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The Peoples
of the Red Book

Peoples of the Pamirs



Self-designation. The self-designation is vuhh, hik, vahi (Tadzhik vahhon), and their language is called Hik zik.

Habitat. The Wakhs inhabit the highest part of the Pamirs in the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China (Chinese Turkmenistan). Their habitat more or less corresponds to the historical Wakhan region, which mainly occupied the valley of the River Wakhandarya (in present Afghanistan), on the upper reaches of the River Pyandzh. The historical Wakhan was situated between the ranges of the Pamir and Hindukush, 2,500--3,000 m above sea level. The Great Silk Road to China crossed it, caravans on their way to India and Persia passed through it, and Marco Polo also travelled here. A more detailed description of the Wakhs can be found in 7th century Chinese chronicles.

The Wakhs themselves call only the valley of the River Pyandzh, Wakhan, from the confluence of the Wakhandarya and the Pamir to the point where the Pyandzh bends sharply to the north, in the vicinity of Ishkashmi. The valley of the Wakhandarya is called Sarkhadd. The right bank of the Wakhan belonged to the Ishkashmi district of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province in Tadzhikistan. The left bank and Sarkhadd belong to Afghanistan. The border runs along the River Pyandzh.

The Wakhs, as stated, live on the upper reaches of the River Pyandzh, on both the right and the left bank. The settlements begin with the village (qishlaq) of Langar-Kishni, on the upper reaches of the river. The lower villages (Namadgut or Namadgat, Kozide) are located at the confluence of the Wakhandarya and the Pamir rivers. Wakhs also live in the district centre of Ishkashmi. About 50 families who have come from Afghanistan live in the Kuybyshev district in Tadzhikistan.

Population. In 1939 there were 4,500 people. The exact number of the Wakhs is unknown at present but it is thought there are about 5,000--7,000 Wakhs in the ex-Soviet Union, 5,000 of them in the villages on the territory of the former Wakhan. Approximately the same number lives elsewhere, although, according to A. Gryunberg and J. Steblin-Kamenevsky, there are altogether nearly 20,000 Wakhs, by other counts, no more than 15,000.

Europeans first heard about the Wakhs at the beginning of the last century, when A. Burnes in his travel journal Reise nach und in Bokhara (Weimar 1835), published some words in the Wakhi language. Considerably more complete information comes from 1876, when R. Shaw published excerpts of Wakhi texts, a short survey of grammar and a dictionary: On the Ghalchah Languages (Wakhi and Sarikoli) -- Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1876. This scholarly treatment has a profound influence even today. Shaw travelled about in the areas of the dialects of the Wakhi language in China, on the territory of the present-day Uighur autonomous region in Xinjiang.

Language. The Wakhi language belongs to the southern group of the Pamir languages, in the Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages, where the different Ishkashmi and Wakhi languages are included. The Wakhi language, rich in archaisms, differs considerably from the Pamir languages, and generally from the southeastern group of Iranian languages, having certain common characteristics with the Indian languages. Although divided by borders, the Wakhi language is still very much the same, and dialectal differences are not great.

The language of mutual communication, and the written language, for the Ismaelites of the small nations of Pamir has been the Tadzhik language. The Wakhi oral tradition is also bilingual (Wakhi and Tadzhik). On the Upper Wakhandarya, there are noticeable Turkic influences in place-names. Wakhi-Kirgiz contacts are maintained even today. Many Wakhs also speak the Shugni language. The Wakhi folksong bul'bulik is principally a women's song, it is sung on the summer pastures. Before the establishment of the Soviet regime, the Wakhs were almost totally illiterate. Nowadays, schooling is obligatory for everyone. The language for schooling is, without exception, Tadzhik, which places Wakhi in a passive role and accelerates the disintegration of the language. In domestic situation, however, Wakhi is still preferred, whatever the subject, although most Wakhs speak Tadzhik quite fluently.

History. Until the second half of the 19th century, Wakhan was an autonomous region (Ishkashmi included), which from time to time succumbed to the rule of the Emirs of Badakhshan.

Ethnic culture. The climate of Wakhan is continental: it seldom rains, and snow is swept away by the icy east winds. The everyday life of the Wakhs is ruled by traditions. The main occupations are farming (wheat, barley and leguminous plants), and hending (cattle, sheep, goats and yaks). It is difficult to use machinery on the mountain slopes, therefore old primitive cultivation methods are used (for example, oxen are used for ploughing). One crop is figs, which in the past, have substituted for bread: figs ripened at the end of June, at a time when other food was most scarce, and long before the grain could be harvested. A historical Wakhi village, qishlaq, is small, containing a couple of adjoining houses from which each family had their own exit. The Wakh are Islamic and belong to the Ismaelite religious sect.

Writing. Like other Pamir languages, Wakhi has no written language. In the Soviet Union, Tadzhik is used for literary purposes, more specifically, the peculiar Wakhan dialect of the Tadzhik language. The only incidences of monolingualism would be amongst young children or old women. In Afghanistan, the Wakhs use Dard or Farsikabul, and Afghan or Pashto (Pushtu) for a written language; in China, primarily Uighur or Chinese. In Afghanistan, compared to the Tadzhik Wakhs, the extinction of the Wakhi language is a slower process, as there is no compulsory education and literacy is still not widespread.


  1. М. С. Андреев, Таджики долины Хуф. Т. 1, Сталинабад 1958
  2. А. Л. Гр.нберг, И. М. Стеблин-Каменевский, Ваханский язык. Тексты, словарь, грамматический очерк, Москва 1976
  3. Т. Н. Пахалина, Ваханский язык, Москва 1975
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