Arts and culture

An artist’s thoughts: Glaciers – magical and extraordinary place-lore


An artist’s thoughts: Glaciers – magical and extraordinary place-lore

Artist Zohreen Murtaza, currently exhibiting in Glacial Movements and the Ghaib at the Daphne Oram gallery, offers an insight into what a “sense of place” can mean through an exploration of place-lore, ecology and cultural memory. Zohreen’s starting point was her shared expedition, as part of the Pak Khawateen Painting Club, to the Hunza region of Pakistan.

A Precarious Balance: Home Space – Pari (Fairy) Space – Other Forces of Nature

As part of our expedition to Hunza The Pak Khawateen Painting Club trekked across glaciers, mountains and streams. We photographed, documented, wrote, ate and rested in a unique environment that was unlike our own. The topography, rituals and social organisation in Hunza – in short landscapes of everyday life – were defined in relation to different experiences of space.

As I acclimatized and adapted, not only did it become apparent that Hunza retained a strong oral culture of story-telling but the entanglements between culture, tradition and environment were unique, to say the least. Lived experiences and memory narrated through cultures of storytelling could transform natural phenomenon, functions and entire landscapes into something magical or extraordinary.

I became increasingly interested in place-lore, a term used to describe stories that people tell about physical and natural surroundings familiar to them. Sometimes the place or setting being spoken about in say a folklore would be present in the actual landscape itself. The physical environment itself would become a catalyst for the production and interpretation of meaning i.e natural phenomenon were explained through fantastical vernacular interpretations. At other times ecological concerns were merged with morality and piety; folk stories were supposed to serve as a mode of admonishment in response to ecological imbalance created by human activity/human greed.

Since the central concern of the expedition was tied to environmental risks and catastrophes that do not recognize geographic boundaries established by nation-states, storytelling, it began to seem, could traverse these limitations and elevate the narration to encompass concerns about ecology, harmony and balance in nature. Certain cultural and ritual practices involving the natural environment in Hunza began to emerge almost as acts of transgression vis-à-vis state ideologies that craft and legitimize narratives around geopolitical pasts; after all it is nation-building that ensures that boundaries are established and borders are maintained. Were these cultural traditions and practices indicative of remnants of an agrarian and animist way of life that was either co-existing or contesting space with the narratives of salvation religions (Islam, Christianity etc.)?

The existence of beings other than divs and churails which are either male or female in storytelling was also fascinating. One of these beings was called a pari. I speak Urdu and coming from the plains or down se (from down there) – as I sometimes had to introduce myself in colloquial terms- the word pari meant “fairy” and implied a female gender. However, Hunzakut say that “the pari appear to be the embodiment of natural forces, displaying the life-giving and life-threatening attributes of the mountains. Hunzakut say that the pari jealously guard their domain against human encroachment. This is why the Hunzakut traditionally regarded the up- land pastures and the mountains beyond as sacred places, the hallowed domain of the pari…these supernatural beings are offended by the presence of women (believed to be impure because of their menstrual periods) and cattle (which Hunzakut regard as unclean animals).”[i]

[i] Sidky, M.H. “Shamans and Mountain Spirits in Hunza.” Asian Folklore Studies 53, no. 1 (1994): 78. doi:

 The pari then can be considered akin to capricious, animist spirits that eschew gender and maintain order in the spirit world that pertains to nature. Interestingly I did document stories where the pari was given certain human qualities indicating their malleable identity that was informed by context and environment. To elaborate on how I then interpreted the term pari and incorporated it into my title I turn to James C. Scott and his book “The Art of Not Being Governed.” James C. Scott considered the hill-people of zomia (a geographic region that is located at an altitude which is above three hundred meters and encompasses Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia) as being evasive of state-making ideologies.[i] [ii]The people of Hunza with their animistic rituals and oral folklore carry similar tendencies. The flexible use of the word pari also impliesresistance to fixed identities informed and constructed by nationalist ideologies.

[i] Scott, “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia,” p. ix,x.

[ii] I was introduced to James C Scott’s book by Saba who discussed it extensively during our expedition noting that farming methods, plot organization and other characteristics in Hunza are as James C Scott has described for hill people.

To me “Pari-space” therefore represents an imaginary refuge much like zomia, it is transformative and in flux. It is, of course cultural heritage but perhaps also an intangible manifestation of what might now in modern times be considered, transgressive activities, that nevertheless still inform the cultural memory and life of the people of Hunza. Unfortunately, climate change and the frequency of environmental disasters such as (GLOFS) threaten this symbiotic relationship between place-lore, land and people.

The first half of this essay examines, cultural rituals, snippets of interviews and conversations with residents of Hunza which I felt, carry a consciousness of environment, ecology and history. Could some of their stories be considered place-lore that is integral to understanding and valuing the endangered natural resources of Hunza? If their rituals carry the imprint of older animist cultures then will global warming affect everyday life and the transmission of this knowledge in Hunza? In the second half of my essay I discuss the works of two artists, one from Hunza and one from the princely state of Nagar. Both artists draw on the cultural memory of Hunza-Nagar in some capacity, they use environment-related or culture-related stories to generate interest about transnational identity, nature protection and cultural heritage. Are South Asian artists acknowledging these histories and weaving them into their artistic practice with an awareness of place-lore and ecology?

Mujeeb is a graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore. He currently manages the Altit Hunza Music School located inside the Royal gardens of Altit Fort. We were able to witness the shamanistic practice of Bitan owing to the efforts of Mujeeb and his friends who located a practicing shaman and accompanied us to the ritual.  Bitan was described to us as an experience where the shaman would serve as a seer, prophesying and describing our futures. Broadly speaking shamanism is described as religious functionaries who draw on the powers in the natural world, including the power of animals, and who mediate usually in an altered state of consciousness, between the world of the living and the world of the spirits- including the spirits of the dead.[i]

[i] Jolly, Pieter. “On the Definition of Shamanism.” Current Anthropology, 04, 46, no. 1 (February 2005): 127.

In this particular experience with a shaman there was no visible evidence of the use of the power of animals. We were seated in a room and watched as the shaman lit and inhaled the smoke of juniper tree branches before going into a curious trance-like state. He intoned mostly without pause in an old dialect of Shina[i] which was, oddly enough, intermingled with recitations in Arabic. Mujeeb explained that Shina was also called” the language of paris” and it was the paris that were relaying all this knowledge to the Shaman.Any attempt I made to ask whether that meant female or fairies was met with a matter of fact reply: “They are just paris.”[ii]

[i] Indo-Aryan language spoken in the north of Pakistan. It is a Dardic language that does not have a long history of written script

[ii] Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Mujeeb. Personal, October 2022.

Sajjad Roy, a practicing artist originally from Hunza explained the practice of Bitan, as a performative act that was conducted outdoors and integrated natural landscape and animals into ritual. He elaborated that once upon a time it was shamans who could predict when the crop was to be harvested and when the ceremony of Ginani[i] was to commence. Roy recounted the incident of a famous shaman “who went into a mountain with an empty thaali. When he came running out of the same mountain the thaali [ii]contained grains of wheat, a ball of kneaded dough made from wheat and a prepared flatbread. The shaman then announced that Ginanai could begin.”[iii]

[i] Harvest festival celebrated in Hunza-Nagar

[ii] Urdu word for plate

[iii] Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Sajjad Roy. Personal, October 2022.

Roy’s other recollections of Bitan are more visceral. ” The Shaman performs in a crowd. He drinks the blood from a goat’s severed head as if using it as a vessel/container. To us it is seems grotesque but to the Shaman it feels like he is drinking milk that comes from the horn of rams brought by the paris themselves.”[i]

Roy too, parried the question of gender and any description of this supernatural being.

[i] Ibid.

Asad Bhai, as he liked to be called, was the caretaker of our rest houses in Gulkin and Aliabad. He often attempted to regale us with late night/after dinner stories about supernatural beings. Many of my queries were met with enthusiasm, the prelude consisted of an elaborate narration of geographic location, a description of natural topography followed by the actual answer to my question. However, on the question of paris, gender and description Asad Bhai was hesitant and said he had no definite answer.  The importance of harvest, mountains and even juniper in conversations with Roy and Mujeeb signify the relationship of place-lore to symbols that represent the potent powers of nature and geography. Paris emerge as genderless beings in these accounts. Roy recalled another entity with an ambiguous gender identity called dado-puppo when he relayed that

 ” …there was a huge boulder near my house… In winters as a child I remember we would sit on that rock and eat traditional food called mool. Since we sat and consumed the food on the rock it was as if we were feeding the dado- puppo.”  (Fig. 1)

Fig 1

What is the dado-puppo exactly? I asked.

We could consider it the spirit of an elder nut not a jinn. Dado means elder or old while puppo means old sage.[i]

This was more than just a local, vernacular explanation for the existence of a rock. Roy ended by saying that the boulder should never be moved because it had a spirit and that it consumed food just like humans. Implicit in this place-lore was a warning and lesson: every rock and boulder had a meaningful existence. Nature was being sustained by a fragile balance. These world views appeared to be informed by cultures and religions such as Buddhism, Taoism/Daoism that had travelled across the Silk Route hundreds of years ago and nourished the cultural landscape of the region. Interestingly in another folklore story Roy went on to attribute other human qualities to supernatural beings as well.

When we have sudden windstorms that last about 20-30 minutes and there is a lot of sand, it tells us that the dado-pupo and pari are getting married (they are mating and the sand is providing a cover of modesty).[ii]

Asad Bhai, the caretaker of our resthouses at Aliabad and Gulkin explained the existence of ancient trees and boulders in Chatorkhund located in the westernmost part of Gilgit-Baltistan in the following words

There is a place in Ghizr called Chatorkhund where a famous Shah sahb (he has passed away) known for his intellect, piety and contribution to society…he gained fame for capturing a div notorious for harassing villagers in the area…Shah sahb made him work, the div is known to have picked up huge boulders and placed them there near where Shah sahb’s house was. The boulders form a sort of wall. There are also huge trees near Shah sahb’s house. It is said the Div picked them up from another area and planted them there. They still exist. The size, shape and age of those trees and boulders should tell you how ancient they are and that it was impossible for anyone except a div to have lifted those.[iii]

Such examples of place-lore contain many environmental signs, perhaps they not only help explain the occurrence of unique natural phenomenon such as a change in seasons, weather etc. but could also relay knowledge about a sensory experience. These stories and practices could also suggest that it is the untameable and whimsical nature of the landscape that prompts their instinctive response; it highlights a more reciprocal relationship between man and nature. Abstract emotions such as shock, awe, wonder and mystery are inscribed as a sort of subtext within these stories, they provide clues about the emotional connection that inhabitants build with landscape. While paris and their gender remains ambiguous, the oral narratives by some of my other interviewees were charged with descriptions that ascribed gender, socially constructed relationships and even human attributes to the natural environment.

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Asad Bhai. Personal, September 2022.

 Wazir Iman, a resident of Hunza who had been working closely with UNDP on disaster management of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) delved into his experience of walking on glaciers and noting the effects of climate change. He decried the rapid rate at which the sides of glaciers were atrophying and melting, leaving behind rocks from moraine that would either block the path of floodwaters or come crashing down as landslides.[i] On being asked about the GLOF that had occurred recently , just a few months before we arrived and how a hotel had been washed away in Kalam, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Iman responded Woh uska haq tha, woh uska rasta tha[ii] translated as “ it was the right of the river, that path belonged to the river.” This particular line as well as many of Iman’s other descriptions of water, paths and rivers expressed the kind of protective affinity or bond he had established with the natural environment: he had imbued it with human qualities such as the ability to reason, decide and think. He was willing to speak up for the ‘rights” of water as if it was a living breathing being.

Iman sympathized with the waters of the GLOF as if they were a human entity of sorts stating that man had made the life of these melting waters difficult by blocking their way and artificially attempting to control and restrict their path.[i]  He then poetically elaborated on how glaciers are in a constant state of parting and union. They recede every seven years and grow back another seven years. It was described as a process of yearning to meet and mate. Shishper and Batura glacier was male, Passu was female. “Perhaps the meeting of their melting waters is as close as they can get to mating”[ii] said Iman eloquently. Such place-lore perhaps illustrates the more symbiotic relationship between traditional communities and their environment, “between tangible reality and the storyworld.”[iii] This creative impulse helps foster empathy and engenders an ecology of care where man gains the capacity to acknowledge the eco system as a living breathing entity. In this storyworld genders, relationships and personalities are inscribed on the geography and natural characteristics of the environment itself.

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Valk Ülo and Sävborg Daniel, p. 9.

[i] Vince “Adventures in the Anthropocene,”, p. 54.

[ii] Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Wazir Iman. Personal, September 2022.

The storyworld can also help reveal place continuity: Iman referred to an actual traditional practice called paewuund kari[i] or glacier grafting as a more practical interpretation of “mating” glaciers. Glacier grafting involves growing a glacier. As far back as the twelfth century glaciers were grown in villages in what is now known in northern Pakistan in order to block mountain passes that the Mongols would use to enter and invade land. The practice of glacier grafting was invented by the people of Baltistan. It involved dragging ice from a female glacier and a male glacier, both pieces were planted at a specific site.[ii] Iman merged place-lore with cultural practice in his conversation and provided an antidote to maintaining place continuity. In doing so he is highlighting how “the narrative potential of certain motifs of stories may be activated” when cultural heritage (and in this case it is natural heritage) becomes endangered.[iii] Belief narratives can also perform the same function. In such stories “Places also hold their inhabitants within their boundaries and order them protection, bringing people together”[iv] Wazir Iman narrated how a hunter in a forest mistakenly shot a female ibex and the paris cursed him in response. He had murdered an animal that contained the ability to give life. Such narratives reveal human misdeeds and the wrath of deities at upsetting the delicate balance that protects the environment.

[i] Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Wazir Iman. Personal, September 2022.

[ii] Vince “Adventures in the Anthropocene,”, p. 62.

[iii] Amos, Dan Ben. “Asian Ethnology 79-1: Review *Theoretical Milestones: Selected Writings of Lauri Honko* (Hakamies, Pekka and Anneli Honko, Eds. ); *the Theory of Culture of Folklorist Lauri Honko, 1932-2002: The Ecology of Tradition* (Kamppinen, Matti and Pekka Hakamies).” AE. Accessed February 5, 2023.

[iv] Valk Ülo and Sävborg Daniel, p. 8.

My observations kept circling back to the dire environmental warnings that were inherent in the place-lore and imagination of inhabitants. Nearly all oral stories were underscored by an ominous realization: storytelling in hill people is intertwined with a delicately woven web of nature related materiality. Climate change could change the space and place configurations of zomia and the zone that I have designated as pari space. Was it even a zone? Fluid, welcoming and imaginative as its constituents were, it could not remain a “place” or space for refuge if its ties to its muse were severed. The continuity and existence of pari space that contains genderless deities and shamanistic practices rooted in transgressive acts (if we consider nation states with their hegemonic narratives in comparison) were all tied to the recognition of the natural environment and a sense of place. Sense of place is a concept in heritage that allows for a lens that “integrates landscape and culture, the past and the present, the movable and immovable, tangible and intangible…”[i] In this case the rituals and storytelling help maintain the place distinctiveness, place continuity and an awareness of the self as a component in a much larger tapestry of existence in Hunza.

[i] Hawke, “ ‘Belonging: the Contribution of Heritage to Sense of Place’,” p. 2.

Numerous ideas were percolating in my mind as I considered my initial misgivings about understanding, challenging and imagining gender in paris as a mere tourist whowas down se, the power of place-lore, the fragility of ecology and a general discomfort of state ideologies towards rituals and practices that stray into nebulous territory. The image that emerged from my reflection is an embodiment of this ambivalence. (Fig. 2)

Fig 2

It is a dialogue about home and identity: can we accept our multifaceted historical pasts and acknowledge the imaginative potential of pari space to foster a sense of place and respect for ecology? Or would the supernatural storyworld appear as a threat to some?… an intractable remnant from a bestial past that violates and defies dogma and societal norms?

 How, if at all, are artists from Hunza interpreting and acknowledging these place-lore and ritual centric connections in their art? Back in Lahore, I interviewed and analysed the works of two graduates, Saima Nagar and Sajjad Roy who majored in miniature painting from the National College of Arts, Lahore. The visual strategies of both artists were unique. Interestingly only one of the artists dabbled in attempts to borrow from place-lore while the other also searched for inspiration through possible intra connections drawn from a pool of multi-ethnic ancestry and transnational histories. Yet in one of their paintings both refer to a common myth pertaining to the formation of Hunza; the visual representations of both artists are distinct and ask questions about identity and place in a world that sometimes privileges linear histories, borders and nation-states over varied historical imprints.

The myth that both artists collectively draw inspiration from is the tale of a cannibalistic king of Gilgit called Shirin Badad. As a ruler Shirin Badad was cruel and unpopular amongst the people, he was known for eating babies. Legend has it that a kind prince from Baltistan secretly married the daughter of Shirin Badad and had a son. Fearing that Shirin Badad might harm the prince, she put him in a cradle and he floated across the river until he was found by a woman washing clothes. Meanwhile a coup was plotted where Shirin Badad was killed. The prince was reunited with his parents and became the king of Gilgit. [i][ii]

[i] Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Saima Nagar. Personal, November 2022.

[ii] Dani, Ahmad Hasan, and Akbar Hussain Akbar. Essay. In Shah Rais Khan’s History of Gilgit, edited by Abdul Hamid Khawar, 5. Islamabad: Centre for the Study of the Civilizations of Central Asia, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad., 1987.

The triptych that Saima Ali shows me is part of her portfolio produced as an undergraduate student at NCA. Nagar opts to draw inspiration from the Persian style of miniature painting. However, the landscape in the first part has been painted directly from photographs and depicts the dramatic mountain views of Hunza-Nagar. (Fig. 3)

Fig 3

Rather than opting for flat backgrounds or imaginary curling hilltops often painted in multihued tones, Ali deliberately applies Eurocentric conventions of painting such as atmospheric perspective where snowy hilltops are bathed in hues of blue so as to represent recession of space. The foreground depicts a wooden building not too dissimilar to the ones visible in traditional Persian miniature painting but Ali explains that wooden architecture such as this is common in Hunza-Nagar. The scene assumes we are familiar with the narrative: Shirin-Badad reclines comfortably outside while villagers weep sorrowfully, aware that the infant they are holding, swathed in a blanket will soon be devoured by him. His daughter looks on helplessly from the balcony. The second part of the triptych shows a map in sepia tones that illustrates the prince from Baltistan gazing longingly at Shirin Badad. Territory and geography are used to define distance while in the lower corner the viewer encounters them seeing off their child in a basket set to float down a river. (Fig. 4)

Fig 4

In this case, storytelling through illustration serves as a means of underscoring the distinct architecture, geography and natural landscape of the region. Fact and fiction are meshed together, much like the tradition of storytelling in the region and become conduits to celebrating sense of place of the region itself. It is worth mentioning that Saima Ali reflects on her own royal lineage as well as she is a princess from the Kingdom of Nagar.  Nagar and Hunza were once princely states that bordered each other. In 1974 these states were dissolved and today Nagar is one of the ten districts in Gilgit- Baltistan.

She acknowledges her transnational lineage through the paintings titled Home Roots (Fig. 5) and Transcending Borders. (Fig. 6)

Fig 5
Fig 6

The background of both paintings features Ali’s genealogical family tree, she proudly explains that many of the names mentioned are also used the in the celebrated epic poem of Iran called Shahnamah composed by Firdowsi in the tenth century BC. Ali traces her family’s lineage from the last Sasanian King called Yazdegerd. It is worth noting that both paintings feature natural elements such as land, water and trees. The tangible and intangible intermingle to serve as settings for the main story: Transcending Borders (Fig. 6) illustrates a creation myth of Hunza-Nagar but pictorially also draws from the Shahnamah. The qualities of the fabled mythical bird in Persian painting, the Simorgh who carries a future king Zal as a baby are used to narrate a creation story.  The painting depicts twin brothers who are born conjoined at birth emerging from the sea separated, they emerge as Hunza and Nagar riding on the tip of a hybrid creature that is composed of glaciers, ice and water. The calculated use of ice, water, trees and hybrid demons questions the cognitive process of merely observing everyday reality, recording archives and banal facts as we know it. This storyworld imbues these elements with the magical or as Ülo and Daniel quote Basso who aptly puts it by saying “When places are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind, to the roving imagination…”[i] Adopting the style of Persian miniature painting and using it to exaggerate, modify, stylize and construct a whole imaginary world that exists outside time and space by the artist is in sync with the spirit of tradition of miniature painting which is wedded to the idea of constructing a third reality or liminal space that exists between the heavens and the real world.[ii]

[i] Valk Ülo and Sävborg Daniel, p. 8.

[ii] Nasr, “Islamic Art and Spirituality”, p.

Interestingly Sajjad Roy opts for a more ethnographic approach to framing rituals and even storytelling. For instance, rather than the imaginary storyworld Roy’s pictorial rendition of the tale of Shirin Badad is presented through the use of the body and performance through the ritual called Thumshaling. Roy pointedly states that Thumshaling is not different from burning effigies of Ravan on Dussehra[i]. An effigy of Shirin Badad is burnt and people dance around a fire to celebrate the end of his tyranny. An awareness of these connections on Roy’s part demonstrates how stories, rituals and motifs are not just connected to specific surroundings, but that their meanings accumulate layer by layer, even invoking older religions and histories that add to the multiplicity of cultural imprints. Perhaps that is why Roy’s miniscule figures outlined in brown pigment dance, play music and burn Shirin-Badad in the midst of a vast brown square of tea wash: (Fig. 7)

[i] A Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of Rama over the demon king Ravana who abducted Ram’s wife, Sita. The event os commemorated by burning effigies of Ravana

Fig 7

The vast brown expanse is a canvas rooted in the consciousness of a reciprocal relationship between land, storytelling and performative acts that narrate this connection. The colour of soil informs the colour of the figures. The more visceral and primordial aspect of this performance is also illustrated in another work (Fig. 8) where Thumshaling is depicted in the form of a more subjective and sensory experience. Wavering shadows of dancing figures and embers of a campfire play off each other as one absorbs the untamed landscape and multihued colours reflected across a night landscape.

Fig 8

In other works, Roy uses diptychs where the diagrammatic narration through tiny figures explains the ritual while the second part shows a more personal connection with ritual.

Paintings such as Bitan (Fig. 9) and Story of Bitan (Fig. 10) narrate and root these rituals almost in an ethnographic framework where the emotive quality of the storyworld is rescinded in order to show the importance of the process.

Fig 9
Fig 10

However, Roy revisits the same world and simultaneously acknowledges it as a mysterious space where imagination and ties to landscape can be recorded through intense, sensory experience such as in his painting depicting a Bitan in ecstasy as he dances for the paris. (Fig. 11) Raw, textured soil with its many hues engulfs and compliments the scene. Once more the trance-like psychedelic experience is exemplified by geography and landscape.

Fig 11

Both artists add to the rich cornucopia of what constitutes pari space for me; many of the acts and traditions appear to breach the frameworks laid down by Reason, dogmas of faith and the State yet they also serve as advisory warnings by addressing and entreating man to proceed with caution in this environment. The physical milieu of Hunza is defined by a desire to pay homage to its distinct landscape through some form of creative expression; these then reveal a web of meanings that inform lived experiences and ensconce many worlds, little known histories.

 An enduring relationship of fascination and “otherness’ when it comes to the observation and tabulation of geography, particularly of hilly landscapes is visible even in the memoirs of travellers albeit in a more playful manner. In Al Qazvini’s memoirs of medieval Iran he mentions and describes the mountain of Yaala Bashm through another eyewitness account. He says “One who climbed the mountain said to me: On it are images of creatures transformed by God into Stone. Among them is a shepherd leaning on a crook guarding his flock and a woman milking her cow, and other figures of human beings and beats.”[i]As someone  who was from down se I was frequently overwhelmed by the natural landscape and encountered similar rock formations during our various treks in Hunza; (Fig. 12) attributing them with fantastical beings or imbuing them with magical qualities did not seem all that unlikely after a number of treks and excursions to sites.

Fig 12

[i] Kane, Bernard O’. “Rock Faces and Rock Figures in Persian Painting,” n.d.

These examples illustrate the fact that the urge to record the experience of geography both in the form of a written account or even a photograph is tied to deeper urges; the landscape serves as muse, an object of wonder, amusement and even awe. Place-lore has the capacity to emerge from this wellspring of imagination.

 These observations demonstrate how genius loci[i] or the spirit of a place carry stimuli that cement a unique bond with landscape. Asad Bhai’s div at Ghizr then becomes a more tangible reality and one can understand how genius loci may have even fuelled Wazir Iman’s evocative descriptions of glaciers as sentient or even romantic beings. Sajjad Roy and Saima Nagar’s paintings then become archival documents that encode genealogies, myths and experiences in the form of ecological and natural representations. Even living and working away from home, former residents carry a fragment of this spirit in their creative impulses. Unfortunately these worldviews are now under threat.  

Glacial melting is accelerating every year. The International Community of Climate Scientists expects that 70% of the region’s glaciers could disappear by the turn of the century.[ii] As landslides, GLOFS and other natural disasters perpetuated by climate change continue to increase, the fate of these pockets of pari space spread across the region, intertwined with community and life, hang in balance. This unspoken fear now permeates everyday life across the region but particularly in the north with its unique terrain.   

I remember one unforgettable morning in Hunza where I froze midway as soon as a distant rumbling of crumbling boulders silenced the valley of Gulkin. There was a pregnant pause. The birds could no longer be heard. In what felt like the longest moment of overwhelming existential dread Asad Bhai scanned the expanse of the valley and cocked his ear to one side. Eventually his characteristic sardonic wisdom kicked in as he looked up and said “these mountains and this dirt would have come down on us by now if rain clouds had rumbled like this, bringing sheets of rain.”  Perhaps he had inadvertently voiced his greatest fear.

[i] Spirit of a place

[ii]  Vince “Adventures in the Anthropocene,”, p. 53,54.


Amos, Dan Ben. “Asian Ethnology 79-1: Review *Theoretical Milestones: Selected Writings of Lauri Honko* (Hakamies, Pekka and Anneli Honko, Eds. ); *the Theory of Culture of Folklorist Lauri Honko, 1932-2002: The Ecology of Tradition* (Kamppinen, Matti and Pekka Hakamies).” AE. Accessed February 5, 2023.

Dani, Ahmad Hasan, and Akbar Hussain Akbar. Essay. In Shah Rais Khan’s History of Gilgit, edited by Abdul Hamid Khawar, 5. Islamabad: Centre for the Study of the Civilizations of Central Asia, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad., 1987.

Hawke, Stephanie. In ‘Belonging: the Contribution of Heritage to Sense of Place’, 2, 2010.

Jolly, Pieter. “On the Definition of Shamanism.” Current Anthropology, 04, 46, no. 1 (February 2005): 127.

Kane, Bernard O’. “Rock Faces and Rock Figures in Persian Painting,” n.d.

Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Wazir Iman. Personal, September 2022.

Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Asad Bhai. Personal, September 2022.

Murtaza, Zohreen. Interview with Sajjad Roy. Personal, October 2022.

Sidky, M.H. “Shamans and Mountain Spirits in Hunza.” Asian Folklore Studies 53, no. 1 (1994): 78. doi:

Scott, James C. Preface. In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, ix,x. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Valk Ülo, and Sävborg Daniel. Essay. In Storied and Supernatural Places: Studies in Spatial and Social Dimensions of Folklore and Sagas, 8. Helsinki: SKS, 2018.

Vince, Gaia. Essay. In Adventures in the Anthropocene, 54. London: Milkweed Editions, 2014.

Nasr, Hossein, Seyyed. Islamic Art and Spirituality. New York: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Image References

Fig. 1 Roy, Sajjad. The rock rumoured to contain an animist spirit called the dado-puppo. 2022. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 2 Murtaza, Zohreen. Aziz, Naveed. 2022. A pictorial representation of the dilemma of representing the storyworld and remembering the multifaceted pasts of the region. This work was followed by a series I titled Pari (Fairy) Space.

Fig. 3  Part 1 of Saima Ali’s triptych illustrating the story of Shirin-Badad. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 4 Part 2 of Saima Ali’s triptych depicting a map marking kingdoms and showing the romance between a prince of Gilgit and Shirin-Badad’s daughter. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 5 Home Roots by Saima Ali, Gouache on Wasli. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 6 Transcending Borders by Saima Ali. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 7 Thumshiling (Shirin-Badad) by Sajjad Roy, Watercolour on Paper, 11 x 9.5 inches, 2022. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 8 Thumshiling (the last night) by Sajjad Roy , opaque watercolour on paper, 2022. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 9 Bitan (Shamanism) by Sajjad Roy, 11 x 9.5, Graphite and Watercolour on Paper, 2022. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 10 Story of Bitan (Shamanism) by Sajjad Roy, Water color on paper, 2022. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 11 Shaman in Conversation with Fairy by Sajjad Roy, opaque water color on paper, 2020. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Fig. 12 Rock formations spotted during one of our many treks, Hunza, 2022. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Find out more about the exhibition Glacial Movements and the Ghaib here: Exhibition: Glacial Movements and the Ghaib – Arts and culture (

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