On Kho Identity, Dardic, Pamiri or mixed?

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On Kho Identity, Dardic, Pamiri or mixed?

The Kho people are the largest ethnic group in Chitral and the two terms, Chitrali and Kho are often used interchangeably. The Kho are an interesting group as their geographical position at the crossroads of South and Central Asia give them a unique and somewhat confusing identity. The Kho are members of the ethno-linguistic Dardic group of Indo-Aryans but culturally and racially have been influenced to a great degree by their Northern neighbours of the Pamir region, who belong to the East Iranic linguistic group. Although this may be a rather straightforward explanation the matter of Kho identity is a far more complex issue.

The Khowar language is the basis of Kho ethnicity and Khowar is a member of the Dardic languages. The very existence of a unified Dardic group is today challenged by modern day linguists as the various languages which constitute it, including Khowar, Shina, Torwali, Pashai, Kashmiri and many others, do not seem to be closely related to each other with the only similarity being that they are all Indo-Aryan languages derived from Old Indo-Aryan and its standardized form, Sanskrit. On an ethnic level Dardic can be defined as the Indo-Aryan speaking peoples of the mountainous regions of the Northernmost part of South Asia. On the other hand, Pamiri is a more cohesive term. The Pamiris are the peoples of the region where the Pamir, Hindukush and Karakoram mountain ranges meet, a region also known as the Pamir Knot. The languages spoken by the Pamiris, including Wakhi, Shughni, Roshani and Sarikoli, are all quite closely related and belong to the East Iranic group of Iranian. Interestingly they are closely linked to Pashto, which is also an East Iranian language. Because of their geographic proximity the Pamiri languages have influenced the Northern Dardic languages and vice versa, with Wakhi particularly having considerable influence from Indo-Aryan.

So far it can be seen that the Kho are an Indo-Aryan speaking group and thus members of the Indic cultural sphere, making the Kho cousins of everyone from Punjabis, to Bengalis and even the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka but language by itself is not the only component of ethnic identity. Culturally the Kho are very similar to the Pamiri peoples. From the traditional dress, to the foods consumed and even the architectural style of local dwellings the Kho are within the sphere of Pamiri influence. When a Pashtun or Punjabi visits Chitral they are immediately aware that they are experiencing a very different culture than their own but when a Chitrali visits Tajikistan it is as if he is in a more developed part of his own homeland, everything feels familiar. Thus although it is clear that the Kho of Chitral are culturally closer to the Pamiris than they are to say Punjabis, how different are they from the other Dardic groups?

The Caccopardo brothers are perhaps the best modern day scholars of the Dardic peoples. In their book entitled Peristan, is a map showing the regions where the various Dardic and East Iranic groups live in Northern Pakistan. The Pashtuns and Wakhis are shown as Iranic and the Kohistanis, Shina speakers, Kalasha and the various groups of the Southernmost parts of Chitral are shown to be Dardic whereas the Kho regions of Chitral and Ghizer have been put in a separate group referenced as Mixed. This is an interesting classification. Similarly the Burusho of Hunza can also be seen as a mixed group as although they speak Burushaski, a language isolate, they too have been culturally influenced by the North. Culturally speaking the Dardic group with the most similarities to the Kho would be the Shina speakers of Puniyal and Gilgit City. Given that these groups live in a region with a similar climate to that of Chitral and that they have both been linked together politically at various times this would be apt but even then there is a significant cultural difference. The Shin people are more tribal than the Kho and it is this that sets them apart from the other Dardic peoples. Under the influence of Persianate culture the Kho have been a people who respect institutions rather than individual tribes or families. This ancient Persianate influence together with the more direct influence of Badakhshan is what gave Kho culture its sense of refinement when compared to that of its neighbors. Yet the Kho have always differentiated themselves from Badakhshan and traditionally have considered themselves to be superior from the Tajiks. The reason for this is political.

Persianate culture, in its current Islamic form, was introduced to Chitral during the eras of the Chagatai and Raees rule. As both of these dynasties were of foreign origin they wanted to bring Chitral in line with the norms of Central Asia. Once the Katoor Dynasty took control they, for whatever reasons, promoted the Khowar language and local culture at the expense of Persian. The Katoors seemed to have a more “Dardic” outlook than their predecessors and it is perhaps because of this that their political horizons always looked East and South due to which Chitral entered the political sphere of British India and eventually joined Pakistan. It can be argued that if the Raees rule continued Chitral would today have been part of Afghanistan, as it is geographically much more easily accessible from that country than the rest of Pakistan.

One way of distinguishing the culture of the Pamiris from the Dards is through the preference of livestock. The Pamiris are sheep people, for them their preferred meat is lamb and the Dards can be seen as goat people as they prefer to herd and eat goats. This rather simplistic view though is quite a solid distinction between these two groups based largely on climatic and geographical features, as the steep rugged mountains of the land of the Dardic peoples are better suited to sure footed goats than the less acrobatic sheep! Once more Chitralis are at the crossroads, although they keep more goats and traditionally refuse to eat lamb in the summer months, sheep are also important to Khowar culture as they are the source of wool for the famed Chitrali fabric, shu.

A traditional Pamiri style room, known as a baipash in Khowar–photo provided by the author

Chitral is a fascinating place for cultural studies. On the one hand you have a place that seems to be culturally indistinguishable from the Iranic parts of Central Asia and yet on the other the majority group speaks a language which preserves Sanskrit words and terminologies better than many languages of the plains of India. At the same time, you have houses which evoke the architecture of the ancient cultures of the Oxus Valley, yet the rolled up woolen hats and goat herding traditions of the Dardic peoples are an important part of Chitrali identity. To sum things up I think the Caccopardo brothers were right when they classified the Kho of Chitral as a “mixed people”, in my opinion the Kho represent the best of both the Dardic and Pamiri cultures!

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