Pamir Peoples

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Pamir Peoples

ETHNONYMS: Egamik, Pamirians, Pamirian Tajiks


Identification. In the Mountain-Badakhshan District of the Tajik Republic, in the deep, high mountain valleys of the western Pamirs live the Pamirians. They call themselves "Pamirian Tajiks" to distinguish themselves from the neighboring Tajiks (the adjective "Pamirian" having acquired special ethnic meanings in recent times). Researchers have called them "Iranian tribes of the Western Pamirs," "Mountaineers of the Upper Pyandj River," "Peoples of the Pamirs," "Prepamir Peoples," and "Pamirian Tajiks."

Location. The Pamirians live in an area where many mountains rise to over 6,500 meters (Mount Communism, at 7,485 meters, is the highest in the former USSR). The Pamirs are reticulated with the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram Mountains of India and the Tianshan and Kunlun Shan ranges of China. Winters are long and cold and summers cool; annual precipitation is only 12.7 centimeters. There are several high passes through the Pamirs, one of which was used by Marco Polo in 1271.

Demography. Pamirians number about 120,000 out of a total poulation of approximately 127,000 in the district (of whom about 1,000 are Russians). Only 13 percent of the population is urban. Otherwise, Pamirians live in Afghan Badakhshan (Rushan-Shugnans but also Wakhan, Ishkamis, Zebaks, Sangliches, and Mundzhans). In Pakistan there are Wakhans, Mundzhans, and Idiqs. The Badakhshan Autonomous District also includes some Tajiks (in the Kalaikhuomsky, Wanchsky, and Ishkashimsky regions), and 7,000 Kyrgyz live scattered thinly in the eastern, Murgabsky region.

Linguistic Affiliation. Since the overall culture of the Pamirians is substantially the same, it is language and dialect that distinguish one group from another. With the exception of the dialects of the Rushan-Shugnan group, all dialects are mutually unintelligible. The Rushan-Shugnan (numbering about 50,000) live mainly on tributaries east of the Pyandj River and consist of the Bartangs, near the Bartang River (speaking the Oroshor or Omor dialect), the Rushans or Rukhni (about 15,000, speaking the Khufsi dialect), the Shugnan proper, and the Sarkolys (in Sinkiang). Wakhan or Wakhi is spoken by about 9,000 people in the highest pastures of the Pamirs near an east-west stretch of the Pyandj. About 500 Ishkamis live in the village of Ryn, and about 2,500 Yazgulis live in one narrow, isolated valley.

Owing in part to the mutual unintelligibility of these dialects and languages, it is the Western Iranian Farsi (or Forsi) language of India and the Dari language of Afghanistan that have served as lingua francas. The Pamirian languages have much in common with the other Eastern Iranian languages (Sogdian, Bactrian, Saka, and Tocharian). Linguistic features indicate connections between the Khotan-Saka language of the fifth to tenth centuries and present-day Wakhi, which suggests that the latter may be descendants of the Sakas.

The Pamirians came under the strong influence of their neighbors, particularly the Tajiks, and the assimilation of the Pamirians by the Tajiks continues. This centuries-old process has been accompanied by the development of bilingualism. Among the Pamirians living across the border, in addition to their native language (in which they are illiterate), they also, for the most part, command a second language, in which they receive their formal education: Farsi in Afghanistan, Urdu in Pakistan, Uigur in Chinese Kazakstan, and Tajik and Russian in the former USSR.

Today the Pamirians of Tajikistan are mostly multilingual: children starting school at age 7, knowing only their local language, learn Tajik and Russian and also study one other foreign language starting in the fourth grade. Their native language fully retains its functions in daily life.

History and Cultural Relations

Relatively little is known of the history of the Pamirians because none of their languages were written and foreign sources provide little information. Archaeologists have found evidence of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic sites in the Pamirs; this indicates connections with the east. The first identifiable people mentioned in Classical Greek and Old Persian sources are the Sakas, who apparently occupied both the east and west of the Pamirs beginning in the middle of the first millenium b.c. The basic components in the ethnogenesis of the Pamirians, thus, were the Saka and, possibly, the Dari ethnic groups. The Pamirians were probably under Kushan rule in the first centuries a.d., followed by that of the Hephthalites. According to Buddhist missionaries of the eighth century, Shugnan was not Buddhist in religion whereas neighboring regions, such as Wakhan, had Buddhist monasteries. Arabic sources tell of a number of small kingdoms in this area, and in the eleventh century Shugnan, Rushan, and adjoining valleys were converted to Ismailism. Although frequently owing allegiance to larger political entities, the Pamirians usually were ruled by one of many local lords called begs. In the seventeenth century they came under the sway of a state with its center in Afghan Badakhshan, which in turn owed allegiance to the Amir of Bukhara. The Pamirs were one of the last areas to be incorporated into the USSR.

The process of assimilation has been accompanied by the somewhat paradoxical development of an ethnonational identification. This sense of identity, during the first decades after the establishment of Soviet power, did not change in relation to that of previous periods; for the most part this was the original consciousness of, for example, the Egamik (Yazgumems) and Khugni. Between 1950 and 1980 ethnonational identification has manifested itself in three forms: when classifying national affiliation among themselves, they use their autonym; when communicating with visitors or when visiting other regions of Tajikistan, they call themselves "Pamirians," "Pamirs," or "Pamirian Tajiks" to distinguish their language, customs, and religion from those of other Tajiks (who speak West Iranian Farsi) and give themselves a specifically "Pamir" identity; beyond the boundaries of Tajikistan they call themselves "Tojik" (i.e., Tajik). Their material and spiritual cultures have survived, yet the Pamirians are fully in touch with the contemporary economic life of the republic and with the professional culture of the Tajiks, including scholarship poetry, literature, and theater. They consider themselves "Pamirian Tajiks," and in the present stage of their ethnic history they constitute an ethnic subgroup of the Tajiks.

Among the Pamirians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until the establishment of Soviet power, patriarchal-feudal relations predominated, characteristically in the form of kinship- and village-based communal groups. Communal relations coexisted with patrilineal relations. Without the preservation of traditional forms of collective communal mutual aid, agriculture and animal husbandry in the high mountain valleys of this unique region would be impossible. Communal law has existed among the independent feudal polities and also in those that depended fully or in part on Badakhshan, Afghanistan, and the khanate of Bukhara; it still applies today to some activities, such as haying and the pasturing of livestock.


Contemporary Pamirians still live in permanent settlements established in the valleys of the Pyandj River and its tributaries. The villages or settlements are situated on the triangle of a river or stream delta and, more rarely, on riverine terraces. Among the Pamirians, who share similar conditions, a common type of settlement by familial-patrilineal groups took shape as a consequence of a commonality of origin and similarity in economy and culture. In each one of these settlements there lived several patrilineal groups, each occupying a separate area.

A small kishlak (village or farm complex) on the small triangle of a river delta, usually the offshoot of a larger one, as a rule was inhabited by one patrilineage, consisting of undivided and small families. There was no planning to the streets: the dwelling, with the farm structure directly attached to it, was situated directly among the plow fields, gardens, and orchards. Usually the doors of the house and of farm buildings were turned inward toward an interior courtyard, so that from without only the bare walls that form the closed-off square were visible. The outer courtyard occupied an open square facing the farmstead. In this farmstead complex, the fields often had walls (fences) made of stone that had been collected from the fields before plowing or irrigation. The paths that connected the quarters of the settlement to each other were also formed with masonry, so that it was often difficult for beasts of burden laden with their loads to go through these narrow passageways.

In the absence of bazaars and mosques (which the Ismailites do not have in any case), the public center used to be a public house of the "house of five" type, analogous in function to what one finds among the mountain Tajiks and serving as a place for communal feasting and marriages or as a sort of "men's club." Otherwise, the center of public life was the house of the oldest and most honored head of the patrilineal group of the local Ismailite spiritual preceptor, the khalif. The meetings of the Pamirians with these spiritual preceptors had a public character and were set up in turn in the houses of their murids (adepts in a religious brotherhood). The meetings consisted of hosted meals and conversation on religious themes.

The traditional layout and technique of construction of dwellings and of public and agricultural economic structures have been preserved to the present day. The foundation is laid from unworked stone, usually cemented together with clay. The walls are also laid from such stone, but in those villages where there is loess soil, Pamirians blend it with water, mix it vigorously, and, with the help of square molds made of board, they prepare "natural" (syrtsory ) bricks for the walls. The traditional roof is a layered vault put together of boards and beams so as to form a square frame above the center of the dwelling. The frames are laid one above the other so that the corner of each successively falls in the middle of the preceding one. The last frame, the very smallest, crowns this stepped ceiling, forming an opening for illumination and the egress of smoke from the open hearth. The roof is supported by wooden pillars along the walls and in the corners, and also by massive wooden central columns decorated with carvings. These columns are important in the spiritual life of the Pamirians; particular reverence is shown to the main column (shastan ). On entering the house, if nobody is home, it is customary to give a salutation to the shastan; otherwise the master of the house will be offended because reverence was not shown to the spirits of his ancestors. On New Year's Eve (Navruz) Pamirians display large paintings of mountain goats and place branchestheir bark stripped or roughed up to resemble petalsbehind the central columns. These houses usually have one room with alcoves along the longitudinal side walls and the one wall that runs crosswise through the center, opposite the entrance (the hearth is to the left of the entrance). In these alcoves Pamirians eat, sleep, and receive guests in the cold season of the year.

At the present time, all the Pamirians are building separate lodgings (the kush-khona ) that are elegantly decorated and predesignated for the reception of guests. The usual furnishings of the house are large pieces of felt rugs (palasy ) and long, narrow, quilted blankets. In the guest room, European-style furnitureincluding tables, chairs, beds, wardrobes, and sofashas already made its appearance. The ceilings in these lodgings are of the customary sortflat and wooden. Even in the capital city of Khorog Pamirians are now building individual, private houses in the same traditional architectural style. In the city, as in the country, they use small stoves, place windows in the walls, and rebuild the wall niches as small chests of drawers for dishes and odds and ends, or enlarge them for storing clothes or bedclothes.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agricultural production of grains and legumes predominates over horticultural production of melons and gourds (bakhcha ), even in lower valleys. Sowing is by broadcast, in the spring, and traditionally mixed (wheat, buckwheat, and millet combined with beans). Communal land use determines the periods of agricultural work for all members of the commune. Although there was no obligatory rotation of crops, there were firmly established cycles for the distant pasturing of livestock for the summer and their return to the mountain villages (kishlak). Animal husbandry was traditionally very important to the economy and included cattle, sheep, and goats ("horned livestock") and horses, camels, and the young of horned stock. Animals were pastured at different elevations in different seasons; all the livestock were moved at once so as to avoid losses, to carry out more productively the pasturing of livestock on the stubble, and to provide for the fertilization of the plow-land parcels with fresh manure. The Shugnans of the valley of Shakhdary and some of the Vakhans also raised yaks, which they kept out to pasture all year. Shepherds occasionally visited at calving and milking times.

Pamir patterns involving dairy cattle are diverse and have changed significantly. Among the Yazgulems, the Bartangs, and some of the Shugnans, there were "milkers' working associations" similar to those of the Mountain Tajiks. Five or six female family heads (khozyaika ) would give their animals' milk to one of the women (in rotation with the others) to prepare milk products, particularly butter and sour cream, which was processed from sour milk in clay or wooden churns. Aside from the cows that were put out to pasture in the summer, two or three were left in the village to supply the needs of the family. In the years of Soviet power local agricultural specialists contributed to a significant growth in the quality of animal husbandry by instituting the observance of a regular calving (or freshening) time and the protection of the young livestock. They also promoted the use of sheepdogs to help defend the herd and augmented the traditional method of putting the branches of thorn bushes on top of the defensive wall. Such specialists have known traditional Pamirian methods since childhood, which they combine with the information they receive in higher-educational institutions.

The traditional agricultural implements (mattock, shovel, plow, sickle) were, in their construction, adapted to the nature of the soil of any given locality so as to preserve its productive layer (the humus). The traditional plow was of wood (Russian: ralo ), which only loosens and throws back a layer of soil but does not turn over the humus layer. Draft was provided by a pair of oxen.

Together with their neighbors in the high mountain valleys of the Hindu Kush, the northern Himalayas, and Karakorum, Pamirians live in a unique natural region in which an increase in elevation is correlated with a decrease in precipitation, not an increase as in other parts of the world. For this reason, irrigation is indispensable for agriculture.

The practice of preparing the soil so as not to injure the humus has affected the design of the high-mountain type of irrigation and of the various techniques for watering plots of pastureland. The agriculturalists, utilizing the relief of the land, have long irrigated by running canals from creeks, streams, and the tributaries of rivers. In addition to using canals, each Pamirian group has its own particular supplementary methods of irrigation.

The traditional irrigation network in the eastern Pamirs, as in neighboring areas, fulfilled two functions: the watering of plow land and drainage to prevent erosion of the productive layer of mountain soil. Thus, each plot had had temporary canals for irrigation and a permanent canal around its perimeter for drainage.

Today the same tools and implements are used when the terrain makes the use of machines impossible. These include plowshares with tips of cast pig iron or tempered steel and wooden shovels for cleaning and digging irrigation furrows. Agricultural specialists have introduced new species and varieties of grains and vegetables, including potatoes and cabbages.

It is still a widespread practice for women to carry loads in shoulder baskets. Similar devices are used with beasts of burden (yaks, donkeys, camels), since there were neither roads nor wheeled transport until recently. Horses were mainly used for riding, and there were few of them.

In Soviet times, highways were built to connect Khorog with the center of the Tajik Republic, Dushanbe (about 500 kilometers), and there is also a road from Khorog to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Roads for automotive transport are replacing footpaths in the valleys, even in remote places such as Bartang and Yazgulem.

Industrial Arts. Pamirians traditionally produced textiles made of wool and imported cotton. They used vertical looms for making a kind of rug (palas ) and horizontal looms for other woolen and cotton textiles. They were smiths and metalworkers and made decorative jewelry. The Vakhans, Yazgulems, and Rushans were distinguished by the quality of their wooden vessels, particularly a type of large plate; Vakhan and Shugnan women were noted for their pottery. For cookware and large vessels, a special gray clay was used, which was strengthened by tempering with goat hair. Stone played an important role in the technology. Out of large, round stones Pamirians made millstones for the water-driven grain mills. Stone mortars served not only for grain but for nuts and mulberries. These same dried berries, as well as dried apricots and mulberry flour, were a significant supplement to the diet, which otherwise consisted primarily of milk and grain products, and more rarely of mutton, wild or domestic goat meat, or beef. In 1950, in a series of localities in Yazgulem and Rushan, Pamirians began to raise turkeys; domestic fowl are rare otherwise. In the past there were no alcoholic beverages among the Pamirians, although some were lovers of opium. They also chewed a local type of tobacco, which they ground into a powder and to which they added a substance that gave it a burning aftertaste.

Division of Labor. Women made pots without the potter's wheel. Men spun and wove yaks' and goats' hair, and women worked sheeps' wool and camels' hair and knitted multicolored socks. Women usually spun on a typical Central Asiatic spinning wheel, whereas men used a hand spindle. The men's spindle normally consisted of a stick with a split end to which the start of the thread was attached, whereas the woman's spindle had a small cross on the lower end.

Women went off with the herd for summer pasture and were involved with the milking of the cattle and the preparation of milk products: cheese, sour milk, sour cream. The men, taking turns of several days each, would go out during the summer season to pasture the livestock and to protect it from wolves and snow leopards, without the help of dogs.

Land Tenure. In the past, pastureland was owned patrilineally, as were hay fields. Later, in the years of Soviet power, pastures became communalthat is, collectively owned livestock was pastured collectively. Privately owned livestock was pastured on the patrilineally owned land ( kaumu, arlodu ).


The patrilineal group consisted of several patrilineal extended families that lived together and cooperated economically. The extended families consisted variously of parents with one or two married sons, or several couples (married brothers or male first cousins), or a small family with unmarried children and a parent or other relative of the husband (rarely of the wife).

Marriage and Family

Pamirians traditionally married their first or second cross or parallel cousins, of either the father's or mother's lineage. Polygyny was practiced on a very limited scale. The mother's brother was considered more closely related than the father's; he continues to play a major role in the arrangement of marriages between his nephews and nieces and he protects and helps them in their everyday social and economic dealings.

Marriages today take place in accordance with Quranic law and are also registered with civil authorities. There was never a bride-price (kalym ), but today various members of the patrilineal group spend a considerable amount to guarantee that the young family has all the necessities. In the past girls married at age 15, sometimes at 11 or 12; young men married later. Today the age of marriage has been raised. Women get married at 18 or older, often after having completed their higher education (the majority study at pedagogical and medical schools or universities, usually becoming teachers or doctors). Men prefer to marry after finishing their military service or their secondary or higher education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Women were obligatorily murids and visited public gatherings on a par with the men. Female Pamirians were equal in rights in the family and the commune (or society generally) compared to the female Tajiks. They never covered their faces, and within the house there were no sections for women.

Social Organization. The patrilineal groups in the western Pamirs have, in a number of cases, preserved their endogamy and their tradition of mutual assistance, to this day caring for orphans and single elderly people, helping one another every day, rearing children equally no matter what the degree of consanguinity, circumcising boys (and celebrating the associated holiday), and marrying off young men and women (always accompanied by sumptuous wedding feasting).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The national consciousness of the Pamirians is based not only on linguistic and sociocultural affinities but, perhaps above all, on religion. Since the eleventh century they have belonged to the Ismaili sect as a result of the missionary activity of the great mystic poet N asir-i Khosrow (1004-1072). The Ismaili religion, with its traditions of clandestineness, has survived in the Pamirs as a kind of secret society: there never have been any mosques and there are today no official clerics, but rather numerous private houses of prayer and itinerant clerics. At least until World War II, contacts were regularly maintained with Ismaili centers in India, particularly Bombay, where the Aga Khan, the religious head of all Ismailis, resides. The Ismaili Pamirians tend to isolate themselves not only from the Kyrgyz and Tajiks but also from those Pamirians who have adopted Sunni Islam. There are practically no mixed marriages between the Ismaili and the Sunni, and this includes the Vanchis and the Yazgulems, both Pamir peoples who are being rapidly assimilated into Tajik society and who have nearly lost the ability to speak their languages. Antireligious propaganda against Ismailism was active until recently; in 1978 a special seminar for that purpose was held in Khorog.

Ceremonies. Spiritual life is rich in colorful rituals, many of which had a magical significance in the past and are today preserved among the young people as a diversion. Among the Bartangs, for example, on the occasion of the ritual of "uncovering the face" of a young woman, the groom, assuming both his parents are alive, has to shoot three times from a bow into the opening of the vaulted ceiling and, on the third time, hit the mark; then he goes up to the bride and twice, with his bow, lifts up the handkerchief that covers her face, and, the third time, throws it off. The groom then gathers up the handkerchief for himself and gives the bride something in return. This ritual was the same among the Rushans, except that the groom would use the branch of a fruit tree. The Pamirians have no ritual for the public proof of the virginity of the girl.

Traditional holidays included New Year, the "First Furrow" (celebrated with a public feast, salutation of the patron of farming, Bobo-m-Dekhtona, and recognition of the first act of irrigation), and the first going out of the women to summer pasture with the flocks.


Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). "Pamirian Peoples." In Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Monogarova, L. F. (1989). The Ethnic Affiliation of the Population of the Gorno-Badakhshanskaya Autonomous District in the Ethnic History and Traditional Culture of the Peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (in Russian). Nukus.

Mukhtarov, A. M., ed. (1984-1985). Pamir Studies (Collection of Articles ) (in Russian). Parts 1, 2. Dushanbe.