Changing Dynamics of Pashtun Culture

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Changing Dynamics of Pashtun Culture, Raj Wali Shah Khattak
Published in Khyber.ORG on Thursday, April 24 2003 (

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Changing Dynamics of Pashtun Culture

Raj Wali Shah Khattak

Publishing Date: Thursday, April 24 2003

Before presenting my remarks about Pashtoon Culture, I would like to say a few elementary things about Culture itself. The term "Culture" is in a sense a contemporary term and before 19th century, this term was not very vivid in the consciousness of the writers. However, this term has acquired great popularity during the past two centuries. Intellectuals and thinkers have tended to define the term "Culture" in a variety of manners. As a result no standard and agreed upon definition of the term has emerged so for. Anthropologists have defined this term differently, keeping in view their different purposes. This definitely has resulted in some confusion about the term "Culture". The reason is that from art of agriculture to music, painting and architecture, al these things, one way or the other are said to be related with culture.

Culture actually is a way of human behavior. In this way of behavior all our habits, actions, ideas and values are included, which are dear to us as an organized social group or as members of a family. Acting on these values and ideas not only shapes our standard of living but also determines the identity of the cultural group.

It appears as though nature not only provides a geographical environment to a race or a human group but also helps create a particular way of living in that geographical environment. In these circumstances people living in that particular environment come to possess a particular temperament and mentality. From this point of view the environment provided by Nature plays its role in shaping the mentality of the people. It gives them a particular psychology. If the way of living in a particular geographical environment is called culture, then every nation develops a moral code in consonance with its own mentality and psychology. It creates a philosophy of good and evil and, in the light of its own idea, arranges a system of values for itself. All this takes place in the context of the material and spiritual needs of the people. That is how customs and traditions emerged and various dresses develop which is not only a defense against extremities of weathers but also reflect the aesthetics and moral standards.

The sense of beauty is of the highest significance to the intellectual distinctions of a people's consciousness. It is the sense of beauty, which plays a basic role in shaping the identity of a people's ways of living. Indeed aesthetic sense is reflected in the morals and habits as well. However, aesthetic taste is not related simply with beauty alone, it has to do with a certain sublime power called Jalal as well. Indeed this sublime power is very much a part of beauty and where there is a greatest emphasis on this power, the culture tends to be male oriented, though not necessarily male-dominated. Pashtoon have terms like Nartob and Sarhitob which reflect the high value of this nation. Although these two terms mean Manliness, they are not applied to male alone, the terms are also used for women where appropriate. In other words women can have the qualities of Nartob and Sarhitob or gentility. In fact if a man lacks these qualities, he is called Moozi or a person without honour. Such a person is definitely considered to be weaker than woman.

Before we look into the higher and positive values of Pashtoon, let us talk about Pashto and Pashtoonwali for a while, which are other names for Pashtoon Culture. The climate and geographical conditions, which have played a role in shaping Pashtoon culture lies upon 600 to 730 longitude and 260 to 360 latitude of the earth. This region is divided into different geographical configuration and areas. Pashtoons live on both sides of the Durand line. Different tribes live in the North West of Pakistan and Eastern region of Afghanistan. In addition many scattered tribes live in tribal pockets of North Eastern Pakistan as well. In far flung North West of Afghanistan and in some of its South Western regions we also find some Pashtoon tribes. Also in the Indian state of Rampur and in Rohaikand we find sizable Pashtoon population.

Geographically the Pashtoon areas are surrounded by Karakuram range in the North East. In North and North West is the Hindu Kush ranges. In the extreme West and South, there are mostly uninhabited and de-solute deserts. In the East we find the lofty peaks of Himaliya. The historic Oxus river flows in the North. River Indus is in the East. Hilmand and Harirod flow in the South This is the land of Pashtoons, inhabited by about 22 millions of Pashtoons or Afghans. This is one nation. Their culture is known as Pashto . Pashto is also their language, which is the backbone of their culture. In fact it is this language, which in a way has kept the culture alive. In reference to their Pashto, the code of honour of these tribes is called Pashtoonwalai. One might refer to it as the unwritten constitution of this culture. This code includes all the traditions, customs and, above all, spiritual values. True that there is no arrangement for the education of this code so far, but it covers all aspects of daily life from dress to all the activities in states of war and peace.

Like the people, this land of Pashtoons is also multi-coloured. The severe heat of valleys and plains, the Alpine cold of the hills, mountains and extreme weathers of desolate deserts, have all contributed towards making the people extremists. All this has brought them closer to Nature as well. Perhaps it was for them that Iqbal said:

"The higher objectives of Nature" are protected in the activities of desert dwellers or men living in the Mountains.

South and North of the Pashtoon areas are also referred to as upper and lower Lar and Bar in Pashto language. Bajaur and Khyber Tochi, Kurram, Gomal and Bolan are the famous passes, which connect the Pashtoons living on both sides of the Durand line. In history this region is referred to as Ruh, Ruhistan, Yaghistan, Afghana and Pashtunkhwa.

About the significance of this region and people in Asia, Iqbal has stated:

Asia is a structure of clay and water. The Afghan nation is the heart of this structure. The disruption of Afghans is the disruption of Asia, while liberty of Afghans means liberation for Asia.

It is in this kind of background that Pashtoon Culture has emerged. This culture is poor but self-respecting and it is known for its toughness and religiosity. All this makes for a conservative social system. Pashtoons are a frugal people but on special occasions they tend to show extreme generosity. They attach great importance to national pride and family honour. Their insistence upon equality and their intense democratic spirit often leads to fights and competition. This way of life and psychology has led some people to call Pashtoon Society as " Ordered Anarchy".

All norms, values, traditions and practices fall under one comprehensive system, which is referred to as Pashtoonwalai. The family, the clan and the tribe reflect this comprehensive system. The term Pashtoonwalai is derived from the term Pashtoon, which might be said to be comprised of the following:

  • پ for Pat, which means fellowship or comradeship
  • ش for Shegarha, which means doing good to others or the needy
  • ت for Toora, which literally means sword and stands for bravery
  • و for Wafa, which means fidelity to one's commitment
  • ن for Nang, which means Honour

From this point of view, the essence or meaning of the term Pashtoon consists in chivalry, courage, fidelity and honour. And these are the qualities, which shape the character of Pashtoon Society.

In addition, Hospitality, Council of Elders, Modesty, Revenge, Taunt and Nanawatai (seeking forgiveness in a feud),Fear, Shame, Nang, Namoos, Ghairat, Toora, etc. are the terms, which define the Pashtoon Culture. As noted earlier comradeship, doing good to the others, bravery, fidelity and honour are fundamental values of Pashtoon Culture. Their explanation and history are historical events related with them, cannot be addressed in this brief essay because such an effort requires explication of a whole philosophy of life.

The general point however, is that these values have given a special character to the Pashtoon. These values are reflected in their customs, traditions and worship. The related qualities are also manifest in their arts and literature. Pashtoons have committed themselves to literature alone among the FINE arts. Among the professions, they have adopted only Agriculture. Other professions are generally ignored by Pashtoons but professionals, knowing Pashtoons mentality have created arts in which Pashtoon character is reflected. As I said earlier Pashtoon Culture is man oriented. In power they see greater beauty than beauty itself. Delicate and soft jobs are left to women. However, in special circumstances women might have to take up the tough agriculture- related jobs as well. Pashtoons are realist in their ordinary life and prefer strength and durability. Their art lacks paintings because perhaps it is viewed as unislamic. However, the sculpture of Gandhara Civilization reflects that durability which has remained a part of Pashtoon Culture since Pre-Islamic times. We don't find many monuments of architecture in Pashtoon lands. The reason perhaps, is that Pashtoons have never favoured building of expensive homes. Life for them is basically impermanent, particularly because of their values of enmity and revenge or Tarboorwalai. A Pashtoon is often forced by these things to abandon his house or it may be destroyed by the tribal JIRGA as a punishment. Expensive houses are built by those who are either very strong or very compromising. But among Pashtoons compromise is hardly tolerated.

Pashtoons like decoration of their abodes and appreciate it, but they prefer durability to decoration. The walls of their houses are high, their doors are strong and security arrangements are reflected in their architecture in a significant manner.

They are very serious about their dress. Men and women both like heavy dresses. They prefer a dress which not only give them identity but also is modest. Turban and Shawl have certain spiritual significance and are considered as symbols of honour. Not everyone deserves them. That is why Khushal Khan Khattak has said:

چي دستار تړي هزار دي
د دستار سړي په شمار دي

Those who tie a turban are in thousands.
Those who understand its responsibility are only a few

Pashtoon Culture has its own arts and crafts related to things of daily use. These things not only have an artistic value but reflect Pashtoon ways of behaviour. In particular the things used in Hujras or Guest house have this cultural quality.

Where Hujra is a cultural institution for Pashtoons, the Mosque is the place of worship and religious ceremony. Similarly, Kor (Home) and Godar (Water Spring) are particularized for women. All cultural actifities in these places are in the purview of women. Pashtoon culture has a long history. Its ideas have been trasnsmitted through generations mostly by word of mouth. In the Pashtoon lands, it is not only the village,s towns, and cities which are important. Every Path, every tree, every rock and hill and every water spring has historic significance in this land. With all these is associated wome historical or cultural event.

Life is not all that easy in the land of Pashtoons. Abiding by the customs and traditions, living with the values of Pashtoonwali, attending to the needs of Hujra and Mosque and a constant anxiety to protect ones honour require an extremely dynamic life. Still the real Pasthoon loves this life and his motherland. A Pashtoon is not much impressed by material gains. For him an honourable life according to the values of Pashtoonwali is much more important. As the great Khushal Khan Khattak said after his travels to India"

که په هند کښي چنبا ګل دي تر دا ګل د وطن خاوره ښه
چي پکښي خواږه ياران دي پيښور تر هر د يار ښه

No matter if India has Jasmin flowers in it
The thorns of the motherland are dearer and better than these flowers.
That the sweet friends live in this town,
My city Peshawar is dearer and better, than all other cities.

The great Khushal also informs us about the aesthetic standards of the Pashtoons as follows:

پښتني جونه مي وليدي په سترګو
څوک چي سترګي د خطا ستائي خطا دي

After having seen the beauty of Pashtoon girls,
I insist that no other beauty is comparable to them.

Similarly the great Durrani king Ahmad Shah Abdali has given expression to this love for the lands and hills of the region by saying:

د دهلي تخت هيرومه چي را ياد کړم
ځه د ښکلي پښتنوخواه د غرو سرونه

As I recall the proud peaks of the hills of Pashtoonkhwa,
The significance of the throne of Delhi comes to nothing in comparison.

Another more recent poet Ghani Khan celebrates the simplicity of Pashtoon abodes and town as follows:

ما ليدلي د فرنګه ښکلي جهازونه
چي تري لاندي ېي غوړ څنګ وهي سيندونه

ما ليدلي محلونه د لندن
جينکي ېي دي ازادي ګلبدن

ما ليدلي د اټلي ښائسته ښارونه
سره انګور سره ېي شراب او سره ګلونه

ما ليدلي امريکه کښي دي ښارونه
چي وريځو ته ېي رسي مکانونه

ما ليدلي تاج محل غوټي د ګلو
د دهلي ښکلي ښارونه ده مغلو

خو چي او وينم دا خپل د خټو کور
را هير شي د دنيا ښارونه نور

دا نري تنګي کوڅي ځما ده کلي
ورته څه دي د دنيا ښارونه ښکلي

I have seen the beautiful British Ships
Underneath which flow the waves of rivers
I have seen the palaces of London,
where free and beautiful girls reside.
I have seen the beauty of Italian cities
where red vineyards, red vine and red flowers abound.
The American cities are also known to me whose sky scrapers reach out to the clouds.
I have also seen Taj mahal, blossoming like a flower,
And the palaces of Delhi constructed by great Mughals,
As I look at my mud house all the cities of the world vanish into oblivion.
However, the narrow and small streets of my village
are superior in comparison to all the beautiful cities of the world.

However, all this is changing rapidly today. During the last half a century, the process of cultural change as well as destruction has been at work. This has resulted in weakening of cultural institutions. Hujra, Mosque and the home are undergoing change. One factor that contributes towards this instability is the lack of proper education of Pashtoon Culture. Very few systematic efforts have been made to understand Pashtoon traditions and its philosophical foundations. The old order is being replaced by disorder. Perhaps this is all because of external cultural onslaught. Of course we can face this cultural onslaught and change its direction.

If it was a matter of fighting with swords, I would have fought it out. However, in this fateful war of fate, which has come upon me, I am standing all lost and dazed. That is:

د تورو جنګ که وو ما به کوي وو
د نصيب جنګ چي دي وار خطا ولاړ يمه


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Changing Dynamics of Pashtun Culture, Raj Wali Shah Khattak
Published in Khyber.ORG on Thursday, April 24 2003 (