Hunters of the Hindu Kush

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Hunters of the Hindu Kush

Lorakh village, Tangir–photo by the author

Both hunters and shepherds were highly respected in the tribal societies of Darel and Tangir in the district of Diamer in Gilgit-Baltistan. The communities were dependent for their sustenance on these men in the past. When a hunter (Darus) returned to his village with his quarry, he was always welcomed with certain customs by the community. After the customary celebrations, the meat was distributed among the close relatives. If it was communal hunting (Ban Daru), the hunt was celebrated and followed by meat distribution among the community members. In Ban Daru, a shaman (Daheli in the Tangiri Shina language) was sometimes involved to cast certain spells to trap the game animal if it was uncontrollable by the hunters. Communal or trapping-based hunting was once prevalent among the Dardic communities in the Hindu Kush and the Dravidians in Sindh. One can see the evidence of these hunts in the rock art of Sindh. Rock art along the Silk Route also represents scenes of hunters and the process of hunting itself.

Shashe Bekh in Gachhar Nullah where hunters of Mahechar and other villages hunted–photo by the author

Game birds and animals were found in the forests and pastures in nullahs in the Darel and Tangir valleys. There were pastures (Ayar) and places and routes (Bekh) in each nullah (Gah) where the hunters went in search of game birds and animals. There were fewer chances of finding game birds and animals at the tail of the nullah (called Chuno or Durore Bekh in Tangiri Shina). Mostly hunters went for the hunt in the Majeno Bekh (route in the middle of a nullah) or Shashe Bekh (at the head of a nullah). In general, the hunter found better game in the Shashe Bekh.

View of Darel valley–photo by the author

During my research in the valleys of Darel and Tangir which spans two decades, I met and interviewed many hunters about their techniques, toolkits, customs and other practices – especially through my conversations with many of the celebrated hunters. I interviewed the celebrated hunters, called Baro Darus in the local language. At the completion of a century – 100 successful kills – of game animal hunting, the hunter was required to wash his hands with the blood of the last hunted animal which was locally called ‘Lel Thee Hath Dijron. A hunter who scored a double century was also required to wash his hands with the blood of an animal which was locally called ‘Duwar Hath Dijron’. After the completion of a century and double-century of animal hunts, their popular identity in the Darel and Tangir valleys became that of celebrated or big hunters.

Carving of hunter with his kill, Thalpan,Chilas–photo by the author

Some of the celebrated hunters in both the valleys include Goru of Dodoshal village, Darelo of Phuguch village, Zardul Shah of Birkot village, Essa Khan of Samigal Pain, Hazrat Dar of Gayal village in Darel valley and Rustam of Lorakh village, Khan Doran of Baguot village, Yohar and Timor of Darqali Bala village and Salam Khan of Sobo Kot village in Tangir Valley. Amongst these, Hazrat Dar of Gayal village in Darel, Rustam of Lorakh village, Khan Doran of Darqali Bala and Salam Khan of Sobo Kot washed their hands twice with the blood of the hunted animal – which meant that they hunted 200 hundred game animals particularly the Markhor and Ibex.

Darel valley–photo by the author

Hunting in both valleys of Darel and Tangir was not only a means of sustenance but also a source of entertainment for the males until two decades ago. But it has declined now as the animals have become extinct in these valleys.

They hunted the animals to get meat and hides, which were then sold in the market. One of the hunters, Salam Khan of Sobho Kot in Tangir valley who I interviewed, said that he had over two hundred Markhors to his credit. He is a very famous and experienced hunter in Tangir. He is a celebrated or big hunter (baro darus) who washed his hands twice with the blood of game animals. He completed his double century at the age of 60. I share below some excerpts from the interview with him:

“I was sixteen years old when I first killed a Markhor. When I came back home, everybody was delighted and my father celebrated on my first hunt. ‘Hunting was the job of the brave person and it showed his masculinity’, remarked my father. He was very contented and told me that now I have become an adult male and could take care of the family and relatives. The hunters were highly regarded in the society and were a symbol of status and people liked to have discussions with them because they were considered experienced – and with experience came the intellect. I washed my hands in the blood of the Markhor for the first time at the age of 45, when I made a century of Markhor and Ibex hunting. Second time, I washed my hands with blood of the Markhor when I made a double-century at the age of 60. Now I am 97 years old and I do not do hunt anymore.”

Essa Khan, a celebrated hunter of Samigal Pain, Darel valley–photo by the author

There were several customs which were associated with hunting. Salam Khan told me that in the past when he was a young boy and his father was a celebrated hunter, there was a custom known as Ban Daru (communal hunting). Some people were directed to shout so as to scare the animal and then trap it. Others were holed up and ready when the animal approached, to shoot at it. The person who first spotted the animal and shot it received the most important piece of the hunted animal. These days this custom is not practiced any more.

Another view of Darel valley–photo by the author

There were many customs associated with hunting that are not practised nowadays. When I asked him as to how many pheasants (lesh) he had killed, he told me that the number was close to 400. Their meat is consumed while the plumes of the pheasants are sold in the market. He shared with me the numbers of animals and birds that he has killed: over 200 Markhors, 12 ibex, 32 musk deer, 10 bears, chakor (partridge) and Ram chakor and countless wild pigeons, countless foxes, and several other birds found in the valley. He was such an experienced hunter that he spotted and knew the age of a Markhor from a distance. He shared with me the terms which are used according to the age of Markhor and Ibex: 1) Chhatelo for a one-year-old Makhor, 2) Kato for a two-year-old Markhor, 3) Ka Kato for a three-year-old Markhor, 4) Det Kato for a four-year-old Markhor, 5) Hateen for a five-year-old Markhor, 6) Tarey Dish To for a six-year-old Markhor, Char Dish To for a seven- or eight-year-old Markhor and Panch Dish To for a nine- or ten-year-old Markhor etc.

The Markhor has become extinct in the Darel and Tangir valleys now; people killed it for meat, hide and horns. The hunter and his family as well as relatives consumed the meat. The horns of the Markhor were either sold in the market or put on display at the hujra (Kutgai). Its hide was either used as a pelt and placed at the doorstep, or sold and gifted to some relative or friend. Like Markhors. the musk deer has also become extinct in both the valleys of Darel and Tangir. It was killed particularly for its musk that was sold for a very high price. Many people went to the villages of Darel and Tangir to buy the musk. It was then taken to Swat and sold for a higher price there.

“The Ibex was also hunted for meat, hide and horns. The meat of the Ibex was very delicious and was considered a panacea for back pain. The hide was either sold or placed at the doorstep,” remarked Salam Khan, the hunter. Its horns are used as decorations in both homes and hotels.

“Now, I have left hunting. Instead, my elder son hunts, but now it is hard to find any game animal. Instead, he kills birds. I taught him hunting. Whenever I went hunting, I always took him along to teach him the techniques. He is now a well-trained hunter, but game animals are nowhere to be seen in the valleys of Tangir and Darel.”

This excerpt from an interview conducted with a celebrated hunter of Tangir, Salam Khan, reflects that hunting was both individual and communal activity. At present, the individual hunter still goes hunting in the neighbouring valleys of Kohistan but they hardly find any animal there too. Sometimes, they kill the birds which are still found in the valleys but these are also on the verge of extinction. The custom of communal hunting has died out in the valleys.

The Darel valley also produced celebrated hunters who were seen to be men of wisdom, experience and intellect in the valley. Today, all the hunters of both the valleys still recall the earlier days which they spent chasing the game animals.

The writer is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at zulfi04@hotmail.com

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