Tajikistan: Pamiri People: The Importance of Religious and Cultural Belongings of Ethnic Minority as the Main Distinction from the Tajik Majority

Name is removed at the author’s request. Graduate of the UK University. 

Pamiri people of Gorno-Badakhshan, also known as Eastern Iranian peoples[i] regard themselves to be different from the majority of the population in Tajikistan. They are divergent not only in the belonging to their ethnic group but also in their religion and language[ii]. These distinguishabilities of the Pamiri people along with their traditions have been widely discussed by the scholarship on Tajik ethnicities.[iii] The differences that Pamiri people communicate have been reflected in their everyday life. Thus, this research critically looks into the reasons why Pamiri people feel they are different and what separates them from the rest of the Tajik population. It finds five aspects which are religion, language, approach to education, traditions and gender equality that constitute main dissimilarities and form Pamiri identity and make these people distinct from the majority of the population composed by Tajiks.

Religion is one of the most important factors that make Pamiri different from Tajiks[iv]. This religion dissimilarity is one of the reasons of the separation of Pamiris and Tajiks, as they both belong to different religion groups that historically conflicted with each other. In comparison to Tajiks, who are Sunni Muslims, the majority of Pamiris are Ismaiilis[v]. The Pamiris residing in the east profess Ismaili religion and follow Nizari Ismaliya, the Shiite school of Islam and follow Aga Khan IV, Shah Karim al-Husayni, who is regarded as ‘present-day 49th imam’[vi]. Although Ismaili is widespread, Pamiri people in such districts as Darvaz and Vanj[vii] along with Kurgan Tyube and Gharm region[viii] profess Sunni Islam[ix]. It has been estimated that there are about 300 000 Ismailis residing in Tajikistan[x]. Nevertheless, in 2009 Sunni Islam has been recognized as the only one official religion in Tajikistan[xi] which only consolidated the religion dissimilarity of Pamiris.

Another significant distinction of the Pamiris living in Gorno Badakshan is related to language. Residents of the western art of the region speak Iranian dialects, while in Darvaz and Vanj it is Tajik, and Shugnan, Ishkashimi, and Bartangi are spoken in mountainous districts[xii]. Thus, the language of Pamiri people originates in Eastern Iranian language group, unlike Tajik language that belongs to Western Iranian group[xiii].  All – Union Census of 1970 demonstrated that there were about 89 314 Tajiks, including the Pamir Tajiks living in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous region, and 42 000 people regarded Pamiri as a native language.[xiv] This illustrates that the Pamiris spoke different language which, along with religion, only strengthens the “otherness” of the Pamiris and Tajiks.

Soviet authorities attempted to enforce assimilation of Pamiri people with the rest of the Tajiks. However, this assimilation policy implemented during the Soviet era was a significant factor in consolidation of traditions and religion of Pamiri people. The idea of the Soviet authorities was to incorporate smaller nations into the ‘title nations’. As a result, Pamiris were not only considered, but also ‘registered as Tajiks’[xv]. In addition, Tajik authorities claimed that Pamiri people are Tajiks by origin and that their languages are the dialects of Tajik language.[xvi] Neither local Tajik nor central Moscow authorities took into consideration ‘Pamiri ethnicity during national census[xvii]. However, it was estimated that the assimilation had not been completed by the 20th century: the linguistic and religious factor played an important role in strengthening the identity of Pamiris spoke rather Russian than Tajik language in order to stress their unlikeness with Tajik people[xviii] and continued practicing Ismailism[xix].

Since the practice of religion had been restricted during the period of the Soviet Era, members of the religious communities among Pamiris were suppressed.[xx] As such, clerics, or the khalifas had to ‘hand over all religious works’ while insubordination could have led to death penalty. The KGB officers and whistle-blowers were present during the rites so that khalifas could not serve and fulfill their duties.[xxi] However, some of the khalifas were taking the risk and were performing the obsequial rites even though realizing that the consequences could be deplorable: as such, the relatives of the dead person hide one of the khalifas in the big basket and brought it into the house.[xxii]  Therefore, Soviet suppressions could not prevent performance of the religious duties, and led to practice of the ‘parallel Islam’ where religious rites had have been followed ‘informally’ without informing authorities and public.[xxiii]

The thirst for education and knowledge and formation of Pamiri educated elite ‘singled out’ Pamiri population. Although the territory of the Badakshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) makes half of the country’s territory, Pamiris made 2.5 percent of the total population of Tajikistan. Nevertheless, before the collapse of the Soviet Union the proportion of those Pamiris who possessed higher education ‘was the highest in Tajikistan’:  the general census of the population of 1989 had demonstrated that those educated Pamiris made 124 per 1000 workers, in contrast to the number of employed people in Qurghonteppa (66) and Leninobod (100).[xxiv] In his study, Dodkhudo Khamrashoev mentioned that Pamiris from Badakshan formed intelligentsia of Tajikistan: as such, there were about 300 academics, amongst who were doctors and candidate of sciences; there were also 20 Pamiri poets – members of Writer’s Union Of Tajikistan.[xxv] Nowadays, Pamiri children are expected to study at least four foreign languages – Tajik, Farsi, Russian and English together with the Persian script which has also been taught at schools for religious purposes.[xxvi]

Besides, one of the most significant distinctions of Ismaili Pamiris is the gender equality that is being reflected in education: women and girls are educated to the same extent as men and boys[xxvii].  As a vivid illustration, Aga Khan III, the religious superior of the Ismailis, had emphasized that if the families did not have an opportunity to educate both children (a girl and a boy) fairly, girls should be educated first[xxviii]. Gender equality existed during the Soviet Union and the Pamiri women possessed more rights and freedoms in contrast to the women who belonged to the rest of the ‘Asian cultures’ of the Soviet Union[xxix]. Modern Pamiri women are able to go on business trips, participate in social life by attending events and celebrations[xxx] and do the same work as men, except of shearing goats or shepherding[xxxi]. Overall, the Pamiri women are less restricted than Tajik women in participation in public life and are not expected to cover their heads by veil.[xxxii] The comparative equality between men and women is quite natural, and the Soviet legacy together with the role of women in Pamiri culture formed liberal and respective attitude towards women among Pamiris.

Fifth aspect of Pamiri distinction from Tajik people is traditions and practices. Fire remains one of the main traditional attributes since history of Pamiris is deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism. Fire is given special role during the wedding ceremonies[xxxiii], as well as during the worshiping ceremonies due to it is a ‘legitimate symbol of rebellion against darkness and evil deeds’.[xxxiv] Art, as part of rich cultural traditions of Pamiri people has been profoundly developed in the region. A Tajik proverb says that “Leninabad rules, Kulyab stands guard, Gharm trades and Pamir dances”.[xxxv]  As such, it is hard to imagine the cultural heritage of Pamiris without their traditional songs and dances: all residential areas of Gorno Badakshan have musicians of different age, and besides, that, professional dancers: women and man perform together, however there is no contact between them.[xxxvi] The music is also performed by Pamiris for healing purposes. So-called Maddah is a ‘devotional music’ that besides the music itself includes prayer, meditation, and ‘classical Persian mystical poetry’ with a purpose of cure and recover of one’s health.[xxxvii]

As it was demonstrated, the differences in religion, language, traditions, educational culture and role of women in society make Pamiris different from Tajiks. Undoubtedly, the most important factor is religion of Pamiris that contradicts the religious views of Tajik population. Language brings in “otherness” factor into the relations between Pamiris and Tajiks, as Pamiris first and foremost consider their language mother tongue and usually learn Tajik and Russian as their second languages. The primary role of women in Pamiri society empowered women with a number of freedoms and rights and made them active in a number of spheres of life, including social and economic lives. Finally, traditions that originate in Zoroastrianism, together with particular Pamiri rites and ceremonies accentuates on the differences of Pamiri people and their unique customs. All these aspects alienate two groups and create prejudices that prevent both from establishing positive dialogue in times of troubles or over disputes. Unless both groups accept these distinctions, peaceful and productive coexistence that will facilitate the development of the whole country is impossible.

[i] Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott Conflict, cleavage, and change in Central Asia and the Caucasus (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1997), p 294

[ii] Magnus Marsden, “’For Badakshan – the Country without Borders!’: Village Cosmopolitans, Urban-Rural Networks and the Post-Cosmopolitan City in Tajikistan”, in Post-Cosmopolitan Cities: Explorations of Urban Coexistence, ed. Caroline Humphrey and Vera Skvirskaja (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2012), p 219

[iii] Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer “Tajikistan A Political and Social History” (ANU E Press, 2013)

[iv] Akyildiz, Sevket, and Richard Carlson. Social And Cultural Change In Central Asia

[v] Hiltrud Herbers (2001) Transformation in the Tajik Pamirs: Gornyi-Badakhshan#an example of successful restructuring?, Central Asian Survey, 20:3, 367-381, DOI: 10.1080/02634930120095367

[vi] Gabrielle Van Den Berg “‘The Sura of the Gift’in the Orla Tradition of the Ismailis of Tajik Badakshan” in The Other Shiites: From the Mediterranean to Central Asia ed. Alessandro Monsutti, Silvia Naef, Farian Sabahi (International Academic Publishers, Bern 2007), p 220

[vii] Basu, P., Bhattacharya, P., Das, R., Ghosh, A. and Sarkar, K. “State, Nation and Democracy” (Concept Pub. Co., New Delhi, 2007)

[viii] John Glenn (1997) Contemporary central Asia: Ethnic Identity and Problems of State Legitimacy, European Security, 6:3, 131-155, DOI:10.1080/09662839708407329

[ix] Purusottam Bhattacharya, Rochana Das, Anjali Ghosh and Kanak Chandra Sarkar “State, Nation and Democracy: Alternative Global Futures”

[x] Weissleder, Wolfgang “The Nomadic Alternative” (The Hague, Noordeinde 41, 1971): Mouton

[xi] Ibbotson, S. and Lovell-Hoare, M. “Tajikistan” (Bradt Travel Guides, Buckinghamshir, 2013)

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] in Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer “Tajikistan A Political and Social History” (ANU E Press, Australia, 2013), p 102

[xiv] Monogarova L.F “Changes in the Family Structure of the Pamir Nationalities in the Years of Socialist Construction” in Weissleder, Wolfgang. 1978. The Nomadic Alternative. The Hague (Noordeinde 41): Mouton, p 17

[xv] Valentin Bushkov and Lydia Monogarova “Ethnic Processes in Gorny Badakhshan”, accessed October 25, 2014,


[xvi] Chechko (1988) cited in A.S. Davydov “Ne obosnovanno, zato…..publicistichno” (Sovetskaya Etnografiya, 1989), 5, September – October 1989), p.16.

[xvii] Olivier Roy “The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations”(New York University Press, New York, 2000), p 66

[xviii] Arbatov, A., Hartelius, D. and Schmemann, A. “Eurasia in the 21st century” (M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, N.Y, 1979)

[xix] Valentin Bushkov and Lydia Monogarova “Ethnic Processes in Gorny Badakhshan”, accessed October 25, 2014,


[xx] Frank Bliss “Social and economic change in the Pamirs (Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan)” (Routledge, London,2006) p. 80

[xxi] CAUCASUS (2014). CA&CC Press AB. [online] Ca-c.org. Available at: http://www.ca-c.org/journal/2002/journal_rus/cac-06/15.busrus.shtml [Accessed 9 Nov. 2014].

[xxii] ibid

[xxiii] Matveeva, A. “The Perils of Emerging Statehood: Civil War and State Reconstruction in Tajikistan an Analytical Narrative on State-making” (Working Paper no. 46, London, 2014) Crisis States Research Centre. Development as State-making, p.8

[xxiv] Dodkhudo Karamshoev, ‘Polemika o Pamire’, Pamir, No. 6 (1991), p. 111 cited in Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer “Tajikistan A Political and Social History” (ANU E Press, Australia, 2013), p. 102

[xxv] Ibid, p 102

[xxvi] Elisabeth Abbess, Katja Müller, Daniel Paul, Calvin Tiessen, and Gabriela Tiessen “Literacy and the Vernacular in Tajik Badakhshan:Research in Rushani, Khufi, Bartangi, and Roshorvi” (SIL Electronic Survey Report 2010-015, May 2010), p. 4, 11

[xxvii] West, Barbara “Encyclopedia of the peoples of Asia and Oceania”  (Facts On File, New York, 2009) p. 635

[xxviii] Ibid, p 634

[xxix] Frank Bliss “Social and Economic Change in the Pamirs (Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan)”(Routledge, London 2006) p. 269

[xxx] ibid

[xxxi] West, Barbara “Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania”, (Facts On File, New York, 2009) pp. 634-635

[xxxii] Ibid

[xxxiii] “The Tajik Pamirs: Challenges of Sustainable Development in an Isolated Mountain Region”, Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)  (Geographica Bernensia, 2003), p. 14

[xxxiv] Otambek Mastibekov “Leadership and Authority in Central Asia: The Ismaili Community in Tajikistan”, (Routledge, Abingdon, New York, 2014), p 18

[xxxv] Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer “Tajikistan A Political and Social History” (ANU E Press, Australia, 2013), p 105

[xxxvi] “The Tajik Pamirs: Challenges of Sustainable Development in an Isolated Mountain Region”, Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)  (Geographica Bernensia, 2003), p 14

[xxxvii] Benjamin D. Koen “Beyond the Roof of the World: Music, Prayer, and Healing in the Pamir Mountains”

(Oxford University press Inc, New York, 2009)