How past and present religions built a tradition palimpsest in a high valley of northern Pakistan

Chapursan Valley, Pakistan, between Hindu Kush, Pamir and Karakoram ranges is mostly inhabited by Wakhi people, a small minority living in China and in Afghan or Tajik Wakhan. Not surpringly this population share a same faith and same religious traditions regardless the recent (on an historical point of view) borders.

Documented religions of Wakhi people

The Tajik Odinamamadi Mirzo (OM) gives a presentation of religions in the home land of Wakhi people, «Wakhan» (page 105 to 114). Though, there are obvious contradictions between dates or sources, OM offers an interesting historical overview. Although HinduismManichaeism and Christian Nestorianism have certainly crossed the Wakhan Corridor, they are not documented by OM and will not be presented here.

Zoroastrianism

The most ancient documented religion in Wakhan is Zoroastrianism whose followers were Atash-Paras (fire worshippers, though it is a restrictive summary of their spiritual and humanist religion). Also called seapoosh kafir (black-worn infidels), they had their temples. However, added to its domestic functions, the fire place of houses (dildung) was also a place of worshipping. Fire worshippers, in the 10th century AD, still constituted half of the Wakhan’s population.
[Dr. D.A. Scott, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1984, №2., pp. 217–228), asserted Zoroastrians survived until 1896 in Wakhan when they were crushed by the Kabul emir Abdur Rahman’s army which forced these Kafir(s) to embrace the true faith. Scott suggested, however, that some Zoroastrian elements might have been maintained, until today, in the region, especially in some remote but close parts of adjacing Pakistan.]

Buddhism

The spread of Buddhism in Wakhan started during the 4th century. Wakhan corridor, which some authors qualify the «Great Buddhist road», was a very active part of first Great Silk Road. The Chinese traveller Syan Tzan (639–645 AD) observed that Zoroastrianism and partly Buddhism were both practiced in Wakhan. He visited India and Bamiyan. When returning he had 22 horses with loads of Buddhism books thus marking (?) 10 Buddhist temples in Wakhan (other authors say Syan Tzan «converted» some Zoroastrian temples into Buddhist ones). Today, there are still large remains of a Buddhist temple in Vrang Village which could be from 4th or 7th century AD. Here too, some researchers suggest that before turning into a Buddhist place of worship it might have been a Zoroastrian building. The people of Wakhan practiced Buddhism until 11th-12th centuries.

Vrang, Tajik Wakhan: Buddhist stupa — Photo by Bernard Grua
Vrang, Tajik Wakhan: Buddhist stupa

Animism

At this time, Animism staid present in the region. Although “idolatry” is a too global and contemptuous word to qualify the quest for God expressed by people of different religions or practices, this sentence of OM should be mentioned.

“This historical legacy testifies that idolatry was indeed practiced in Wakhan. Shrines were built in villages and pasturelands and horns of animals and stones were placed on them. In some places huge old trees are worshipped and such shrines are called as oston.”

As it is frequent in Asia, Shamanism could have been integrated in Buddhism. Then, it kept its place in the subsequent religion.

Ismailism

The army of the Caliph al-Maʾmun defeated Wakhan around 814–15. The opposition between Zoroastrians and Arabs was very tense. After having lost their castles (like Qahqaha and Yamchun), black worn fled to India (could be today Pakistan) but came back for raids against Arabs.

Remains of Qahqaha (Kaahka), on Afghan Wakhan | Yamchun fortress | Photos by Bernard Grua
Left: Remains of Qahqaha (Kaahka), fortress with a view over Panj River on Afghan Wakhan Supposed to be built by Kushan empire BC | Right: Yamchun fortress — Afghan Hindukush in the background

In the 10th-11th centuries, the Ismaili faith of the Shia branch spread over Central Asia. Around 1040–1050, one of its most famous and respected propagators in Wakhan was Nasir Kusrav (Nasir Khusrow, Nāser Khosrow). Numerous traditions are attached to his name. In Afghan Wakhan, he probably went until Yimit (a few km from Khandut). It is also said he traveled to the Lot Kuh Valley of the Chitral District (Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan).

“The poet (Nasir Kusrav) lived his last 15 years in Badakhshan preaching people carefully to Islam, especially to Ismailism and accepted their ancient traditions and customs”.

Note the important mention: «accepted their ancient traditions and customs».

Marco Polo (1271) writes that Wakhan inhabitants practiced the Shia branch of Islam. He observed the neighboring districts had not converted to Islam yet.

Wakhi shrines evidence the permanence of spirituality and old tradition

Shaman rock,Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal having some common points with a Wakhi oston - Photo Bernard Grua
Shaman rock,Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal having some common points with a Wakhi oston

Some monuments or constructions acquire a specific sense in the environment they are designed for and through the dialog these spiritual creations handle with their natural frame.
That is what expresses the Poseidon’s temple at the eastern limit of continental Greece, the Buddhist/Shamanist ovoos staying at the top of passes in the Siberian Eastern Sayan Mountains or on rocks and capes of Olkhon Island (Baikal Lake).

The Mont St Michel in its bay, the Abbey of St Mathieu facing the mighty Ocean at the western limit of the European continent, the chapel Ste Barbe in Le Faouët are other examples the author can find in Brittany, his homeland.

In their mountains and valleys, Wakhi people shared this common religious concern of humanity. Shrines are their local answer for the affirmation of the sacred in the landscape.

Over numerous years, John Mock conducted a survey about the shrines located in Afghan Wakhan. His amazing and serious work can be downloaded in PDF: “Shrine Traditions of Wakhan Afghanistan”. In his publication, are drawn comparisons between the adjacent Wakhan Tajikistan and the Hunza-Gojal of Pakistan, evidencing a same community of traditions within Pamir or even a broader area. Here below is a selection of some elements of particular interest in connection with Hunza/Gojal and Chapursan Valley. Unless otherwise stated, quotes are from John Mock.

A place affirming the sacred in the landscape:

“At each shrine, one notices a specific place where oil or clarified butter is applied. If there is a depression in the rock, a wick may be placed in the oil/butter and the shrine illuminated, or open oil lamps may be placed at the spot. As Iloliev notes, “shrines were constructed by believers in order to have a more direct contact with supernatural powers at the places where the saints were buried or were believed to have performed some kind of miracle. . . and to receive spiritual blessing (barakat) from them” (Iloliev 2008a, 46). Such places where the relationship with the sacred could be mediated were likely part of the indigenous belief system prior to the coming of Islam. Shrine sites are the locus for integration and assimilation of indigenous beliefs into Islamic discourse and for reaffirming and mobilizing a shared sense of the sacred in the landscape.”

There are three sort of Wakhi shrines:

Oston (Astān, threshold), trees, often decorated with colored strips of cloth, or a collection of stones with unique shape, color, or markings.

Qadamgohs (qadamgāh, stepping place) are places where saints reputedly visited. A rock with the mark of a footprint or the impression of a staff apparent on it may mark such sites, or a grove of trees or a spring may mark the site of a saint’s visitation.

Mazars (mazār, tomb) are typically burial places”

A shrine incorporating a Buddhist religious construction being part of the Jamat Khana compound in Khandut (Afghan Wakhan)

Today, Khandut (Khandud, Khandood) is the headquarters of the Afghan Wakhan. In the past, for long periods, it was already the main settlement of the Wakhan mirdom/kingdom. In its jamat khana (house where gather Ismaili communities for praying, meeting or studying), it is still possible to observe an historical structure evidencing the permanence of the same place for different religions.

Jamat Khana in Khandut (Afghan Wakhan) — Photo by Bernard Grua
Jamat Khana in Khandut (Afghan Wakhan)
Khandud, dilapidated circular structure within Jamat Khana compound — Photo by Bernard Grua
Khandud, dilapidated circular structure within Jamat Khana compound

“The oston receives oil or butter, as indicated by the oiled appearance of the small stones. In this respect, it is similar to other shrines.

However, an opening in the wall leads into a dilapidated circular structure made of sun-dried bricks, neatly arranged to form a larger base circle with an upper, smaller circle. The shape of this now-ruined structure is reminiscent of old Buddhist vihara found in India, and the sun dried bricks are seemingly identical with the bricks used in construction of the Kansir fort at Korkut, which dates to the eighth or ninth century CE.
Could it be that these are the remains of the famous vihara of Khandut? Without additional archaeological study and perhaps radiocarbon dating, it must remain as speculation. However, we might assume that the location has long been linked with the sacred and that the oston most likely predates the jamat khana, demonstrating a continuation of religious practice in this location.”

A parallel can be made with the transformation of a Buddhist shrine in Medium Hunza Valley.

“The establishment of an Islamic shrine at the place of a Buddhist shrine is attested from Thol in Nagar (Hunza Valley) in northern Pakistan, which is on the ancient route from Gilgit via Hunza to Wakhan (Frembgen, 75; Stein 1907, 20). »

In Altit Fort, the oldest castle of the mir of Hunza, the Hinduist/Buddhist swastika is carved on the mosque. Next to Altit, swastikas can be also observed on one of the old mosques of Ganish.

Hunza: Altit Fort mosque | Swastikas on Altit Fort mosque | Hunza: Swatiskas on a Ganish mosque Photos Bernard Grua
Hunza: Altit Fort mosque | Swastikas on Altit Fort mosque | Hunza: Swatiskas on a Ganish mosque

The two Panja Shah shrines in Qala e Panja (Afghan Wakhan) and at the entrance of the Wakhi Chapursan Valley (Pakistan) are very similar. They might pre-date introduction of Islam.

John Mock about Panja Shah in Qala e Panja:

“The oston (shrine and panja stone) of Panja Shah in Qila-e Panja (Afghan Wakhan)… is decorated with some strips of colored cloth on sticks and has a stone with a hole in it that serves as the spot where offerings are placed.

The panja stone…has five smooth and parallel finger-like grooves in it… In Shiʿi Islam, the number five signifies the Five Pure Persons: the Prophet Mohammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan and Hosayn. In the Pamir, the Shiʿi traditions blended with Sufi and Ismaili thought to form a unique Pamir Ismaili belief and practice called Panj-tani, “five bodies” (Iloliev 2008a, 41), often symbolized by a handprint.

The stone carries the same significance for today’s community, but, as Zalmay (great grand son of last mir/king of Wakhan) stated to the author, may well pre-date the introduction of Islam in the Pamir. Its unique size and shape may have been significant for earlier beliefs.”

Pir Shah Ismaily (spiritual leader of Afghan Wakhan) about Panja Shah:

“On this stone, Hazrat ʿAli (Mohammad’s son in law), King of men, is said to have offered prayers. The signs of his five fingers, shin, and his staff, these signs still exist… The five fingers of Shoh-e muborak (Shāh-e mobārak) are imprinted there on the stone.”

Afghan Wakhan: Old fortress (Qala) of Qala e Panja Photo Bernard Grua
Afghan Wakhan: Old fortress (Qala) of Qala e Panja

The oston of Panja Shah at the entrance of the Wakhi Chapursan Valley (Pakistan), though it is not in open air, compares with the one of Qala e Panja (Afghan Wakhan).

The oston of Panja Sha at the entrance of Chapursan Valley (Pakistan) Photo Bernard Grua
The oston of Panja Sha at the entrance of Chapursan Valley (Pakistan)

“The shrine Panja Shah in Chapursan Valley, a Wakhi population area in northern Pakistan that is linked to Wakhan via a pass, has a stone with five claw or finger marks, on which libations of clarified butter are offered. Similar rock marking shrines in Chapursan led Aurel Stein, who visited Chapursan in 1913, to remark on their resemblance to Buddhist rock shrines as “a case of continuity of local worship reaching back to pre-Muhammadan times” (Stein 1981, 52; Mock 1998, 308)”.

The stone with five claw or finger marks inside Panja Shah oston, Chapursan Valley (Pakistan) Photos Bernard Grua
The stone with five claw or finger marks inside Panja Shah oston, Chapursan Valley (Pakistan)

The same story of flood, as a retribution of sins, in Wakhan and Chapursan Valley

Nasir Kusrav (Nasir Khusrow, Nāser Khosrow) the main Ismaili missionary, facing a denial of hospitality, and the flood of Yimit (Afghan Wakhan)

“In the village of Yimit in Wakhan, there is today a shrine at the place where Nasir Kusrav (Nasir Khusrow, Nāser Khosrow) demonstrated several miracles and brought his message to the people. Yimit is located approximately four kilometers downstream from Khandut. Nāser arrives in Yimit dressed as a wandering mystic (malang, dervish) in old clothes and carrying a wooden staff. There in Yimit, a wedding feast is taking place, where he is rebuffed and abused, and the men in the wedding house throw stones and sand at him. One woman of the house, however, shows him respect and greets him kindly, and Nāser speaks kindly to her. He then leaves, changes into regal clothes and mounts his white horse. He returns to the wedding house and is greeted with honor. The men offer him food but he refuses it. He then commands his sleeve and whip to eat the food. The food turns to stone on the spot. One “green stone” Nāser touches with his whip and it splits into two. On one side are “five deep finger marks,” which represent “the qualities of panj-tani.” On the other side are seven holes that symbolize the haft hodud-e din (lit. “seven stages of religion,” the seven steps in Ismaili hierarchy). Nāser then rebukes the people and, in some versions, he then brings down a flood on the people as punishment.

At the site today, the food that Nāser turned into stone remains as a token of the miracle and is the focal point of veneration. The stone objects are displayed under a large willow tree inside a low-walled compound.”

An old saint, facing a denial of hospitality, and the flood of Kampir Diyor (Chapursan Valley, Pakistan)

“With this mention of a flood as retribution for the sins of the villagers, the Wakhan (Afghanistan) oral narrative moves beyond the outlines of the story from Nāser’s Safarnāma and begins to take on the structure of another famous regional narrative; the story of Kampir Diyor “the old woman’s village” in the Chapursan Valley (Pakistan). The general shape of this legend is that an old man appears and is refused hospitality by all but an old woman. The white-bearded saint blesses the old woman and instructs her to leave her home for high ground. She does so and looks back to see the saint upon his white horse, bringing a devastating flood down upon the village that scorned him.

Her winnowing basket is turned to stone and remains on the roof of her now-destroyed house as a token of the saint’s power. Stories following this pattern are known from the Raskam Valley east of the Shimshal Pamir, the Shigar Valley of Baltistan, and the Darel Valley of Indus Kohistan (Mock 1998, 306)… This story type exist, then, in non-Ismaili settlement areas. All the valleys are prone to catastrophic glacial outburst floods, which could suggest a correlation between geophysical context and interpretive constructs of landscape”.

There is a similar story to Kampir Diyor’s one about a flood on a former Yishkok Village, in Chapursan Valley, between Zood Khun Village and Baba Ghundi mazar. It involves the saint at the origins of the Panja Sha’s oston. More can be learned while downloading: Myths of Chapursan Valley.

Chapursan Valley between Sost (on Karakoram Highway) & Irshad Pass (Afghan border)

Permanence of religious traditions as a key

Let’s make the wish, that someone will proceed, in a next future, to the same inventory work for Chapursan shrines than the one performed by John Mock for Wakhan shrines. The valley is rich of educated people, Wakhi and English speakers, talented photographers and video makers, who could share their findings and get international scholar supports or guidelines. Meanwhile, it is already possible to confirm that Chapursan Wakhi people share the same religious faith and very ancient traditions than the ones of Wakhan. Although they have been able to root them in their very local landscape. This contributes to a sacred and harmonious vision of nature in addition to the special attention devoted to the traditions of the ancestors. Such a permanence will help to explain the design of the Wakhi mountain houses which staid remarkably stable and common to other Pamiri people, since immemorial times. See the article from the same author: “Wakhi mountain houses of Zoodkhun in Chapursan Valley, northern Pakistan”

Bernard Grua, Nantes, France, January 5, 2020

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.

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