One of the most important repositories of the culture of the Pamirs is the
traditional Pamiri house, locally known as 'Chid'. It embodies elements of
ancient Aryan philosophy - including Zoroastrianism -
many of which have since been assimilated into Pamiri Ismaili tradition.
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.
The symbolism of specific structural features of the Pamiri house goes back
over two and a half thousand years.
The house itself is the symbol of the universe and also the place of private
prayer and worship for Pamiri Ismailis - the Ismailis have as yet no mosques
in Gorno-Badakhshan. The layout of the house is as described below,
although some houses have a mirror-image of what is described.
The Pamiri house is normally built of stones and plaster, with a flat roof
on which hay, apricots, mulberries or dung for fuel can be dried.
House in Andarob
(Ishkashim district). The skylight can be seen on the roof.
most houses comprise a small internal lobby - frequently used for sleeping
or eating in the summer months - and a large square room, entered through a
door in the lobby. Beyond this door is the main room, entered through a small
corridor (with space to the left and right for washing and storage); the
corridor leads into an open area comprising the following standard elements:
a) Three living areas ('Sang', or 'Sandj'), symbolising the three kingdoms of
nature: animal, mineral and vegetable: the floor ('Chalak'), normally of earth,
where the fire (or more frequently today, a cast-iron oven) burns, corresponds
to the inanimate world; the first raised dais ('Loshnukh') corresponds to the
vegetative soul; and the third floor level ('Barnekh') to the cognitive soul.
b) Five supporting pillars, symbolising the five members of Ali's family: Mohamed,
his son-in-law Ali, Mohamed's daughter Bibi Fatima (Ali's wife), and their sons
Hassan and Hussein - it has been suggested that in Zoroastrian symbolism the pillars
may have corresponded to the major
gods/goddesses ('Yazata' or 'Eyzads'): Surush, Mehr, Anahita, Zamyod and Ozar. The
number five also reflects the five principles of Islam.
1. The pillar symbolising the prophet Mohamed ('Khasitan-Shokhsutun'), to the
left of the entrance, was traditionally made of juniper - a sacred tree and
symbol of purity, the smoke of which has healing and disinfectant properties;
today, there are no longer enough junipers of adequate size for making this
pillar in newly constructed houses. The child's cradle will normally be put
close to this pillar.
'Ali' pillar in the
museum in Langar in the Wakhan, showing Zoroastrian sun symbols
2. The pillar symbolising Ali ('Vouznek-sitan') is situated diagonally left
from the entrance. In Zoroastrian tradition, this pillar corresponded to the
angel of love ('Mehr'). At weddings, the bridal couple will be seated at this
pillar, in the hope of being blessed with good fortune and happiness ('Barakat').
Tradition requires that - in addition to her own father and father-in-law -
the bride must have a third father, the person who, at this pillar, ritually
uncovers her face from seven veils during the wedding ceremony.
3. Diagonally right from the entrance is the pillar symbolising Bibi Fatima
('Kitsor-sitan'). It is the place of honour for the bride at the engagement
ceremony and her engagement dress corresponds to the traditional perception
of Fatima (and the goddess Anahita): red dress, bracelets, rings, ear-rings.
In Zoroastrian tradition, this column corresponded to the angel who guarded
the fire. The stove or family fire is closest to this pillar and it serves
also for fire-related rituals.
Interior of a Pamiri house in Roshtkala: in the foreground the 'Fatima' pillar,
then - background clockwise - the pillars symbolising 'Ali', 'Mohamed' and
4/5. The fourth (Hassan) and fifth (Hussein) pillars are joined to show
the closeness of the relationship between Hassan and Hussein. The crossbar
is carved with Zoroastrian symbols, frequently including a central depiction
of the sun, and is sometimes decorated with the horns of a Marco Polo sheep
'Hassan' and 'Hussein' pillars in the museum in Langar (Ishkashim district)
'Hassan' and 'Hussein' pillars in the Sufi Muboraki Vokhoni museum in Yamg
The 'Hassan' pillar ('Poiga-sitan') is the place of family and private
prayer and is considered the place of honour for the religious leader ('Khalifa')
or a chief guest. The chief guest will normally leave a small symbolic space
next to him/her against the pillar showing that it is reserved for the Khalifa.
In Zoroastrian tradition, this pillar may have personified 'Zamyod'.
Mourning ceremonies - with a ritual lamp or candle lit for three days - are
carried out close to the 'Hussein' pillar ('Barnekh-sitan'). In Zoroastrian
tradition this pillar could have been associated with 'Ozar'.
c) Two main transversal supporting beams - one across the 'Mohamed' and 'Ali'
pillars, one across the 'Fatima' and 'Hassan/Hussein' pillars. For Pamiri Ismailis,
the first symbolises universal reason ('Akli kul'), and the second the universal soul
('Nafsi kul'). In Zoroastrianism, the two beams corresponded to the material and
d) Several groups of beams. The total number varies according to
the size of the house and local interpretation of Pamiri tradition. There
are several different theories concerning their number. For some the total
must be the number of Ismaili Imams (49), for others they are equal to the
number of Ali's Army, when they were killed in Dashti Karbalo (72). In most
cases, there are thirteen intermediary beams: six - over the fireplace -
representing Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohamed, the six prophets
revered in Islam (in Zoroastrianism the number six could relate to East, West, North, South, Upper, Lower);
and seven representing the first seven Imams. In Zoroastrianism the number seven relates to the main
heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon, Saturn,
Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the seven principal Amesha Spentas or 'Holy Immortals').
The Ismailis are 'sevener' Muslims: for them Ismail was the seventh Imam.
Other beams on the ceiling may include groups of eighteen or seventeen beams
corresponding to elements of Ismaili cosmogony.
e) A raised platform (approx. 50cm) around the inside walls of the house.
Underneath the platform is a storage area, but - prior to the widespread
introduction of metal stoves, which now stand in the open floor area - it would
have incorporated the family hearth, as in the photo below.
Fireplace in the Sufi Muboraki Vokhoni museum in Yamg (Ishkashim district)
f) A skylight, the design of which incorporates four concentric square box-type
layers known as 'chorkhona' ('four houses') representing, respectively, the four Zoroastrian elements earth,
water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, touched first by the sun's rays.
Skylight in the Sufi Muboraki Vokhoni museum in Yamg (Ishkashim district)
Skylight in an old Pamiri house in Roshorv (Bartang Valley)
Skylight in the museum at Langar (Ishkashim district)
Other decorative elements in a Pamiri house - in addition to the carved Zoroastrian
symbols - frequently include a combination of red and white, symbolising respectively
(in both Zoroastrianism and local Ismaili belief):
· Red: the sun, blood - the source and essence of life - and fire and flame -
the first thing created by God;
· White: light, milk - the source of human well-being.
Traditional Pamiri dress also incorporates the colours red and white.
At the Persian New Year ('Navrouz'), a willow wreath (in the form of a
circle containing a cross) is dipped in flour and used to draw figures
and designs on the walls and columns of the main room. Stripped willow
twigs are bound together (to resemble a vegetable stalk) and placed
between the beams as a token of abundant crops in the new year.
For the people of the Pamirs, willow is the symbol
of new life, because in spring it is the first tree that "wakes up" after
a long sleep. It plays a role in wedding ceremonies, when a willow twig is
used to lift the bride's veil and when an arrow made of willow is
shot through the skylight. In old times when a husband wanted to divorce
his wife, he took a stick of willow and broke it above her head.
At burials, a willow stick is used to measure the length of the
body and determine the size of the grave to be dug.