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The glacier ‘marriages’ in Pakistan’s high Himalayas

Locals in Gilgit Baltistan use an ancient technique, reinforced by some modern breakthroughs, for glacier grafting to create persistent sources of water
<p>Nuding pyramids and Nuding glacier, Baltoro glacier, Karakoram, Pakistan [image: Alamy]</p>

Nuding pyramids and Nuding glacier, Baltoro glacier, Karakoram, Pakistan [image: Alamy]

Haider Zaidi cultivates wheat, potato and other vegetables to his lands to provide for his large family. He gives thanks to his ancestors, and especially his grandfather and fellow villagers, who grafted a glacier above their village 150 years ago. It is water from that glacier that feeds the fields of the almost 500 households, all reliant on agriculture, in Manawar Gaon situated 2,228 metres above sea level near Skardu, in Pakistan’s province of Gilgit Baltistan.

With more than 7,000 glaciers, Gilgit Baltistan is called the land of glaciers. But where some glaciers have not formed naturally, an ancient grafting technique is used. The practice is shrouded in both technique and ritual. An appropriate place must first be located – a cave or deep pit in a mountain – situated at least 4,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level, where temperatures remain below zero throughout the year. Snowfall and avalanches must be common, with no direct exposure to sunlight.

Male and female glaciers

According to folklore, glaciers are also given male and female identities. Male glaciers are grey in colour, having a lot of debris, meanwhile female glaciers are shiny white or blue. This male-female distinction is common in the mountainous areas. For example, in Bhutan the gentler Mo Chhu (female river) meets the turbulent Pho Chhu (male river) at a confluence near one of its most sacred dzhongs in Punakha.

Liaquat Ali Baltee, a documentary maker, and resident of Skardu, said, “The people of Gligit Baltistan believe that glaciers are living entities. That’s why a combination of female and male ice was absolutely necessary. The male glacier – called ‘po gang’ locally – gives off little water and moves slowly, while a ‘female glacier’ – or ‘mo gang’ – is a growing glacier that gives off a lot of water.”

Grafting a new glacier requires a piece each of a “male” and “female” glacier weighing approximately 35 kilogrammes. Villagers carefully pack these pieces in some coal and barley hay to keep them safe from warmer temperature and put them into a chorong (a conical basket made of willow twigs). They then transport it to the designated place and cover them with the mixture of mud, ash and charcoal and close the site with heavy stones.

Locals carrying ice pieces carved from glaciers to the site of the grafting
Locals carrying ice pieces carved from glaciers to the site of the grafting [image by: Liaquat Ali]
On this occasion, villagers also organise special prayers and sacrifices, usually animal slaughter which is customary in Muslim celebrations. This entire process is called a “wedding of glaciers”. After ten or 12 years, these efforts are supposed to birth a glacier.

While this ritual is often spoken about, most people only know of it through the oral tradition and have never participated in it. Shamsheer Ali, who lives in Kharmang in Baltistan is one of the few to have directly taken part in a process about 12 years ago as part of a project backed by the Agha Khan Rural support programme.

Shamsheer said, “All team members went to Arandu village near Shigar city in Baltistan. We took two pieces of glaciers and put them on our backs, then we walked for two days continuously and finally we reached the pre-decided site for grafting. During this journey we didn’t put those pieces on the ground. We kept shifting it from one shoulder to another.”

He also told us that he visited the site five years ago and observed that the glacier had spread over a large area. “We are getting plenty of water continuously after grafting the glacier, [a flow] which was irregular previously. Now we are cultivating wheat, millet, barley and vegetables regularly,” Shamsheer said.

A "growing glacier" [image by: Zakir Hussain Zakir
A “growing glacier” [image by: Zakir Hussain Zakir
Nazir Ahmad is a programme manager at the poverty and special project programme of Aga Khan Rural support programme. He told us that their organisation has grafted 19 glaciers at different places with a success ratio of 80%.

The Aga Khan programme, though, does not rely so much on folklore as from an example from across the border. In 1987, Chhewang Norphel, a retired engineer in the Indian Union Territory of Ladakh, created the first “artificial glacier”, by diverting streams into shady areas and slowing down the water to freeze over time. This successful experiment has then been expanded and replicated, and includes the ice stupas created by Sonam Wangchuk.

An old history

In Gilgit-Baltistan, though, the work is shrouded in tradition. Ishtiaq Ali, from the University of Baltistan, said the practice turns up in ancient lore, when the religious leader Ameer Kabir Syed Ali Hamdani (1314- 1384 AD) visited Gilgit Baltistan. He is said to have grafted the first glacier to close mountain passes as local people asked him to save them from attackers of Kashgar and Tibet.

More concrete documentation comes from the colonial period. Enayat Ullah Faizi, assistant professor in social sciences at the Government Degree College in Chitral, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, said, “It is difficult to say when the first glacier was grown in this region but there is evidence of a glacier being grown for irrigation purposes as long ago as 1812. However, the first documented reference to the practice does not appear until more than a century later when a British colonial administrator D. L. R. Lorimer reported it in the 1920s. Though Lorimer described the practice as obsolete, partly thanks to guaranteed food supplies from the British Raj, the traditions of glacier growing survived.”

Glacier grafting and women

One aspect of the traditional practice is that women do not take part in what is believed to be a “masculine activity”. Nevertheless it makes a great impact on their lives, especially since many women are farmers, and due to social mores the burden of managing water for the household falls disproportionately on them.

Tehzeeb Bano from Gilgit is working on her MPhil thesis on climate change and development with the National Institute of Science and Technology, Islamabad, with her thesis on glacier grafting. Bano has researched artificial glaciers in Gol, Kharmang and Machloo and concluded that the grafting process increases water supply by 50% in these areas, helping cultivation. “Although women are not direct participants, the provision of water close to their households eases their lives.”

Rashid Ud Din, a field officer at GLOF2, a joint venture of the Ministry of Climate Change in Pakistan and United Nations development project (UNDP) funded by the Green Climate Fund (GCF), said that they now consult the women of Kawardu village in glacier grafting and other activities too. The village was suffering from a shortage of water, and they carried out a glacier grafting. Snowfall began during the process which was considered a “good omen”.

sign with the words - 'glacier gradation local indigenous solution for global challenge)
The work of the GLOF 2 Project

“This year saw a lot of snowfall, and the temperature at the glacier site is minus 40 Centigrade,” he said.  “We are hopeful that it will be successful and it will irrigate an area of 1,210,000 square yards. We will graft four more glaciers this year and we are confident that we will make a huge area cultivable in the future.”

Folk wisdom and science

Zakir Hussain, director of academic and linkages at Baltistan University, said that the science on this was still evolving, offering that, “Scientifically, when we place certain critical mass of ice at permafrost level, it is likely to remain round the year,” adding that “Where hard ice mass exists, it starts accumulation by solidifying rainfall, humidity in clouds and snow in winter. When the rate of accumulation becomes greater than the rate of ablation i.e. melting and sublimation, the ice mass starts growing in size.”

Zakir Hussain at a high altitude site conducting research
Zakir Hussain at a high altitude site conducting research [image courtesy: Zakir Hussain]
Asif Khan, another expert on climate change, and part of the Working Group I to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report on water cycle changes, also endorsed this process. As the increase in temperature in the Hindukush-Himalayas (HKH) speeds up so will the process of glacial melt. In this scenario, grafting artificial glaciers is considered to be a sustainable solution.

Comments (12)

A master piece, many congratulations for bringing out an outstanding writeup specifically attracting those engaged in GB, this has been done meticulously and Shabina made the best use of her inclusiveness, she mentioned the role of preacher Syed Ali Hamadani, whose following are on both sides of the political borders, one of the reasons of his popularity in the area is as teacher who tought them glacial grafting with the lessons of taharat (abulation).

Informative article ,we should do scientific research on this grafting .congratulation Shabina
We can solve our water problem using this method. I think you never received my comments on this issue .Any way I am going to send your email .

A very interesting and informative piece that literally kept engrossed till the end with a feeling as I was around. Definitely also added to my knowledge. Thanks Shabina. All the best.

Traditional Art & Craft

Rearing a new glacier in Baltistan.

Syed Muhammad Abbas Kazmi
[email protected]

Baltistan literarily the Land of Baltees, a mixture of various ethnic people dominated by Tibetans is straddled on both flanks of Senge-Chhu i.e. the Lion River Indus, stretched on Himalaya as well as the Karakoram. Because of being located in to the deep valleys of both greatest mountain ranges, it has been un-approachable till modern time, thus remained very little known by the world. Though Baltistan is not worth to be noted on world map because of its small area and being concealed in the lofty mountains, but as the people say, necessity is the mother of inventions, the Baltees invented and introduced all necessary arts and crafts for their survival in the fields of agriculture, communication, entertainment and amusement as well as folk literature and made themselves self-sufficient and lived contented in their sheer-walled small world.

Glaciers play vital role on people living around the glaciered regions. In Baltistan over 5000 glaciers feed the Indus by different tributaries ranging from few tens of meters to more than 70 km long. Himalaya-Karakorum together makes the largest mountain chain over the earth, upholding firmly the third largest ice reserves after the Polar Regions.

As the river Indus, flowing through out Baltistan from east to west, but has never been of any use for agriculture and drinking purposes as it flows very low than the places where people are settled and possess their agriculture. Where ever possible, people had drawn water channel from the streams running near-by to provide water for irrigation and drinking purpose. In very old times, when a glacier became extinct due to sliding or change of environment, the man made channels would also have become dry permanently and the people had to look for different means to get water, or had to migrate to another place where water was available for drinking and agriculture. But it was very difficult physically and emotionally. So the needy people had to look for some means to rear a fresh glacier in the mountain above their settlements and the water could be made available to their place.

In Baltistan, glacier growing is mentioned in a number of local stories and narratives. These stories are full of myths and lore. The senior people narrate that it was their fore-fathers of unknown time, who invented and practiced the art and craft of rearing a new glacier in a suitable place at a the high cliff which is located on such a height where the temperature remain below zero for whole the year, so that the fresh glacier should not melt due to warmer temperature. They also had a good knowledge that which river and glaciers in their area belong to a male or a female qualities. Such information and narratives carry the knowledge on how to carry out the art of rearing a new glacier and get full advantage from them. The color of female glacier is said to be white or bluish color and also discharge a good quantity of clean water A ‘male glacier’, on the other hand, is characterized as giving little water, moving slowly; covered in soil and rocks (also known as debris). According to the local specialists, female glacier has an ability to multiply the ice when copulated with the male ice in a very cold atmosphere. Thus one should have to add a good quantity of female glacier ice with male glacier ice collected from the original glaciers and placed together in a very cold place to make the glacier growing.

In order to achieve it, they used to first select a ditch or a cavity in the high mountain above their village which was not in direct sunlight and where temperature always remain lower than snow melting level. People used to make a deep ditch in the right place. As the elders knew the male and female glaciers located in their vicinity, they used to depute two small bands of young and energetic men with a Chorong (a conical big basket made of twigs, carried on their back with slings) one towards the male-glacier and the other to female glacier in the month of November when the season changes and cold winter announces. They were advised to arrive at the rearing-site with sufficient quantity of glacier pieces on the fixed date definitely. The bands used to carry sufficient quantity of wood-charcoal and barley hay in the Chorong and their journey food bags. As the bands embark on their adventure, the elders and several young men also set towards the mountains to the rearing site taking a goat, sufficient quantity of charcoal, barley hay as well as several “sTsab-khur” soaked in butter or apricot oil in their “Ring-skor” (the traditional wooden pot) as offerings to divine power and also their own food. The used to dump charcoal and barley hay near it and till both bands arrive there, they used to pass the time making the ditch or cave in proper shape.

As charcoal and barley hay are non-conductor of heat, both the bands used to put some hay and charcoal in the bottom of their basket carefully and place the collected pieces of glacier in it and again packed with charcoal and the hay to keep the ice pieces safe from sun heat and warmer temperature while carrying to the rearing site. It was also necessary for the bands that they should not stay or rest while in their way and if one is tired he had to handover the burden to his companion. It was necessary for both parties of young men to arrive at the rearing site on the fixed date.

On arrival of the bands with male and female glacier pieces, the elders used to transfer the pieces of glacier deep in to the ditch . After placing the male and female ice pieces pressed together for their better copulation, they used to put sufficient quantity of charcoal over the ice dump and then the ditch covered fully with barley hay and stones over it to avoid the hay from blowing wind. To please their divine power of prosperity they used to slaughter the goat as an offerings to divine spirits and the pieces of its flesh & the rYsab-khur distributed among the people at the site. Finally the elders use to worship murmuring prayers/mantras with the hope that the divine power will certainly accept their offerings and cherish them with a good copulation of male and female ice and grow fast as one glacier, which will be the source to grow and develop in a glacier irrigation and drinking water. But the fact was that if the elders had done their job carefully and no warm temperature reach the ice stored in the ditch beneath the charcoal, nature did the work well and that small amount of ice-pieces developed in a glacier.

The elders narrated that their ancestors could mark several such reared glaciers in various places of Baltistan, which they have forgotten now, but they pointed towards a glacier at the top of the mountain in the west of Skardu Valley and said that that glacier which looks different from the neighboring snow over the mountain, is one of the reared glaciers in the unknown past, still exists and provide sufficient water to the villages of western Skardu valley namely Chunda, Tandal, Kharbu and Gamba Skardu.The name of the said glacier is “Senge Gang” the Lion-glacier.

Some said that another name of Senge Gang glaciers is “Silim -pi-gang” which means the glaciers reared or owned by the people of Silim Clan. This Senge-gang is easily visible from all places of Skardu valley and a camera with a tele-lens can make a very good close-up picture.
The end.

Mr. Kazmi, reading your post was very mesmerizing. You have provided every detail of glacier rearing and even the location of the glacier. It was such a delight to read it.
I would request you to if you can please share the Bi-annual Heritage Himalaya, Leh, Ladakah, India, in which the article is published.
Hoping to get a response from your side.

The ancient people and their folklore has amazing secrets that will invoke spirituality and mesmerize the urban mind. Came to know about glacier grafting through this well researched article, amazing practice, someday will come when I am at Senge Gang.

But one thing, during the prayer ceremony of the marriage, animal sacrifice is not a muslim tradition as written in your article is wrong information, it’s an ancient vedic hindu tradition long before Islam was created.

Wow! Congratulations on a wonderful article. It’s incredibly that glaciers can be made to germinate like this. Also strange that no local or international geography book ever mentions this phenomenon, yet it’s general knowledge among locals in this thrilling region ..

glad to know that the glaciers can be grow artificially. I hope it will be beneficial for the other region of world to follow this pattern. it will help us to mitigate the issues of water scarcity and food security etc. but, it was eye-opening article for me.

Having read this article a day after I came back from Skardu is making me feel bad to have missed the opportunity to visit the “Senge Ganag” while I was there. Very informative article and I think there is a need to conduct further research in this field and to secure the centuries old knowledge through proper documentation. We must encourage local researches from the University of Baltistan to work with the local communities to explore this further.

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