Literary Traditions in Chitral

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Historical Background
District Chitral is the Northern part of KhyberPukhtunkhwa dominated by the Kho people speaking Khowar language. According to 2017 census, the population of Chitral district is 447,362. Populated by the majority Sunnis, and Ismailies and Kalasha the district is rich in linguistic diversity. Professor Parekh notes that 10-12 languages are spoken in Chitral district. Although Chitral is well known for its beauty and mountains, but little is known about the literary traditions of the region.
Despite the cultural barriers, meager resources, and lack of encouragement, and appreciation, the land of Chitral has been producing eminent poets, writers who have been contributing to different genres of literature for many decades. These creative souls have carried forward the literary tradition despite inhabiting the space in a closed society where religiosity dominates, and pressing economic concerns are powerful enough to distract from the pursuit of love and literature.

Photo by Zakir Zakhmi

Chitral has gradually cruised from Persian poetry to Khowar poetry. Mohammad Shokoor Ghareeb (d.1782) and Mohammad Siyar (d.1856) were perhaps the first to compose poetry in Khowar language. To its credit Chitral has become a region where men of deep religious reputations—religious leaders/scholars popularly known as Maulanas have equally contributed to secular literary tradition. The combination of these two different aspects has produced a peculiar “softness and sophistication in Chitrali poetry and music, compared to other languages of Northern Pakistan,” as observed by Colin Huens, whose magnum opus is one of the pioneering book on the music of Northern Areas including Gilgit-Baltistan & Chitral. The earliest written poems were ‘Bashaunu’ or ‘Geet (songs).’ Writing and singing ‘Ghazals’ came much later, probably in 80s, when Mushairas i.e. gatherings for recitation of poetry became a norm in Chitral. Whereas, Amir Gul Amir, Baba Fateh ud Din, Qadeer Khan, and Muhammad Hassan were the most widely acclaimed reciters of songs; Mansoor Ali Shbab and his group introduced Ghazal singing. Later Imran Qaisar, Insar Elahi and Mohsin Shadab also became famous in singing Ghazals.
The Orientalists
One cannot be thankful enough to the British Orientalists and other Western researchers for their contribution in documenting these languages and conducting pioneering field research to preserve them. Europeans were the first to document and write about the diversity of languages in Chitral. Georg Morgensteirne, a Norwegian linguist has noted that Chitral is a region of greatest linguistic diversity in the world. Major Biddulph has provided an interesting insight about various languages spoken in Chitral in his “Tribes of Hindukush”, an important book about the tribes of the Hindukush mountains. The Europeans took great interests in Khowar language by following the footsteps of G.W Lietner who was the first to arrive and study Chitrali people and their languages. The tradition in linguistic research were carried forward by D.L Lorimer, Captain Younghusband, G.A Grierson, Aurel Stein, Halfdan, Elena Bashir and many others.

The Indigenous Efforts
The local people, realizing the need to promote their language, Khowar, established Anjuman-e Taraqi-e Khowar i.e. association for developing Khowar in 1954. Anjuman-e Taaraqi-e Khowar was the pioneering literary forum.

Dr Inayat Ullah Faizi quoting Siddiqui notes that the Anjuman “has published 43 titles: 30 in Khowar, 10 in Urdu and 3 in English.”

More recently, the Qalam-Qabila Chitral has also become a prominent forum with the backing of noted poets of the region. A noted poet and commentator Fazl-ur Rehman Shahid told me, “After Qalam Qaliba in 2009, many other forums such as Bazm-e Khowar, Khowar Ahl-e Qalam, and Ahl-e Qalam (Haqeeqi) were also founded. These forums have played an instrumental role in the preservation and promotion of Khowar literature.” The musharias organized by these forums facilitated social interaction and extended acquaintances among the people of different regions of Chitral.

Photo by Zakir Zakhmi

The Radio Pakistan
In 1965, Radio Pakistan launched program in Khowar language from its Peshawar Centre. Besides many other segments, it had a special segment ‘Mayon’ for the children. The children would tell jokes, stories and read out poems in this show. It was a very famous show among both elders and children. Mr. Shahid says that during 60s, Radio Pakistan’s Peshawar Centre also published a magazine ‘Jamhoor-e Islam’. Magazines such as ‘Qalamkar’ and ‘Anwaz’ followed, which were published by local people. These magazines were closed after few years due to the reasons unknown. Currently, ‘Haft-e Roza Awaz Chitral’ is the only magazine being published.

Musical Bands

A local Bazum–photo by Zakir Zakhmi

In 90s Musical bands were formed. Among them, the Nobel Group of Chitral became much famous. As group of legendary singers like of Mansoor Ali Shabab, Sitar Maestro Aftab Alam, Munawar Shah Rangeen and Muhammad Wali, the band also introduced the concept of ‘commentary’ in cassettes. Noted poet Saadat Makhfi can be considered the pioneer of cassette commentaries. These commentaries, in the beginning of a recorded cassettes or informal Bazum would address the audience on love, humanity, civilization and other social and cultural aspects. They would introduce the important guests present in the Bazum and would praise the singers as well. Later, Fazlur Rehma Shahid, Zakir Zakhmi, and Alla ud Din Urfi became famous for their cassette commentaries. Magnus, in his book, Living Islam, has transcribed one such commentary by Makhfi, which reads:
“My most respected and able listeners: love’s name is the blossom of the rose, garden of the heart. With the perfume of love life’s hope is bright; the garden of hope is green and related [noble] thoughts are allowed to fly high and freely. Love is such a blessed thing that there is no alternative.”
Such cassette commentaries gave a complete new meaning through which the local people felt and imbibed the colors of love, respect, civility, and accommodation. A new worldview was thus imagined leaving behind the narrow tribal and sectarian pockets; and a new world captivated by love was open to explore.

The Impact of Animism on Poetry
The Northern society gradually converted to Islam from Zoroastrianism, Animism and Buddhism. The remnants of these early worldviews and religions can still be found in marriage ceremonies and figurative art. The impact of these civilizations can be found in local poetry as well. Baig (1997) argues, “The Kho man made songs to animals—domestic as well as wild—to birds, to their children, to heroes, to the mountains surrounding them, to games and sports competitions etc.” One example of a song written for a goat goes like this:
“Ma Basir Tan Zhuti Tan Goyo Loah
Papo Ghorer Kori Angoyo Loah Liko Loah.”
“My Basir (goat) goes out herself, and comes back after her udders filled like pitcher with milk.”

The poem is an appreciation of the domestic animal, which, unlike other animals, does not disturb the owner. She goes to graze herself, and returns on time. In rural villages, some animals are known as ‘Behel Maal’ (obedient animal) because they are self-trained in going up to the mountains and coming back. A ‘Nabehel Maal’ (rebellious animal), on the contrary, causes great disturbance for the owner. The owner has to go up to the mountains to search the ‘Nabehel Maal’, and sometimes it takes more than weeks to find and bring back that animal.

Women and Poetry
Chitral was also fertile for women to compose poetry. But they did not compose love poems. They largely wrote Marsiyas, elegies, about their sons and daughters. They also wrote about their daughters’ plight in the house of in-laws. Such poetry written by women depicts the worries of a mother for her daughter’s future in her new environment.
The women poets of old days in Chitral, however, concealed their identities due to religious and cultural barriers. However, in modern days, women in Chitral write poetry without concealing their identities. Two folk songs ‘Nan-Doshi’ and ‘Nano Baigal’ are attributed to women poets. More recently, two women have published their poetry books. It suggests that Chitrali society has become more tolerant with the passage of time in accepting women in literary domains.
Poetry and Prose

Annual journal of Khowar–photo by Zakir Zakhmi

The dominant form of literary genre in Chitral has been poetry. Other genres such as short stories and novels are rare. Zafar Ullah Parwaz is the first person to publish a novel ‘Angeristanu’ more recently. Parwaz believes that his novel is a ‘cultural novel’, which takes on the cultural practices of bartering, marriage, travel, games and women emancipation in ancient Chitral. Local critics believe that Parwaz uses a vernacular, which is no more practiced in Chitral. This novel, they believe, is an extraordinary effort to bring back those words, concepts and traditions, which became obsolete in modern days. The novel has a huge demand among Chitrali people, and the copies were sold within weeks after its publication.
The Government and NGO Support to the Literary Activities
The literary activities continue without any support by the district and provincial governments. Chitral has no arts councils to facilitate literary activities. The provincial government has not recognized the poets and writers from Chitral due to the influence of Pashto, the dominant language of Khyber Pakhtunkwa province where Chitral administratively is. The literary events, the poets say, are self-financed. The Sitar makers of Chitral have left their profession, as it doesn’t have potential returns. Flutes and Shehnai makers are long gone. Rubab, a Pushtun musical instrument, is being imported by Chitralis to play in musical events as a replacement of Sitar. Once a thriving business, the profession of Sitar and flute making is dying fast. At local level, it is not encouraged and supported either by the government or NGOs. Chitralis believe that the finest Sitar makers of Sonoghor Valley have long ago said goodbye to the profession, and today Sultan Ghani (himself a famous Sitar player) is the sole Sitar maker in Chitral.

The Academy of Letters, Islamabad, is the national institute mandated to promote the diversity of regional literature and to facilitate publishing books in Pakistan’s regional languages. To encourage literary activities, it has launched National Literary Awards, but those awards are given to the poets and writers of English, Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, Balochi, Saraiki, Brahui and Kashmiri languages. The organization’s website mentions that the awards are “given to the best books in all languages of Pakistan as well as English.”

But the fact is it completely ignores the languages of peripheries such as Khowar spoken in Chitral and Ghizer district of Gilgit Baltistan. The Academy also publishes Quarterly Magazine “Adabiyat” without any space given to Khowar language.
The content analysis of the magazines and poetry is yet to be made to explore the message they convey and their social philosophy. However, the need of the hour is to realize that the isolated Chitral Valley provides a perfect example of a rich literary tradition. The government, the NGOs, and the civil society must invest on this tradition and save it from dying in the modern era flourishing technology. Literary activities play great role in ushering peace—an existential need for our society. Relevant stakeholders must encourage and support literary activities for enduring peace and social engagement in Chitral.

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