Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Spectacular Baltit Fort of Hunza

By Syed Asghar Javed Shirazi
Historic Baltit Fort is at a short walk from Karimabad, Hunza. Around 700 years old castle has been rebuilt a number of times during the centuries it has seen. The present structure was constructed some 600 years ago and the architecture reflects a marked Tibetan influence. The story goes that a Princess from Baltistan married the local Thum and she brought in Balti masons, carpenters and craftsmen to build it and it. According to local legends, 300 labourers for the construction of the Fort were also part of the royal dowry of the Princess from Baltistan. In former times this impressive fort ensured the survival of Hunza regimes. But even before the Fort is reached, the old cobbled streets of Baltit village spanned by easily defensible archways seem to provide enough of a deterrent to all but the boldest of intruders. Within the fort itself, narrow stairs with a small opening into the living quarters on the first floor are features, which must have helped ensure that the ruling Thum stayed out of harms way.

The Fort stands on a natural citadel of a hillock overlooking the Valley and makes a fine vintage point to view high peaks that surrounds the Valley. While there is a splendid observation of Hunza from the Thums’ balcony on the first floor, the best view is from the roof, which is gained after an equally guarded ascent. There were excellent views even at night: the village lights and the stars overhead all seem mixed up. There are 53 rooms in the Fort. The designers extensively used wood during construction. The intricate woodwork on windows, doors, columns and railings is testimony to the artistic expertise of those who executed the work. The Fort served as residence of Hunza rulers until they abandoned it and shifted their residence to another fort down the valley.

The Baltit Fort was honoured with prestigious “British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award” for the year 2001. This is the first of its kind award to any heritage site in Pakistan. As per the report, “the nearest to the Baltit Fort for this award were heritage sites in India, Indonesia, Britain and Australia.”

The Fort was the property of the Mirs of Hunza for over several centuries. The present owners presented this historical monument to Baltit Heritage Trust for complete restoration and renovation. Good job done. The Fort has now been converted into a museum displaying the lifestyle of the ruling Mir family and the people of the princely state, history and culture of Hunza.

The original seat of authority of Hunza Thums was Altit Fort - situated in the village of Altit, about 3 km from Karimabad. The Mirs of Hunza abandoned the Baltit Fort in 1945, and moved to this down the hill. It has been built on a sheer rock-cliff that falls 1000 feet into the Hunza River, and is much older than the Baltit Fort. Unlike Baltit, Altit Fort has not been renovated.

Travelling to the Hunza Valley in the past required walking (or driving a wretched track) through the roughest mountain glen on earth but these days one can commute on Karakorum Highway – ranked one of the highest highways in the world - to reach Karimabad – principal town in the Valley.