Bettani : Iranica

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Bettani : Iranica, Daniel Balland
Published in Khyber.ORG on Monday, August 31 2009 (

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Bettani : Iranica

Daniel Balland

Encyclopaedia Iranica

Publishing Date: Monday, August 31 2009

BETANI (t - retroflex t; singular Betanay), a Pashtun tribe on the eastern edge of the Solayman mountains, where it is particularly concentrated at the western end of the Gabarghar (the Marwat range in Anglo-Iranian toponymy), a low, though very broken, mountain range that separates the Bannu basin from the piedmont of the Derajat (North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan).

The precise form of the tribal name is somewhat uncertain. In eastern sources it is sometimes written Betani or Bittani, whereas in British sources it is habitually transcribed Bhettani or Bhittani. Doubtless the latter spellings can be interpreted as reflecting contamination from India, for aspirated consonants are unknown in Pashto.

Several authors have incorrectly described the Betani as a branch of the Wazir, who are their nearest neighbors on the west and with whom they maintain close though not always amicable relations (Nevill, p. 10). In fact, the Betani are said to be descended from Bet (or Batan, Bat, Batan), the third and last son of Qais Abdul Rahshid, the mythical ancestor of all the Pashtuns. Within the overall genealogical pattern of the Pashtun this is the sole instance of an ethnic name taken from a first-generation descendant of the common ancestor. This circumstance confers on the tribe a genealogical position all the more valued in that the eponymous ancestor is also recognized as having had great religious standing, which earned him the title sheikh. Indeed, the Betani constitute a category rather like that of the Pashtun mar-about tribes, though they do not expressly claim this status.

Another very remarkable feature of the descendants of Shaikh Bet, one that is also unique among Pashtun genealogies, is the predominance of the matrilineal line over the patrilineal line. The large Ghelzay and Lodhi tribal groups claim descent from Shaikh Bet's daughter Bibi Mato, and they are of much greater importance than the Betani proper, who are descended from Shaikh Bet's two sons, Kajin (sometimes Kachin; Niamat-Allah, p. 127, n.64) and Warshbun(or Ishbun or even Shpun "shepherd"; Ne`mat-Allah, pp.45, 127 n. 64), the latter perhaps an adopted son, according to one isolated tradition reported by Bruce, p. 1.

The internal subdivisions of the Betanay tribe are not well ascertained. The sources that describe them are generally in disagreement (cf., for example, Hayat Khan, pp. 157f.; Sher Mohammad Khan, p. 205; Bruce, pp. 22ff.; and Zafar Kakakhel, p. 1331). They all, however, demonstrate the existence, side by side with entirely classical Arabic-Pashto names, of a group of ethnic names with Indian roots. This situation, which is not at all rare among the Pashtun tribes, is difficult to interpret. At the very least it suggests a long and complex ethnogenic process, including islamicization (symbolized by the title sheikh attributed to the eponymous ancestor), then pashtunization of an Indian or Indianized Solayman population, who perhaps belonged to a shamanistic tradition (the word bitan, which means "shaman" in Burushaski, spread over a wide area, for it is found with the same meaning in Khowar, a Dardic language of Chitral; see M. I. Sloan, Khowar-English Dictionary, Peshawar, 1981, s.v. betan).

All available evidence points to a location of this ethnogenic process on the western side of the Solayman mountains, in present Afghan territory. Sheikh Bet is reported to have lived in the Altamur range, between Logar and Zormat (Bellew, p. 12), and to have been buried at Ghazni (Hayat Khan, p. 156). His descendants in the male line, the Betani, are known to have inhabited the same area up to the ninth/fifteenth century, when their Ghilzai cousins expelled them (Ibbetson, p. 78). As no earlier geographical reference to this area occurs in their tradition, this would give a date for their arrival on the eastern side of the Solayman mountains. There a split soon took place: While some lineages managed to get control of part of the Gabarghar, where they have succeeded in maintaining their ethnic identity up to the present, others left for the Gangetic plains and apparently melted into other Pashtun groups.

The recent history of the Betani has been largely determined by the land that they now inhabit, adjacent to the plains of the middle Indus and the Wazir uplands, access to which they control through the four great transversal valleys of Larzan, Shuza, Shinkay, and Shahur. Soon after the incorporation of the Punjab into British India (1848) the British sought control over this territory, through which the Mahsud used to pass during their raids on the colonial districts. To obtain the formal submission of the Betani, who were too small in numbers to resist, did not take long: The simple threat, in 1853, of a military expedition was sufficient. To obtain their active cooperation in efforts to maintain order along the frontier required more time, however: It was only in 1874 that they agreed to such cooperation, which soon included formation of a Betanay militia company and its incorporation into the South Waziristan Militia, known as the South Waziristan Scouts since 1921.

In fact, the Betani very quickly revealed themselves to be not only incapable of barring the way to the Mahsud but also ready, whenever the occasion permitted, either to take part in raids by the latter or to oppose the advance of the repressive British column, behaviour for which they periodically sought pardon. This double political game, typical of the attitude of a minority group caught between two more powerful groups, caused the Indian Army to maintain, from August, 1892, until 1923, a permanent garrison at Jandola, the principal town of the Betanay country, in a strong strategic position at the entrance to the Shinkay and Shahur valleys. During the entire colonial period the territory of the Betani thus played the role of buffer tract between the Tribal Area proper and the Settled Districts. This role was recognized administratively in its status as a Frontier Region, which it still maintains and which makes it an enclave of the Tribal Area placed under the direct authority of the district commissioner of Dera Ismail Khan.

The Betani have always been few in numbers: From 8-9,000 in about 1884 (Gazetteer... Dera Ismail Khan, p. 69) they are said to have increased to more than 43,000 by about 1960 (Spain, p. 53). Their traditional way of life combines small-scale irrigated agriculture in the valleys with pastoral migrations along the mountain slopes in summer and inverse semi-nomadism toward the Indus plains in winter. At the end of the nineteenth century their dwellings were mainly mud and brush-wood hovels or simple caves, revealing that they were still far from permanently settled (Gazetteer ... Dera Ismail Khan, p. 68). Owing to lack of water and arable land in their mountainous habitat signs of over-population appeared early. Throughout the nineteenth century an important portion of the excess population was absorbed by vigorous agricultural colonization of their lowland winter quarters, in the two tahsil of Marwat and especially Tank, as far as the Gomal valley (Gazetteer Bannu, p. 33; Gazetteer ... Dera Ismail Khan, pp. 26, 28). Originally spontaneous, this movement received a decisive impetus in 1865, with the adoption of a systematic policy of granting lands to the Betani throughout the northern part of the Derajat, as a reward for the tribe's submission and services rendered during the first British military expedition against the Mahsud (April-May, 1860). By about 1880 the Betani thus possessed 14,720 acres in British territory (Paget and Mason, p. 504), and a third of them lived in the tahsil of Tank (Gazetteer ... Dera Ismail Khan, p. 69).

A tiny minority of Betani lives in Afghanistan, on the western edge of the Solayman mountains. The circumstances of its separation from the main body of the tribe are completely unknown. Perhaps this was the former location of the tribe. In the early 1930s three villages in the Ghazni area were reported to be inhabited by Betani, and in addition 100 nomadic Betani families migrated between eastern Afghanistan and the Derajat (Robinson, p. 158). The Afghan Nomad Survey of 1978 (unpublished) no longer found any trace of this migratory movement; on the other hand, it did count sixty-two families of semi-nomadic Betani harvesters wintering in Nangrahar and spending the summer in the immediate vicinity of Kabul.


  1. H. W. BELLEW., An Inquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, Woking, 1891, repr. Graz, 1973.
  2. C. E. BRUCE., Notes on Bhittanis, Calcutta, 1926 (the only monograph devoted to the Betani, primarily political and military in character, by a former district commissioner of Dera Ismail Khan).
  3. Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India II: North-West Frontier Tribes Between the Kabul and Gomal Rivers, n.p., 1908, repr. Quetta, 1979, esp. pp. 363ff.
  4. Gazetteer of the Bannu District 1883-84, Calcutta, n.d. [1884?].
  5. Gazetteer of the Dera Ismail Khan District 1883-84, Lahore, 1884.
  6. M. HAYAT KHAN., Afghanistan and Its Inhabitants, tr. from the Hayat-i-Afghan by H. PRIESTLEY., Lahore, 1874, repr. Lahore, 1981.
  7. D. IBBETSON., Panjab Castes, Lahore, 1916, repr. New Delhi, 1981, and Lahore, 1982.
  8. K. NIAMATULLAH., Makhzan-e Afghani, tr. B. DORN., History of the Afghans, pt. 2, London, 1836, repr. London, 1965, and Karachi, 1976.
  9. H. L. NEVILL., Campaigns on the North-West Frontier, London, 1912, repr. Lahore, 1977.
  10. W. H. PAGET, & A. H. MASON., Record of Expeditions against the North-West Frontier Tribes since the Annexation of the Punjab, rev. ed. London. 1884, repr. Delhi, 1980, under the title Tribes of the North-West Frontier (particularly important for relations between the Betani and the British in the colonial period).
  11. J. A. ROBINSON., Notes on Nomad Tribes of Eastern Afghanistan, New Delhi, 1935, repr. Quetta, 1978 and 1980.
  12. SHER M. KHAN., Tawarikh-e Khorsheed-e Jahan, Lahore, 1311/1894.
  13. J. W. SPAIN., The Pathan Borderland, The Hague, 1963, repr. Karachi, 1985.
  14. S. B. S. ZAFAR KAKA KHEL., Pashtana Da Tank Pa Ranrha Kshe, Peshawar, n.d. [ca. 1965]


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Bettani : Iranica, Daniel Balland
Published in Khyber.ORG on Monday, August 31 2009 (