Migrations & Cultural Encounters: Pamirs

February 26, 2019

Migrations and Cultural Encounters: Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan

General Overview of Central Asia

Central Asia is commonly understood to encompass the territory of six nations: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and (sometimes) Afghanistan. The region has close ties to indigenous and nomadic cultures and the great conquerors of history, including the Persians, Arabs, Mongols, and Russians, have all left their imprint. The history of the region as an ancient trade network make the area culturally rich, with influences from China, India, Europe, and the Middle East.

Central Asia was primarily Iranian in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times before it became the homeland of various Turkic peoples. In addition to Iranian and Turkic languages, Russian is also spoken, a result of having once been part of Russian Empire and Soviet Union.

Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan

The Pamir Mountains are the second highest mountain range in the world (after the Himalayas) and lie mostly in the Gorno-Badakhshan province of Tajikistan. The Pamir Mountains make up 45% of the landmass of Tajikistan but only 3% of its population. Khorog, the largest town in the Gorno-Badakshan region, is 7,200 feet about sea level.

There are two natural borders that separate Tajikistan and neighboring Afghanistan: the Pamir Mountain range and the Amu Darya or Oxus River. These dominating natural borders have kept Badakhshan largely isolated from outside influences and allowed the local spiritual orientation to remain.

Pamiri People

The Pamiris are the main ethnic group, and they speak a number of distinct languages and dialects. Most Pamiris are Ismaili and adhere to the Aga Khan, who is the spiritual leader of this esoteric branch of Shi’ite Islam. The Ismailis are known for their progressive and humanitarian perspective. Education is a top priority for Ismailis and in this egalitarian society girls receive the same education as boys. The collection of isolated mountain villages in Gorno-Badakhshan boasts a literacy rate comparable to the United States, and is home to the University of Central Asia.

The house is the centrer of spiritual life, symbolic of the universe and a place of private prayer and worship. A traditional Pamiri house is replete with esoteric significance, embodying elements of possibly ancient Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and shamanistic philosophy. There are no mosques in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Pamiri Musical Culture

The inhabitants of the Pamirs are constantly affected by the mystical presence and spiritual power of the sacred mountains. The natural elements are felt viscerally and sensually, and there is a felt communion between the harsh and beautiful natural landscape and the inner landscape of the body and the soul. Music is prayer and meditation to the Pamiri people and central to their spiritual lives. It is also understood as healing. Rather than compartmentalizing esoteric and practical knowledge they are deeply intertwined in the Pamiri spiritual orientation. Music is integrated with medicine and valued for its healing capacity.

Baraka is a spiritual energy that emanates from God and is manifest throughout all of creation. It can heal people and effect change in all aspects of life. Baraka is understood as a generative life force that can be increased through the blessings and mercy of God, prayer, reading and recitation of religious scripture and spiritual poetry, living a virtuous life of service, and the performance of devotional music. Maddoh is a form of devotional music found throughout the Pamirs used for meditation, prayers, and healing. Literally translating to “praise”, maddoh is based on devotional poetry by Sufi mystics such as Hafez or Khusraw.

The Ismaili religion emphasizes a balance between the exterior, literal meaning of sacred scriptures and their esoteric or inner meaning. Similar to other esoteric traditions such as Sufism, this Islamic perspective draws from vernacular culture and local musical genres for expression. Among the Badakhshani Ismailis, spiritual concerts of maddoh featuring sung poetry accompanied by stringed instruments and the daf (frame drum) serve as one route towards spiritual illumination. Maddoh provides a vessel for baraka, and maddoh singers are highly esteemed in Badakhshan.











Pamiri Rapo Dance

While maddoh is sung to devotional poetry, dance is often performed to poetry about human love that may nevertheless contain spiritual or esoteric symbolism. The great tradition of ecstatic poetry in Sufi mysticism is one of the high achievements of Persian and Central Asian cultures. Intertwining both spiritual and worldly themes of love and sensuality, the poems often speak in terms of a bride preparing for her beloved as the soul yearning for the divine.

Rapo is a genre of Badakhshani dance usually performed in a 2/4 rhythm. The dance expresses and reinforces the spiritual connection between macrocosm and microcosm; for example, a danced poem may transform the majestic landscape into the body of a beautiful girl. The dance consists of small, quick foot movements and fluid symmetrical arms. The landscape informs the movements of the dance: majestic mountains, rushing streams, rocky terrain that must be navigated

Rapo is an old dance, with the word translating to ‘foot on the road.’ It’s normally played on the ghijak, though other instruments can be added. Men and women both dance it, and it can take different forms. The arms make fluid, symetrical movements while the legs move quickly with small steps. These days people dance rapo at weddings. It starts slow and gradually speeds up.

In Badakhshani dance the graceful movements of the arms and hands that are believed to symbolize the flight of birds – a reference to Badakhshan’s animistic, pre-Islamic past.

Given their isolation, the Pamirs have been able to maintain their transitional culture and were less affected by the cultural changes of the Soviet Era. With a deeply mystical connection to the natural world around them, music, dance, and poetry remain integral to life and spiritual expression, serving as a vehicle of prayer and contemplation.



In the Pamir Mountains, at the Crossroads of History – NYTimes.com

“My Heart Opens and My Spirit Flies”: Musical Exemplars of Psychological

Flexibility in Health and Healing – Benjamin D. Koen (ETHOS, Vol. 41, Issue 2)

“Dance, Mysticism, and Sensuality: Perspectives from Tajikistan’ by Sonja Hinz (Master of Arts Thesis for University of Hawaii)

The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Music of Central Asia Vol. 5: The Badakhshan Ensemble: Song and Dance from the Pamir Mountains by Smithsonian Folkways



Pamirs: Culture and Religion

Badakhshan Ensemble: Song and Dance from the Pamir Mountains