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CULTURE AND RELIGION

 

 

The territory of present-day Tajikistan was part of the Iranian Empire, the religion of which was Zoroastrianism.

When the Iranian Sassanids were defeated by Umayyad Arab armies in 636, Islam was gradually spread throughout the Central Asian region. See Archaeology and History.

The religion of the vast majority of Tajikistan’s population today is Sunni Islam. In the Pamirs, however, a majority of the people profess the Ismaili faith (i.e. are followers of the Aga Khan). According to local tradition, the Pamiris were converted to Ismailism in the 11th century by the Persian poet, traveller and philosopher Nasir Khusraw. However, one of the foremost non-Ismaili authorities on Ismailism, W. Iwanow, of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, writing in 1948, expressed the opinion that "the present Shughnis, Wakhis and others were not yet settled there in Nasir's time. They came to that locality much later on". See "Nasir-I-Khusraw and Ismailism" on http://www.ismaili.net/Source/khusraw/nk2/8.html.

The website of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London contains much interesting information on the history of the Ismaili community. See, for example http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=105073.

One of the most important repositories of the culture of the Pamirs is the traditional Pamiri house, locally known as 'Chid' in the Shughni language. What to the untrained eye looks like a very basic - even primitive - structure, is, for the people who live in it, rich in religious and philosophical meaning. Tajik writers consider that it embodies elements of ancient Aryan and possibly Buddhist philosophy - some of which have since been assimilated into Pamiri traditions. The symbolism of specific structural features of the Pamiri house goes back over two and a half thousand years and its distinctive architectural elements are found in buildings in several other areas close to the Pamirs. See here for more detailed information on the symbolism of the Pamiri house.

Pamiri handicraft skills are being revived by a project of the Aga Khan Foundation, with support from the Christensen Fund and Aid to Artisans. See here.

Typical Pamiri handicrafts include: beautifully decorated skullcaps, surrounded by a woven band containing Zoroastrian symbols, decorative embroidered cloths (suzanis)

 

pamirs tajikistan handicrafts suzani pamirs tajikistan handicrafts suzani
Photos courtesy Robin Oldacre


and knitted socks and gloves in bright colours
 

pamirs handicrafts socks jurabi pamirs handicrafts socks jurabi pamirs handicrafts gloves

See http://thebootstrapproject.com/blog/view/102 for another interesting project aimed at revitalising the production of suzanis.

Old Pamiri jewellery can still be found, comprising primarily necklaces made of coral with silver decorations and rings with spinel stones (reportedly, the coral is found in the hills of the Alichur plain and is there because this whole area was raised from sea-level to its present height as the continents drifted and tectonic plates clashed).
 

pamirs handicrafts coral jewellery necklace pamirs handicrafts coral jewellery necklace
   
pamirs handicrafts coral jewellery necklace pamirs handicrafts coral jewellery necklace



There is a saying in Tajikistan that the people from Leninabad govern, those from Kulob fight, in Garm they pray – and the Pamiris dance. Certainly it is difficult to imagine life in Gorno-Badakhshan without the perpetual accompaniment of music and dancing. Every village has excellent musicians, young and old as well as expert dancers. Men and women dance together, although there is no contact. Women perform as solo singers and occasionally as accordion players.
 

pamirs dancing girl bhagoo bartang pamirs music instruments tanboor Afghan-rubob tor setor gejak rubob daf
Pamiri dancing is highly rhythmic and uses complex and elegant hand movements Typical instruments, shown above, are: from left to right tanboor, Afghan rubob, Pamiri rubob, tor, setor – above gejak (violin-type instrument) – in front Pamiri rubob lying on a daf (drum); the accordeon is also widely used

 

pamirs music musicians khedjez bartang

Musicians in Khedjez, Bartang valley

 

A traditional welcome to Pamiri villages is often performed on the daf (flat tambourine-type drum) by women in complex rhythmic patterns. These performances are mostly by older women, which suggests that the tradition may be in danger of dying out.

A "Roof of the World Festival" is organised annually in the Pamirs. A superb film of the 2009 edition by Matthieu and Mareile Paley can be found here. It includes much music and dancing as well as performances on the daf.

pamirs music women daf wedding khorog

Performance on dafs at a wedding in Khorog


More information on Pamiri musical instruments can be found on http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=106106.

The following website http://www.gildedserpent.com/cms/2009/09/30/robyntajikistan/ contains a fascinating account of a visit to the Bartang valley by Dr. Robyn Friend, director of the Institute of Persian Performing Arts, based in Los Angeles, to study Pamiri music and dancing. N.B. The Bartang valley is one of the few remaining places where genuine spontaneous Pamiri music and dance can still be experienced - get there before television becomes the main domestic leisure activity.

A very interesting doctoral thesis by Benjamin Koen at the University of Ohio (Devotional music and healing in Badakhshan, Tajikistan: preventive and curative practices) together with samples (wav files) of Pamiri music can be found on http://www.ohiolink.edu/etd/view.cgi?acc_num=osu1059673277
 

pamirs music musicians khedjez bartang pamirs music musician rebob khorog
Musicians in Khedjez, Bartang valley Man playing a rubob



Other information resources:


Pre-Islamic:
http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/culture/religion/religion.html

Islam and Ismailism:
http://www.akdn.org/about_imamat.asp
http://www.iis.ac.uk

Buddhism in Central Asia:
http://www.berzinarchives.com/e-books/historic_interaction_buddhist_
islamic/history_cultures_01.html


Zoroastrianism:
http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/Zorobar/Zorobar.html

http://www.zoroastrianism.com/

For Pamiri hats and other handicrafts:
http://www.textile-art.com/geb.html

For ancient and contemporary Tajik design:
http://www.arzhang.tajik.net/index.html

General
http://www.angelfire.com/sd/tajikistanupdate/culture.html
 


All text and photographs (c) Robert Middleton 2002


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