Friday, August 28, 2009

Shamans and mountain spirits in Hunza. (northen Pakistan)

The Hunzakut, a high-mountain people in the western Karakoram mountains of northern Pakistan, possess a shamanistic tradition centered around religious specialists known as bitan. These practitioners inhale the smoke of burning juniper branches, dance to a special music, drink blood from a freshly severed goat's head, enter into ecstatic trances, and converse with supernatural beings. An ethnographic and historical analysis of this little-known shamanistic tradition is offered, focusing on the rituals, beliefs, and practices of Hunzakut bitan, the place of these practitioners in the traditional ritual and politico-ideological apparatus of the former Hunza state, and their role as healers and soothsayers.

Key words: Hunza (northern Pakistan) - shamanism - animal sacrifice - ritual healing - pre-Islamic religious beliefs

Introduction: Hunza, Islam, and Folk Religion

The past physical isolation of the Hunzakut, a high-mountain population in northwestern Pakistan, has been instrumental in allowing them to preserve elements of their pre-Islamic shamanistic religious beliefs. Centered around practitioners known as bitan, this tradition has certain characteristics - such as the shaman inhaling juniper smoke and drinking blood from a freshly severed goat's head - that seem to be unique among South and Central Asian peoples (Sidky 1990, 275-77). This paper examines the particular configuration of rituals and beliefs associated with these bitan, their place in traditional society, and their situation in modern-day Hunza.(1) The data were gathered during anthropological field research in Hunza in 1990 and 1991.

Hunza is located in the far northwestern part of the South Asian subcontinent, in Pakistan's Northern Areas District. This is a high-mountain area where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayan ranges have converged to produce a vast network of peaks, valleys, and glaciers. Here is the most massive concentration of high peaks to be found anywhere on earth. Hunza's territory is roughly 7,900 [km.sup.2] and borders Afghanistan and Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) to the north, Shinkari and Indus Kohistan to the south, and Kashmir to the east (see map). For centuries Hunza was an independent principality headed by a hereditary autocratic ruler, who was known locally as the Thum, but who also held the Persian title of Mir (Sidky 1993).

In the past, the region's formidable geographic barriers made access to this small mountain kingdom extremely difficult. Travelers from China and northern Afghanistan who wanted to reach Hunza had to traverse the high and extremely dangerous mountain passes of Irshad, Kilik, Mintaka, and Khunjerab, open during the summer months and blocked by snow for the rest of the year. Travelers from Shinkari, Kohistan, and Kashmir did not have to worry about snow, but still faced a treacherous trail zigzagging across steep and precipitous gorges. Incessant rockslides made journeys to Hunza from any direction both terrifying and dangerous, as accounts written by travelers to the area indicate (Clark 1956, 37-38; Schomberg 1935, 95; Shor 1955, 275; Stephens 1955, 155; Thomas and Thomas 1960, 96-97).

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