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Remoteness and ModernityTransformation and Continuity in Northern Pakistan$

Shafqat Hussain

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780300205558

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300205558.001.0001

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Rural Romance and Refuge from Civilization

Rural Romance and Refuge from Civilization

(p.88) Chapter 4 Rural Romance and Refuge from Civilization
Remoteness and Modernity

Shafqat Hussain

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the construction of Hunza's remoteness within the discourse of antimodernism. During the mid-twentieth century, a number of Western medical doctors and farmers visited the region, fascinated with the remarkably good health of the people of Hunza, which they attributed to the traditional methods of agriculture and food production that had flourished because of Hunza's isolation from the world. If Hunza's location earlier was seen as being on the margins of—and even beyond—civilization, it was now seen as a refuge from civilization and modern society. It was depicted as a rural utopia likened to the mythical city of Shangri-la. Aware of his diminishing power, the mir manipulated tourists'representation of his domain as remote by playing along in a hopeless effort to strengthen his position against the Pakistani state, whose own policies reinforced Hunza as remote, albeit being connected more with the mainstream society and economy.

Keywords:   Hunza, remoteness, antimodernism, traditional agriculture, traditional food production, isolation, rural utopia, mir, Pakistani state

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, multiple treatises were produced on Hunza by British and American medical professionals, farmers, and travelers. In this literature, Hunza emerges as a mythical rural society where people enjoy perfect physical and mental health. The literature argued that the main secret to the longevity and health of the Hunza people was their method of producing food and caring for the soil.1 Hunza was represented as an ideal rural society, tucked away in its mountain fastness, unchanged and uncorrupted by the influences and values of modern industrial society. Hunza was seen as a haven for rural values—health, simplicity, holism, happiness, sense of community, and self-reliance—that had been lost in contemporary Western rural society under the sway of industrial capitalism and intensive food production.

Commenting on a positive “structure of feeling” associated with the countryside, Raymond Williams argues that “rural virtues …in fact mean different things at different times and quite different values are being brought into question” (1973, 12). What can we say about such values in the case of Hunza at this particular point in its history (1940–1970), and why was Hunza’s remoteness an important factor in considering these values? Williams states that celebration of and nostalgia for the countryside in Europe represented an “idea of an ordered and happier past set against the disturbance and disorder of the present” (45). Likewise, I argue that literature on health of the people of Hunza is a critique of modernization that points to an apparent contradiction in modern society: the lack of health (p.89) and happiness despite material progress and plenty. Moreover, I maintain that this contradiction is partially resolved in the presentation of another contradiction: the solution to the fundamental problems created by modernity lies outside modernity; in remote areas we can find the answers to our central problems.

Many of those who wrote about Hunza, however, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, were inspired less by ideas of antimodernism than by a strictly “scientifically” informed view of the negative effects of certain aspects of changing farming systems and landscapes on human well-being. For these people, too, the isolation of Hunza offered an opportunity to study and understand a seemingly “closed” rural society and its autonomous agricultural system. For doctors in particular, whose challenges to mainstream medical science had to be scientifically valid, Hunza’s remoteness and isolation, surrounded as it was by mountain barriers, provided the conditions for rigorous scientific study.

While criticism of modernization and industrial food production may have been valid, the belief that Hunza stood for all the modern world needed was not accurate. The people of Hunza were far from extraordinarily healthy or self-sufficient in food production. The mir of Hunza played a collaborative role in creating and perpetuating the representations of Hunza that we find in the writings of visiting doctors and farmers. We see that the “cultural performances” staged by the mir and his subjects were the key constitutive element in the construction of Hunza as a remote, idyllic rural society. The mir strictly controlled visitors’ access to the people of Hunza, ensuring the information they received about diet, exercise, health, disease, and longevity met their preconceptions and expectations. The mir’s motive was to keep tight control over his state in the context of increasing outside interference, especially from the state of Pakistan. His power depended on the limitation, or at least control, of that outside interference, and he hoped that foreign visitors would support him in his endeavor to retain that control.

Colonial Health Science

Hunza’s status as a place of perfect health first entered Western consciousness through the work of Robert McCarrison, a doctor of the Indian Medical Services (IMS) who worked in the Gilgit Agency from 1904 to 1911 (Wrench 1938, 22), where he had the chance to occasionally treat (p.90) people from Hunza. About the people of Hunza he would later say: “My own experience provides an example of a race, unsurpassed in perfection of physique and in freedom from disease in general, whose sole food consists to this day of grains, vegetables, and fruits, with a certain amount of milk and butter, and meat only on feast days. I refer to the people of the State of Hunza, situated in the northernmost point of India” (1961, 94).

Doctors and farmers who read McCarrison’s work in the 1940s did not visit the area themselves but wrote about Hunza based on his accounts and those of other visitors to the region, mostly explorers and colonial officers. They used primarily anecdotal information as evidence to prove their point about the physical fitness, health, and longevity of the people of Hunza. Later on, during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, increasing numbers of doctors as well as other travelers actually visited Hunza, conducting their research in a “primitivist tourism” (West 2008, 597) mode.

McCarrison had become increasingly interested in the effects of diet on human health during his days as the director of the Nutrition Research Laboratories at Coonoor in the Nilgiri hills (Aykroyd 1960, 415; Arnold 2000, 215). He undertook a series of elaborate experiments on the effect of diet on the health of rats. He believed that the diet of northern India generally, consisting essentially of whole wheat chapatti, milk products, pulses, vegetables and fruit, and some meat, was superior to that of the south, consisting mainly of rice with much less intake of dairy products, protein, or fresh fruits and vegetables (McCarrison 1961, 25).2 The results of his experiments proved, McCarrison claimed, that the northern diet was much healthier; rats fed on the southern diet contracted a plethora of diseases. Among rats fed the northern diet over a period of five years, McCarrison noted, “there was …no case of illness, no death from natural causes, no maternal mortality, no infantile mortality” (26).3 McCarrison concluded that factors such as ancestry, race, and climate had very little effect on human health, arguing that diet was central; “It may therefore, be taken as a law of life, infringement of which will surely bring its own penalties, that the greatest single factor in the acquisition and maintenance of good health is perfectly constituted food” (21).

McCarrison was out to challenge the dominant paradigm of medical science, which focused on the treatment of disease with drugs, rather than the much more important, in his opinion, focus on health and nutrition.4 Echoing today’s organic farming discourse and also his contemporary in India, one Albert Howard, an economic botanist and director of the Indian (p.91) Agricultural Research Station at Pusa who stressed the superiority of indigenous Indian farming methods,5 McCarrison emphasized the importance of the quality of the soil in which food is grown. “The quality of vegetable food depends on the manner of their cultivation: on conditions of soil, manure, rainfall, irrigation. Thus, we found in India that foodstuffs grown on soil manured with farmyard manure were of higher nutritive quality than those grown on the same soil when manured with chemical manure” (1961, 14).

Healthy Soil, Healthy People

McCarrison’s work on diet, agriculture, and health, first published in 1936, proved inspirational for a British doctor, G. T. Wrench. Wrench, while studying medicine in London in the early years of the twentieth century, had been frustrated by the focus of medical practice and research on disease rather than health. He had begun to wonder, “What would happen if we reversed the process and started by learning all we could about the healthiest people and animals who we could discover?” (1938, 6). Recognizing that this was a “ridiculous idea” within the medical profession, Wrench did not pursue it until he read the above-quoted words from McCarrison’s book regarding the people of Hunza being “unsurpassed in perfection of physique and in freedom from disease in general.” Here, then, were a people upon whom Wrench could focus his ideas about health; his book The Wheel of Health: The Source of Long Life and Health among the Hunza was published two years later, in 1938.6 Commenting on the remoteness of Hunza, Wrench wrote, “There, in a profound cleft, between walls of ten to fifteen thousand feet in height, lies that inhabitable part of Hunza. The beautiful and highly cultivated sunny seven miles, which is the heart of Hunza, may, by its very remoteness, have sheltered primary truths of health which our civilization has forgotten” (Wrench 1938, 9; emphasis added).

Although McCarrison had not actually specified that the diet of Hunza was the most healthy he found—his findings from his experiments with rats were based on a more general “northern” diet, specifically that of Sikhs in northern India—Wrench homed in on the people of Hunza, inspired by McCarrison’s glowing accounts of their particularly good health. Wrench did not actually visit Hunza himself, relying on McCarrison’s work and that of earlier explorers and travelers to the region to substantiate McCarrison’s findings.

(p.92) For Wrench, the health of the people of Hunza was due both to their diet and the agricultural system through which that diet was produced. “We are now able to see with greater clarity and wider observation that the remarkable physique of this people is not causeless or accidental, nor a happy chance of nature, nor due to fresh mountain air, but it has a long history to support it. The inhabitants of Hunza are exceptional agriculturists now, as they must have been in the past, and by their character they have preserved—century by century—a quality of agriculture which has rendered to them through food its return gift of perfect physique and health” (1938, 98). It is clear from the above quote that Hunza is appreciated not for its “natural” condition, as we saw in the last chapter, or its closeness to nature; rather, it is Hunza’s culture (history) that is celebrated, a culture that has perfected the art of agriculture over centuries.7 The object of critique in Wrench’s book is the modern food production method under industrial agriculture. Wrench acknowledged that the diet eaten in Hunza was not, on the face of it, very different from the diet of many Europeans; the key difference was the way the food was produced. Wrench quotes McCarrison, who “spoke of the Hunza diet as consisting of ‘the unsophisticated foods of Nature’; foods not subjected to artificial processes before they reach the consumer. A ‘sophist’ is defined in the English Encyclopedic Dictionary as ‘a cunning and skillful man, a teacher of arts and sciences for money.’ Sophistication for reasons of money does not occur in Hunza” (91).

Under the industrial agricultural method, argued Wrench, food had been “sophisticated,” or commercialized, and the entry of money into the equation was the reason for the decline in food quality. Wrench stated that with the rising commercialization of wheat, its appearance, shelf life, and transportability took precedence over its taste and nutritional value; food had become detached from the basic biological functions of the body. This led to a new way of processing wheat in which, Wrench tells us, bran, the skin of the grain, was removed for aesthetic reasons while special milling processes eliminated the wheat germ oil in flour in order to extend its shelf life; the oil made the flour turn sour more quickly (1938, 92). According to Wrench, the sophistication of food had more than a negative effect on physical health; wheat germ oil also provides sexual vitality to the body and calmness to the mind. Thus, according to Wrench, one kind of value—money, associated with modern capitalist society—had replaced another kind—the calmness, vitality, and health associated with “ancient” rural society.

(p.93) The divorce between the spheres of food production and food consumption was seen by many as the cause of various Western illnesses; during the 1930s constipation was identified as the “disease of disease,” or disease of civilization, and was held to be related to changes in preparation and consumption of food under the system of industrial agriculture (Whorton 2000, 1588; Banik and Taylor 1960, 200). Wrench also discusses the way that technological changes had altered the basic structure of soil, using the case of the United States, where increasing population led to the expansion of agriculture and the introduction of steel plows to the fields in 1840. Initially, according to Wrench, the steel plough yielded excellent soil and crops full of nutrition as it dug deeper to unlock the soil organic matter, but as the organic matter started to deplete crops became subject to disease and fluctuating yield.

Another writer inspired by McCarrison, who also read Wrench’s work, was J. I. Rodale, an American organic farmer and editor of the journal Organic Gardening, which he started in 1942 and which remains one of the most important publications of today’s organic movement.8 In 1947, Rodale founded the Rodale Institute of organic farming in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, which is still going strong. Like Wrench, Rodale never visited Hunza; he wrote his 1948 book The Healthy Hunzas based on the literature available to him. Rodale used the example of Hunza to demonstrate his conviction, based in large part on the work of the above-mentioned Albert Howard, that good health depended on a diet of food produced in good soil, fertilized using manure and compost rather than chemicals. “The magnificent health of the Hunza is due to one factor, the way in which his food is raised. Of that there can be no doubt. There may be other, though minor, elements that enter into the situation, but if his soil were different and if his methods of husbandry were not so perfect, this book would have no raison d’etre. The Hunzas might then be something like the Nagyris or the Ishkomanis or the Wakhi [groups living in valleys adjacent to Hunza] and would not be an outstanding example of good health” (44–45).

In Rodale’s book we see that McCarrison’s generalization about the diet of the people of northern India has now been narrowed down to Hunza, to the extent that even people from neighboring valleys cannot compare with the good health of the people of Hunza. This discursive isolation of Hunza from adjoining societies, as we shall see, is strategic as it gives credibility to the critique that is being launched from there. The remoteness of Hunza becomes an indicator of lack of contact with modernity and thus preservation of authenticity.

(p.94) As mentioned earlier, this literature constituted a critique of modernity, especially its contradiction that despite progress, modern society fails to meet fundamental human needs such as good health and satisfying social life. Although the writers I have been considering were not radical reactionaries, they considered that the price of civilization had been high. Wrench includes a chapter in his book with the title “Progress by Recoil,” arguing that for Westerners to recover the good health enjoyed by the people of Hunza, they must go back in time, a temporal shift represented by the contemporary situation in Hunza. “For progress, therefore, we now have to look backwards. We have raced forwards at too great a speed. We now have to recoil. We have to look back to a period and type of agriculture in which vegetable and animal life were mutually healthy. We have to believe even in the golden age, in which gold did not mean coin in the pocket or blocks in a bank, but an age when the golden sunlight seemed to enter into man through plant and fruit, and bestow the warm gift of health” (1938, 121).

John Tobe, a Canadian farmer, visited Hunza in the late 1950s to study “their way of life” and wrote a book about it. In it Tobe writes: “Often we think of civilization as a synonym for perfection, but even the most civilized man can find things about primitive peoples that are attractive to him—life in the outdoors, habits of dress or social customs. In fact man has found that civilization is a mixed blessing. Many of the greatest problems facing the world today are caused directly by our high state of civilization and the drives it creates. The supreme savagery of a hydrogen bomb, for example, makes the wildest head-hunter look like a small-time juvenile delinquent” (1960, i).

In 1960, an American couple who visited and stayed in Hunza, write: “Time is not measured by clocks or calendars [in Hunza]. Time is judged by the changing of the seasons, and each season brings the feeling of newness, not a fear that time is slipping irrevocably away. In the West, on the other hand, where lives are dominated by clocks and calendars, we tend to view each passing moment as a little piece of life which has cruelly slipped away from us, never to return. Each such slipping bit of time brings us closer to old age and ultimately to death. We worry so much about growing old that we actually increase the process” (Banik and Taylor 1960, 76).

In criticizing Western societies, particularly their agricultural practices, these writers even began to claim that perhaps the roots of “real” society could be found elsewhere, in another age, a remote place and time. The crisis of Western society was the result of a traumatic era that saw the (p.95) breakup of small farming and agricultural communities in the U.S. Plains during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. The crisis was intensely debated within the United States with regard to the values that were being lost, ushering in an era of soul searching. In this process, “distant” and “forgotten places,” imagined to be untouched by modern agricultural methods, became repositories of these lost values. The writers imagined Hunza as a place where the destructive power of modern science was unknown and the materialism of the modern age was absent. Earlier, in the first chapter, we noted that Hunza was also represented as the location of the origins of civilization and the abode of an original Aryan culture. In this antimodern critique, it was now seen as the original home of agriculture.

Hunza’s representation as an ideal rural society was a continuation of a long-established theme of tension and nostalgia relating to rural versus urban settings in Western society within the framework of changing social and economic conditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This continued industrialization of agriculture, with its “high-modernist” (Scott 1998) focus on standardization, mechanization, and commercialization, and the concomitant decline of the small-farm tradition, was blamed by many for the 1930s “Dust Bowl” disaster and the wider Depression (Worster 1979). Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and McWilliams’s Factories in the Field, which both came out in 1939 and became nationally known, summed up the situation in the grimmest terms. This was the backdrop of experience against which Hunza was constructed as an ideal rural society.

Mountains, Isolation, and Natural Experiment

Mountains hold particular significance for European romantic sensibilities about nature. Once seen as fearsome locations of danger and savagery, during the eighteenth century, mountains began to undergo a change in their representation, coming to be viewed as sublime, their vast, wild vistas associated with God’s power and truth (Nash 1967, 45–46; McFarlane 2003, 15–16). A more pragmatic, though related, view of mountains emerged in India under British colonialism with the establishment of numerous hill stations during the nineteenth century. Hill stations provided places where the British could escape the heat of the plains during the summer months and enjoy the salubrious climate (Moore, Kosek, and Pandian 2003, 22). This significance of mountains is evident in the literature on Hunza that we have reviewed thus far, but it is not the mountains (p.96) themselves that are important. Rather, I suggest that the particular power of Hunza’s mountainous location in the idyllic rural society discourse has to do with isolation. That is, Hunza’s isolation from the world, due to its being “locked” behind mountain barriers, is what gives it its power in the discourse I am discussing.

This isolated nature of Hunza is mentioned far more often than its mountainous environment itself. In the context of criticism of Western industrial agricultural practices, Hunza appeared as a society that, by virtue of its mountain barriers, had remained untouched and thus uncorrupted by modernization. The writings tend to present Hunza as Shangri-la, the mystical and perfect (and imagined) valley populated by a people of unheard-of longevity described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon (which numerous travel companies selling travel packages to Hunza today claim was inspired by Hunza). The idea of an isolated paradise barricaded from the outside world also conjures up notions of the Garden of Eden; Grove (1996) writes of the relevance of a search for Eden in the tropics to colonial practices. He argues that northern India became a favorite candidate for the location of the Garden of Eden after the original focus on islands, contending that the penchant for building botanical gardens in the colonial period reflected this Edenic search (39). Using the language and metaphors of earlier accounts from colonial-era geographical exploration and discovery, mountains, thus, became the barrier that kept Hunza undiscovered. As Wrench writes, “Everything suggests that in its [Hunza’s] remoteness it may preserve from the distant past, things that the modern world has forgotten and does not any longer understand, and amongst those things are perfect physique and health” (1938, 20; emphasis added).

The region’s remoteness and the impenetrability of the mountain barrier as reasons for an unchanging situation in Hunza are recurring and persistent themes in the literature. The older discourse of friction of distance, represented by inaccessibility and terrible road conditions, is resignified in the (new) discourse. For example, in 1955, Ian Stephens, an Englishman and a gentleman traveler, wrote, “It is the very terror of this road that has allowed Hunza to exist in serene isolation, safe from more powerful neighbors and untouched by modern civilization” (173). Hoffman also used the discourse of friction of distance to explain Hunza’s lack of change in agricultural practices. “Since Hunza has been more or less isolated from the rest of the world, the methods of planting, growing, and harvesting crops have not progressed. One of the main reasons for this is that it is impossible to (p.97) take into Hunza any of the modern implements used in the western world” (1968, 37–38).

Change and progress, which had earlier been synonymous with movement toward civilization, now became indicators of disorder and disturbance. Preservation and tradition became the new ideals by which a society was to be judged; ironically, the well-being of a society was evaluated on how little it had changed, not how much. In the 1870s, John Biddulph the first political agent of the Gilgit Agency, wrote that the people of Hunza had not changed in fourteen hundred years and had thus remained dangerous savages. In 1958, John Tobe, the Canadian farmer who visited Hunza, wrote: “Hunza is one of the few places in the entire world, where there is a people who have retained their character, independence, freedom and primitive way of life. It is my belief that they are not much further advanced today than they were more than 2,000 years ago …they owe their strength, their health, their longevity, their happiness to that wall of mountains that surrounds them” (1960, 266). Banik and Taylor wrote in much the same vein: “The few arable acres of this tiny country [Hunza] have sustained its meagre population for nearly 2,000 years in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. Whatever their ancestry, the men of Hunza have been able to maintain their isolation and today live in health and happiness to the age of 120 years” (1960, 24–25). They go on, “The fact has been verified that the Hunza civilization dates back more than 2,000 years and those conditions now are relatively the same as they were then” (26).

Hunza’s isolation from the rest of the world is not only relevant insofar as the valley appears as a mythical Shangri-la, however. In most of the writings I have discussed, there is a strongly scientific bent to the arguments made. These were not simply travelers seeking to find a perfect society; they were doctors and farmers seeking to demonstrate the validity of their challenges to the wider medical and agricultural scientific community. Like Curzon and Wood, these were also eminently rational people, so it would be a mistake to draw too clear a line between their idealistic sensibilities and a purely rational, scientific outlook. Many scientists, particularly doctors, in the late nineteenth century easily combined a dedication to scientific approaches with concerns for nature and society, both of which they saw as threatened by some elements of the process of modernization. A group of Scottish doctors working for the East India Company in the nineteenth century, for example, was a key advocate of environmental protection in India, arguing that the degradation of the environment had negative impacts on (p.98) human health. They were inspired, argues Richard Grove, in part by Alexander Von Humboldt, whose ideas about the link between human beings and nature were, in turn, based on holistic Hindu notions of the place of humankind in the natural world (1996, 11). These doctors also made a connection between their environmental concerns and wider morality, as Grove writes: “Underlying their environmental critique, a radical and reformist message was being articulated in which a real concern about environmental health was used as a vehicle to express anxieties about the social and moral consequences of colonialism and industrialism” (462).

These doctors worked for the same IMS that McCarrison worked for in the early twentieth century; thus, their ideas were not necessarily as radical a break as it might appear. In the general drift of their criticism, aimed at the wider systems of modern industrial agriculture and capitalism, McCarrison, Wrench, and others were attempting to make a specific and far-reaching case against the scientific paradigm on which Western medical and agricultural sciences rested. Thus, while they set out to challenge it, at the same time, they had to present methodologies and findings that would be taken seriously within that paradigm. In this context, Hunza’s isolation rendered it a natural laboratory in which the effects of a non-modern agricultural system and its effects on the human body could be studied scientifically.9 Rodale, for example, presented Hunza as a natural experiment from which the scientific community could discover beneficial agricultural practices and secrets of health. “Nature has provided us with an Experiment Station ready-made and with the results that cannot be neglected. Perhaps in the years to come, some heaven-sent investigator of the Charles Darwin type will go thoroughly into this Hunza question on the spot, and will set out clearly all the factors on which their agriculture and their marvelous health depends” (1948, 81).

At around the same time Hunza was being extolled in this literature, the mountain communities of Abkhazia in Georgia and Cochabamba in Ecuador also became popular for study because their people enjoyed incredible health, as Wrench and Rodale noted. In all these cases, isolation and barriers to entry discursively constructed these societies as living laboratories in which a particular theory of nutritional cycles could be demonstrated. Terrie Romano (2002, 2) in her study of Sir John Scott Burdon Sanderson, father of modern pathology and clinical psychology, states that by the end of the nineteenth century, laboratory experimentation became the mainstay of medical education in England. Laboratory-based research emerged as a (p.99) separate field of biological study distinct from naturalist research, which was still founded on “studying nature” in the nineteenth century.

In this chapter I show that these two methods come together as nature becomes an actual laboratory. Western medical science since the Victorian era had developed a strong convention of empirical observation based on experimentation in a laboratory setting (Arnold 2000; Grove 1996; Romano 2002, 176); the longer the period of experimentation, the stronger the claim to authenticity and validity. Prior to this, science had been seen as the pursuit of gentleman scientists who carried out observation and empirical work in natural settings—hence the rise of the natural history sciences. By the end of the nineteenth century, as science became more laboratory based, medical science took the lead in this regard. The insistence on the idea that Hunza had not changed since time immemorial due to mountain barriers was necessary to construct it as a long-term scientific experiment in a natural setting. Hunza society was constructed as a control group necessary to make comparisons with the effects of modernization on human health in Western societies.

Sources of Evidence

Despite the desire by doctors and farmers to provide scientific evidence of their theories about agricultural methods and health, the vast majority of the data provided is not only anecdotal and at best circumstantial but also often questionable with regard to sources. Both Wrench and Rodale use only secondary and anecdotal evidence taken from the writings of earlier explorers and travelers. For example, to back up his claim about how physically fit the Hunza people are, Wrench quotes Aurel Stein, a British artifact hunter who passed through Hunza in 1901, regarding the remarkable stamina of a Hunza native: “The Messenger had started on the 18th. It was just seven complete days between his start and his return, and in that time he had travelled two hundred and eighty miles on foot, speeding along a track mostly two to four feet wide …the messenger was quite fresh and undisturbed, and did not consider that what he had done was unusual” (1938, 11). Rodale recounts a story by R. Skrine, who visited Hunza in 1922. “So it was that Mr. Skrine saw the Mir of Hunza at polo when nearly seventy. As Captain of his side, after a goal, he had to gallop at full speed half-way up the ground, fling the ball into the air and smite it towards the opposing goal” (1948, 108). Rodale also quotes General Bruce of the Royal (p.100) Mountain Battery, who describes the people of Hunza as the “best slab and rock climbers in the world” (19).

Those who went to Hunza after the 1950s used similarly anecdotal “evidence” to prove the extraordinary health, physical fitness, and longevity of the people of Hunza. Banik and Taylor watched a volleyball game between younger and older men of the valley, the younger aged between 15 and 50 and the older all apparently over 70 years old, one of them as old as 125. “Both teams played a strenuous game in the scorching heat of the afternoon sun. If any player was fatigued at any time during the game, it was not discernible. They all seemed as relaxed and comfortable as though they were playing a friendly game of canasta” (1960, 45). Jean Shor wrote: “Longevity is a national characteristic. While the arbab of Misgar was in his sixties, some of his advisers were pressing a hundred. Many of the diseases of civilization, including cancer, are unknown. It seemed as if hardly anyone dies in Hunza unless he falls off the incredibly narrow trail that links the village down the valley and is dashed to death on the rocks below” (1955, 267).10 Although his entire book is dedicated to learning how to live to be as old as the people of Hunza, the only evidence Hoffman provides of their age is the following: “During our conversations with the older people, I always asked them how old they were, and many of them said that they were more than a hundred years old” (1968, 49). Dr. Alexander Leaf, a Harvard Medical School professor, recounted an incident when he was shamed by not being able to keep up with a 106-year-old local man on a six-hour mountainous hike (1973, 111).

The reliability of the “data” on the central points of the “research,” that is, age and disease, remains problematic. First, there were no birth records in Hunza at the time these reports were produced. Unlike in other areas of India, the British had not put in place a bureaucratic setup to collect and maintain official statistics. Hunza remained an autonomous state until 1974 so the Pakistan administrative system had not yet been introduced. The extraordinary old ages of people were generally accepted as reported by the people themselves or by guides and hosts, with only a few efforts made to verify the truth of these assertions. For example, Stephens writes: “I was introduced to a vigorous grey beard, brisk of step and firm of handclasp, who, judging from his replies to questions about events in history of Kashmir State, must have been 97—as was claimed. He looked no more than 65” (1955, 170).

Claims of the remarkable health and longevity of the people of Hunza were actually refuted by a survey conducted in 1955 by a team of Japanese (p.101) doctors who argued that the belief in the absence of disease in Hunza was incorrect. The survey report stated: “In reality, the Hunza Area does not appear to be a Land of God’s Grace, and it is not different from any other land in the world. Harada found many people in the area suffering from tuberculosis, conjunctivitis, rheumatism, goiter, skin disease, etc. He noted the high rate of infant mortality which was the result of undernourishment” (Imanshi 1963, i).11

Interestingly, this report seems to have had absolutely no impact on the continued projection of Hunza as the land of the healthiest people in the world. Why did these writers accept so uncritically the extraordinary ages of the people of Hunza, most of which were in fact provided by the mir? Most researchers did not address the issue of the veracity of their claims or the methodology by which they adduced their “evidence.” Those who did were unconvincing.12

These writers went with certain preconceptions of what they would find in Hunza, based on their ideological positions with regard to mainstream medical and agricultural practice, and the conclusions they arrived at were heavily shaped by these beliefs. Another reason the visitors seem to have so readily believed the fantastical claims about Hunza’s health lies in the agency of the local people, who sustained and coproduced these ideas about the superiority of Hunza’s agriculture, the health of its people, and the general well-being of its society. The ruling elite of Hunza, mainly the mir himself, mindful of their representations in the past as constructed by colonial powers, now strategically represented their society as they wished it to be seen (see also Turner 1995, 105).

Sociopolitical Context of the Mir’s Rule

During the first half of the twentieth century, the colonial government granted land and money to the rulers of Hunza for building new irrigation channels. Most of these lands were in the Matam Das and Oshkhan Das hamlets of the Gilgit Agency and were given as compensation for land relinquished to Chinese Turkestan. During the building of irrigation canals, the mir’s subjects converted hitherto undeveloped das,13 or meadowland, into flourishing agrarian landscapes. These new settlements meant increased revenue for the mir. Labor remained the critical factor in this expansive phase, and it was during this period that the rulers of Hunza devised strict policies to control the internal supply of labor. By the 1930s, check posts had been (p.102) erected at the southern boundary of Hunza, where Hunza levies controlled the movement of people across the “border.” Oral history records show that only in very rare cases were people allowed to leave Hunza; the mir argued that their interaction with outsiders would expose them to dangerous and seditious ideas. In 1935, Mir Nazeem Khan even refused to let his wazir’s son go to Srinagar for an education because of these reasons (Beg 1967, 2).

The mir’s policy of keeping a close eye on his subjects was a result of the frontier politics in which the rulers of the state of Hunza found themselves. The rulers of Hunza have traditionally played the card of their strategic location—as the guardian of the frontier—very well, thus drawing much-needed resources and importance to themselves. They used this position also to leverage whatever sovereignty and independence they had left after 1891 so as to at least appear to their subjects to still be rulers. (This was a predicament experienced by virtually all Indian princes during the British Raj.) For Mir Nazeem Khan, keeping tight control over information about the frontier condition became a long-term policy of his forty-six years of rule. Schomberg relates one tactic the mir used when the British tried to open a public post office in Hunza in the early 1930s: “So the Mir arranged for the general boycott [of the post office] and, after six months during which not a single letter was posted nor a single postal transaction had taken place, the office was closed. At present, the Mir himself receives the Dak or letter bag, and takes a paternal interest in all correspondence” (1935, 116).

Despite Mir Nazeem Khan’s efforts, his policy of control of his population during the 1930s was not absolute. Some were able to leave, particularly in 1935 when the British acquired the Gilgit Agency (and by default Hunza) on a sixty years’ lease from Kashmir, and a number of avenues of out-migration were opened to the people of Hunza. Before 1935, it was illegal for someone from Hunza—except the mir, of course—to purchase land outside Hunza. After 1935, the British allowed this. Some people from Hunza found jobs in newly opened employment sectors such as the Gilgit Scouts, the hospital, the Public Works Department, and the Education Department. Others, particularly members of the house of the wazir, started to make contacts with the courts of their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, in Bombay (Beg 1967). Overall, however, the mir remained in control; for example, despite the efforts of the Aga Khan, the mir did not allow the house of the wazir to build a Jamat Khana, the Ismaili Muslim house of worship, in the capital, Karimabad, and his control was generally supported by the British. For example, Beg recalls an incident in 1937 when people (p.103) from lower Hunza (non-Burosho) brought a complaint to the political agent against the mir; the agent handed over the people to the mir, who threw them in prison (29). It is interesting to note that, when the wazir of Hunza requested the Aga Khan to intervene on this issue and order the mir to allow a Jamat Khana to be built, the Aga Khan advised him to remain patient and follow the wishes of the ruler of the country (34).

In 1948, Hunza, along with other districts under the Gilgit Agency, fought a war of independence against the Kashmiri (and Indian) forces, and Mir Jamal Khan14 opted to join the newly formed state (1947) of Pakistan, albeit still as a semi-autonomous state, governed as part of the Gilgit Agency. Although the Pakistani state in general supported the rule of the mir, he remained a potential threat to its power. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hunza was further integrated into the Pakistani economy and politics, and many of its inhabitants sought economic opportunities and an escape from the rule of the mir in Hunza in cities like Karachi and Lahore. Here these people engaged with the labor movements and other social movements formed by minority groups in Pakistan. Many people of Hunza joined national political parties and started to demand the abolishment of the mirdom in Hunza and full integration of the state into the federal structure of Pakistan. These threats to his power added to the insecurity of the mir, who had already begun to lose power after Ismaili religious institutions had finally been allowed into Hunza in 1944.

During the period under review, visits to Hunza by foreigners were strictly controlled by Pakistani authorities. Not only were foreigners under suspicion of being spies, the Pakistani authorities also did not entirely trust the mir. Although on the surface relations were smooth, official intelligence reports show that deep mistrust still persisted in the capital city Karachi (later Islamabad) about the loyalties of Hunza rulers. As a result of this general atmosphere of mistrust, very few foreigners were allowed into Hunza. After the 1950s in particular, when Hunza came under the direct administration of Pakistan, special permission was needed to go there, and it was notoriously difficult to acquire the necessary papers to enter Hunza between the 1950s and the early 1970s. Those lucky few who did manage to get a permit were able to do so only through connections in high places. Hoffman, for example, had to go directly to the president of Pakistan. He wrote: “It is almost as hard to make a trip to Hunza land as it is to take a journey to the moon. While thousands of people have tried to get permission to go, except for a few, the vast majority have not been permitted to enter the country. The (p.104) reason why it is so difficult to enter is that it borders communist China. The king, or Mir, and the Pakistani government with which Hunza is allied, do not want to provoke the communist countries north of them by permitting westerners to enter Hunza….In order for one to get permission to go to Hunza land, he must first receive an invitation from Mir Mohammad Jamal Khan. He must then write to the Pakistan Minister of Kashmir Affairs in Rawalpindi, requesting permission to make the trip. However, …the chances of obtaining this permission are quite remote” (1968, 5).

Here, clearly, the remoteness of Hunza is constructed in the political process. These administrative barriers enhanced its inaccessibility to outsiders and added to its mystique. Oral records based on interviews with elderly people in Hunza show that the mir was ordered by the Pakistani government to keep a strict eye on foreigners who were given permission to visit Hunza and to report their activities to the Pakistani authorities. The mir saw an opportunity in this state of affairs to try to improve his own situation. He also managed to procure a small but not insignificant source of income from the visitors; as the ultimate owner of labor in Hunza, he received a fair amount of cash payments from services his subjects rendered to these outsiders. This was particularly true of visitors who came as mountaineers, for whom considerable porterage was required.

He carefully “managed”15 the outsiders, not only keeping a close eye on them to satisfy the Pakistani authorities but also making use of his control over them to bolster his own weakening position of power within his kingdom. While the mir’s control of the internal population of Hunza was increasingly fraught with anxieties and ineffectiveness, and he was faced with the imminent danger of Hunza’s further absorption into Pakistan, the few visitors were one group over which he could exercise almost absolute control, while they were in Hunza, at least. The mir made use of this by exploiting the visitors’ symbolic value as representatives of external powers to demonstrate his own power within his realm, and also cleverly manipulating the visitors’ impressions of Hunza in such a way as to strategically present an image of Hunza to the outside world that supported the position of the mir as the all-powerful leader. At the same time, the mir had to be careful that the visitors did not expose his subjects to ideas that might encourage insubordination; while he wanted visitors to come, he did not want so many to arrive that he could not control them. He was supportive of the restrictions on visitors to the valley. He wrote in the foreword to Hoffman’s book, after welcoming Hoffman’s endeavor to find out the “truth” about the (p.105) longevity of his people, “Unfortunately we cannot grant entry to the hundreds of people who want to visit our country. Due to political reasons, we can only admit those who have very urgent and valid reasons” (1968: ix).

In order both to limit the extent to which visitors could share their ideas with the people of Hunza and to present to the world his desired image of Hunza as a remote, ideal rural society—which required that the visitors did not receive contradictory impressions—the mir took care to ensure that communication between the visitors and his subjects was restricted. Visitors were put under the direct supervision of the mir and given very little chance to interact with the general population. This policy began with the first Westerner who lived in Hunza for research, ex–political agent Colonel D. L. Lorimer, who was assigned a member of the house of the wazir, Qudrat Ullah Beg, as his official guide. In 1953, Jean Shor was assigned the governor of Misgar; in 1958, John Tobe was assigned the brother of the mir; in 1961, Jay Hoffman was assigned the uncle of the mir and so were Banik and Taylor. Western outsiders were usually assigned to a member of the ruling family or of the house of the wazir, who acted as their permanent guide during their stay in the country. All foreigners stayed in the guest quarters of the mir’s palace as his personal guests, and their most important informant was the mir himself. As we have seen, Mir Jamal Khan even wrote the foreword to one visitor’s book, Hoffman’s, while in several others, he is often the only person directly quoted. The physical movements of the outsiders were controlled; under no circumstances were they allowed to wander off and meet people freely. One can imagine that these foreigners who did not speak a single word of Buroshiski were totally at the mercy of state officials, who were thus able to present whatever picture of Hunza they wanted to produce.

The mir played a central role in perpetuating both the idea that his people lived to extraordinary old ages and that Hunza represented an authentic rural culture. In the foreword to Hoffman’s book, in which he praises Hoffman’s efforts to understand the reasons behind the remarkable health and longevity of his people, the mir claims, “Counted by the same calendar used in the Western world, many Hunzakuts have lived to be well over the century mark: from 100 to 120 years, and in isolated cases to as much as 140 years” (1968, viii).

During their visit, amazed at the ability of the older men, Banik and Taylor once asked the mir how the old people were able to remain so physically fit and mentally agile. The mir replied, “When will you people learn that our men of 100 feel no more fatigued than our men of 20? Be careful (p.106) what you say, or soon you will have our people of over 100 feeling three times their age. And then they will think they are growing old” (1960, 45). The mir seemed to allude also to the beneficial political effects of living a simple and carefree life, because it does not attract the interest of powerful players and so allows a people to keep their independence from outside intervention. “We are the happiest people in the world. We have just enough of everything but not enough to make anyone else want to take it away. You might call this the happy land of just enough” (46).

In both these comments to Banik and Taylor, the mir’s underlying message seems to be that his people (including himself as ruler) and Hunza generally should be left well alone, conceptually remote from outside corrupting influences such as greed—and too much self-awareness. The mir suggests that part of the reason for the “special” nature of the people in Hunza is that they are not themselves aware of how special they are. Thus, to remain special, they need to remain ignorant of the outside world, but this ignorance is translated here into simplicity. But also at stake is a threat to the mir’s own rule and position. He presents his interests as synonymous with those of the people and charms his visitors with images of rural innocence and bliss. Writing about community development in contemporary Indonesia, Tsing states that in their efforts to draw resources from development organizations and the state, communities do more than just deploy an image that they think is strategically appropriate; they also create a seductive field around their image. These fields of seduction are in effect “fields of power” that are created and controlled by communities to keep the balance of power for “collaboration” in their favor (1999, 162). Likewise, the mir is playing his cards carefully, maintaining the interest of the researchers, which depends on their seeing a particular representation of him and his people, but at the same time aware that this representation could collapse if the researchers find out too much or are exposed to the “wrong” information. In his study of British information systems in colonial India, Bayly shows that the British faced considerable problems in obtaining correct information from frontier regions, impeded not only by the mountainous terrain but by “the wary and tightly knit Nepali elite [which] was …able to control the flow of information” (1999, 100). So although visitors to the remote Hunza valley were actually physically in the area, the mir’s efforts kept them in many ways distant from it. Despite being among the people of Hunza, it was almost impossible for outside visitors to get close to what the real Hunza was like.

(p.107) Conclusion

In this chapter I have argued that the construction of Hunza as a remote, rural, and idyllic society was imagined in the critique of Western modernization and civilization,16 especially the West’s basic contradiction: that it fails to satisfy elemental human needs. The chapter shows that the people who constructed Hunza as the ideal rural society were not simply romantics; they were often scientists who used romantic language and discourse to critique industrial agriculture and, indeed, the wider capitalist ethos that had become, in their view, the defining characteristic of Western society.

What was being critiqued was not only the effects on society of the Western system of the production and consumption of food, but also the ubiquity, or inescapability, of this system. The emergence of industrial agriculture in America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century was remarkable in its pace and scale. The expansion of industrial and commercial agriculture and the decline of small farms, the stronghold of American rural identity, had seemingly sounded the death knell of a viable rural society. Indeed, it was the literal as well as the metaphorical remoteness of Hunza that was exploited and brought into play by critics of industrial agriculture. Hunza was not just any rural society—rather, it was a remote rural society, an original conceptualization, full of moral and persuasive force. Hunza’s remote location made its rural status that much more appealing to those who came looking for an uncorrupted and innocent society.

Half a century before, the isolation of Hunza due to its mountain barriers was seen as the reason for the savagery of its people, the cause of violence and resistance to progress. In the late nineteenth century, the British deliberately described Hunza as a community of caravan raiders. Remoteness led to stagnancy, or even degeneracy, and it was only disturbance from the outside that would enable progress to take place within Hunza society. Fifty years later, the same mountain barriers were seen as protecting Hunza from the curses of modern civilization. Rather than Hunza’s state of nature threatening outsiders’ state of civilization, it was outsiders who became a threat to Hunza’s perfect rural society. Remoteness had become a virtue; disturbance had come to be seen as something threatening.


(1.) This discourse would later come to be known as organic farming, as described by Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour (Heckman 2006).

(2.) In an attempt to prove the superiority of the northern diet, he fed different groups of rats a range of diets representing different areas of India for 140 days, a period equivalent to twelve years of human life.

(3.) In a later experiment, McCarrison fed the northern Indian diet to one group of rats and the diet of the “poorer classes in England,” comprising white bread, margarine, sweet tea, boiled cabbage and boiled potato, and tinned meat and tinned jam “of the cheaper sorts.” Again, he found that the first group flourished, both physically and socially, while the rats in the second group were unhealthy and fought among themselves (1961, 29).

(4.) It had been established in medical science that diseases were often caused by lack of vitamins, a view with which McCarrison entirely agreed, but he argued that the medical procedure of narrowing the causes of individual diseases down to particular vitamin deficiencies was a fragmentary approach to the overall problem (Aykroyd 1960, 416, citing McCarrison 1937, 1945). McCarrison called instead for a holistic approach in which overall nutrition was at the center, and in which it was not only important what food was consumed but also how it was produced.

(5.) The Indian Agriculture Service came into being in 1906, a result of the need for improvement in agricultural productivity and resistance to famines. Lord Curzon, who was the viceroy of India at that time (1899–1905), was the political will behind introducing such research and experimentation through science in Indian agriculture (Arnold 2000, 151). Two years after the establishment of the Pusa station, Albert Howard pioneered the idea of composting—returning to the soil its basic components to maintain its healthy structure.

(6.) This book was central in providing the foundations for the establishment of the Soil Association, the United Kingdom’s leading organic organization today. The Soil Foundation’s founder, Lady Eve Balfour, met with Wrench and McCarrison before starting the organization in 1946. See http://homepages.tesco.net/~Haughley/soilass.htm.Lady Balfour wrote her own book in 1943, The Living Soil, which “presented the case for an alternative, sustainable approach to agriculture that has since become known as organic farming” (http://www.soilassociation.org/web/sa/saweb.nsf/Aboutus/History.html).

(7.) In the last chapter, we saw that Younghusband ascribed the mental fitness of Hunza’s Wazir Dadoo to the natural conditions of Hunza, and he even condoned caravan raiding as part of the natural fitness of the people’s physique. That was a different romantic discourse from the one that we are observing here. The earlier romantic discourse celebrated nature; this discourse celebrates culture.

(8.) Rodale is now a global media company that publishes a number of the world’s best-selling “health and wellness” magazines (see www.rodale.com).

(9.) This is similar to the Swiss village described by Robert Netting as “an island in the sky” (Netting 1981) with a perfect balance between humans and their environment, untouched by the changes that had taken place elsewhere. Netting later revised his analysis of the closed ecological system of the Swiss village of Torbel and confessed that he had been “guilty of ecosystemic fallacy” (1990, 229).

(10.) Jean Shor also wrote an article with her husband when she traveled to Hunza for the National Geographic Magazine in 1953. The title of the article was “At World’s End in Hunza.”

(11.) Contemporary research on Hunza tends to support the work of the Japanese doctors, showing that fear of famine and prevalence of disease were, in fact, common features of village life in the mid-twentieth century (Halvorson 2003). Nigel Allan argues that by fixing tax in the form of wheat, the state of Hunza had actually contributed to the poor health of Hunza. Allan argues that from the point of view of nutritional value, it would have been much more beneficial if vegetables had been grown instead (1990, 412).

(12.) For example, Leaf frankly accepts that his findings are based on “impressions” rather than actual verification of claims about long ages. “In Hunza the dating problem was particularly difficult. There is no written form so no record exists. In some instances, however, the Mir/ruler of Hunza could, from personal history, verify ages. In short, I was unable to confirm exact ages in Hunza yet I had the definite impression of an unusual number of very vigorous old folk clambering over the steep slopes that make up this mountain land” (1973, 96; emphasis added).

(13.) In official classification, a das would be identified as “wasteland,” but for the local people it usually represented uncultivated land, mainly used for winter grazing of sheep and goats but also having potential for growing crops.

(14.) Mir Jamal Khan was the mir of Hunza from 1946 to 1974. I will from now on simply refer to him as “the mir” rather than writing his full name.

(15.) For lack of a better word, I am using the term manage, but it could also be understood as performance, à la Ferguson (1999), Tsing (1993), and even Goffman (1959), who describe the way in which marginal players in particular put on performances to satisfy those with whom they are interacting.

(16.) An interesting feature of this period is the emergence of the cold war. Indeed, we see some visitors to Hunza during this period explicitly pointing toward the development of a possible flashpoint in this region. Ian Stephens, an English traveler, went on a journey in northern Pakistan in the early 1950s just when the traffic of foreign travelers and researchers on Hunza health began to increase. This was a time when Communist China was emerging as a major power in the East. Stephens’s “Introduction to the American Edition” opens: “This book is about Muslim countries—countries on the far side of the globe in which America until recently has taken little interest….The book concentrates on the northerly tract of West Pakistan and the neighboring lands to the East and West, a restless part of the world always, where many of mankind’s great affairs have been decided, and races and rulers have been made or smashed; where during the last ten years much bloody commotion has occurred owing to the break-up of British rule in India, and where now, threatening to move into the resulting partial power-vacuum, the forces of Russian and Chinese Communism stand close. Against them there is not much defense. The armies of the new India and Pakistan, such as they are, still point against each other, rather than towards the Communist North” (1955, foreword).