Pamiri boy, Ishkashim
Pamiri culture is a unique mix of ancient Zoroastrian beliefs and Ismailism, a Shiite branch of Islam. It began to form over two thousand years ago and has survived to our day thanks to the extreme isolation afforded by the formidable Pamir Mountains. In the past, Pamiri culture was prevalent in several mountain enclaves of Central Asia, but today it thrives almost exclusively in the towns and villages spread along the Pamir Highway.
The history of the Pamiri culture began when Indo-Iranian tribes migrated to the region more than two millennia ago, bringing the Zoroastrian religion and culture with them. This culture was further shaped by the extremely harsh conditions of life in the Pamirs which influenced everything from lifestyle and traditions to unique rituals and practices.
In the 8th century, Central Asia was invaded by Arab tribes who brought Islam to the land. Unlike the Tajiks and most other regional ethnic groups, the Pamiri people voluntarily accepted the beliefs of the Shiite branch of Islam, for Ismailism arrived not through the army but through preachers.
The Ismailis have their own spiritual leader called the Aga Khan, and today the 49th Imam, Karim Aga Khan IV, is highly revered in the Pamirs. The spiritual leader in turn provides ongoing social assistance to the Pamiri people, most notably through the construction of educational institutions.
The numerous and diverse languages of the Pamiri peoples form one of the bedrocks of Pamiri culture. This intricate system of languages is divided not only into the Northern Pamir and Southern Pamir language groups but also into various dialects, many of which were once common in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and even China. Some of them are presumed dead, while many others are in danger of becoming so. Depending on the region, either the Latin, Cyrillic or Arabic script is used.
Northern Pamir languages include:
Bartang, an endangered language still spoken in the Bartang Valley.
Vanj, a dead language spoken until the end of the 19th century in the Vanj River Valley.
Darvaza, a dead language spoken until the 15th century whose existence is known from historical chronicles.
Rushan, still spoken along the banks of the Panj River on both the Tajik and Afghan sides. Rushan is in danger of extinction, as no more than ten thousand people speak it currently.
Sarykol, an endangered language which can still be heard in Murghab, although most of its speakers live in Tashkurgan, China.
Khufsky, a language from the village of Khuf and one of the dialects of the Rushan language.
Shungan, the main language of Gorno-Badakhshan which is spoken by more than 100 thousand people and is taught in local schools along with Tajik.
Yazgulyam, spoken in the Yazgulyam River Valley in the western Pamirs.
Southern Pamiri languages include:
Wakhi, spoken by approximately 75 thousand Wakhi people in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even China. Several famous books have been published in the Wakhi language.
Ishkashim, an endangered language spoken by no more than 800 people from several villages near Ishkashim, Tajikistan.
Yidga, an endangered language spoken by the Yigda people of Pakistan.
Munjan, an endangered language spoken by the inhabitants of the Munjan River Valley in Afghanistan. Some linguists believe that it is the same language as Yidga.
Sanglich, an endangered dialect of Ishkashim spoken by no more than 1500 people who live along the Afghanistan border in Tajikistan.
Pamiri Chid House
A special symbol of Pamiri culture is a traditional house called a chid, whose layout has not changed for over a thousand years. Seeped in religious significance, the chid could almost be mistaken for a temple if not for the household items strewn about. The interior is filled with sacred symbols which were once associated with Zoroastrianism but are now tied to Muslim saints, and many customs are carried out in designated parts of the house.
The walls of the chid are made from stone and clay and the roof and support pillars of wood. The center of the house traditionally had a drainage pit which would be covered with a large stone when not in use. Along the perimeter of the house were various living areas, including a kitchen, corner for guests, children’s space and male and female quarters.
The chid house is always supported by five pillars, each of which has its own name and religious symbolism. Pillar of the Prophet Muhammad is the central column, which in pre-Islamic times bore the name of the Zoroastrian god Saraosha. This pillar symbolizes the eternity and inviolability of the world, and its importance can be seen by the fact that the cradle of newborn boys is always installed nearby.
Prophet Ali's pillar, which was previously dedicated to the god Mithra, stands for friendship, love and fidelity. Newlyweds are seated at this pillar to ensure that their new family will be happy.
Pillar of Bibi Fatima is dedicated to the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali. Before the arrival of Islam, it was named after the goddess of water, Ardvisura Anahita. This third pillar symbolizes cleanliness and abundance in the home, and traditionally brides prepare for their wedding near this column.
Pillars of Hasan and Hussein, sons of the Prophet Ali, are located at the entrance to the chid and are connected by a crossbar. In Zoroastrian times, the pillars were named after the gods Zamed and Ozar. As symbols of the earth and sun, they are at the center of all religious rituals performed at the home.
The roof of the Pamiri house, called a chorkhona, is a four-step vault with a square window in the center from which the home’s inhabitants could determine the time of day. The four levels of the vault symbolize earth, wind, fire and water, while the window provides a connection with the cosmos and with God.
Although many aspects of Pamiri culture are gradually being lost due to outside influence, the preservation of traditions encapsulated in the chid house are helping to perpetuate this ancient mountain culture.