in order to reduce the number of languages taught in the local schools. The imported languages and scripts have to give way to Balti and accept its primary right.
It may be of interest to note that a primary book has recently been published in Persianized Urdu script under the patronage of the National Language Authority of Pakistan. The new script has pretty much failed to accommodate the phonetics of the Balti (Tibetan) dialect. Such efforts will only destroy the originality and historical significance of the language to the point of alienation. Balti, an archaic dialect of Tibetan, is completely foreign to the land of Pakistan, which belongs to the "Tibeto-Burman" branch of "Sino-Tibetan" group of languages. Although, Balti at the moment, is cut off from Ladakh and Tibet, dialects spoken in these regions have 70-90 per cent of nouns, pronouns, verbs and other literary and grammatical characters in common, except for the few words that were absorbed into the language due to interaction of the masses.
Balti people have little in common with the pre-dominant Indo-Iranian and current North Indian Muslim (muhaajir) cultures, traditions and language in Pakistan. The reality is that they have more in common with Ladakhis and Tibetans. This fact has always been largely ignored by Pakistan (and indeed by a limited number of Baltis) throughout the last fifty years. ‘Band-Aid’ efforts have been made to promote an identity that has only destroyed the existence of the rich Balti civilization. These steps were taken to enforce a Pan-Islamic identity and to sabotage the linguistic and historic links of the Baltis with their perceived kinfolk in Ladakh and Tibet. Although currently present day Baltiyul is shaping up politically by developing socio-economic ties with its western and southern neighbours, the ethnic and linguistic connections with Tibet and Ladakh continue to persist as a distinct feature of Baltiyul . The presence of a Tibetan social structure, culture, language, ethnic composition, traditions, history and livelihood are unique in the South Asian hemisphere. Sports like polo and archery are played as national games in Baltiyul, Ladakh and Tibet. Furthermore, the Tibetan and Ladakhi folk literature of myths, epics, songs and proverbs is part of the Balti cultural tradition.
Today, the community in general, along with its religious scholars, has realized that the revival of their old and rich culture is possible only if language and script is restored. In effect, culture in this area is more than a question of being Islamic and non-Islamic. There is a strong realization among the student organizations that Balti script should be taught in government and private schools. Some students now use hybrid names like Hassan Shesrab and Ali Sengge. Local scholars have taught themselves how to read the Tibetan script.  Moreover, they desire that the cultural and linguistic links with Ladakh and other Tibetan speaking areas should be restored and enhanced. Today, the only source of information exchange with our Ladakhi kin is through trekkers and climbers who bring information from other regions of the Himalayas. However, lack of literacy initiatives and institutions to promote Balti language and script continue to be the main hurdles encountered. Despite these hurdles, some practical initiatives have been taken to promote the Balti script.
In the interests of reviving the Balti cultural heritage, a collaborative effort was initiated in 1999 by the Mohammad Ibrahim Memorial Society (MIMS) and a local social activist, Mr. Baqir Haideri, to launch the shop signboard campaign. The Australian Tibetan Society (ATS) provided some financial support. The objective of this project was to bring to the attention of both local and international audiences the existence of a script for Balti language. A year later, in continuance of the same project, a proposal was prepared by myself in collaboration with the Baltistan Cultural Foundation (BCF) which was presented to the Tibet Foundation London (TFL). A grant based on this proposal was received from TFL, which the BCF utilised to set up further sign boards and to facilitate the publishing of a primary book in Balti script. Similarly, the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, a local NGO, has utilised Tibetan script in their brochures. Although government circles have refused to patronise these initiatives, local communities are very much in favor of promoting their genuine Balti culture. To support the organizations, local shopkeepers and scholars undertake similar activities on a self help basis. The BCF has also erected a barbed wire fence around Skardo's ancient Buddha rock etchings for protection: these are inscribed in the Tibetan script. I have been told that similar efforts to restore language and culture have been initiated by the Jammu and Kashmir Cultural Academy in the Kargil area, which is predominantly a Muslim district of Ladakh.
Though the government of Pakistan sponsors token festivals to promote local culture, the impact on local traditions remains severe. Events such as the Silk Route Festival and Poetic Mushairas (symposiums) promote aspects of culture, which are in the main alien to Balti society. Dances, costumes and cuisine presented are non-traditional and poetry delivered at the Mushairas is recited in Persianised Urdu, rather than in Balti. Radio programs promote a type of Balti language, which at best could be called an admixture of Balti and Urdu.
Today, Balti is hardly found in written form, if at all. Even then, it is usually a poor attempt to convert this elaborate Tibetan dialect into the Persianised Urdu script, in which phonetics and alphabets are altogether different. Language, for a society, is the most powerful means of communication. Professor K. Warikoo (2000) corroborates: “Language is the vehicle of expression of cultural values and [the] instrument of conserving culture. It helps preserve [the] identity of a particular community. Language and culture are interrelated because language and culture are characterized by common traits in history, folklore and literature.” Language helps build social and communal cohesion, which is of the utmost importance in social evolution and development. Similarly, for a community, script is never merely a neutral instrument of expression. It is an expression of cultural identity as well. In the words of Dr Michael Balk (2001), State Library of Berlin, who visited Baltiyul in 2001, “Most Baltis I met are proud of their ancient past and of possessing a script of their own, even prior to the appearance of Islam”.
Balti language is of the utmost importance for researchers who work on the evolution of Tibetan language. The fact of the dialect being an extremely archaic form of Tibetan, in comparison to modern central Tibetan dialects, is of paramount importance for the re-construction of Tibetan language and phonetics. The Reverend H. Jaschke (1887) states that Balti phonetics resemble twelfth century-old texts and every word can be disinterred to support the testimony of standards imposed during that time.  Any neglect of Balti will be fatal to Tibetan research. Lost initiatives to derive new scripts for Balti will cut off the connection and significance of centuries old dialect with the Tibetan world. Disconnected from its roots, Balti will fall easy prey to other civilisations and might well cease to exist sooner rather than later. In fact, the urgency to restore the written form lies in the fact that more than 500,000 people speak Balti but none of them can write it . Although presently confined to a dialect of the languages spoken in “North Pakistan”, this Tibetan dialect can survive and win its richness and prestige, but only if the script is restored. Cultural exchange between Ladakh and Baltiyul is of the utmost importance in the prevailing circumstances, as Balti language and culture is surviving on artificial respiration. In conclusion, it is up to those in Baltiyul who have some command of the Balti language and script, to focus on teaching the language and on making sure that its survival is ensured. In addition, efforts should be made to introduce the language into local school curricula.