Dardic languages in Chitral

There are 10 languages which are indigenous to Chitral, a valley in the extreme Northwest corner of Pakistan with a population of around 210,000 to 250,000. The Norwegian linguist Georg Morgenstierne said that Chitral was the region with the highest linguistic diversity in the world. The reason for this is obvious. Chitral consists of high mountains interspaced by isolated valleys where small communities have thrived for centuries free from outside interference.

The primary language of Chitral is Khowar, which is the mother tongue of 90% of the population. Most of the remaining 10% speak Khowar as their second language.

The other indigenous languages of Chitral, going clockwise around the Chitral Valley, are: Phalura, Gujari, Dameli, Gawar-Bati, Nuristani, Kalasha, Yidgha, Wakhi and Kirghiz. In addition, a variety of Persian is spoken in the isolated village of Madaglasht.

Pashtu, also spelled Pashto and Pukhtu, has pushed its way into Chitral within this century. Finally, there is the newly arrived language of Munji. This is a language similar to Yidgha which was spoken in the Munjan Valley in Badakhshan in Afghanistan. During the War in Afghanistan, all the villages in Munjan were bombed and many people were killed, so the Munji people fled to Pakistan and settled in refugee camps, primarily in Chitral. The men still go back to tend the fields during the Summer. Perhaps families are returning there as the fighting abates.

Lastly, Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and therefore the language for all written communications, especially since almost all of the other languages have no written form. This makes a grand total of 14 languages spoken in Chitral.

Some of these languages are in danger of dying out within the next few generations. This is especially true of Phalura, also known as Ashretiwar, whose speakers are said to want their children to convert to Khowar. The language in greatest danger of dying out is Kalasha, because there are only 3,000 Kalash speakers left and, more importantly, when a Kalash person converts from the Kalash religion to Islam, they customarily stop speaking Kalasha and start speaking Khowar instead.

Among the ten languages indigenous to Chitral, little is known about Wakhi, except that it is believed to be an archaic variety of Persian, perhaps similar to that spoken in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. Wakhi is spoken by only a few families in the Upper Yarkhun Valley near the Baroghil Pass to the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. The total number of speakers in Chitral is believed to be less than 900.

This is also the area where Kirghiz is spoken by a small group of unknown size. Kirghiz is a Turkic language spoken in the former Soviet Republic of Kirgizskaya. There are also said to be a few speakers of the Sarikoli language in that area. Sarikoli is a Pamir language. Most Sarikoli speakers live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Although some of the other languages are decreasing in importance, or are dying out completely, Khowar is increasing in importance, for several reasons: The population of Chitral itself is increasing, people of the area who stop speaking their own language generally convert to Khowar and the Afghan refugees who have lived in Chitral since 1979 have raised new families there and they and their children have learned to speak Khowar. Finally, the alternatives of Pashtu and Urdu are unacceptable. Pashtu is a difficult and complex language which not many want to learn unless they must. Moreover, Pathans are not well liked and are known for engaging in endless blood feuds and for fighting and killing each other. Urdu is primarily a written language and a lingua franca. Few families speak Urdu in their homes, even in lower Pakistan.
King Abdul Rehman
King Abdul Rehman

Here is brief information about the remaining languages:

Phalura, also known as Palola and as Ashretiwar, is spoken by 7,000 to 15,000 people in Ashret and Biori Valleys. A variety of this language is spoken in Village Sau in Afghanistan. The people of Ashret are important because they are strategically located at the main gate to Chitral. All persons entering Chitral through Lowari Top, the pass which is 10,230 feet high which connects Chitral to Dir and the rest of Pakistan, must pass the customs checkpost at Ashret. Tradition has it that the people of Ashret are originally from Chilas in the Indus Valley. The "Mitar" or ruler of Chitral brought them over, gave them land, and appointed them as the guardians of the gate to Chitral at Ashret, because he did not trust his own Chitrali people to perform this task.

The people of Ashret are truly faithful guardians of the gate. In 1983, when I tried to enter Chitral secretly through a remote mountain path, two Ashretis apprehended me and insisted that I go with them to register at the customs checkpost. Fortunately, I managed to escape from them. A true Chitrali would never have stopped me in this way.

The story that the people of Ashret originally come from Chilas cannot confirmed. There is no date to this story. It appears to have happened even as much as 500 years ago. The present people of Chilas speak the somewhat similar but still different language of Shina. Any connection they may have with the people of Ashret has been lost.

I have received interesting correspondence from a researcher who is pursuing a theory that the Romani people are originally the people of Ashret. The Romani are better known as the gypsies (which they consider to be a derogatory term) and are of unknown origin somewhere on the Indian subcontinent. The primary basis for the supposition that the Romani and the Ashreti people might be the same is that the Romani say that they came from a place called Lowari - and the Ashretis are the guardians of Lowari Top. Also, "Top" is a word in the Romani language. Finally, the people on the other side of Lowari Top are primarily Pathans in Dir. These Pathans arrived in Dir relatively recently, driving out whomever was there before. Who were those previous occupants of Dir? Could it be possible that they were the Romani people?

Gujari: Gujari is said to be spread over a large area from India to Afghanistan. The Gujaris in Chitral live in 14 villages in the upper end of Shishi Valley. They are a people of low prestige with a bad reputation, which is probably undeserved. They primarily live by goat herding. They are also to be found in villages south of Drosh and in the Bumboret and Ashret Valleys. They tend to live high up near the snowline. They have been accused of robbing and killing passing travelers across the high mountain passes. This accusation is almost certainly not true. It appears that nobody has ever studied their language, or wants to. They sometimes call their own language Gujarati, which is incorrect. Gujurati is an entirely different language spoken down in the plains of Pakistan and India. There are believed to be 3,000 speakers of Gujuri in Chitral. It is not known whether the Gujars speak one unified language or a family of languages.

Dameli: Dameli is spoken in 11 villages in Damel Valley, the largest of which is Damel Nisar. Damel Valley is lower down than Ashret Valley and leads to a high mountain pass to Dir. This pass has never been popular and there is no road. The actual pass is 12,000 feet high, higher than Lowari Top, but, according to Prince Nasir-ud-Din, who has long recommended the development of this pass, the pass is flatter and much less prone to avalanche. Every Winter, several travelers die trying to cross Lowari Top because of avalanches of snow. This rarely happens on the pass to Damel Valley, according to Prince Nasir-ud-Din. It is not clear where the people of Damel come from. Some say that they were driven there when the Pathans occupied Swat some 400 years ago.

Gawar-Bati: Gawar-Bati is spoken in Arandu, which is the last village in the lower end of Chitral. Therefore, the Chitralis call this language Aranduiwar. Most speakers of Gawar-Bati live further down the Kunar Valley, as it is known in Afghanistan. The speakers of Gawar-Bati in Afghanistan live in the villages of Narai, Barikot, Dokalam and Pashingar. Because of the War in Afghanistan, many speakers of Gawar-Bati now live in refugee camps in Chitral. All speakers of Gawar-Bati are believed to be relatively recent arrivals. They say they came from Swat or from lower down the Kunar River and were driven up to their present location as the Pathans moved in and occupied Swat and Asmar.

Before the war in Afghanistan, there were 1500 speakers of Gawar-Bati in Chitral. Now, there are more. Speakers of Gawar-Bati tend to claim that they and their language are Nuristani, which they are not. The Nuristanis are a larger and more prestigious ethnic group.

Nuristani: Unlike other ethnic groups who probably arrived with their languages relatively recently, the Nuristanis are known to have been there for at least 3,000 years. When Alexander the Great passed through the area in 327 BC, his scribes reported a race of light skinned European type people who made wooden boxes. These were clearly the Nuristanis, and the wooden boxes were their coffins. Unlike other races and cultures, they left their dead above ground and did not bury them. However, Alexander the Great never reached as far up as Chitral. He did not cross the Khyber Pass either. His exact route across the Hindu Kush Mountains is not known, but it seems certain that he turned left at what is now Jalalabad and ascended the Kunar River to as far as Chiga Sarai or Asmar and crossed the pass from there into Bajaur Valley in what is now Pakistan. The Nuristanis were probably that far down the river at that time, as some are still there today.

The Nuristanis are an almost legendary race who are the subject of the popular Kipling story entitled "The Man Who Would Be King" and the movie starring Sean Connery by that name. In Chitral, the Nuristanis are known as the "Red Kafirs", because of the light almost reddish color of their skin. They had their own Indo-European religion with gods and goddesses, but were forcibly converted to Islam by King Abdul Rehman of Afghanistan in 1893.

According to Schuyler Jones, this occurred in the aftermath of a "mistake" in the wording of the Durand Agreement of 1892, as a result of which the British Government of India agreed to give the Bashgal Valley to Afghanistan. King Abdul Rehman took advantage of this mistake and invaded Nuristan the following Spring. King Abdul Rehman in his memoirs said that he did this because the Nuristanis were such savages that they dressed in animal skins and, whenever they came to Kabul, they sold their wives as slaves.

A back edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, under the heading "Chitral", says that the women of Chitral were famous for their beauty and that Chitrali women fetched the highest prices on the slave markets of Kabul.

When King Abdul Rehman conquered Nuristan in 1893, a few Nuristanis fled to Chitral, where they continued to practice their religion. However, by the 1930s, the last Red Kafir had converted to Islam and their religion was lost. Nobody seems to be able to remember their religion any more or to adequately describe it.

The linguist Richard Strand, formerly of the University of Chicago, spent years in Nuristan and wrote articles about the place, one of which was published in National Geographic Magazine. He became completely fluent in all the languages and dialects of Nuristan. Prince Siraj-ud-Din, whose mother was Nuristani and who therefore is half-Nuristani, told me that "Richard speaks Nuristani better than the Nuristanis."

Tragically, Richard Strand never published the results of his investigations, other than a few brief statements. I had several arguments with him over this, saying that it was unfair for him not to publish this tremendously valuable storehouse of knowledge which only he had. However, he said that nobody had paid him to do his research and it was up to him to decide when and how it was published. I have not heard from Richard Strand in more than ten years and have been searching for him for some time. If anybody knows where he is or what happened to him, please let me know.

The Nuristanis call their own languages or dialects Kativiri, Kamviri and Mumviri. There are altogether more than 100,000 speakers of Nuristani, which at one time was known as Kafirstani.

Kalasha or Kalashamun: This is spoken by 3,000 people in the Bumboret, Rumbur and Birir Valleys. These are the "Black Kafirs", as opposed to the "Red Kafirs". In Chitral, there are two kinds of Kafirs: Red and Black. The Black Kafirs are so named because their women and girls dress in black robes made of goat hair. The Black Kafirs have customs similar to the Red but claim that their religion is much different. They also do not bury their dead. Instead, the dead bodies are placed in wooden coffins above ground. There is a celebration. If an important man died, they dance and beat drums around his dead body for 48 hours without sleep. If a woman dies, they dance for 36 hours. If a child dies, they dance for 24 hours. I have been to several of these ceremonies. (I did not stay up the full 48 hours and went to sleep, however.)

Most Kalash girls are married at an early age. If they become dissatisfied with their husband, they simply run off and elope with another man. The new man becomes her husband and must pay double what the former husband paid for her. For example, if the first husband paid one cow for her, the second husband must pay two cows to the first; if the first husband paid one gun, the second must pay two guns. On one occasion where I was personally present, a young Kalash girl offered to elope with a Kalash man I was with, but she warned him that her present husband had paid much money for her. My companion rejected her offer as too expensive.

The other notorious practice for which the Kalash are known is the festival of the Budulak. In this custom (which most say is now extinct but some say still exists), once a year a strong young boy is selected to be the Budulak. In the Summer, he goes up into the mountains, takes care of the goats, eats lots of cheese and abstains from any kind of sex. He grows strong and fat. After six months in the mountains, he is brought down for a festival. During the festival, for a period of 48 hours, the Budulak is allowed to have sexual intercourse with any woman he wants. He can have sex with any virgin girl, or anybody's wife or daughter, or even with his own mother or sister, if he wants. He is supposed to try to have sex with as many women as possible. If one of them becomes pregnant and has a child, the child and the mother are considered to be blessed.

In Pakistan, which is a sexually repressed Islamic country, this practice caused great scandal and notoriety, especially after Chitral became part of Pakistan. As a result, the Kalash claim that they stopped this practice many years ago. Some say, however, that they still do this, but very secretly.

The Kalasha language is also spoken in Urtsun and Jinjoret valleys and in the village of Kalkatak. These are places where the Kalash religion was formerly practiced. When a Kalash person converts to Islam, he also converts his language from Kalasha to Khowar. All the inhabitants of Urtsun, Jinjoret and Kalkatak long ago converted from the Kalash religion to Islam. However, many are said to have started speaking the Kalasha language again. There are believed to be at least 3,000 speakers who have started speaking Kalasha again in these areas.

Yidgha: This language is spoken in villages above Garam Chishma, near the Durah Pass into Afghanistan. On the other side of the Durah Pass, in Badakhshan in Afghanistan, the somewhat similar language of Munji is spoken. However, all of the Munjani speakers are said to have fled into Pakistan during the war in Afghanistan.

Yidgha and Munji have long been considered to be dialects of each other. However, a study by Kendall Decker has shown that these two languages bear only a 56% lexical similarity. This indicates that they are not dialects but rather are different and distantly related languages. There are 5,000 to 6,000 speakers of Yidgha and a similar number of speakers of Munji.

The languages of Khowar, Phalura, Dameli, Gawar-Bati, Nuristani, Kalasha, Yidgha and Munji are all classified as Dardic languages in the Indo-European family of languages. The term Dardic comes from the ancient Greek historian Herototus who placed the land of the Dards as in the mountains between Afghanistan and Kashmir. Whether it is historically accurate to associate the present people of Chitral with this term is not known. The terms Dardic and Dards are unknown in Chitral. This is just a European term. All authorities, including Morgenstierne and Strand, agree that the use of the term "Dardic languages" is a misnomer because these languages are not really related to each other at all, beyond being Indo-European languages.

My own studies confirm this. Khowar and Kalasha are always classified as closely related members of the same language group, the Chitral sub-group. However, my own field work showed only 26% lexical similarity and most of that 26% consisted of obvious loan words. This indicates that there may be no relation between the two languages at all. The belief that Khowar is closely related to Kalasha may stem from the fact that the Kalash people often speak Khowar brokenly when talking to outsiders, rather than trying to speak their own language.

Ismail Sloan

UPDATE: An important new article has appeared on this subject: Dards, Dardistan, and Dardic: an Ethnographic, Geographic, and Linguistic Conundrum

Here are links:

Contact address - please send e-mail to the following address: Sloan@ishipress.com