On a dusty road, strategically placed along one of the silk routes between China and Afghanistan, lies Ganish, the oldest, currently populated, village in the Hunza Region. And the 1000 year old settlement is well preserved as the warren of narrow alleys are too small for any cars or motorcycles.
It was at the edge of the village that I met my guide, Mr Shabir Ahmed – a local man who has lived here all his life. I’m so grateful to the softly spoken Mr Ahmed. If not for him I would have missed out on the history of the mosques, the guest house and the remaining watchtowers that bolster the fortified wall….And the handful of succulent sweet white juniper berries he plucked straight from the tree.
The village has two parts. A walled section where the families (and cattle) live, only accessible through one small doorway, which is shut and bolted at night. Beyond the wall is a public area where travellers would stay. In this part of the village is an ancient two storey caravanserai (guesthouse) complete with the original rings to tie up camels embedded in its outside wall.
The guesthouse overlooks the village pond which is kept topped up by melt water diverted from a nearby glacier. The boys of the village learn to swim in its icy waters much as their ancestors had for hundreds of years before. For these boys it is fun, but for their earliest counterparts it was a rite of passage. Only those young men who could swim across the the adjoining Hunza river could take up arms to defend the village.
With early warning coming from the lookouts on the watchtowers the villagers would lock the gates and prepare for a fight. As I walked along the narrow walkways I saw shadows flit across outside walls only to disappear round the endless corners of this little maze. So I can imagine it would have been both disorientating and frightening to be an invader running through this village’s spider web of alleys and cul-de-sacs.
Mr Ahmed told me the pool is a natural refrigerator. Indeed, I could feel cool air coming from a small damp hole beside the pool once he had lifted its stone lid. Each family has it’s own store in which butter is stored – sometimes for 30 years or more. This prized, rancid butter is brought out for special occasions such as weddings and funerals where it flavours the food and tea.
Rancid butter mixed with tea and bread is a staple breakfast during the harsh winters in the Hunza. I would have tried it but luckily I couldn’t find any despite not looking very hard.
In Ganish there are four very old wooden mosques. Three of them are found in the tiny village square. These mosques were constructed by families as their legacy. One has two rooms the rest have just one single sparse room with plain walls and simple mihrabs. What makes these mosques so special – to me at least – are the carvings that adorn the outside panels. These intricate carvings include Islamic mihrab, Hindu swastika and Buddhist lotus flower motifs. Mr Ahmed told me the travelling craftsmen responsible for the wooden panels would have picked up the designs from their travels along the silk routes.
As if to illustrate a multi-faith liberal attitude Mr Ahmed pointed to a lady washing bowls outside a small dwelling. “She is from Punjab, but husband who was working here died” he said matter-of-factually. She has no family nor income so normally would have had to beg to survive. But with no hint of self-satisfaction Mr Ahmed told me: “The village let woman stay. We provide food so she can live here with us…we must to look after fellow human”. Indeed.