Chilas is a transit town in the ancient trade and pilgrimage route connecting Ladakh in the East, Kashgar in the North, Balakot towards South and Chitral towards West. Even now, Chilas is the mid-point (10 hours) between Islamabad and Gilgit-Skardu, when using the Babusar top (at 12000 ft) and an ideal place to break for the night.
Keeping its history as a junction point, its no wonder that there are ancient rock carvings and petroglyphs etched on both banks of the river Indus, dating back to several thousand years BC. Some of these carvings are messages in some ancient script for caravans following behind the lead one; Hence, the name ‘talking rocks’.
While the trade caravans waited for Indus flow to stabilize, they would practice their Buddhist religion at the makeshift temples and rocks, on the bank of the river.
Chilas had the narrowest and calmest crossing over the Indus for caravans, therefore, more traffic. Even the British built a sturdy fort here to keep a watchful eye on people’s movement. With so much trade, the religious crew came into Chilas. Lo and behold, a few miles from Chilas, there are remains of Buddhist University as well.
Tombs of Buddhist influential have been robbed extensively here. Some, I was told are still intact as the locals do not let suspicious travelers near them. Locals told me that robbers have found a crown made of pure gold, bronze Markhor, a gold Buddha and several precious gems from these sites. None of them landed in any museum.
One of the grave robbers I met told me he found a knife and a hatchet from one of the graves that had been robbed already. The local legend says there is a lot more gold on the opposite bank of Indus River from Chilas, because of its inaccessibility.
One such carving shows a tall hunter wearing a skirt and a raised sword with his kill in his hand. Another one depicts a trade caravan with horses, women and children. Identical images on both sides of Indus indicate that these were messages for their own people.
One huge boulder with the image of Buddha overlooking a sacred pond acted as a makeshift temple for these travelers.
The most interesting stone carving is at heldikesh at Hunza. It tells the story of a prince and his conquest. This stone carving seems a lot older than the rest as there is no script written below them. Overall there are some 40,000 different pieces of writings/carving around Gilgit Baltistan (GB).
As GB was relatively better connected to China and Ladakh, Buddhism seemed to be the dominant religion till the 1400s.
Its only after the British were adamant to develop the Babusar crossing, did India have better access from South.
Islam came to the regions through Islamic preachers from Iran/Iraq that dared the mountain passes of K-2 , Siachen, Kargil and Khunjrab.
I saw a flowery script of Sanskrit on a rock face in the heart of Ganche valley at Khaplu (I wish someone could decipher it for me). There are more Buddha images carved on a mountain face on one of the gorges of Khaplu as well.
Of the five GB valleys I visited, Gilgit, Ganche, Skardu, Shigar, Kharmang, all had their own Forts, Raja Palaces and Buddhist rock carvings. Across the Kohistan mountain ridge, at about a 100 miles from Chilas, we have the Buddhist rock carvings of Swat Valley as well. This shows that this religion pervaded across northern Pakistan for several centuries.
Any other country would have millions of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist followers flocking these sites for spiritual enlightenment at the birthplace of Budh.
The local legend says that the Muslim preachers that came to this region from Iraq and Iran offered the local Kings a better way of consolidating their hold over their people in exchange for endorsing the mass conversion to Islam— and they succeeded in doing so. Make no mistake, there is gold to be found in GB.
The Greek historian, Herodotus (in fifth century BC) wrote (Historia III, 102-105) about the land of Dardai) (most likely Gilgit Baltistan), where gold-digging ants – “bigger than fox, though not so big as a dog was used to collect gold particles.”
In 1854, Alexander Cunningham mentioned the fact that “the sands of the Indus have long been celebrated for the production of gold.”
In 1984, a French ethnologist Michel Peissel wrote a book named, “The Ants’ Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas”.
Even now self-styled prospectors sift through Hunza River and Indus to find gold particles.
For the gold diggers, I say the secret is in the rock carvings.
For curious travelers, I say Chilas is dusty and hot, but Shangrila hotel is a nice place to stay and its rich history is a reward in itself.
Disclaimer: This is purely my research. Any incorrect conclusion is regretted.