Pamir mountain houses of Zoodkhun in Chapursan Valley, northern Pakistan

Even though it experiences a, sometimes temporary, exodus to the big cities of southern Pakistan, Zoodkhun Village (also spelled Zuwudkhoon) is still well alive. Nowadays, numerous houses are being built or being enlarged. It is possible to observe a Pamiri layout dating back from Atash-Parast (Fire worshippers, Zoroastrians). This permanence could be due to religions (including old ones) but also due to a perfect adequation with environment constraints and resources available in this remote area of Chapursan Valley.


Zood Khun, also called Zuwud Khoon, is inhabited by Wakhi people. It is the last village of Chapursan Valley (Chipurson, Chipursan, Chapurson), located in Gojal, Upper Hunza, Pakistan. From there, a track leads to the very revered Sufi shrine of Baba Ghundi before climbing to the Irshad pass, 4977m, allowing you to pass into the Afghan Pamir, at the end of the Wakhan corridor.

Zoodkhun houses have a Pamiri layout for addressing mountain constraints.

From outside, a compact quadrilateral for facing harsh winters

Khana, (Khane, house), in Zood Khun, just has a ground floor. It is a single storey building, unlike, for example, the ones of the old walled city of Ganish, where horizontal expansion was not possible. Khana seems to be the general Wakhi word for house like in jamat khana (community religious house). However, Jansher Khan Tajik Wakhani says, in Chapursan, the word khun is used, like in Zood Khun, the name of the village, which means the first house of the valley (coming from Irshad Pass).
The building cover consists of a terrace used for drying and storing straw or fodder, consequently providing more insulation. The future government school is one of the rare exceptions. It is wearing a roof frame. This school will partially double the Aga Khan Foundation one,”D J High School“,  located between the hamlets of Zoodkhun and Shitmerg (also spelled Shetmerg, Shetmarj or Shuthmarg). One may fear that its cover will be made of metal plates with a bright and brilliant color. This could trivialize the environment and break some of its visual consistency.

Zood Khun: hay stored on a roof of a stable Photo Bernard Grua
Zood Khun: hay stored on a roof of a stable

Around the khana core structure, extra buildings such as washroom, stable, sheds, verandah and summer rooms (with windows) can be added (see similar layout in Nazif Shahrani, “The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan”, page 66). As a result they make another layer for protecting the central part from direct external cold and wind.

Tusion, Tajik mountains: behind Odinasho Sharopov, a traditional Pamiri house — Photo Bernard Grua
Tusion, Tajik mountains: behind Odinasho. Sharopov, a traditional Pamiri house

The khana traditional design is a classical Pamiri one, although it can also be found in Karakoram and Hindu Kush. Like in Tajik and Afghan Pamir it is a warm (in winter) or moderate temperature (in summer) shelter with no lateral windows. The external door doesn’t open directly into the main room. People have to go across a mazelike corridor, sometimes, closed by an additional door. On the roof is a skylight which can be shut thanks to glasses in framed panels. This is particularly energy efficient while the layer of the heat going to the top stops the cold air entrance in winter. In summer, when open, it is efficiently cooling the internal space.

Yamchun, Wakhan: a Tajik Wakhi house — Photo Bernard Grua
Yamchun, Wakhan: a Tajik Wakhi house

Like a submarine inside its different protecting hulls, batteries and ballasts, the airtight core structure is ready to dive into the wild winter. This main part of the khana (khun) reveals a complex organization.

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Inside, a sophisticated puzzle resulting from an immemorial tradition

Space is divided into different platforms. Each of them has a specific function. Their following description is largely inspired by the article written by Hannibal Taubes, on his blog. The layout of the main room, showed below, is a replica of his manual drawing based on his observations done in Shimshal. It could differ elsewhere. However, the articulation of the different platforms is relevant and brings more clarifications than it leads to confusion. This work was completed by information received from Jansher Khan Tajik Wakhani, Haider Badakhshoni and Dilawar Figar. While Wakhi language is not a written one, transliteration into Latin characters may be subject to interpretations. Pillars are showed in red. White numbers are platforms described below.

Wakhi house, interior lay out: platforms and pillars by Bernard Grua
Interior lay out: platforms and pillars

1. Kunj: (Kungh) Anteroom to keep the wind from blowing directly into the house also, now, used for shoes. The house entrance is Sorye (Suriye).
2. Yoch: (Yorc, Yorch). It is the space for wishing welcome or for dancing during marriages and festivals. In the past, it was also a place for work, for stocking fuel for immediate use and for taking off the shoes. Nazif Shahrani says that in Afghan Wakhan it is used for newborn or sick animals requiring cares at night, especially during winters. In Zood Khun, this last task was handled in Kalaraj (6) as explained below.
3. Pastraj: (Past Raz) Sleeping. Duvets and blankets are kept rolled up here during the day, and spread out at night.
4. Sinaraj: More sleeping space.

Wakhi house of Zood Khun, a kitchen with stove and chapati preparation - Photo Bernard Grua
In the house of Mrs. Pari Jahan of Zood Khun. She prepares chapatis on a metal stove in front of the dildung, on which Dilawar sits. The kitchen is separated from the main room.
Wakhi house of Zood Khun, a kitchen with kids - Photo Bernard Grua
Pari Jahan’s kitchen is large enough to have meals in.

5. Nikard: Stove and eating space. The sitting area is a square place around the fire place. Males sit on the right side. Sitting arrangement is in specific order. The guest, elderly or religious leaders people get the priority to sit, the closest to the stove (B). These most respected people sit first then the young ones sit. Females sit on the left. Similar hierarchy rule is also followed on the female side of the sitting area (A). The most important places for sitting are called dildungban.
6. Kalaraj(Kla Raz) Sleeping. In the past, it could be used for animals in winter.
7. Dildung: (Dildong, Dong) Cooking and sitting place for children. It is the highest platform (until 1 m high). It is originaly a furnace (tandoor) made with clay and stones, able to accumulate warmth and to return it at night even if fire is finished. Odinmamadi Mirzo (Wakhan, 2010, p. 78) says its name in Tajik Wakhan is degdon (wrong transliteration?). He adds: “finally dedgon from the perspective of the Zoroastrian religion performs the place for fire worshipping”. He also presents some traditions of ancestors regarding fire and fireplaces which are considered as mandatory to follow (Wakhan, 2010, p. 109). Today Dildung is less used as a furnace while being supplemented by a metal stove placed in front of it.
8. Warasar: Storage. Two half height walls or wooden cabinets separate the two Warasar (8) from Dildung (7) and Sinaraj (4).
9. Jkeesh: (Cekish, Chukish) Cooking and storage.
10. Ganz: (Ghanz, Ghananz) Stockroom. In some houses, this room can be bigger, have a stove and a skylight. It is, then, the kitchen and the dining room.

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The multiple senses and functions of the khana pillars

Robert Middleton’s 2002 description,Symbolism in the Pamiri House“, is a good thread. Avantour’s text “Pamiri Cuture” is a useful synthesis. The most detailed elements, listed below, come from a pdf document published by the cultural services of the city of Khorog in the Tajik Pamir. It concerns Shughni Pamiri houses but the essentials must also apply to Wakhie houses.

The Pamiri house design is said to be over 2,500 years old and based on the principles of the Atash-Parast (fire worshippers, Zoroastrians). The Five Pillars have sacred significance in the Zoroastrian religion. They refer to the main “Yazata” gods/goddesses/angels. In Ismailism, they connect with Prophet Muhammad and members of his family. The number five also reflects the five pillars of Islam.

  1. Kha sitan (shughni) Suroosh (Aryan) Mohamed (Muslim)
    Among Zoroastrians, this pillar personalizes Suroosh – the first creation of Ahura Mazda – his son. In Islam, this pillar is called by the name of the Prophet Mohammad. It is the main pillar of faith, image of eternity, peace and inviolability of the house. It is a symbol of male power and protection.
  2. Vogznekh sitan (Shughni) Mehr (Aryan) Ali (Muslim)
    In the Aryan religion, this pillar represents Mehr – one of the first and main Ameshaspands created, along with Suroosh, by Ahura-Mazda. Mehr is the Angel of Light and the Guardian of Obligation. In Islam, Ali is the second Shia figure after Mohamed. He embodies loyalty and devotion.
  3. Kitzor sitan (Shughni) Anahita (Aryan) Fatima (Muslim)
    This pillar symbolizes Anahita, the guardian of the waters, the spirit of sustenance and education. This is the place of honor, only for women. Anahita personifies beauty and piety. She is also the guardian of the sacred fire and of the stove (hearth). As for Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohamed and the wife of Ali, she is revered as a pious woman, the mother of all Muslim women.
  4. Poygakh sitan (Shughni) Zamyod (Aryan) Hassan (Muslim)
    Zamyod is the guardian of the earth and the harvest. He is practical and productive. The Muslim name of this pillar is Hassan, the eldest son of Ali.
  5. Barnekh sitan (Shughni) Ozar (Aryan) Hussein (Muslim)
    The last pillar personifies the Zoroastrian Ozar – another son of Ahura Mazda, keeper of fire, the spirit of truth, goodness and the light of wisdom. He is considered the main successor of the Zoroastrian Aryan religion. Hussein, Ali’s youngest son, is the assassinated imam particularly revered by Shiias. For the Ismaili community, Karim Aga Khan IV, is a successor of Hussein. He is the 49th Imam.

The fourth and the fifth pillars are joined by a crossbar which underlines the proximity of the two brothers Hassan and Hussain. The crossbar is carved with symbols from the Zoroastrian era, frequently including a central representation of the sun. It is sometimes decorated with the horns of a Marco Polo sheep (Ovis poli) or even with swastikas.

Jansher Khan Tajik Wakhani indicates that in Zoodkhun the houses nowadays have seven pillars. But the number can go up to nine and go down to four. In wakhi, he calls them “istin”. According to him, there are three pairs of pillars and one isolated pillar.
1 : Chikish ghadh Istin (wakhi)
2: Dildung Ben Istin (wakhi)
3: Veer Istin (wakhi)
4 : Khunj Bar Istin (wakhi)

Anita Sarfraz offers a different Wakhi transliteration for pillar: “isteen”. But phonetically, it sounds the same

The two aforementioned interlocutors, who are between 20 and 30 years old, do not know any religious significance that the pillars could have.

The pillars of a Wakhi house in Zood Khun - Photo Bernard Grua
Pillars in Zood Khun houses according to Jansher Khan Tajik Wakhani

In Hunza Valley, these pillars can be found in pre-Islamist constructions sometimes with Buddhist or Tibetan ornaments. The pillars and the beams are also said to be an anti-seismic structure which could survive cracking in walls or even the fall of some of them.

It would be probably a mistake to consider the five pillars as present only in Ismaili houses. Here is an example of pillars in a Shia house of old Ganish city. The pillars are of special interest due to their carved ornaments.

Interior design of a house in Ganish - Photo Bernard Grua
Ganish: carved five pillars in an old Shia house

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The skylight, the only direct opening to the external environment.

The skylight echoes the pillars. It is built with overlapping wood beams, so as to draw four square wooden boxes leading to a fifth square of light. These four wooden squares are called chorkhona (chor khana, four houses). They respectively represent the four Zoroastrian elements: earth, water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, touched first by the sun’s rays. Among Muslims they recall the four conceptions of Shia Islam: Shariat – legality, Tarikat – Practice, Makhrifat – Intelect and Hakikat – Truth.

Wooden roof of a pamiri traditional house, Badakhshan province, Qazi deh, Afghanistan
Eric Lafforgue: Wooden roof of a Pamiri traditional house, Badakhshan province, Qazi deh, Afghanistan

This hierarchy of interactions shows the coherence of the philosophical conception. Using the skylight, locals could determine the approach of spring to begin agrarian work – cultivating the land and celebrating the Persian New Year – Navruz (Nowruz).

No doubts that so many elements deeply rooted in religions helped to keep the layout of the structure for such an extremely long time. We have an incredible opportunity to see houses, where people still live, looking similar to the ones built millennia ago. However, this is also a testimony about the early achievement, in Central Asia mountains, of an optimum reached to address altitude and climate constraints with the limited available resources. Zoodkhun constructors have been able to use very local materials in the most efficient way.

More about the permanence of Zoroastrianism symbols on HeritageInstitute.

For religious considerations in Chapursan Valley, see:

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Importance of raw material choice for a comfortable and healthy accomodation.

The platform floor, where people sit and sleep, is usually made of wood or mud. It is covered with thick carpets. Note, it seems that the Tajik Wakhi way (probably influenced by Russian habits) of hanging heavy wool carpets on the walls is not a tradition from Gojal. The most which can be observed is a partial or complete wall cover with a thin fabric having colored patterns. Otherwise, walls are just painted.

Local mud and stones for walls, built without mortar, providing good insulation.

In many villages of Gojal, the main materials for the walls of houses, plots and agricultural terraces are large, more or less round alluvial pebbles, extracted from the sediments. They were recovered from reclaimed land converted into fields. As below, in Passu, where the building stones seem to have been previously carried by the Hunza river.

Dry stone wall around a field in Passu - Photo Bernard Grua
Orchard wall in Passu. Large rounded pebbles
Stones of buildings in Passu - Photo Bernard Grua
Cattle buildings in Passu. Large rounded pebbles

In Zood Khun it is different. The stones used for the masonry present sharp angles, as if they had been broken from larger elements. There are, in fact, large areas of rocky chaos, old glacial moraines, exploited as quarries.

Dry stone wall in Zood Khun - Photo Bernard Grua
Zood Khun: a drystone wall and another one in preparation — In the background is the rocky chaos used as a quarry. At its beginning, it possible to see the long wall of the polo field.

Stone walls are dry mounted, without mortar. Except for enclosures and field terraces, the spaces between stones are filled in with mud which, when dried, provides the insulation required by the cold winters, at this altitude of 3,300 m. These local materials, perfectly in accordance with the land they come from, contribute to the authentic and charming vision offered by the diyor. The amazing consistency of drystone walls for field terraces as for all around plots and paths is absolutely stunning and should be preserved in a time when so many gorgeous points of views, including in Hunza Valley, are spoiled while bearing the scars of ugly exotic enclosures.

Young ladies walking between two stone walls in Zood Khun - Photo Bernard Grua
Zoodkhun: all paths are bordered with beautiful dry stone walls (the young girls are going to the village library)
A large view of Zood Khun - Photo Bernard Grua
Zoodkhun, a harmony still preserved thanks to natural materials, but the first visual attacks are progressing.

Skill in building dry stone walls without mortar is a Wakhi expertise. In Afghan Pamir for example, Kirghiz herders, ignore this technology. In their high settlements, when they want constructions in addition to their yurts, they hire Wakhi people (Matthieu & Mareile Paley — Pamir, p. 132).

However, it should be mentioned that concrete blocks begin to appear for housing and for small shops closed with their inevitable iron curtains while topped with metal sheets. Then, these shops look like average suburban garages or “Naran-fashion” stalls (the social and visual damages of domestic tourism spoiling Kaghan Valley are truly worrying). Fortunately, they are, at this time, still in a small quantity. Moreover, due to the limited number of external visitors, shop keepers don’t need to show any disrupting commercial signs, while every inhabitant knows their specialties. Thanks to this contained invasion, Zood Khun “main street” (being also the end of the valley road) stays, till today, incomparably more poetic than the one of Sost (the settlement where Chapursan road connects with Karakoram Highway, KKH).

Sost bazaar and trucks on the Karakoram Highway - Photo Bernard Grua
Sost: “main street” on Karakoram Highway (KKH), a place with numerous junk concrete and metal plate “buildings” in the middle of a great landscapet.

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Wood for a more stable structure

The preferred wood for pillars, especially for the prophet Mohamed’s one, and for the roof-terrace beams is yarz (juniper) because it is strong. It has anti-insects and purifying properties. It is a sacred tree. Its scented smoke is supposed to facilitate access to the mystical world (Matthieu & Mareile Paley — Pamir, p. 41). It has the same shamanism level of recognition from Siberian native people. In Europe, juniper pebbles were supposed to repulse witches and bring luck. They were also put in wardrobes against moths. Modern cosmetics researches show that juniper essential oil has actual beneficial qualities. However, while this wild tree, which can be found until 3 800 m, is slow to grow and not abundant, weaker, less desirable and less lasting “cultivated” poplar can replace it.

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Modern concrete is not a proper alternative to local materials.

Houses with rigid concrete walls may lack the traditional anti-seismic property. They are also not so good for keeping heat in winter especially with limited fuel resources. Additionally, the cold concrete floor can cause joint pain when sitting or lying on platforms. These reasons might be the ones explaining why some families having modern houses in “new Ganish” go back to their former home during the coldest period. This is a useful information for Zood Khun which is located 1000 m higher in the mountains and facing a harder climate.

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A cement veil on a timeless vision?

Even on traditional walls, it seems trendy, nowadays, to coat facades with a dark cover of cement. It is, somewhere, affecting the harmony of the landscape. It is, additionally, a trap preventing traditional walls of “breathing”, by blocking evaporation, facilitating condensation and leading to humidity accumulation. These monotonous gray walls are, sometimes, decorated with geometric patterns. It doesn’t appear this ornamentation has a particular meaning. According to Mumtaz, a village child, “this is for style”. In the same way, the angles of the coated walls and the framing of the openings are underlined by strips traced in white paint.

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More information about Wakhi people:

Inside Wakhi houses of Afghan Wakhan Corridor by

Eric Lafforgue

Afghanistan album on Flickr

Afghan family inside their traditional pamiri house, Badakhshan province, Qazi deh, Afghanistan
Afghan family inside their traditional pamiri house, Badakhshan province, Qazi deh, Afghanistan
Afghan family inside their traditional pamiri house, Badakhshan province, Wuzed, Afghanistan
Afghan family inside their traditional pamiri house, Badakhshan province, Wuzed, Afghanistan
Afghan family inside their traditional pamiri house, Badakhshan province, Khandood, Afghanistan
Afghan family inside their traditional pamiri house, Badakhshan province, Khandood, Afghanistan

Published by Bernard Grua

Graduated from Paris "Institut d'Etudes Politiques", financial auditor, photographer, founder and spokesperson of the worldwide movement which opposed to the delivery of Mitral invasion vessels to Putin's Russia, contributor to French and foreign media for culture, heritage and geopolitics.

2 thoughts on “Pamir mountain houses of Zoodkhun in Chapursan Valley, northern Pakistan

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