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ETHNONYM: Hunzukuts


The Burusho are a mountain people inhabiting a small number of rocky terraces in the independent Pakistani states of Hunza and Nagir. The region is mountainous and is characterized by deep valleys carved by the Hunza River. The geographical focus of the Burusho homeland extends from 36° 00 to 37° 10 N and from 74° 10 to 75° 40 E. The area is dry and quite barren and the terraces occupied by the Burusho require considerable ingenuity to be rendered habitable. The major portion of the area occupied by them falls within the boundaries of Hunza. In 1959 the population of Hunza totaled some 25,000 persons. This figure represents a significant increase from the figures of 1894 (6,000) and 1934 (15,000).

Burushaski, a language unrelated to any language spoken in the region, is the lingua franca. Burushaski is believed to be a survival of an aboriginal language once spoken in much of northern India before the arrival of Aryan settlers. The dialect of Burushaski spoken in Hunza is thought to be a pure form of its archaic (i.e., pre-Aryan) progenitor, while the dialect spoken in Nagir is believed to have been influenced Partially by Shina, the native language of the state of Nagir. A few Arabic and Persian loanwords can be found in Burushaski as a result of the influence of Islam in the region.

History and Cultural Relations

Legend records that the original inhabitants of the Hunza region were three soldiers in the army of Alexander the Great. These soldiers and their families were left behind because of physical infirmity. The soldiers themselves are said to have been the founders of the first three Hunza villages (Baltit, Ganesh, and Altit). The ruling families in Hunza and Nagir claim, unofficially, direct descent from Alexander the Great. There is also lore ascribing European ancestry to the original inhabitants of Hunza. The physical characteristics of the Burusho seem to verify this. Before the arrival of the British, the people of Hunza conducted raids throughout central Asia. The mirs (rulers) of Hunza have enjoyed favorable relations with their neighbors in China over the years. In 1947, Hunza and other regions originally part of Kashmir were seized by Pakistan. The area is now part of the Gilgit Agency in Pakistan.


Villages are built on shelves several hundred feet above the Hunza River gorge (approximately 2,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level) and are heavily fortified. Access to individual villages in this area is obtained by traveling on narrow roads that are also located high above the river basin. Homes are never built on arable land. Construction materials consist of stone, rock, or clay. Doors, roofs, supporting pillars, and a few other household features are made of wood. The lower floor of a home has two sections: a courtyard (uncovered) for animals; and a living space for human use. Homes are built in close proximity to one another and are in a sense located almost on top of one another.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Burusho engage in most subsistence activities. Small breeds of cattle, yaks, goats, and sheep are kept (goats and cattle for meat and dairy purposes). Ducks, crows, golden eagles, vultures, chickens, pheasants, chickores (red-legged partridges), pigeons, and doves are hunted. A small number of wild fruits are gathered. Cats are kept as household pets. Agriculture is at the heart of the Burusho cycle of subsistence. Crops include potatoes, garlic, beans, peas, carrots, tomatoes, leafy vegetables, mulberries, apples, walnuts, almonds, plums, pears, cherries, grapes, millet, wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, rice, spices, cucumbers, tobacco, and flax. Fields are terraced on mountain-sides. These are irrigated by a complex system of drainage conduits. Wooden agricultural implements are the norm, though iron-tipped plowshares, iron hoes, spades, forks, shears, and sickles are also used.

Industrial Arts. Some of the more important items made by the Burusho are convex iron grills (for cooking), wooden trays (for flour kneading), goat's-hair products (rugs, saddlebags, and ropes), animal-skin boots, handiwork (in stone, bone, and horn), moccasins, woolen garments, baskets, farming implements of iron and wood, woven cloth, blankets, and various utensils (for food preparation, consumption, and storage).

Trade. Trade between the Burusho and their neighbors has been negligible since antiquity. In exchange for personal services (as laborers, porters, and burden bearers), Chinese caravanners provided cooking implements, cloth, tea, silk, and other commodities to Burusho traders. The Burusho also obtain food from Nagir by means of barter and the exchange of money (though cash has always been in scarce supply in Hunza). The Burusho obtain salt (once mined locally at Shimshal) from Pindi and Gilgit. Most luxury items from India, Turkestan, and central Asia are purchased by the Burusho at markets in Gilgit.

Division of Labor. Occupational specialization based on gender designations does not obtain. Men and women share in such varied activities as threshing, winnowing, load carrying, and in the socialization of children. Family cooperation in most matters is the Burusho norm. Although there is no formal prohibition against the performance of certain tasks by either gender, heavier work tends to be done by males (e.g., wall construction, plowing and irrigation), while other tasks are assumed by females (e.g., child rearing, care of vegetable patches, and the management of the household food supply).

Land Tenure. The majority of Hunza families are free-holders. Land remains in these families from generation to generation. Taxes are not levied against a landowner during his lifetime or upon his death. In antiquity, the mirs owned parcels of village land and these were farmed by means of forced labor. In this century, reforms have led to the leasing of this land to tenant farmers who pay a small fixed fee to the mir once the land begins to produce its yield.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Kinship. The Burusho population contains four major clans and several minor ones. The major clans are centered on the city of Baltit while the minor clans are dispersed in other settlements. Mixed marriages (i.e., between the Burusho and other ethnic groups) are rare. Patrilineal descent is the norm. Hawaiian-type kin terms for first cousins are used.

Marriage. The practice of child marriage does not obtain among the Burusho. The average marital age is 16 years of age for a female and 18 years of age for a male. The marriage of first cousins is avoided but not prohibited. Bride-price varies with social class. Marriages are held once each year (usually on 21 December when snow is on the ground) and the ceremony is performed in the house of the bride's father. In theory, parents have complete authority in the mate selection for their children. In practice, however, the will of the male and female to be wed is ascertained before the marriage is arranged. A man and woman will not be wed against their will. Divorce is allowed but is difficult to obtain. Divorce is granted to a man only on the grounds of adultery. A wife may not divorce her husband. She may appeal to the mir to have her husband divorce her. Children remain with the mother (until they reach the age of 10) if a divorce is granted. During this time, the husband is required to provide child support. Widows must wait three months and seven days after the death of a spouse before remarrying. The wait for a widower is two months and seven days. Polygyny is not prohibited.

Domestic Unit. Small extended families (the procreated family of one individual in the senior generation and those of at least two in the next generation) with limited polygyny are the norm.

Inheritance . The father of a family owns all of the family property. He may choose to divide his property among his off-spring before his death or it may be divided after he dies. Upon his death, his estate is divided equally among his sons. Sons may choose to work any land inherited together (i.e., as a group) or they may divide it among themselves. Sons by second wives inherit a grandson's share. The youngest son inherits the family dwelling. Provision is usually made so that the eldest son inherits the best land. A daughter is not permitted to inherit property. She may be allowed the use of certain property during her lifetime. Unmarried daughters must be cared for (including the provision of a dowry) by the estate of a deceased father. Apricot trees (and their produce) are often willed to daughters.

Socialization. The socialization of children is a responsibility shared by both parents, with the bulk of it being assumed by the mother. Siblings also share in this task. In 1934, a public school system was donated and put into place by the Aga Khan, thus placing part of the burden for child rearing on teachers.

Sociopolitical Organization

Burusho society contains five classes: the Thamo (royal Family); the Uyongko/Akabirting (those who may occupy offices of state); the Bar/Bare/Sis (land cultivators); the Shadarsho (servants); and the Baldakuyo/Tsilgalasho (bearers of burdens for the Thamo and Uyongko). The Bericho (Indian blacksmiths and musicians), who maintain their own customs and speak their own language (Kumaki), are also an important part of Burusho social structure. Age and gender stratification do not obtain among the Burusho.

The head of state is the mir, whose authority in all matters is absolute. He is assisted in the dispatch of his duties by a grand vizier. Mirs are responsible for the distribution of justice as well as the maintenance of local customs and tribal festivals. A village arbob (chief) and chowkidar (sergeant at arms) are appointed for each village. Khalifas are appointed by the mir to preside at important occasions in the life of the individual and the community. It has been noted that at one time retainers to certain villagers were paid by the British government for occasional services and that certain officials within a village were charged with the care of visitors.

The threat of deportation (for the purpose of engaging in public service to the mir or for the completion of public works) and the imposition of fines are the primary means of maintaining social control. External relations between the Burusho and other peoples have been stable. Intervillage rivalry is channeled nonviolently into polo matches. Although the attitudes of the Burusho toward their neighbors in Nagir are less than friendly, armed conflict is far from normal. Both Hunza and Nagir supported the military action that led to the annexation of the region to Pakistan.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Burusho have been Muslim for more than 300 years. They are adherents of the Ismaili sect (headed by the Aga Khan) and have made such modifications in religious belief and practice as to render this system of Islamic belief practicable within their social and environmental setting. No systematized eschatological system exists among the Burusho. It is generally believed that at some point in the future the living and the dead will be reunited. Bitaiyo (male and female prognosticators) foretell the future by inhaling the smoke of burning juniper twigs. No professional priesthood exists among the Burusho. The mir appoints several literate men as khalifas to officiate at burials, weddings, and naming ceremonies. These individuals do not perform these duties on a full-time basis. Religious ceremony plays little part in the daily life of the Burusho. Ritual prayer and fasting are practiced by some. While little is known of pre-Islamic religious practices, it is believed that at one time sacrifice was offered to the boyo (divinities thought to occupy a place above the fort at Hini). The communal wedding Ceremony held on 21 December is also an important part of the Burusho ritual cycle.

Arts. Embroidery and wood carving may be noted as examples of Burusho visual art. Dancing and music (both being important components of Burusho ceremonial life) are attested. The same can be said of dramatic art, performances being sponsored on certain special occasions. Burusho oral literature contains folklore (indigenous and borrowed), anecdotes, and songs.

Medicine. A variety of natural substances (roots, herbs, and bernes) is used for medicinal purposes. Access to scientific medicine is also available. The belief is still held by some Burusho that supernaturals play a major role in the cause of human illness. Indigenous medical practitioners are lacking.


Clark, J. (1963). "Hunza in the Himalayas: Storied Shangri-La Undergoes Scrutiny." Natural History 72:38-45.

Lorimer, David L. (1935-1938). The Burushaski Language. 3 vols. Instituttet for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, Serie B: Skrifter, 29, 1-3. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co. (W. Nygaard): Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lorimer, E. O. (1938). "The Burusho of Hunza." Antiquity 12:5-15.

Lorimer, E. O. (1939). Language Hunting in the Karakoram. London: George Allen & Unwin.

O'Leary, Timothy J. (1965). "Burusho Cultural Summary." New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files.

Tobe, John H. (1960). Adventures in a Land of Paradise. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books.