Before Islam replaced buddhism and hinduism in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, complex indigenous religions were practised. Ra or Aftab, the solar deity, was an archetypal figure from whom the rulers of Bolor ( ancient name of the Northern Areas) traced their descent. Spiritual guarantors ( shamans) performed a variety of seasonal religious festivals ensuring the overall fertility of the land and the people.
Different “altitudinal zones of spirituality” have been identified. All the major peaks, such as Nanga Parbat ( 8125 m.) and Rakaposhi ( 7788 m.), are considered the abodes of “clean spirits”, mostly female, which inhabit fairy castles. Below this is the zone of “mayaro”, domain of the markhor ( a wild goat) and ibex, both considered sacred and tended by fairies. The agricultural zone is considered neutral, man’s home. Last is the demonic sphere, a realm reserved for dangerous invisible things; demons lurking near the mouths of glaciers, in dark crevasses or by the raging torrent of a gorge.
Such animistic pantheons was common to the whole of Northern Pakistan and the Himalaya. They became adapted to buddhism ( buddhism emerged around the 3° or 4° century AD), the two becoming inextricably intertwined, and later existed either secretly, or alongside Islam ( the first muslims arrived in the 12° century). Today, shamans have almost disappeared. ( They were closely related to the ones who live in Ladakh, in Nepal and Tibet) The building of the Karakoram Highway, a road that connects mainland Pakistan to western China, has brought many changes ( economic, cultural) in these remote valleys. The Northern Areas have been islamized : there is no more place for shamans inhaling the smoke of juniper branches in order to induce a trance.