Introduction to Dardistan

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Artem Zurabovich & Sviatoslav Kaverin

(The writers are young Russian researchers who take keen interest in the history, languages, music and handicrafts of highlanders in the Pamir-Hindukush area.)

Dards are a group of peoples who speak languages that belong to Dardic branch of Indo-Iranian languages. They live in a territory between Kabul, Ladakh, Chitral and Southern Kashmir – within borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The term “Dard” was brought from Sanskrit texts and from “History” by Herodotus. British ethnographer Gottlieb William Leitner wasn’t the first to use the names “Dard” and “Dardistan”, but he established them as scientific terms in a number of writings including his book “Dardistan, 1866, 1886 and 1893” which concluded his experience of study of hill tribes to the west of Himalayas. He writes: “The road, such as it is, constantly crosses and re-crosses the Indus by rafts, and at the Lahtar river is reached the boundary between the true Kohistan and the Dard country, which is there called Shinaki, because it is inhabited by the ruling Shina race”.

In the narrowest meaning “Dardistan” was the country ruled by Shina people – thus called Shinaki. Shina of particular division were calling themselves “Dardu”, while neighbours were applying this name to another division, too. G. E. Clark clarifies history of the term and evolution of theories regarding origin of Dards in review of colonial ethnographic literature entitled “Who were the Dards?” His study also features interesting thoughts on construction of nations. Other peoples like Gujjar and Pashtun prefer to use the term “Kohistani” – mountain dweller – for their Dardic neighbours. Also it’s applied to some Dardic groups by linguists.

In the article “Dardic and Kâfir Languages” Georg Morgenstierne makes it clear: “Dardic is simply a convenient term to denote a bundle of aberrant Indo-Aryan hill languages, which in their relative isolation, accented by the invasion of Pathan tribes, have been in varying degrees sheltered against the expanding influences of Indo-Aryan Midland (Madhyadesh) innovations, being left free to develop on their own” (The Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition, Vol. 2. Leiden, 1961, pp. 138-139).

Richard Strand defines linguistic position of the Indo-Âryan Languages: “Within the Indo-European linguistic family the Indo-Âryan languages constitute the major sub-group of the Indo-Iranian (Âryan) group, alongside the Iranian and Nuristâni sub-groups. <…>Recent and current archaeological research substantiates that around the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. equestrian tribesmen <…> spread south over the Caucasus from their homeland between the Black and Caspian Seas, to engulf much of the Middle East from Syria to the Iranian Plateau. As the region desiccated, these Indo-Âryas spread east, via Fârs and Seistân into Baluchistân and Sindh toward the south and into Margiana and Bactria toward the north. Via a central route some Indo-Âryas followed the Helmand basin and crossed the watershed into the Kâbul River basin, reaching Swat as early as 1800 B.C. <…> By the end of the second millennium B.C. the northern Indo-Âryas of Margiana and Bactria were overwhelmed by Âryas of the Irânian branch <…> The modern Indo-Âryan speakers of the region <…> are the westernmost surviving Indo-Âryan communities. They derive from the earliest waves of Indo-Âryas who settled the alluvial flatlands of the Kâbul River basin. <…> The common linguistic heritage of the region’s Indo-Âryan languages descends from the Old Indo-Âryan speech of the early Indo-Âryas. In time their language differentiated into clusters of regional dialects along the major tributaries of the Kâbul and further, up the Indus. <…> During the past millennium, the region’s ancient lowland Indo-Âryan tongues have been overwhelmed by the Pashto of invading Afghâns, while the Indo-Âryan languages of the highlands have survived. The Afghân expansion into Dir and Swat in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. forced the speakers of the today’s so called Kohistâni languages into their present communities in the highlands of Dir, Swat, and Indus Kohistâns. Pashto continues to displace Indo-Âryan and Nuristâni speeches in the bottom lands of the Laghmân, Kâbul, and Indus Basins. The displacement process derives largely from marriage alliances that indigenous men form with Pashto speakers. <…> Children grow up speaking Pashto as their primary (mother) language” (, 2001. “Indo-Âryan-Speaking Peoples of the Hindu-Kush Region”).

Dardic peoples don’t use any common name for the whole group. Torwali and Gawri people in Swat valley are traditionally using these specific names for self-identification, others may lack it historically. Shina-speaking people are divided into subgroups: Shin, Yeshkun, Rono and various “unclean” groups like Dom and others. They certainly descend from non-related population, as well as other Dardic peoples do – as peoples of the world in general, who are usually united by common language while ancestry varies. Members of Shina people use primarily name of the caste, and secondarily the name of the area (Gilgiti, Astori etc). Nowadays the name of the language, Shina, is accepted by the whole ethnic group.

Pashai people of Eastern Afghanistan prefer the names of their subgroups. In modern times the majority accepts the name, but some communities don’t. For example, Nangarach area has been marked as Pashai-speaking by linguists, but its people define themselves as “Nuristani” in ‘tazkira’, though they don’t speak a language of Nuristani branch. Some small ethnic groups use ethnonyms derived from the names of villages for example Gřangali of Gřangal, Shumashti of Shumasht.

Excluding Kashmiri people, who were converted to Hinduism and Indianized long time ago, Dardic peoples were keeping their folk beliefs up to recent times. Most of them were converted to other religions during last 500 years. Together with ancestors of Nuristani peoples, Dardic tribesmen were known in the Muslim world as “Kafirs of Hindu-Kush” until adoption of Islam, after which they were getting labels such as Jadidi, Sheikh and Nimcha. The whole area was known as Kafiristan, Bolor, Yaghistan, Kohistan. However, these names didn’t refer to the same territory, and borders were shifting by time).

A map of Peristan area, 1680, featured in the publications of  Alberto M. and Augusto S. Cacopardo (clickable)

Only two Dardic ethnic groups practice their traditional religion in the twenty-first century: Kalasha of Chitral and Brokpa of Ladakh. Mehtars of Chitral were tolerant to non-Muslims, so Kalasha avoided forced conversion. Brokpa is Tibetan name for Minaro subgroup of Shina people which migrated into Ladakh several centuries ago. They still practice tribal religion along with Buddhism which is tolerant to folk beliefs and integrates local deities and spirits easily.

Pre-Islamic and Pre-Buddhist beliefs of Dardic peoples were diverse. We have accurate data only about the religious systems of Shina and Kalasha peoples. The other could be reconstructed only with the help of indirect data or poor evidences in textual sources. However, some researchers try so. Shina religion features four main elements: deity worship, hunting cult, shamanism, and purity-impurity dichotomy.

Shina deities varied by regions, but most of them, in fact, were of non-Indo-European origin. Most likely, they were gods of aboriginal people of Eastern Hindu Kush who were assimilated by Indo-European-speaking newcomers. Linked to particular mountains and rocks, deities were worshipped at the sacred places near their “homes”. Brokpa goddess Shiring-Mo migrated to Ladakh together with her worshippers, as they believe. We know the names of female deities mostly. In the Astor valley of Gilgit-Baltistan cult of female “patrons” of the kinship groups existed until the middle of nineteenth century. The most important male deities are Babalashen, supreme god of Brokpa in Hameling, Giagam and Remala villages, and Shri Badat, a demigod king in Gilgit-Baltistan folklore. Pantheon of Brokpa area and Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as within Gilgit-Baltistan, varied a lot, with similarities in representation of spirit world and in the rituals. Austrian ethnographer Karl Jettmar was writing about different variations of Shina beliefs.

Hunting cult is the most vital element of Shina religion along with shamanism. It was still practiced in the middle of twentieth century; and may even exist today. To have success in the hunt, man needs to please mountain fairies that possess herds of wild goats. Day before the hunt, man should abstain from products brought from cows, avoid sexual intercourse and purify his house with smoke of juniper.

Shamanism is also related to the fairies who tell the future to the shaman during the session and grant him power of healing and protect people from demons and witches. The basic name for fairies is ‘pari’, originating in Persian language, while another name, ‘rachi’, comes from Sanskrit.

Categories of purity and impurity have clearly non-Indo European origin: the most impure things are related to cows and lowlands. This contradicts Vedic plots about chariots and honour of the cow and, along with gods, comes from pre-IE aborigines. Another impure thing is female sexuality. Women are considered especially impure during menstrual period, and men must avoid meeting them. Such women shouldn’t even gaze at holy altars and places.

The most ritually pure animals are goats, especially mountain goats and markhors. High pastures, which they live, are considered as second purest places, after mountain peaks and glaciers. Goat meat and ghee butter are sacrificed to deities and fairies. Juniper and sessile oak are symbols of purity in local flora.

Kalasha religion combines Shina-like beliefs and elements of Nuristani Kafir religion. Some deities have clearly Nuristani-like image. Sage god Mahandeo, for example, is equal to Mandi of Nuristani; and also with Mahadeva, the epithet of Hindu god Shiva. War god Sajjigor matches Giwish, similar god of Nuristani. But goddess named Shinmu is clearly related to the one of Shina pantheon, the Brokpa goddess Shiring-mo. Hunting cult, similar to that of Shina, also exists among Kalasha people. Shamanism, however, was extinct some decades ago. For more details, check publications by Alberto and Augusto Cacopardo, majority of which are available online. They have also developed a concept of “Peristan”.

About pre-Islamic religion of Kho people, we may say only that it had similar hunting traditions and, probably, it was closely related to Shina religion, because the culture of Shina and Kho is quite similar.

Traditional dance in Gilgit, from G. W. Leitner, 1893

The religious systems of Kalasha, Kho and Shina have been described in details by Karl Jettmar in the book “Religions of Hindu Kush”. Its German and Russian editions are more complete while the English version was limited to description of former Kafirs of Afghan Nuristan.

Pre-Islamic religion of Pashai was mentioned in XVI century Persian writing “Sifat-nâma” by Darvish Muhammad Khan-i Ghazi published by G. Scarcia in 1965. Text of the book tells us that ancestors of Pashai practiced shamanism, were drinking wine and sacrificing goats. They also had open sanctuaries, clan houses and idols. There are three gods mentioned in the text: Pandad, Sharway and Lamandy.

The reconstruction of religious system of proto-Pashai has been reviewed in several articles by G. J. Daushvili (available in Russian). According to Daushvili, Pashai and other Western Dards had syncretic religion that featured elements of hunting cult, Nuristani Kafir religion and Shivaite Hinduism.

A decorated grave in West Pakistan, 1897-1898. Provided by Royal Geographical Society (UK)

Today majority of Dards are Muslims, but some old beliefs and rituals were integrated into the true religion of Islam: sacrifice to mountain fairies, elements of shamanism, keeping horns of hunted wild goats at the places of cult. this feature is also common among Pamirian peoples. During last decades, local belief systems are being purified, so these features are fading away.

Old religion of Kohistani Dard peoples of Swat and Indus has barely left traces, but we may conclude that it was close to the religion of Kalasha and Nuristani. Some data was published in “Indus and Swat Kohistan – an ethnographic survey” by Fredrik Barth. Anthropomorphic figures and wine had been produced by Kohistani people in the past. Only one name of Kohistani Dard deity has been preserved – a Torwali supernatural ancestor Dara.

A speaker of Bashkarik – young language informant from Dir Kohistan, 28.04.1929. Photo by Georg Morgenstierne (1892–1978), provided by National Library of Norway

Historically, Dardic peoples were pastoralists living at hills and highlands, thus getting the name Kohistani. It’s important to consider that many communities have been pushed higher by invaders, and at the same time that’s how Dardic speeches and culture could survive until today, in relative isolation. Agriculture in the region inhabited by Dards was very difficult because of poor soil and lack of cultivable territory, strictly limited to the stripes along rivers. People could survive by herding cattle and hunting in the mountains and woods.

Traditional dwelling types vary from region to region. Eastern Dardic peoples—Shina, including Brokpa and Kho–were used to live mostly in the village fortresses named ‘kot’. Now they live in the houses of ‘charhana’ type, which is widespread in Pamirs. Brokpa live in simple wooden two-storied houses. Kalasha and Pashai live in Nuristani-type houses made of wood and stones and constructed like stairs at mountain slopes. Kohistani Dard communities were living in the houses made of mud, stone and wood. Dards of Kunar lived in large three-storeyed house built of stones and wood. Houses of Kalasha and Kohistani peoples had engraved pillars and doors, as well as those of Nuristani.

Wood carving common in Dardic regions (the famous Mosque in Kalam, Swat Kohistan) – photo by Andrey Manchev, summer 2017

Traditional men’s dress among Dardic peoples was woolen. Women’s dress is made of cotton. Both genders were also using dress of goatskins. The world-famous Pakol cap, mostly associated with Eastern Afghanistan and its Tajik-Pashtun majority, is actually Dardic traditional headwear. It was used by Kho and Shina long ago, while it was spread over Afghanistan only in 1980s, but old photos prove that Bashgali Kafirs – Eastern Kata tribe – were sporting pakol as early as in 1885. They called it ‘shukokuř’ in their own language, while ‘pakol’ is actually Pamiri word. (More on this in future publications by the author).

Historically, there was no common identity for all Dardic peoples. Now, many educated tribal members and students of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan call themselves Dârd and consider their own territory as part of Dârdestân, the Land of Dards. This fact has a political expression in the Dardistan Movement. Dardic activists found their allies among the other peoples of Northern Pakistan: Wakhi, Balti and Burusho. Also the name Balawaristan (Bolor) is popular in the area.

In the highlands of Eastern Afghanistan, intellectual elite also has a tendency for consolidation, but they don’t use the term Dârd very often. Together with Nuristani they consider themselves a race of original inhabitants of Hindukush. Also “Kalashˮ identity is distributed over Central Hindukush by Nuristani intellectuals. Usually the name “Kalashˮ is applied to Waigali and Ashkun people of South Nuristan and Dardic-speaking “Black Kafirsˮ of Chitral. Intellectuals declare that all Nuristani tribes, Pashai and small Dardic communities of Kunar river basin, even Persian-speaking people of Kohistan of Afghanistan and Panjshir should be considered “Kalashˮ because they all descend, more or less, from the original population of Hindukush area. It’s unclear whether such ancestry is meant to be traced to the first Indo-European settlers in the region (early Aryans, since 1800 BC) or even back to pre-IE aborigines. Myths about the descent of particular tribes from Greek soldiers or Arabic infidels fade away slowly.

Further reading, available online:

Allan N. J. R., Edel’man D. I. “Dardestān”. Encyclopaedia Iranica. New York, 1994.

Barth F. “Indus and Swat Kohistan – an ethnographic survey”. Oslo, 1956.

Biddulph J. “Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh”. Calcutta, 1880.

Cacopardo A. S., Cacopardo A. M. “Anthropology and Ethnographic Research in Peristan”. Journal of Asian Civilization, 2011, pp. 311-320.

Clark G. E. “Who were the Dards? A review of the ethnographic literature of the North-Western Himalaya”. Kailash, Journal of Himalayan Studies, vol. 5, n. 4, 1977, pp. 323-56.

Kuzʹmina E. E. “The Origin of the Indo-Iranians”. Leiden/Boston, 2007.

Leitner G. W. “Dardistan in 1866, 1886 and 1893”. Woking, 1893.

Munshi S. “Dardic”. Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. Boston, 2006, pp. 282-284.

Schmidt R. L., Koul O. N., Kaul V. K. “Kohistani to Kashmiri: An Annotated Bibliography of Dardic Languages”. Patiala, 1983.

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