Walking with the wakhi

Published: October 21, 2012
SHARES
Email
     It is a stop on the Silk Route, a bridge between nations and a meeting point of great mountain ranges. But what makes the Wakhan Corridor truly intriguing is its people.

It is a stop on the Silk Route, a bridge between nations and a meeting point of great mountain ranges. But what makes the Wakhan Corridor truly intriguing is its people.

     It is a stop on the Silk Route, a bridge between nations and a meeting point of great mountain ranges. But what makes the Wakhan Corridor truly intriguing is its people.      It is a stop on the Silk Route, a bridge between nations and a meeting point of great mountain ranges. But what makes the Wakhan Corridor truly intriguing is its people.      It is a stop on the Silk Route, a bridge between nations and a meeting point of great mountain ranges. But what makes the Wakhan Corridor truly intriguing is its people.

I am proud that I am Wakhi, I was Shepherd, I am Shepherd

I am the language of absolute faith, I was Shepherd, I am Shepherd

                          – Nazir Ahmad Bulbul

In a far-flung corner of the world, where the tides of the Tethys Sea once ebbed and flowed, the Himalayas, Pamir and Karakoram mountains now jostle each other for elbow room: tilting, sliding, slipping and grinding along the vague borders of Afghanistan, China, India, Tajikistan and Pakistan. At the junction, known as the Pamir Knot, each giant rises imperceptibly, inch by inch every year, locked in perpetual shoulder-to-shoulder contact.

It was here that the famous Wakhan Corridor was created as a buffer zone between imperial Russia and Britain during the geopolitical Great Game of the 19th century. This narrow, horizontal strip of land, which has been a part of Afghanistan since the colonial times, was once part of the fabled Silk Road connecting China with Europe. It was the harsh terrain of this route that adventurers such as Francis Younghusband, Lord Curzon and John Wood dared to tread, much in the same way as conquerors and explorers such as Alexander the Great, Marco Polo and Genghis Khan did before them.

The Wakhan Corridor, separating present-day Pakistan from Tajikistan and connecting western China with mainland Afghanistan, is roughly 220 kilometres long and between 16 and 64 kilometres wide. The western part, which includes the Panj River Valley, is called Lower Wakhan, while the valleys of the Wakhan and Pamir River and their tributaries make up Upper Wakhan in the east. If you head further east in Upper Wakhan, you will see the magnificent spectacle of three great mountain ranges meeting at the Pamir Knot, or Bam-e-Duniya (Roof of the World) as it is popularly known. Beyond that lies the green valley of Little Pamir, and to its northwest the Great Pamir.

Among these splendid mountain valleys and rivers, a people called the Wakhi (derived from an old name of the Oxus or Amu Darya) have lived for centuries. A few months back, I travelled to the Wakhan Corridor and took the opportunity to explore Wakhi culture up close. The people call themselves Wakhik or Kheek, and are found in the Xianjang province of China, southeast Tajikistan, and Pakistan where they predominate in northern Chitral, Ishkoman Valley and Gojal, Hunza. They speak the Wakhi language, which appears to be a distant dialect of Persian, and continues to be vibrant in the communities where it is still used.

It is rather interesting how the Wakhis, who are known to be content with their meagre resources and simple lifestyles as well as their fierce independence and pride, came to settle in their present abodes in Pakistan. The first of the Wakhi refugees are known to have crossed into Chitral in 1886 for reasons not yet known. However, the next major migration occurred after 1919 probably due to famine and the Bolshevik takeover of Central Asia. When the rulers of Afghanistan made it compulsory for Wakhis to enlist in the army in 1937, a third wave of migration followed.

Almost all the Wakhi people, who are estimated to be 100,000 worldwide, belong to the Shia Ismaili faith. Most of them practice agriculture (called dehqani in the local dialect), much of which is subsistence farming, while a very small number of Wakhis engage in animal husbandry (maldari). The Wakhi cultivate crops in spring and move up the valley in summer to higher pastures, generally living a peaceful life, tending their goats, sheep and yaks. They suffer from a host of problems, including poverty, illiteracy, inadequate healthcare and near-perpetual food insecurity. And in recent years, there has been an addition to this list of afflictions as more and more Wakhi turn to opium to help them get through the long and harsh winter. Many of them end up as addicts.

The Wakhis have no concept of villages. Instead, they reside in hamlets called qarya and refer to the local community as the qoum. They live as a khunkhalq (household) in residential structures called wakhi khanas that are scattered across the narrow valleys in Wakhan. Nonetheless, they remain a closely-knit community, leaning on each other in times of need.

A wakhi khana is a maze-like structure, erected in an imperfect rectangular shape from mud and stones, covered with a flat roofing of mud and grass, and supported by several vertical pillars and horizontal rafters, beams and tree trunks. The main residential quarters in the wakhi khana are almost the same. The main living room is rectangular with high clay ledges built on all four sides. The highest ledge (about one metre high) is located opposite the entrance (pagah in Wakhi language) and contains the family hearth. This raised platform is used for cooking and as a work station by the women.

Other platforms (about 50 centimetres high) are partitioned by mud walls with their openings facing the centre of the house. These small platforms are also used for sleeping by the residents of the house, and are called dukan.

With wood being a relatively scarce resource, very little of it is used as fuel for cooking or heating. Whatever wood can be procured is instead used in construction, while animal dung and dried bushes are used as fuel. All cooking is done on the clay hearth, which has a narrow vertical opening along its side facing the centre of the room. Heat from the narrow opening radiates out to warm the rest of the well-insulated house. There is a small ventilation outlet right above the hearth, with a lid-like attachment that can be closed during the night and in case of rain.

So heavily do the Wakhis consume opium that the strange smell of the drug hangs in the air at all times in the wakhi khana. During my visit, a Wakhi porter by the name of Juma Khan demonstrated to me how they use opium. He mixed the opium paste with Disprin (or any other pain killing drug) and then heated it on a lamp with a pipe attached to it. As the paste heats up, fumes rising from it are inhaled for a supposedly calming and warming effect. I, for one, got a severe headache. Even his ferocious looking pet dog seemed to doze off thanks to the fumes.

A wakhi khana usually houses a joint family, and the head of the household is called kalani khana. Male members are responsible for farming and weaving woolen cloths, while women look after the house and cattle.

And like the simple lifestyles of its people, Wakhi cuisine is not elaborate either: it includes salty tea made from yak milk and butter and taken with a simple baked bread, malida (a dessert made from bread crumbs), gral (meat with sesame seeds), shulbuth (creamy chicken with apricot oil) and moch (chicken barley soup). They use dairy products such as yoghurt and cream made from yak’s milk. This yoghSurt is unlike any you have tasted before; it’s tangy and rich in vitamin C, tingles the tongue, but is very refreshing and addictive.

The plos, a traditional black and white floor rug that is weaved using the tail hair of yaks and sheep wool, caps and crochet work are some of the handicrafts they make. They also make beautiful caps and do crochet work. I still have the colourful woven gloves and the cap gifted to me by one of my hosts.

The wild terrain of Wakhan leaves them with little opportunity for outdoor activity. But this doesn’t mean they are a sedentary people; they play Buzkashi (‘pulling of the goat’) and yak polo. Children love to play tug of war sitting on donkeys; this trains for yak polo and Buzkashi by helping them gain a steady footing and maintaining body balance.

My porter, the little Rehmat, told me that every year, from July 17-19, the Wakhis bring in their yaks, decorated with cowrie shells and colourful crotchet work, to Baroghil for a polo contest. The contest, known as Jashn-e-Baroghil, is one of the most famous cultural events of the Wakhi community in the Pamir region of northern Pakistan. And watching them mount yaks with mallet in hand to play polo, you realise how strong and sturdy these people are.

They are a nature-loving community and very fond of music; the Rubab, Dadang, Qufuz, Duf and Surnai are used to strike melodious tunes that transport the listener into the sweetness of a far-off enchanted land, where every house is a little house on the prairie and all you can see are silver crusted mountains against the blue sky and the lush green meadows where the yak roam free.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 21st, 2012.

Like Express Tribune Magazine on Facebook and follow at @ETribuneMag

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (30)

  • Syed Taimoor Ali Shah
    Oct 21, 2012 - 10:07PM

    Well researched and written . I am proud of you . May Allah bless you

    Recommend

  • Rahat Latif
    Oct 21, 2012 - 10:58PM

    A rare info nicely penned with an accurate peep into the history. A gem of a write-upRecommend

  • Rahat Latif
    Oct 21, 2012 - 11:09PM

    A rare info, nicely penned with an accurate peep into the wonderful history of Wakhan.

    Recommend

  • Beelam Ramzan
    Oct 22, 2012 - 12:04AM

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Before reading it all i know was the name “wakhan corridor” and that it makes our border with Afghanistan . Rest of the info is new for me and i think more and more such articles should get published so that we get to know about this ancient and rich culture. Keep up the good work Daniyah jee!

    Recommend

  • shamsheer shah
    Oct 22, 2012 - 10:28AM

    Sister you have well portrayed our tradition and culture yes we are proud that we are wakhi. Wakhi is our identity. Now world will know about us. I thank you for telling the world about us . We have so many problems and one of that is our diminishing identity. According to UN report 16 languages are in danger of being finished in Pakistan and Wakhi is one of them. Sister do write about us more . We are thankful to you . Jeo Sister

    Recommend

  • khan
    Oct 22, 2012 - 12:08PM

    its saddening to hear that the great people have indulged in opium use to fight extremely harsh weather

    Recommend

  • Syeda Ayesha Hussain Shah
    Oct 22, 2012 - 12:53PM

    Thumbs Up ! In present age and time not many people have interest in Anthropology . Its a wonderful surprise that you have so much interest in it. You always amaze me !

    Recommend

  • Dr Saima Shah
    Oct 22, 2012 - 10:17PM

    I am so proud of you my lovely dear sister. I have always thought I had soul of a gypsy with a desire to visit far away mysterious lands and unfold the untold stories, hear unsaid songs and see unseen scenery. But you my dear one had actually got the shoes of gypsies which literally take you to lands we only dream of. I know you must be happy and i thank God for blessing you with this moment. It is the first drop and I am sure it will be followed by a heavy shower. A beautifully drafted article. Opening our minds to the existence of few fellow being who are so close and still live so far away. A very informative piece of writing. Congrats to you and your team. My prayers and wishes for you and waiting to read more of your chronicles. Please keep doing the good work!Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 22, 2012 - 10:24PM

    @Syed Taimoor Ali Shah:

    Thank you Bhai for liking my effort .

    Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 22, 2012 - 10:47PM

    @Rahat Latif:

    The trek wouldn’t had been possible without your support . Thank you so much for not only appreciating but also encouraging me to write .

    Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 22, 2012 - 11:03PM

    @Beelam Ramzan:
    Thanks . Wakhan Corridor and in my case Along the Wakhan Corridor area is sheer heaven. I was totally mesmerised by the beauty and simplicity of life. To be surrounded by the magnificent Pamir Mountains who had seen so many cycles of history was in itself very intriguing.

    Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 22, 2012 - 11:20PM

    @shamsheer shah:
    Thanks bro and definitely will write more God Bless you !

    Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 22, 2012 - 11:23PM

    @Syed Taimoor Ali Shah:
    Thank you dear brother :)

    Recommend

  • Dr Saima Shah
    Oct 22, 2012 - 11:34PM

    I am so proud of you my lovely dear sister. I have always thought I had soul of a gypsy with a desire to visit far away mysterious lands and unfold the untold stories, hear unsaid songs and see unseen scenery. But you my dear are one actually owning the shoes of gypsies which literally take you to lands we only dream of. I know you must be happy and i thank God for blessing you with this moment. It is the first drop and I am sure it will be followed by a heavy shower. A beautifully drafted article. Opening our minds to the existence of few fellow being who are so close and still live so far away. A very informative piece of writing. Congrats to you and your team. keep doing the good work!

    Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 22, 2012 - 11:39PM

    @Syeda Ayesha Hussain Shah:

    I had been windswept and sunburned and dust permeated every pore. But I felt elated. It had been a phenomenal journey.

    Recommend

  • Adil Rafi Siddiqui
    Oct 22, 2012 - 11:44PM

    It’s a lovely piece of writing.
    I enjoyed the beautiful expressions like ‘mountains jostling for elbow room’.
    Geography of an area has never been so beautifully explained in such novel literary way. Quite well researched and rich on substance!
    The mind of the writer seems so fertile, it has learnt well to spread its wings and fly, leaving fears down and behind.
    Congrats!

    Recommend

  • Irfan
    Oct 23, 2012 - 12:07AM

    Interesting & Informative…..i have never read about this community from anywhere else…this is very informative and well written article…keep it up

    Recommend

  • Irfan
    Oct 23, 2012 - 12:11AM

    very interesting and informative article and very well written too, i have never read about this community before…keep it up

    Recommend

  • Daniyah Sehar
    Oct 23, 2012 - 12:30AM

    All the photographs published with this article were taken by me . They forgot to mention it .

    Recommend

  • Oct 24, 2012 - 8:22AM

    Throughout the ride, I was expecting something on the origins and history of the Wakhi people (from where they originally migrated to this corridor? or they’ve always been there?) for I have not been able to solve the mystery or rather convince myself yet but nonetheless, a well-researched and very well written article. Keep it up !

    Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 24, 2012 - 11:31AM

    @wajahat khan:

    Its such detailed subject and it was not possible to include each and everything in it. There are many other facts which require a separate writing . However for your interest Wakhi are descendents of the East –Iranian tribes also known as Saka-Scythians.While Anthropologically, they belong to the Pamir-Fergana race. . Their culture can be dated to c.2200-1700 and is sometimes associated with the arrival of the Indo-Iranians. Their presence in the corridor was also noted by Marco Polo who visited Wakhan in 1274. And their language which is also called Wakhi is the most ancient form of Persian .

    Recommend

  • DaniyahSehar
    Oct 24, 2012 - 11:40AM

    @Adil Rafi Siddiqui:

    Thank you so much for liking my article . Your comment is by the way very literary too :) ” it has learnt well to spread its wings and fly, leaving fears down and behind.”

    Recommend

  • Nakai,SZH
    Oct 25, 2012 - 12:00PM

    Did the author go to Wakhan,Afghanistan? If yes then what route was adopted? I live in China and have travelled extensively to parts of Xinjiang autonomous region bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan & Tajikistan. I would recommend the author visit this side of the roof of the world too.

    Recommend

  • Saleem Khan
    Oct 30, 2012 - 8:25PM

    Well written about Wakhi tradition and life style of Wakhi in Broghil Chitral, This is a segment of Wakhi population that is deprived of all basic amenities. You should have researched about the Wakhi of Tajikistan, Gojal Hunza and Afghanistan before generalizing their progress and life style. The Wakhi People are the most educated in Gojal and Tajikistan in contrast to the place you visited. There is no concept of opium in these areas. The verses of poetry from Bulbul is not translated in its true spirit as he says” I am proud to be a shepherd in the past but now I am the shepherd of Knowledge and education “The young generation is busy with their education and professional life style this is not only the Wakhi who are depending on cattle farming and agriculture but the whole region of Gilgit Baltistan has the same means of livelihood. Thanks for your interest in Wakhi people and language.

    Recommend

  • Fayaz
    Nov 3, 2012 - 4:50AM

    I don’t understand how India is near Wakhan corridor as stated by author. Otherwise an interesting article.

    Recommend

  • Alam Baig
    Nov 5, 2012 - 9:54PM

    The author does not indicate if she actually went into Afghanistan Wakhan (true corridor) or merely a trip up to Boroghil (Pakistan) from Mastuj / Chitral (Pakistan).

    Boroghil is the village of highest opium addition amongst the Wakhi. Although the opium addiction rate used to be higher in the Afghanistan Wakhan corridor 10-20 years ago, it has subsided substancially since Tashi Boi (leader of Sarhad) and Shah Ismael Khan (Khalifa of Kali Panja) put a fatweh on opium usage, and blocked the Tajik Sunni mujahadeen from selling it to the Wakhi people (Wakhi do not grow opium).

    Please let the readers know what your exact ‘trekking’ route was and if you actually went into Afghanistan Wakhan?

    Recommend

  • Karim Gojali
    Nov 6, 2012 - 9:39AM

    The area that author has discussed is a NO Go area for the women and as i perceive from the above comments author is a woman . So how on earth a woman went to such a restricted area ? Was it the imaginative flight of the author . if it was then really good

    Recommend

  • Daniyah Sehar
    Nov 6, 2012 - 10:40AM

    @Fayaz:
    I am really curious to know as in where did i state that India is near Wakhan Corridor. I request you to read it again as it seems you misunderstood it. In the beginning I have only described the geographical location of the Greater Ranges.These Greater Ranges stretch across many countries which include Pakistan, India, China, Afghanistan, Bhutan , Nepal and Central Asian states ( Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Beginning with The Himalayas it is a mountain range in Asia, separating the Indian subcontinent ( a synonym used by geographers) from the Tibetan Plateau. By extension, it is also the name of the massive mountain system which includes the Himalaya proper, the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and a host of minor ranges extending from the Pamir Knot.

    The Karakoram is bounded on the northeast by the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, and on the north by the Wakhan Corridor and the Pamir Mountains. Just to the west of the northwest end of the Karakoram lies the Hindu Raj range, beyond which is the Hindu Kush range.

    The Hindu Kush is a mountain range in Afghanistan as well as in the North-West Frontier Province and Northern Areas of Pakistan. It is the westernmost extension of the Pamir Mountains, the Karakoram Range, and the Himalayas. And last but not the least The Pamir Mountains are located in Central Asia and are formed by the junction or knot of the Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush ranges.
    The Pamir region is centred in the Tajikistani region of Gorno-Badakhshan. Parts of the Pamir also lie in the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. South of Gorno-Badakhshan, the Wakhan Corridor runs through the Pamir region, which also includes the northern extremes of the North-West Frontier Province and the northern extremes of the Northern Areas of Pakistan.

    I hope my detail reply have lessened your confusion. Regards

    Recommend

  • Dec 8, 2012 - 12:17AM

    Respected Sister : You had tried to attempt a good article on Wakhi’s , but i think you should have clearly mentioned the Wakhi’s of which area you are talking about. There are similarities in language & cultural activities among the wakhi’s living in all countries … but your following words does not represent Wakhi’s world wide..

    “They suffer from a host of problems, including poverty, illiteracy, inadequate healthcare and near-perpetual food insecurity. And in recent years, there has been an addition to this list of afflictions as more and more Wakhi turn to opium to help them get through the long and harsh winter. Many of them end up as addicts.”

    I really appreciate your interest in Wakhi’s, Lets hope for a better well researched article from you. Have a very good time….. Good Luck

    Recommend

More in Magazine