Field Studies

Anthropology of Wakhan: Cultural Development and Potentials among the Wakhi Community in the Northern Afghanistan

June 25, 2018

By Fazal Amin Beg



This report is out of my fieldwork on the anthropology of Wakhan in the Northern Afghanistan that I conducted in Spring of 2007. Although, this same year, I re-visited the locale in Afghanistan, that has a separate report. Here I’m going to publish only the introduction and conclusion cum recommendation part, although the full study report is comprised on dozens of pages but I’m not sharing all at this stage.

It will provide an ample insight and information in an abridged manner to the related stakeholders within the academic and applied realms and they may look at it from a perspective of a reference point on some aspects of socio-cultural development in over a decade’s long period to observe the changes witnessed so far, challenges encountered and achievements made.



It was probably early 2006 that John Mock (Ph. D) of University of California, Santa Cruz contacted me regarding some anthropological studies on the Wakhan valley, a prospect to be carried out in the near future as he had submitted the proposal to The Christensen Fund (TCF), USA. He asked my consent, if I could join him in this academic venture that should bring us finally to a co-authorship of a book on Wakhan. I felt it an good opportunity to work with such an anthropologist/scholar who had already great academic contributions for this (Wakhi) ethno-linguistic community, which mainly dwells in four countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and Tajikistan, besides Russia and Turkey. When approval of the proposal/funding came up, I joined this noble cause and I was asked to leave for the field in spring 2007.

After the end of my biannual consultancy contract with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), I along with my assistant[1] began our journey for Wakhan in order to have a cultural exchange and to look for conservation education in its broader context. We flew for Islamabad on March 14. Within one week, we got our 15 days’ visa for Afghanistan that was not sufficient, however. We were advised to reapply for thee visa but there were around one week’s holidays of Nawruz (New-Year of the Iranian calendar). Therefore, we left by road from Islamabad to Peshawar and reached Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, on March 24, 2007. We got our visa extension for one month in around two weeks’ period then we left for Wakhan in the north-eastern Afghanistan that takes four days’ drive from Kabul provided that the road condition is good no land-sliding or otherwise.

In the field, we spent around three weeks (March 8-24)[2]. There are 41 official while almost 48 unofficial villages and hamlets in Wakhan. However, we could not visit around 11 settlements[3] that were not accessible by vehicle. The required objectives were achieved to a significant level; and we returned to Kabul on March 26 and arrived in Glgit on 3rd May, 2007.

      Objectives of the Field Visit

The broader objective of this visit was to a have cultural exchange between the Wakhis of Pakistan and Afghanistan, exploring the cultural development and have conservation education in the Wakhan district.

The specific objectives of this visit were to:

  1. Have a cultural exchange with the Wakhi people of Wakhan: knowing different community members, learning from them on different thematic areas and sharing with them the development experiences of Hunza valley;
  2. Create linkages with different peoples in Afghanistan in general and Wakhan in particular; and identify resource persons who could facilitate and support the noble academic causes in the near future;
  3. Explore the cultural development and potentials of Wakhan and have the preliminary documentation of the folksongs, folk-music, oral history of the villages and the areas, stories, festivals and the like;
  4. Create awareness with regard to conservation education by encouraging community members to conserve and promote the uniqueness of their culture as well as the nature including wildlife;
  5. Raise awareness among the educated Wakhis including youths with regard to the significances and positive promotion of their language; and
  6. Explore the archaeological sites (such as forts, shrines, old-houses and the like) and especially document the related stories attached with these sites.


Through some already identified resource persons in terms of friends and relative, it was easy to intervene in the locale for the first time.

Additionally, linkages and friendship I developed with different categories of peoples including the highly influential peoples such as the high government officials in Wakhan, Ishkoshim and tourism ministry (Kabul) in order to work smoothly in the valley as this region is termed sensitive in strategic-political term.

  1. Techniques used in getting the data


Kinship relationships were initially traced from the respondents by asking their names, fathers’ names and forefathers’ names and their relationships with the Wakhis of Pakistan, China & Tajikistan. In this way, some relationships also were traced with the researchers family. This phenomenon multiplied our acceptability among the community members and they were more open, friendly and respectful with us. Thus, this proved to be a most effective tool in getting information/data on other thematic areas (described in the objectives). So, taking interest in respondents’ families and getting information/data on their forefathers led towards the respondents’ more friendly behavior.

Mostly, open ended questions were asked from the respondents in order to get new and more information.

Key informants from each village were traced to get information on their genealogies as well as some stories, festivals, and archaeological sites.

Artistes including singers, musicians and dancers) of different villages were also searched through different respondents randomly and the questions asked were crosschecked firstly from the respective respondents themselves by changing the words or coming indirectly on the thematic areas, Secondly, the data were also crosschecked from other respondents in order to get the reliability and validity of the data.

  1. Data collection tools


The following tools were used to collect the data.

  • Digital Still Camera
  • Digital Voice Recorder (DVR)
  • Questions asked bringing the five Ws and H words into exercise
  • Some relevant literatures (reports and books) were reviewed.

a)        How did we reach in the Wakhan Valley to the respondents and returned?


We started from Gilgit to Islamabad by PIA flight; and from there to Jalabad (provincial capital of Nagarhar, Afghanistan) by buses, and there from we hired a Toyota Corolla Car up to Kabul.

Rented vehicles from Kabul to Khandud were as follow: from Kabul to Takhor province (Taliqon), aToyota Corolla Car (No KBL SH 52579); from Taliqon to Faizabad, a Townis; from Faizabad to Khandud (Wakhan), another Townis (No KBL SH 73749).

In Wakhan, a Toyota Surf vehicle (No KBL SH 64283) from Goz Khun village was rented in order to reach to the respondents of different villages of Wakhan. This vehicle thus drove us upto Faizabad (provincial capital of Badakhshan). From here onward we flew by Ariana Airlines to Kabul, and there from rented the same Toyota Coroll (which was rented from Kabul to Taluqon) upto Turkhum, the Pak-Afghan borders. From here another a car was hired up to Islamabad and we flew from here to Gilgit city.




Wuluswoli-e Wakhan has great potentials for tourism rather ecotourism development as it has got rich cultural resources besides its natural diversity. With respect to cultural development, more in-depth investigations/probing and documentations need to be carried out as this field has been not explored more seriously. On the one hand, one can find/observe the archeological sites from the pre- and post-Islamic intervention that cry and implore for their preservation initiatives. On the other, the diverse entities particularly the with those cultural sites in addition with the artistes’ community and their active participation in the cultural festivals.

If the above cited facts and facets of humanity in Wakhan were not guarded, the remaining cultural records and symbols will endanger further rather proceed towards extinction. The cultural sites and domains witness that they have been ruined during different periods of history, especially starting from the King Zahir Shah`s reign and continuing clandestinely still in Karza´s regime. So holds true for the respective Wakhi language of Afghan Wakhan. The community haven’t got adequate awareness about their ancient language and they have least interest in preserving and promoting their mother tongue. In this regard, after an orientation session of two days, the participants were eager to promote their language positively but require longer session in order to build their capacity, more particularly with respect to the Wakhi orthography.


Although, Wakhan has great potentials and genuine issues with regard to a holistic development that involves huge resources (financial, human and social), but at this stage of the study, some initial and key recommendations are necessary, which are as under:


  • The community leaders and key members of Wakhan (including Pamirs—Kirghez community also) need to be given time to time awareness with regard to their cultural assets, potentials, preservation and promotion, as this facet of humanity is not only at risk but rather subject to targeted looting in a way.
  • A museum of Wakhan needs to be established sooner so that to collect all materially movable assets should be shifted into that museum.
  • The immovable assets such as rock carvings, forts/fortresses, mosques, shrines, old houses, Buddhist symbols and others need to be preserved from further demolition and looting, and those sites which have already been targeted needs to be repaired, if possible.
  • A team of archeologists should be sent to Wakhan for a professional survey who could objectively see the prevailing situations with the material culture of Wakhan and come up with a fruitful recommendations for the feasibility, preservation, restoration and promotion of the sites.
  • A cultural platform needs to be formed specifically for the communities of Wakhan (Wakhi and Kirghiz) so that the respective community should have their positive cultural identity whereby they could and should have their cultural expressions, more particularly in the field of performing arts.
  • Likewise, the key community leaders should be encouraged to form an umbrella organization for cultural promotion and development at the level of Pamiri/Mountain Tajiks whereby they should come together and try to learn from each others’ experiences and understand each other more closely.
  • There should be beginning of cultural exchange between the Wakhis and Kirghiz communities (also the Pamiri Tajiks as a whole) of Afghanistan and Tajkistan Likewise such cultural and business exchanges should legally start among the Wakhis and Kirghiz communities of Pakistan and China with that of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It its noteworthy that these respective ethnic and linguistic communities are the real ambassadors of their respective countries being situated on the border regions and representing their states.
  • If the Nagarhar Province of Afghanistasn and North West Province of Pakistan could have an agreement to have free-entrance of the same ethnic and linguistic group, which is good and has its positive facets, so should rather must be between the Pamiri Tajiks of the Afghan and Tajik Badakhshans in general and the Pamir Tajiks and Kirghiz in particular so that the centuries old disconnection of the kinspersons should be broken and their relationships restored provided the free-entrance initiative is taken.
  • In case, free-entrance is deemed impractical at this stage because of security risks between the Pamiri Tajiks, then there should be a pass system like the agreement between the local governments of the Northern Areas of Pakistan and the Xinjiang Province of China.
  • Taken into accounts the demand and strong desire of the educated Wakhi youth, sessions/classes on Wakhi language needs to be taken for at least one month in different schools or community centers in Wakhan so that to bring out the potential creativities of the people and they should not only feel a positive pride rather contribute academically for the Wakhan culture as a whole.




It was the blessings of Almighty God that during our field visit, all the way we were quite safe and even did not come across a simple headache.


This study and funding would had not become possible rather a reality, if the proposal for this noble initiative/cause had not been taken. Thanks to Dr John Mock and Kimberley O’Neil for your conception and initiation for this academic and cultural venture.

I am grateful to the Christensen Fund for sponsoring this visit and study; without their generous support, it may not had become possible.

Special thanks also go to the CAT Foundation who played its intermediary role in disbursing the funding from The Christensen Fund (TCF). .


In the field, enormous respondents supported me with regard to my desired questions (objectives). Therefore, I would like to thank all of them from the core of my heart who accepted our presence among them and provided me ample information. Among these respondents, some are noteworthy who did not only played their roles as respondents but rather cared me a lot from different angles. Special thanks to Muhammad Wali, Chairman, District Counicl for Wakhan, who accompanied me all the time from his village, Khandud, up to Chilkand-Sost and back to Puetr-Ishkoshim. Pir Shoh Ismoyil, a prominent and great personality of Wuluswoli-e Wakhan, did not share only with us crucial information on Wakhan, but rather also provided us accommodation for couples of days with his family: so, thank you very much Pir Soyib and your family. Wali Jon of Goz Khun and his driver Dod Momad provided us the transport and accompanied us for more than a week. Their humorous mood did not led us getting bored during our travel. Thanks to them also.

Mir Ali, a good friend of mine who was in the Northern Pakistan, deserves great appreciation. It was Mir Ali wno accompanied and guided us not only in Kabul, but rather up to his hometown, Khandud and channeled us with his father, Muhammad Wali and cared me a lot during my travel. Likewise thanks to other friends, Talab uddin, JUmagul Sozgor, Syed Rahim udddin, Salo, Mullo Mamad and all others.


Last but never the least, I am very much indebted to my friend, Hyder Murad, who was my assistant. Hyder Murad accompanied me last year (August 2006) to China and was well aware of my nature and need as a disabled person (visually impaired ). I needed a compassionate, shrewed and bold friend with expertise in Martial Arts like Hyder Murad who could physically help me on such long and adventurous trips. Thanks to him once again for all his help.


[1] I have got some visual impairment and in this connection, I need to have an assistant who could assist me physically by handholding. Therefore, Hyder Murad, one of my good friends and a Martial Arts’ specialist, was asked to join me in this regard, as last year (2006) he had come with me for such sort of anthropological survey in Xinjiang, China.

[2] This is significant to note that data collection process had started from Kabul as I met some Wakhis here. So, including these days, it becomes more than three weeks (26 days) among the target group.

[3] These villages were Avgarch, Vust, Morabar, Kharij, Rurung, Yur (Deghlamon), Nirs, Rukut, Korkot, Mataq and Dhan.

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