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ALTERNATE NAMES: Mountain Tajiks
LOCATION: Tajikistan
LANGUAGES: East Iranian language variations; Tajik; Russian
RELIGION: Islam (Ismailism and Sunni Muslim)


The Pamiri peoples, also called the Pamirian or Mountain Tajiks (Pamirtsy in Russian) comprise seven ethnic groups of Tajikistan in formerly Soviet Central Asia. They go by the names of Shugnis, Rushanis, Wakhanis, Bartangis, Yazgulemis, Khufis, and Ishkashimis. Although their histories tie in to the history of the Tajiks of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, there are some unique features.

Local tradition has it that the Pamiris are descendants of Alexander the Great from his 4th century bc invasions into the remote and inaccessible Pamir mountain valleys. Pamiris have strikingly European features for people living in so remote an area of Central Asia. Reference to Shugnis and Rushanis of these high valleys shows up in Chinese chronicles by the 2nd century ad. What is also known from the archaeological and historical sources in Classical Greek and Old Persian is that ethnic groups such as the Saka and Dari, who lived in the Pamirs approximately 3,000 years ago, helped give rise to today's Pamiris. Anthropologists refer to such processes as ethnogenesis, or the birth and growth of ethnic groups.

The Pamiris have never really had their own country or lived independently of surrounding powers, although tiny independent kingdoms existed for a short period after Tibetan rule during the 8th and 9th centuries. Pamiri history is marked by conflicts over territory and scarce natural resources. Neighboring Kyrgyz have been a persistent rival. While Afghani and Uzbek rulers vied for control over the Mountainous Badakhshan region where the Pamiris lived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, so too were these lands coveted by the Russians and the British, whose imperialistic challenges to one another were relaxed by 1905. By 1904 Russia had annexed the Pamiri lands from the Emir of Bukhara.

After three years of incessant struggle, the Pamiri lands were brought under Soviet rule and in 1925 designated the Special Pamir Province. Just a few months later, the area was redesignated the Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Province that was later joined to the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, created in 1929. From 1992 to 1997, independent Tajikistan was wracked by civil war, and the Pamiris played a major role in fighting against Kuliabi Tajiks of the Kurgan-Tiube region. Pamiris and Garmis are allies in a very complicated and violent conflict that left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, injured, and dead. The dispute concerned political power, the control of economic resources, and organized crime. In the end, the Pamiris gained little from the conflict, but from the late 1990s onward they have benefited from international aid, so while poor and struggling their cultures and identities remain fairly stable.


Small numbers of Pamiris live in Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan, but the vast majority live in their autonomous enclave within Tajikistan. Overall, Pamiris number about 150,000, most of whom live in the high mountain valley of the Western Pamirs, in the southwestern part of the Badakhshan province. These mountains, known as the "Roof of the World" in Persian (Bam-i Dunya) are the second highest in the world after the Himalayas. Several peaks there top 7,000 m (20,000 ft). The area's climate is dry and continental: winters are long and cold, and summers short and cool. Snowfalls may block roadways as early as mid-September.

Pamiris live in close geographical proximity to one another. On the south side of their territory runs the Pyandzh River, separating them from Afghanistan. On the west the Afghanistani province of Badakhshan borders, and to the north and east is greater Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Only two major roadways link the Pamiri territory to major centers, connecting Dushanbe and Osh with Mountainous Badakhshan. Few places in the entire former USSR are as remote as this.

Although these harsh lands yield little agricultural production, there is cultivation of cereals, potatoes, tobacco, and melons and squashes in the lowest valleys. Water resources are good and hydroelectric power plentiful. There are few natural resources aside from small deposits of gold, asbestos, and rich pastures for animal husbandry. Sheep, goats, cattle, and yak are the main herds.


The Pamiris speak East Iranian languages closely related to the modern Persian of Iran, Tajik, and Pashto/Dari (spoken by the majority of Afghanis). These languages are known as the Galcha group. Close relations and geographical nearness aside, most of these languages are mutually incomprehensible. Tajik and the Shugni-Rushan dialect serve as variants of a common language among the people. Yazgulemi, Wakhi, and Ishkashimi are very distinct dialects. Although attempts have been made to create alphabets for theses languages, they remain non-literary. Children learn in Tajik and Russian. Across international borders, Pamiris communicate in Persian and Dari. All of the people are multi-lingual. These modern languages display a clear connection to some of the great Iranic languages of the distant past, including Sogdian, Bactrian, and Saka, which had flourishing literary traditions.

Some examples of Tajik phrases include: "Turo chi lozim ast?" ("What is it that you need?"), and "Shumo chi mekhured?" ("What would you like to eat?").


Pamiri folklore takes the form of tales, legends, proverbs, and sayings. Heroism relating to bravery in battle and in combating nature's harsh elements commonly appears in the tales and stories. However, most concrete information about Pamiri folklore generally appears under Tajik folk culture.


National consciousness is strongly based on the Islam of the Pamiris. They are members of the Ismaili sect, which was accepted in the 11th century and spread through the great mystic poet Nasir-i Khoshrow. Ismailism is a secretive sect characterized by the divine worship of Ali, who was the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Ali is believed to be Muhammad's divinely inspired successor. Although closely related to Shi'ism, Ismailism broke with mainstream Shi'ism in the 8th century ad. Pamiris do not believe in the need for mosques or clergymen, but there are rather informal houses of prayer and de facto, wandering holy men. These people maintain contact with the principal Ismaili center in the world, located in India, whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. Most Bartangis and Yazgulemis practice Sunni Islam (through their contact with the Bukharan Emirate), which predominates throughout the world.

Many traditional Pamiri beliefs and rituals relate to agriculture and the herds. All sorts of prohibitions and practices determine when planting and watering may be done and what will lead to the best conditions for agricultural success. Rituals connected with the threshing of grain ensure that people will be full and satisfied with the bread baked from the grain. A scarecrow symbolizing an ancient deity helps purify the area near the piles of wheat while people pour sweets atop the pile and burn sacred grasses around its perimeter. Once the flour is finally made and the first loaf baked, everyone from a given family partakes until they say "bas" ("enough"). The bread from the first piles of newly threshed grain is known as basik.


Pamiris celebrate Novruz, which falls on the vernal equinox (around March 21) and marks the beginning of the Persian new year. Novruz is celebrated with music, dances, and a great deal of feasting. People generally wear very colorful clothes on this day, or new clothes if they have them. The foods served contain the first vegetables or greens, as Novruz is a harbinger of the land coming back to life after a long period of dormancy. The celebratory atmosphere of Novruz usually continues for two or three days after the initial celebrations.

"First Furrow" marks the beginning of the planting season. People address the saint of farming, known as Bobo-m-Dekhtona ("Grandpa Farmer"). A public feast is held, and people commemorate the origins of irrigation. Another public holiday marks the time in early summer when women take flocks out to be pastured.


Rites of passage include parties for the circumcision of little boys, and women celebrate a girl's first menstrual period. Other rites include marriages and those marking death. Unfortunately, none of these rites are well documented in the scant literature available about the Pamiris. Specific rites of passage for the Pamiris appear to be similar to those of the Tajiks and the peoples of Afghanistan.


"Assalomu alaikum!" is the standard way of saying hello. After that, people proceed to ask one another about their families and their work. Surprise or pleasure in eating may be expressed by lolling one's head from side to side. If told of something unexpected or strange, people are likely to let out a high-pitched "Uhhhhhhhh!". Use of the hands to emphasize and be descriptive is also common. One favorite gesture that all Central Asians use is moving a cupped hand back and forth across the mouth. Th is signifies going for something to eat.

Spending time with extended family and friends who live nearby is very common as is visiting relatives who have moved away from Badakhshan. Young people do not date, as this would be considered immoral behavior. However, young people may meet clandestinely while out working in the fields or doing chores on behalf of their families. Intimacy between the young is reserved for marriage.


As in so many other parts of the former USSR, declining health standards prevail. The overall decline in the economy coupled with the Tajik civil war made it much harder for people to find good foodstuffs, medicines, or medical treatment, although this has taken a gradual turn for the better since about 2000. Basic health care is now provided by relief agencies such as the International Red Cross/ Red Crescent, the Aga Khan Foundation, and the France-based Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Under Soviet rule, all public health care was free of charge. Diseases and illnesses of the past, such as leprosy, trachoma, syphilis, and typhus were eradicated after World War II. Opium smoking was also common and created very debilitating conditions. Indications are that some Pamiris have become addicted to opium once again.

Consumer goods have greatly improved Pamiri life, especially with regard to food, since variety has been introduced to the traditional diet. All sorts of housewares and clothing also became available through the Soviet state stores, but this development has since been reversed.

Most Pamiri villages exist at the triangle of a river delta. Main houses are not arranged on streets, but rather stand amid the agricultural fields and orchards. Doors to houses and other farm buildings open inward toward an interior courtyard. From outside the settlement complex, only bare walls are visible. Ordinarily, the inner courtyards contain small gardens and apricot and mulberry trees.

Most homes are made of unworked stone with wooden roofs. Stone workers use clay to cement pieces together. Walls are made either from stone or from the clay from loess soils, which men mold into bricks for the wall construction. The roofs are put together with boards and beams. From outside, the roof appears as a layered vault, and from within it forms a stepped ceiling. The central beam in the house, the most important roof support, is known as the shashtan. It is carved and decorated, and plays a role in people's spiritual lives. Upon entering an empty house, one pays respects to the shashtan.

One room of a house contains alcoves in which these people eat, sleep, and receive guests when the weather turns cold. Today Pamiri homes always have well-equipped guest rooms with rugs, quilts, furniture, and often a television or radio. Wall niches often serve as a place for drawers, dishes, or knick-knacks.

The standard of living for all Tajiks has decreased markedly since the advent of the civil war, and conditions for the Pamiris would certainly have been even worse over the past few years had it not been for international relief.


Pamiri women traditionally enjoy fewer restrictions than is true of Tajik women. They participate in public gatherings on a par with men and work both outside and inside the home. They never wore veils, nor were they ever relegated to a particular part of their houses. Still, their work in the household is arduous. Among their specialties are pottery (made without potter's wheels) and all aspects of milking and milk product preparation.

In a typical Pamiri living arrangement, several patrilineal extended families would live together and cooperate economically. Often all married sons and their families would live in their father's house. Pamiris traditionally married a first or second cross or parallel cousin of either the father's or mother's lineage. The mother's brother is considered more closely related than the father's, and plays a major role in arranging marriages and helping his nephews and nieces if they encounter hardships. One Yazgulemi saying states: "Wherever you find an uncle on your mother's side, you don't need one from your father's."

Marriages today are increasingly based on Quranic law. Members of the patrilineal group provide all sorts of gifts to ensure an easy start for the newlyweds. Most young women do not marry before the age of 18. Weddings are always accompanied by huge parties.

Pets are not kept, and even shepherds have no dogs to help them protect their flocks from wolves.


Pamiri clothes today are Western in style for the most part. Headwear is important to both men and women. Men are distinguished by Central Asian skullcaps (toki), around which are often wrapped thin wool turbans, or by Russian-style fur or woolen hats, depending upon the season. Women wear either light or heavy woolen kerchiefs and shawls. Summertime kerchiefs are either all white or full of sparkling gold thread. Historically, most clothing was made from rough-hewn cotton or hemp, but some elite Pamiris wore white silk.

In warm weather, farming men typically wore a kurta iaktagi (a loose open-necked white shirt) and tambun (baggy trousers). In slightly cooler weather, a light woolen robe (gilim) was added. Younger men often wore an Afghani-style vest known as a voskat, around which a belt (miend) was affixed. Boots of wool and leather were handcrafted, as were wooden galoshes for wet and snowy weather. Both men and women wore these.

Women's garments were also quite simple, consisting of woolen, shirt-like dresses with tunic-like outer robes. Women's pants, sharovari, were narrower than men's. Although they also wore shawls as head wraps, they apparently never had heavy winter outer garments. Women adorned themselves with jewelry made from animal antlers, along with bronze bracelets and earrings. They braided their hair and kept their braids in different positions and at different lengths depending on their age and the number of children they had.


Until the mid-20th century, bread was literally the staff of life in the Pamiri diet, and people ground whatever grain or legume was available for bread, including peas, millet, and wheat. Pamiris also ate noodle dishes with occasional pieces of mutton, beef, or yak meat added. Milk products were common in the form of sour cream and butter from cows and yaks. In the lower valleys, some squashes and melons have been cultivated. Salt and tea were relatively unknown until the recent past. During the Soviet period, potatoes and cabbage were added to the Pamiri crop repertoire, and these nutritious foods greatly enhanced local diets. The Soviet administration also introduced canned and fresh goods that were regularly delivered to state stores.

For feasts and holidays, the main culinary specialty is boiled meat, which people tend to eat in large quantities because they dine on it so rarely. Meat and other dishes are ordinarily consumed with one's fingers, but soups or porridges made from peas or mung beans are eaten with spoons or pieces of bread. In the late summer and early fall, fruits such as apricots and plums, along with walnuts and almonds, are available. A typical breakfast includes bread, butter, and tea with perhaps occasional honey, because some small apiaries are kept.

Today, Tajik foods are a regular part of the Pamiri diet. Following is a recipe for a typical Tajik dish, "Beef and Peas":

Cut beef into large pieces and place in a pot. Add water and bring to a boil. Then add chopped onion and pre-soaked peas. Let all of these boil till cooked. Ten minutes before turning off the flame add salt and spices. Serve the peas piled atop the meat, and add green onions and red pepper. Serve a bullion separately.


Most children finish high school, but very few go on to university or technical schools unless they leave Mountainous Badakhshan. Those who do attend university must move to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. Although parents encourage both boys and girls to finish their required education, they do not necessarily encourage university training as it has little bearing on Badakhshani existence. Recently, the Aga Khan Foundation, an international Ismaili relief organization, laid plans to build the "University of the Mountains" in Central Asia, and they plan to build the first affiliate in Khorog, which is the regional capital of Badakhshan province (Gorno-Badakhshan) in Tajikistan; this university would be a huge boost for higher education among the Pamiri peoples. Nearly everyone is able to read and write Tajik, but a far smaller percentage know Russian well. What Russian they do know is from contact with television and radio.


Singing accounts for the bulk of Pamiri musical culture. Several types of poetical songs are popular among the Pamiris, including the lalaik and duduvik. Recently renowned Bakakhshani instrumental and vocal ensembles have toured the world, especially the United States. The zhurni is a common kind of comic love song among the Shugnis. Pantomime dances accompanied by music, and bobopirak satirical dances take place from time to time. The most common instrument is the guitar-like rubob. Literature does not exist per se, but storytelling is a common pastime.


Pamiri work is dominated by collectivized agricultural chores, and there are few tasks that are solely the domain of either men or women. One notable exception is that only women shear sheep, whereas only men shear goats. Women also tend to all of the milking, whereas men act as the shepherds, even though women initially take the animals out to pasture.

During the warmer months, Pamiris practice vertical transhumance-that is, they move their flocks up and down the mountains in accordance with weather conditions and the availability of grasses for their animals. Choice of crops depends very much on the elevation of a particular valley. The lower the elevation, the greater the variety of crops. The few non-agricultural jobs that do exist relate to town life and transportation. Some men and women work in clerical and administrative professions and some as gold miners, power-plant workers, and as long-distance truckers.

The elaborate systems for much of the terraced agriculture that is practiced in the Pamirs require constant maintenance. The canals must be cleared of rocks and debris, especially after the winter thaw. Farmers must work fast after the snow has melted on their fields, and people help one another out to clear the fields of rocks as they dig up and turn the soil over twice.


Soccer was introduced to the Pamiris relatively recently, along with other sports, such as basketball and volleyball. Traditionally, women play a ball game with a roll of tightly wound wool. Slingshots, tag, bow and arrow competitions, and polo are all favorites. Polo is played by two teams with up to 40 people in total, and players use long makeshift sticks and a wooden ball.


A relatively small number of these isolated people own televisions, but those who do are exposed to world culture via Russian television stations. Movie theaters exist in all of the major settlements, including Khorog and Ishkashim, and these also serve to broaden people's perspective on the world "below them." Much of popular culture today is dominated by grade-B karate movies and violent American cinema.


Pamiris historically produced textiles made of wool and imported cotton. Vertical looms were employed for crafting the palas-a local rug. Smiths and metalworkers made decorative jewelry. Millstones were another craft item made by the Pamiris for their water-driven grain mills.

Wakhanis, Yazgulemis, and Rushanis are well-respected for their wooden containers and pots, particularly for large serving plates. Women potters make fine pottery from a unique gray clay that they strengthen by tempering with goat hair. Men create textile threads by spinning and weaving yak and goat hair, and women make heavy socks from camel and sheep hair.


The Tajik civil war destroyed thousands of lives and ruined any chance for national economic growth until the early 2000s. Social problems are substantial, and the human rights situation has deteriorated greatly because Pamiris are suspected of being criminals in organized gangs. The Tajik and Russian military forces engaged in the fighting have dealt with many Pamiri communities rather severely. These communities are very loyal to one another, so they are very reluctant to report on the whereabouts or doings of any of their members. Civil rights became a casualty of war, and their full restoration requires a prolonged period of peace and development; fortunately, the signs that this is happening gradually are encouraging.

Along with organized criminal activities and links to criminal groups in Russia, social problems involving drugs and alcoholism have occurred, but this is no indictment of Pamiri society as a whole. The vast majority of the Pamiri population is poor and in desperate need of international food relief, medicines, jobs, and reconstruction. This area was always one of the most impoverished in the USSR, and the outlook for the near future shows that improvements will be incremental but significant. It will be possible that the survival of these remote peoples and languages has some chance, but most depends on the decisions that young people make, either staying in Badakhshan or moving to other parts of Central Asia and Russia.

Tajikistan has experienced a labor migration that includes 10-12% of its overall population, and the Pamiris must be included in these ranks. While people have enjoyed international aid, cultural preservation projects, and development work, they still are impoverished, and this is why many young men and women have taken to traveling to Russia in the main, to try to make better lives for themselves. Many Tajik citizens are now settling permanently in Russia, too.


Pamiri people show few gendered differences from many other Central Asian peoples, although men and women tend to keep less of a separation from one another in social affairs, than say, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen. Owing to the nature of Pamiri dwellings, men and women actually share the same living and sleeping spaces. Their sex segregation in this sense is rather exceptional compared to most other Central Asian peoples.

Culturally, men and women have a division of labor around the home, with women being responsible for most domestic chores, as well as many of those dealing with agricultural work.

Pamiri girls are encouraged to get basic grammar schooling, but usually not much beyond this. Of course, it tends to be similar for boys.

As mentioned above, many Pamiris have joined the ranks of other Tajik labor migrants, but little accurate data seems to be available on just how many Pamiris work abroad, and what the overall effects have been on Pamiri linguistic, social, and economic life. This is an area that needs to be watched.


"Endangered Pamiris.", (May 2008).

Friedrich, Paul, and Norma Diamond, ed. Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Vol. VI, Russia and Eurasia/China. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1994.

Olson, James S., ed. An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Tolstov, S. P., ed. Narody Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana I (The Peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, Vol. I). Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk, 1962.

-by R. Zanca