Pashtuns and Gandhara: on Pashtun-Afghan ethnogenesis

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It would be interesting to understand the mechanism of how the Pashto language made inroads into the Gandhara region which has been historically known as being a non-Pashto area. Gandhara comprised of the Kabul River valley, Peshawar Valley and Swat Valley, and environs right up to Kabul and north of the Hindu Kush. As per the area’s scant Pashtun tradition itself, the full induction and ascendancy of Pashto here was very recent on the historic timescale – save for the minor exception of the Dilazaks.

Map of the ancient Gandhara locality. Photo by the writer

Pashto is primarily a Saka (Scythian) language. As such, it has deep linkages with existing dialects of the Pamiri Language Group, such as Yidgha, Wakhi and Munji spoken in north Chitral and to its west. It also has a close cognatic association with Persia’s ancient holy language of Avestan. But this has been determined to date  that before the incoming, westbound Iranian pastoral hordes separated into Scythians in the north east and Persians in the south – that is, before 1800 BC. The focal points of the Saka invasions’ historic impact, that swept away the Bactrian Greek Empire, were in the areas of Greater Paktia and Sistan (Sakastan – now part of “Greater Kandahar” region). The Sakas also ruled in Gandhara for a decade or two, but that influence is negligible except for the coins of their four Hindu kings. The tiny and endangered Munji language is known to be the successor of ancient Bactrian, an extinct language that once saw glory when it was employed by the Buddhist Kushans and later the White Huns as their imperial state language and was written using Greek script on their coins. This language was known as Aryao and it has left a significant impact on Pashto. But besides its Iranian roots and legacies, Pashto also owes a great deal in formative acquisitions and characteristics to the local Indic Prakrit and ancient Dardic dialects, the former being the predecessors of current living regional languages such as Hindko, Punjabi and Seraiki.

The European type features attributed to the Saka Scythians are known in ethnology as “Pamirid”. They are found among all Pashtuns-Afghans, Tajiks and Dards. Photo by the writer

We also have to identify what ethnicities occupied and controlled Gandhara, especially during the last 1500 years after the fall of Imperial Persia to Islam – of which it was a key province. Although the name Gandhara seems to have disappeared off the radar about 1000 years ago with the arrival of Mahmud Ghaznavi, its ancient ethnic composition remained relatively undisturbed for the next 500 years after him – that is till the advent of the Mughals in 1526. The most ancient population was Indic (or Hindki) which spoke Prakrit dialects, now known as Hindko and Punjabi. The annexation of Gandhara by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 550 BC led to the arrival of a Persian ruling and agrarian proprietor class of Dehqans, prominent among whom seem to have been the Shalmanis, of which the Swatis were a later offshoot. There was also present a vast and ancient population of a third Indo-Iranian category called “Dards”, these being the “Pactyans/Paktuans” or Pakhtas of Herodotus and the Rig Veda respectively – a people who were later to give the Scythian language its name of Pakhto: the Sakas mingled with these Dards, who adopted their language and unsettled culture – giving it their own name and by about the First Century AD this yielded the rise of a new ethnicity called Pakhtun, or to be more specific – the earliest Pakhtuns, that is the Karlani tribal confederacy of Pashtuns (the present day hill tribes of Afridi, Khattak, Bangash, Orakzai, Turi, Wazir, Mahsud, etc.). It must be elaborated that nowadays Dards are confined to the mountainous northern areas above the Peshawar Valley – but in ancient times they were spread very widely. 

An old Tajik man. This can be the picture of any old Pashtun, Tajik or Dardic man. Photo by the writer

However this Pashtunisation was not total, and substantial Dardic populations remained in Gandhara for the next 1500 years who were known as Tirahis. These Tirahis were Hindus and also known as “Parbatis” (mountaineers), but a steady stream of them was also getting Pashtunised under the influence of the early Karlanis and joining them, forming a tribe by the name of Dilazak. Later on Islam was added to the mix and the Dilazaks rapidly converted along with other Pashtuns-Afghans. Still, many Parbatis remained Hindu, but a lot of other Tirahi Dards who had avoided Pashtunisation, had also converted to Islam to remain in favour with the Ghori rulers. They spoke an extinct language of their own, known by the same name (Tirahi). Only 500 speakers of it now remain, in a village near Jalalabad in Afghanistan.

Before 1526, the Dilazaks were the only known Pashtun tribe living in Gandhara, in pockets and on the southern peripheries. They were nomadic, and raided the settled populations to make a living besides being soldiers. They have a tradition that it was Mahmud Ghaznavi who had moved them into Gandhara in 1000 AD. In all likelihood, the Dilazaks moved north into Peshawar Valley from the southwestern (“Greater Paktia”) regions, which was the seat of the Karlanis – and the Sakafied Paktuan Dards before them.

The other region where the Saka invaders had made the greatest impact, was the legendary western Persian province called Sistan. Sistan derives its name from “Sakastan” (Land of the Sakas) and was an area where not long after them, another nomadic Eastern Iranian tribe from the north, called the Parthians arrived in full force. They overthrew the Greek Seleucid successors of Alexander, taking over the Persian Empire to establish what was to become a legendary dynasty called the Arsacids. The warlike Arsacid Parthians also seem to have mixed well with the Sakas, and soon a Saka-Parthian cultural and ethnic composite of Eastern Iranians prevailed in Sistan, the land of Rustam and Sohrab – and later the Shahnama. Although these Parthians used the title Pahlavi (thus introducing the term “Pahlawan” for their leaders which meant not only physically strong, but a strong man in every sense), and spoke what is now known as Middle Persian or the Pahlavi Language – it is strongly apparent that having mixed with the Sakas, they were also familiar with the rudiments of the Saka dialect that was becoming known as Pashto further north…. although they never gave it any primary or official literary or cultural importance. Nor did they ever record or mention its name or its usage in any way. Another title of some groups from among these Parthian Pahlawans/Pahlavis seems to have been the word “Abagan” or “Afghan” – which they seem to have brought with them from their home regions bordering the Caspian Sea. This term gained increasing ascendancy in the Sistan and adjacent Sulaiman Mountain area, and has been recorded many times by diverse sources from 224 AD onwards – till the time of Islam, when its use became open and unambiguous. So in Sistan – we see the formation of the nucleus of the so-called present day Afghan environment – a Persian-Pashto cultural composite, weighted towards the latter. Sistan was the seat of the Afghan identity, and their Sarabani tribes.

A typical Pamiri young lady — the type of face one can find in Tajikistan, Chitral or Gilgit and among Pashtuns. Photo by the writer

Thus we see that the Pashtun-Afghan ethnicity arose from two major Saka interactions with Dards and Parthians respectively. The first yielded the ethnonym “Pashtun/Pakhtun”, which also became the name of the original Saka language. The second interaction brought to the fore the name Afghan. This explains the strange dichotomy as to why this ethnicity continues to employ these two distinct names, which describe it in tandem – and yet both continue to persist, in equal measure, despite assurances by its proponents that they both imply the same thing. The truth is, that after the ancient mention of “Pakhtas” and “Paktuans” by the rig Veda and Herodotus – the terms Pashto and Pakhtun have never been mentioned in any record till after 1526. The mixing of the Sakas with the Pakhta Dards gave rise to the wild Karlani hill tribes, who traditionally have no system of government and have their own distinct para-dialect of Pashto. But the Saka-Parthian interaction was different: the Parthians were a settled and cultured people who took over the reins of the great Persian Empire. The Parthians who resided in Sistan and bore the name Afghan were also soon overwhelmed by the Saka culture and language, but even so regarded themselves as different from and superior to the northern hill tribes because of their contact with mainstream Persian government, politics, culture and ways. Thus the terms of Afghan and Pashtun were originally and still are separate, but have come to be fused and denote a commonality based on the sharing of the same language. Twentieth Century “Afghan nationhood” has capped the term Afghan as being their major ethnic label, but they still refer to themselves as Pashtuns and their language is called Pashto (although it has sometimes been termed as “Afghani” too).

A gathering of Wazir Pashtun elders from the Karlani section of Pashtuns-Afghans. Photo by the writer

Of course, this is not the entire story of the Afghans’ ethnic evolution. Later incoming waves of Hepthalite Huns and Early Turks – including Khazars – as well as the associated Turki-Shahi / Hindu-Shahi Rajputs and Jats provided the “finishing overlay” to the ancient Parthian Afghan base, almost overwhelming the original stock except for the name itself. Thus the name of the major and dominant Afghan-Pashtun tribal division, the Sarabani – is believed to have a Rajput origin (from “Suryaban” i.e “Suraj Bansi”), while the legend of their Jewish origins and Qais Abdur Rashid is owed to a dominant Khazar Turk overlay – which had come to Sistan in the armies of Mahmud Ghaznavi in and around the year 1000. Sarabani Pashtuns still use the term “Jat killiwal” for a person who displays true Pashtun character – little knowing its ancient Punjabi connotations! Genetics have filled in the blanks, and have untied the knots of a mysteriously twisted yet persisting legend.

A further ethnic evolution among the Pashtuns-Afghans – the last and the greatest – was the formation of the Ghilzai tribal confederacy of Pashtuns-Afghans, which took place from about 1200 in Ghori times when a branch of “Qaisi” Afghans encountered the resurgent Ghori armies and their Khalaj Turk mercenaries in the Sistan region. The Ghori Tajiks were from the remnants of the ancient yet legendary Suren Pahlav Parthian stock and thus went by the title “Suri” in addition to their family name of Shansabani. The Khalaj were among the many waves of Turkic nomads to invade Sistan and Khorasan, but had become Iranised and thus changed their name to “Khilji”. They too gradually fell under the exhilirating influence of the warlike Pashtun culture and language which they encountered in their battles with the Afghan tribes. They were soon thereafter absorbed, forming their own Pashtun-Afghan tribal group, to which they lent their name of “Khilji” — which soon changed to “Ghilji” and thereafter became known more formally as “Ghilzai”. They also absorbed their Ghori / Suri masters, who formed a Pashtun clan within the new Ghilji Afghan Confederacy. The famous Sher Shah Suri came from this clan–a throwback to his great Parthian (Tajik) Suri forebears.  A colourful legend illustrates the violent circumstances surrounding the formation of the Ghilzais and explains the manner in which they got their name: how a Suri prince called Shah Hussain Ghori had an “illicit” affair with the daughter of an Afghan chief who bore him a son. Being an illegitimate child, he was termed in Pashto as “Da Ghal Zway” (the Son of a Thief) – which consequently became Ghilzai, and was shortened to Ghilji. Perhaps many sons of thieves were produced here, as the legend paraphrases the manner in which the Khilji troops under the command of the Ghori Sultans forced themselves in marriage upon the captured war booty of Afghan women and a new amalgam resulted… It was this tribal section of Pathans or Afghans which saw historical greatness – ruling the Ghori legacy, the Delhi Sultanate in India, and even the Hotakis who conquered Safavid Persia in 1722. Till the rise of the Durranis, it was the Ghilzais/Ghiljis who dominated the affairs of Khorasan, later to be known as Afghanistan. From this it can be seen that those who are cursorily termed by historians as the “Pashtun” or “Afghan” kings of India are actually forms of Parthians or Tajiks (Persian). Nowadays, in Pakistan the Ghilzais are represented by tribes such as Marwats, Lodhis and Niazis (of Imran Khan fame) – while in Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and his Ahmadzai tribe, together with the Kharotis and Sulaimankhel “kuchi” nomads are the foremost exponents.

Having made the above concise but necessary exposition on how the Pashtun-Afghan ethnic identity and its language Pashto got formed, we now study the impact of Pashto and how it moved north to the area of ancient Gandhara – which went on to become the second Pashtun-Afghan power center after Babur overthrew its last Tajik rulers, vassals of the Delhi Sultanate – the Swatis. At the same time, a massive and prolonged Sarabani Afghan invasion of the Gandhara area was taking place, spearheaded by its major tribe the Yusufzais. This population movement has its causes described elsewhere, but it created far reaching demographic, ethnic and linguistic changes. The Mughals supported the Sarabanis in this takeover. The local ruling Swati royalty and land owning “Dehqan” aristocracy were from the ancient Persian Shalmani Tajiks, who spoke both archaic and modern Persian, in addition to archaic Persian based Pamiri dialects such as Gabri, Laghmani and Dehqani (which were related to the current Tajik regional dialects of Roshani, Shughni  and Yazgulami). Most of the Swatis fled across the Indus into Hazara where they took up a separate existence. Those that remained were either partially absorbed into various Sarabani tribes such as the Yusufzais, Mohmands and Salarzais… with most others playing second fiddle to Pathans, in becoming “clerical aristocrats” as is the tradition elsewhere in the Subcontinent – by taking on Syed and Qureshi identities, or calling themselves Pir, Sahibzada, Akhundzada, Mian, etc. The Dilazak Pashtuns who lived in and around the Swati Kingdom were also defeated, and it is believed that they melted away out of shame and changed their identity into Khattaks – who suddenly “appear” in the historical narrative in 1586, in the time of Akbar, as a forceful and numerous Karlani tribe, right where they should be.

A depiction of a Yusufzai warrior from a British book of 200 years ago. Photo provided by the writer

In the light of the above, it has to be reiterated that despite its ancient origins and profoundly insidious pervasive catalytic social influence, the Pashto language has always remained the hallmark of an unsettled and violent tribal culture. It has never been recorded prior to 1526 when Babur first mentioned it.  Its literary tradition is less than 400 years old, and very substandard and sparse at that; being comprised of poetry, it only began after the takeover of Peshawar Valley, and with a few Seventeenth Century non-Pashtun personalities such as Akhund Darweza and Pir Rokhan, and two major

Pashtun poets Khushal Beg (otherwise called Khattak) and Abdur Rahman Sarabani. The first named was a Turk mendicant and scholar, who undertook to promote Pashto in this area at the behest of the Mughals, whose allies the Afghan Sarabani aristocracy were – in order to challenge the legacy of the overthrown Tajik order. There have also been clumsy and very amateurish attempts on part of later vested interests to fabricate a fake history for Pashto literature – such as is the case with the so-called epic poem, the “Putta Khazana” by claiming a thousand-year history for it. But it was carelessly written with a heavy vocabulary of Arabic words which is a later characteristic, and in an Eighteenth Century style. It is also written in Pashto’s Perso-Arabic alphabet, which is known to have been invented in the Seventeenth Century by the Burki fanatic Pir Rokhan! This heretic was working to stir up Pathans to overthrow the Mughals and he very nearly succeeded. But other than that, there is no claim from any quarter that can substantiate Pashto as being a native and deeply rooted language of the region once known as Gandhara.



The Pathans – Sir Olaf Caroe, Oxford University Press (1956). Tawareekh-e Hafiz Rehmat Khani – Hafiz Rehmat Khan Barech (1772), Ed. Roshan Khan, Pashto Academy, University of Peshawar (2017).

Tazkira-tul Ibrar wal Ashrar – Abdul Karim Ningarhari (Akhund Darewza), Idara-e Ishaat-e Sarhad (Pub. Date not mentioned).

History of the Pathans – Brig. ® Haroon Rashid, Vols. 1 – 6, (2002-2017).

History of Civilisations of Central Asia — Eds. Dani, Masson et al, Vols. 1 – 6, UNESCO (1996).

The Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire – Parvaneh Pourshariati, I.B. Tauris, (2008).

The Sistani Cycle of Epics and Iran’s National History (On the Margins of Historiography) – Saghi Gazerani, Volume: Studies in Persian Cultural History, Brill (2016).

The Age of the Parthians – Eds. V.S. Curtis, Sarah Stewart, Volume 2: The Idea of Iran, I.B. Tauris (2007).

Afghanistan from a Y-chromosome Perspective – European Journal of Human Genetics (2012):


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