Lost Tajiks or the forgotten Dards of Pakistan?

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Lost Tajiks or the forgotten Dards of Pakistan?

By Barmazid and Xazureh

The subject of the history of Swat and areas of north-western Pakistan have rarely been given serious academic attention, in spite of representing a linguistically and culturally unique aspect of modern Pakistan. Too often, personal folktales and myths shroud this region, with the lineage of the Swati people being traced as far as Greek Macedonia or Arabia. One article published on the Friday Times by Arif Hasan Akhundzada, however, provides a place of origin closer to home: Persia.

The author sets out for us the background of the Swati people through the Gibari sultans of Swat, whose Tajik Zoroastrian origins supposedly date as early as the Achaemenid period; in this respect, he writes that “…the dominant rural population of the whole area up to the River Indus and above the River Kabul consisted of Shalmani and Tirahi Tajiks, believed to have been among the area’s ancient inhabitants since the great Persian empires”. Akhundzada laments the fact that this is unknown in public discourse as a “conspiracy” and “historical cover-up”. This dramatic piece went viral amongst not only Pakistanis, but surprisingly also Tajik nationalists in Afghanistan, with whom the author has connections to. However, a more honest examination of the history of Swati people would reveal that the people being described as “Lost Tajiks” by Akhundzada are actually the forgotten Dardic-speaking people of north-west Pakistan, who still continue to exist in a region now predominantly settled by Pashtun tribes.

When Babur crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and captured Kabul in 1504, the regions of Swat and Bajaur were peopled and ruled by Dardic ethno-linguistic groups commonly referred to as Dehgan or Degan, an ethnic community once spread over parts of Pakistan which are now populated by Khashi tribes of Pashtuns. The Dardic rulers of Swat and Bajaur were called Gibaris. Due to the similarity of gibar with the word gabr, meaning “fire-worshipper”, the British author Henry Walter Bellew incorrectly theorized that they must have been called so because the Gibari rulers of Swat and Bajaur were fire-worshipers i.e Zoroastrians [1]. In all likelihood, however, the Gibari were named as such because they belonged to a town by the name of Gibar in Bajaur, Pakistan. Khulastul-Ansab, an eighteenth-century work by Hafiz Rahmat Khan (1708–1774) notes, “the Gibaris are so named, because Gibari is the name of a place in Bajaur, where they had been settled” [2]. H. G. Raverty (1825 –1906), a renowned historian and scholar of Pashto and Persian, also stated, “I find, in an old geographical work, and in a Persian lexicon of old and difficult words, that Gabar—???— with the pronunciation written, is the name of a town [shahr] in the country of Bajawr” [3].

Rather than Zoroastrianism, historical sources available to us suggest a strong presence of Buddhism and ancient forms of Hinduism in the region. Swat was the center of Hinyana Buddhism and of the Mahayana school that developed from it. Hudud al-Alam, a geography book written in 982 AD, mentions Laghman and nearby regions possessing idol-temples [4]. In the same work, Ninhar or Ningarhar is described as, “a place of which the king makes show of Islam, and has many wives, (namely) over thirty Muslim, Afghan, and Hindu (wives). The rest of the people are idolaters. In (Nangarhar) there are three large idols” [5]. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hsien, who visited the valley around 403 AD, mentions 500 Buddhist monasteries. After him, Sun Yan (519 AD), Hsuan-tang (630 AD) and Wu-kung (752 AD) would visit Swat and praise the respect in which Buddhism was held in Swat [6]. Al-Beruni alludes to Dardic and Nuristani ethno-linguistic groups of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan when he writes, “In the mountains which form the frontier of India towards the west there are tribes of Hindus, or of people near akin to them -rebellious savage races – which extend as far as the farthermost frontiers of the Hindu race.” [7]

The Gibari sultans of Swat, also referred to as Jahangiris, were the most powerful of several local rulers in the Dardic speaking regions. They not only ruled the Swat valley, Panjkorah and Buner, but through their Shalmani vassals they were also suzerains of the flat country bordering the mountains. Their capital was Manglawar in Swat. Their subjects, referred to as Dehgans or Kohistanis in Afghan histories, were comprised of tribes like Mutravi, Mumiali and Shalmani as well as other Dardic tribes from Chitral to Shangla, including those of Swat-Kohistan and Dir-Kohistan. Dehgan or Degan is the term still in use for Dardic speaking groups in eastern Afghanistan such as the Pashayi, a Dardic-speaking people of Laghman who are referred to occasionally as Dehgani. These groups are erroneously styled as Tajiks by some Afghans. The author of Hayat-i-Afghani observes that “the Afghans, misled by the accidental similarity of the words “deh-kan” and “Degan”, commonly regard this people as identical with the Tajik. This is an error. The Tajiks came to Afghanistan after the promulgation of Islam, whereas the Degan were there during Hindi supremacy” [8]. The sultans of Swat spoke Gibrai, the Dardic language of Bajaur, and their subjects spoke Yadri, another Dardic language [9]. As the use of Dardic languages has declined, ethnonyms have shifted. For instance, many former Pashai speakers have adopted the ethnonym Safi and consider themselves Pashtuns now [10]. According to Tarikh-i-Afghana of Khwaja Malezai, written in around 1623 AD, the Mitravi tribe of Swatis reckoned themselves to be descended from Yousafzais in 16th century, and contended that they were separated from Yousafzais in ancient times when the latter lived in the environs of Kandahar[11].

Abu Fazal, the courtier of Mughal emperor Akbar informs us that sultans of Swat claimed to be descended from a daughter of Sultan Sikander-i-Zulqarnain. In Akbarnama he writes, “in this land (Swat and Bajaur) there was a tribe that had the title of ‘sultani’ and claimed to be descended from a daughter of Sultan Sikander-i-Zulqarnain. The Yousafzai for some time zealously served them and then became ungrateful and took possession of the choice lands” [12]. Sikandar is Alexander of Macedon. A minority of authors have opined that Sikandar refers to Cyrus the Great of Persia; however, there is no historical evidence in which Cyrus the Great is referred to as Sikandar. As Alexandar the Great was depicted with two horns in ancient Greek depictions of Alexandra, so Muslim chroniclers attached the name Zulqarnian (meaning ‘he of the two horns’) to Sikandar i.e Alexandar. Interestingly, Akhund Darweza (1549 –1638), who was a descendant of Jahangiri sultans from his mother’s side, claims that Sikandar-i-Zulqarnain was a Yousafzai[13]. He was spiritual guide of Yousafzais and the aforementioned claim probably stems from his relationship with Yousafzais.

Tirahi was another Dardic group who inhabited the Tirah valley of Pakistan. They were driven out of Tirah by Bayazid Ansari, the Pir-i-Roshan, in the sixteenth-century [14]. At the present day, the chief seat of the Tirahi is in the Shinwari country in Nangarhar. They were incorrectly referred to as Tajiks by some British authors who did not have access to them. Linguistic evidence firmly shows that the Tirahi speak a Dardic language [15]. The author of Hayat-i-Afghani informs us that Tirahis were once idol-worshipers and were forcibly converted to Islam by Sultan Shahabuddin of Ghor [16]. Their chiefs also styled themselves as sultan. Baburnama mentions Sultan Bayazid of Tirah who in 1519 attempted to convince Babur to attack the Afridis, who were camped at Bara with their flocks.[17]

The exact year of invasion of Swat by Yousafzais is unknown. It had to have been between 1510 and 1518. It took the Yousafzai seventeen years to completely subdue the Swat valley, both Upper and Lower Swat. Salman Rashid, a Lahori travel writer, has lambasted Pashtuns as a nation of “idiocy” in response to the idea of Yusufzai tribes moving into Swat and Mardan in the sixteenth-century instead of being ancient inhabitants of the region [22]. The learned author has not read the Akbarnama of Abu Fazal written in around 1585. Abu Fazal says, “This large tribe (Yousafzai) formerly lived in Qandahar and Qarabagh. From there they came to Kabul, and became powerful. Mirza Ulugh Beg Kabuli massacred them by a stratagem. Those who remained took refuge in Lamghanat. Afterwards they settled at Hashtnagar. It is nearly one hundred years since they settled in Swad (Swat) and Bajaur” [23].

When Babur passed that way in 1519, the Yousafzais were in Swat but Sultan Awais was still contending with them for control of the country. In the same year, Babur attacked the Gibar fort of Bajaur and conquered it on the 7th January of 1519. Its independent ruler, Sultan Haider Ali Gibari, committed suicide. The entire male Gibari population, numbering 3,000, including their sultans, were cruelly put to sword by the Mughals, and a pillar of their heads was erected. Their women and children were taken as slaves [18]. On hearing of these events, Sultan Awais of Swat sent to offer his submission, which was accepted. Sultan Awais retired northwards before the power of the Yousafzais, towards the sources of the Amu Darya. He, and his descendants, for several generations, ruled therein as far as the frontier of Badakhshan, after which they are suddenly lost sight of. The great probability is that the rulers of Chitral, Kashkar, Shighnan, Wakhan, and some other petty states on the upper Oxus, were their descendants; and, like them, they claimed descent from Alexander of Macedon [19]. Abdu Fazal writes, “Up to present day (1585) some of the former inhabitants (of Swat) spend their days in distress in the defiles and from love of their native land are unable to leave.”[20]. In 1703 AD, the hard pressed Gibaris and other former inhabitants of Swat crossed the river Indus and conquered Pakhli [21] under the leadership of Syed Jalal Baba, a grandson of Pir Baba of Buner. Having for the most part come from Swat, they were styled as Swatis by their immediate neighbors.

In reframing the history of north-west Pakistan as one in which Pashtun invaders absorbed ancient “Tajik” natives, Akhundzada is aiming to complement and corroborate the ethnically charged academic and political discourses ongoing in neighbouring Afghanistan, where alleged Pashtunization of native Tajiks is a more widely held grievance; but this ahistorical approach does less to clarify the real historic and cultural identities of Pakistan’s north-western inhabitants themselves, and more to smother their history in more myths. Then what has really become “lost” here in the discourse of north-western Pakistan’s history are not Tajiks (who, contrary to Akhundzada’s claim, have never really been native to north-west Pakistan), but the place of the Dards, who deserve to be acknowledged as one of the original inhabitants and rulers of Swat and not migrants from a far away land.


1-“An Inquiry Into the Ethnography of Afghanistan”By Henry Walter Bellew, p-07

2- “History of Afghans’ by B.Dorn”, Vol-II, p-131

3- “Tabakat-i-Nasiri’, English translation by H.G.Raverty”, p-1043

4– “Hudu al Alam’, translated by Minorsky and Bosworth, p-92

5- Ibid, p-91

6- “History of the Pathans”, vol-6, p-117

7- Al-Beruni’s India, Sachau Dr. Edward’s translation, Vol-1, page-208]

8-“Afghanistan and Its Inhabitants: Translated from the “Hayat-i Afghan” of Muhammad Hayat Khan”, p-311

9- Tawarikh-i-Hafiz Rahmat Khan, Urdu translation by Roshan Khan, p-122

10- Dardestan – Encyclopaedia Iranica

11- Tarwaikh-i-Hafiz Rahmat Khan, Urdu translation by Roshan Khan, p-128

12- Akbarnama, English translation by H.Beveridge, Vol-III, p-716

13- Tazkiratul-Abrar wa ashrar, p-113

14- ” The transformation of Afghan tribal society”, Joseph Theodore Arlinghaus, pp.302-303

15- “Notes on Tirahi” by Georg Morgenstierne

16- Hayat-i-Afghani, p-470

17- “Baburnama”, English translation by A.S.Beveridge, p-411

18- Ibid, p-370

19- Tabakat-i-Nasiri’, English translation by H.G.Raverty, p-1044

20- Akbarnama, English translation by H.Beveridge, Vol-III, p-716

21- Ibid, p-716

22- https://tribune.com.pk/story/290251/pakhtuns/

23- Akbarnama, English translation by H.Beveridge, Vol-III, p-71

By Barmazid and Xazureh

Courtesy: The article was first published on http://www.barmazid.com and its URL http://www.barmazid.com/2019/03/lost-tajiks-or-forgotten-dards-of.html

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