This is a shorter version of a story by Shabina Faraz originally published June 3, 2020 in Third Pole. For the full story please click here.
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.
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.
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.
To read the rest of this story please click here: The glacier ‘marriages’ in Pakistan’s high Himalayas