The Ignored Dardic Culture of Swat

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Zubair Torwali[1]


The Greek historian Herodotus of the fifth century BC used the term “Dadikai” for people now known as Dards or Dardic. He placed the land between Kashmir and Afghanistan as Darada. “Darada” is the Sanskrit term used for the inhabitants of the region. In Pakistan the region is rarely called Dardistan or the people Dard, a Persian word derived from the Sanskrit “darada.”

A linguistic and ethnic mystery shrouds the term Dardic which was coined and used by colonial scholars. It was first used by the British orientalist Dr. Gottlieb Welhem Lietner (1840-1899). But no one in the region calls himself Dard, as Dr. John Mock has noted in his paper, “Dards, Dardistan, and Dardic: an ethnographic, geographic and linguistic conundrum.”

The Dard or Darada land in Pakistan includes Chitral, Swat, Dir, Indus Kohistan and Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. The people spoke Dardic languages, one of the three groups belonging to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The Dardic languages include Dameli, Dumaki, Gawri (Kalami), Gawar-Bati, Gawro, Chilsoso, Glangali or Nangalami (Afghanistan), Kalasha, Kashmiri, Kashtawari (Kashmir) Khowar, Miaya (Indus Kohistani), Pashai (Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman, Kapisa Nangarhar in Afghanistan), Palula, Shina, Tirahi, Torwali and Wotapuri and a variety of minor languages.

The Darada people of the region are the least explored. Mainstream Pakistanis do not know about the unique identity, culture and languages of these people. No mainstream research by Pakistani scholars is available on them. The only exception was the late Dr. Ahmad Ahsan Dani who did some archaeological research in the Karakorum Range.

Today the idyllic valley, Swat, is known all over the world as an Afghan or Pushtun Yousafzai society but fewer know the Dardic origin of Swat.  Archeologists have since long focused their research on the popular Buddhist civilization. Research has usually ignored the Dardic origin of Swat, however, the current Italian Archeological Mission based in Swat has recently pointed towards its Dardic origin. They base their findings on the newly excavated cemeteries in the down valley of Swat, especially, the Gandhara Grave Culture. In main Swat many people think this a totally new discovery of an ‘extinct’ community which was known as Dard or Darada. They probably don’t know that descendants of this unique extinct community still live in upper Swat—in the Kohistan of Swat—with the names of Torwali and Gawri, the two living Dardic communities.

The paper is not an archeological detail in depth. It is an attempt to attract researchers towards this unique base of Swat so as to learn more about the ancient history of this idyllic valley.


The term ‘Dardic’ was first used by Dr. Gottlieb Welhem Lietner in his book “Dardistan” published in 1889. He called the land from Kashmir to Afghanistan including northern Pakistan ‘Dardistan’ while the people as “Dards”—a persianized word meaning ‘pain’ for what is termed as Dadikai by Herodotus in fifth century BC. It was ‘Darada’ of Painni which has been translated as ‘People of the cliffs’[I] as almost all the Dardic people were, and are, confined to mountainous valleys.

Dardic Languages

All the Dardic languages, except for the Shina and Kashmiri languages, are not well studied and have no remarkable written traditions. The latter is even recognized as a state language by the government of India while the former is well known to many American and European linguists and scholars.  A glimpse of the Dardic languages spoken in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India is given below. These languages are usually divided into six groups as was done by John Mock in his essay “Dards, Dardistan, and Dardic: an ethnographic, geographic and linguistic conundrum.”[II]

1. Chitral Group

  1. Khowar
  2. Kalasha

2. Kunar Group

  1. Dameli
  2. Gawar-Bati
    1. Nangalami-Grangali
    2. Sumashti

3. Pashai Group

  1. Northeastern Group
  2. Southeastern Group
  3. Southwestern Group
  4. Northwestern Group

4. Central (Kohistani) Group

  1. Gawri
  2. Torwali
  3. Maiya (Indus Kohistani)
  4. Wotapuri-Katarqalai
  5. Tirahi

5.  Shina Group

  1. Shina proper
  2. Phalura or Palula
  3. Dumaki

6. Kashmiri Group

a.  Kashmiri proper

Today the Darada communities are predominantly Muslim except the famous Kalasha who live in the valleys of Brir, Bomborate and Rumbur in Chitral. They are hardly 4,000 in number and are socially under pressure to merge into the dominant culture and faith. They, however, still adhere to their own mythology, rituals, shamans and festivals and believe in their mythological pantheon.

The Kalasha and few other Dardic communities such as Shina are well known to scholars because of being geographically isolated from other dominant communities of the Gandhara area but the ones living in the Swat Valley are often ignored because of the overwhelming majority of Pushtuns in the valley. These are the Torwali and Gawri (Kalami) communities of the Central Kohistani Group of the Dardic communities. Today they inhabit the idyllic part of the Swat Valley known as Swat-Kohistan.[III]

The Torwalis are said to be the ancient inhabitants of Swat. The Italian Archeological Mission found tombs in Butkara, near the present Mingora, showing a long occupation of the site. A scientific analysis of a skull carried out there indicates the Torwali origin of the Swat Valley.[IV]

Presently the Torwali tribe of Dardic origin is estimated at 110,000 living in the area beyond the town of Madyan towards Kalam. A considerable number (about 30%) of Torwalis have immigrated to the cities of Karachi, Quetta, Hyderabad, Peshawar and Rawalpindi permanently.


he Torwali and Gawri communities share many things in their culture with a slight difference in the way each of these communities name their tangible and intangible culture. The lifestyle and culture of both the communities are rapidly changing along with their endangered languages.

A few glimpses of the past and present practices of the Torwali community are as follows:

Home life in the past

Extended family members lived in a single room, which was large and divided into various portions according to the structure of the ceiling. This room was used as a kitchen, bedroom and dining room. The back of the room was also used as a stable and storehouse. The room was actually a big hall with a single bathroom without a latrine.

The houses were usually made of mud, stone and wood. The front doors and pillars were engrave for decoration purposes. It was not common. Only the well-to-do families could do so.

Food culture in the past

The food contained a simple dish mostly saag, spinach and corncakes. Wheat bread was not common, as this crop was not known. In its place barley bread was used. This was called rhod. Milk products such as curd, butter and cheese were used commonly. Butter was made by stirring the curd in a pitcher made of mud with the help of a wooden tool called mehdaen, or cream separator.

The food contained no spices. Stone salt was melted by rubbing it in the saag dish. Wheat bread and meat was served only in times of festivities such as marriages and bilaeth. Bilaeth is a term used for large meal gatherings during certain rituals such as asking for God’s grace in the after life. In Bilaeth pure ghee with honey was also served as an alternative of meat. The food was served in vessels made of either wood or mud. Utensils made of copper and other metals were very rare. Pots made of mud were used for cooking, keeping water and other liquids.

Tea was not common here in the past. Often melted clarified butter, ghee, was poured into the dish with the help of pans. A special pot dhoan was also used as a pot for carrying water or ghee.

The food was put into one of the large pots and people in groups ate from it. The corn cakes were soaked in the sauce. Some ghee was sprinkled over it and this was considered very delicious meal.


In the past, furniture was made simply. Beds were made of wood stalks and ropes. These ropes, made from animal hides, were braided together to make the beds tight. Chairs were not common,  used mostly by wealthy families. There were two kinds, both called shaen. Both sat low to the ground, about six inches, and were made from rope. One kind included a straight back, made from engraved wooden planks. A simpler version had no back. Shaens large enough for two people were also made.

Maize grains were stocked in a large wooden box called ashaan. The flour was stocked in a smaller wooden box. These smaller boxes were often engraved with beautiful symmetrical figures. These were called taen. Taens were also used for keeping clothes. There were also taen for keeping money. In those days silver or copper coins were used as currency.  There were no carpets. Woolen woven rugs were used instead. These were called poray. Then came a more refined woolen woven mat called lamsay. Rugs made of grass were also common in the past.

Shaen are still in use but asshaan only in more isolated villages situated far  away from main roads. They have been replaced by aluminum chests. The taen are no more in use.


Dress was usually very simple. Men used a couple of dresses. One was new for special events while the other one was for daily use. No  one wore turbans. Hard oval leather caps were worn by men. These were wrapped with long stripes of cloth. Common people could not wear such caps. Pokhols, woolen caps folded many times up to the blade; and Kurakuli, hard conical caps made of fur animal hides came later. A kind of winter coat called goan was worn by men. This was woolen and hand-woven. For sleeping the people used a mat made of goat wool. This was called pelaes. Women used to wear Shalwar Kameez. The shirt was embroidered with coloured thread and small pieces of silver.

These shirts had large wide sleeves and embroidered collars. Women’s trousers were folded many times like the Balouch traditional men trousers are. Women wore a black blanket called taa on their heads. This was both for decency, purdah and protection in cold climate.  Old ladies also wrapped their heads with small scarves of black cloth this was called shaeghaen. Women used to braid their hair into a large braid. To keep hair open was not considered graceful. On special occasions women also wore colourful shawls as this Torwali old couplet tells us:

[Huramza mozi ye daryiab si lal thua. Dhuth lhaghur asheem o sha zed zarin shawl thua.]

[[To the rival Huramza is like a pearl from the sea. She has red soft lips and wears a crimson shawl on head]


There were no boots except the barge like shoes called khoŻore. Rich men and women both used to wear them. They were decorated with silk thread. A type of wooden shoe was also used which was an alternative to slippers. It was called kharpa.

Men also wore thawat in winter. The thawats were not shoes but animal hides which men wrapped around their feet up to their knees. These were especially used when there was snow. A kind of special shoes made of hay (rice crop hay) was also in use. This was also made for brides. The more braided these shoes were the more graceful they were considered. The number of braids could exceed seven.

Several of these old shoe models are no longer used.  Goan, khazore, kharpa and thawat are no longer used. Embroidered shirts are not used. The headwear, pakhol is there but its use is not common; and is gradually being replaced by white caps that are mostly made in Dir. Karakuli is now used by the few notables only, however, it is still regarded as a sign of grace.



Marriages were normally held in an early age. It was usually as young as thirteen years both for girls and boys. A girl could never propose her mate. Boys could do so through their mother. The girl’s wish was not enquired. Her wish was what her parents, especially father, wanted to be. For proposing a delegation from the boy’s family went with a proposal. Soon after the engagement the boy and girl were married through nikah (marriage bond). There were no dolies at first. These wedding cradles came later to the culture. The bride was led to the bridegroom’s house by a close relative. This was usually done late evening or early morning. The dowry contained a wooden chest in which the bride’s clothes were carried to her husband’s house. The dowry also contained cattle, goat, cow or a bull. As there was no separate room for the newly married couple, hence the bride was seated on a mat stretched in a corner of the big multiple purpose room. The bride was also accompanied by one of her female close relative such as mother’s sister, brother’s wife and rarely by father’s sister. This is still done. This special companion was/is called saet. The property right of the bride upon the bridegroom called mehr (dower) was common but not practiced. The wife usually conceded the property of meher to her husband. Its amount was also little. The mehr in the form of jewelry was not much.  Silver ornaments were used. It was not refined as it is now. Gold was not used. There were no written agreements regarding mehr and nikah.

Nowadays the dowry is large. It includes furniture and daily-use items. Gold jewelry is common, and its quantity is determined during engagement negotiations. People now tend to write agreements regarding mehr that include house, land and jewelry. In both the bride and bridegroom’s houses, a communal meal was/is served to close relatives and friends in the village. The meal consisted of a single dish and rarely included wheat bread.

People were invited to the marriages by special envoys called kotwaal. Their job was not only to invite people at the time of marriages, but they also informed people of someone’s death, a large meal and ashar (a local festival that will be described subsequently). These envoys, along with blacksmiths, drummers, pipers, barbers and circumcision surgeons were considered low caste even though they played an important role in the community. They were called Qasab Go, which literally means artisans. A formal procession, called jaen, was usually organized by a close relative or friend of the bridegroom in his house soon after the marriage. It included scores of people waving large, colorful folded flags, called tugh. It was a way to honor the bridegroom. The more tughs visible in the procession meant the more social prestige of the family of the bridegroom or the bride.

Local musicians accompanied this procession, playing their instruments. The piper played the surni while the drummer played the dhumaam. These instruments were locally made.

This procession also had cattle with them as a gift for the groom. No such procession exists now. In villages where there is the wedding cradle there exists the procession, jaen. The tughs are no more there. After a few days the bride’s companion was/is led back to her home with many gifts including raw and cooked food. This was called satama. When the bride was sent to her husband’s house by her parents after satama the practice was/is called rukhsati i.e, seeing off. There was a consistent custom of sending gifts, usually food items, to the married woman by her parents on special occasions such as Eid. This custom is still practiced by mothers now. The gifts sent with the bride or her companion when the latter was ‘seen off’  by the groom’s house, were/are distributed among the neighbors as Naman. Naman usually consist of wheat bread fried in ghee mixed with gur (raw sugar), fruits and other food items. Nowadays the rich include jewelry for the Saet as well.

Welcome and greeting rituals

Barbarye was a common word to greet each other. Kherset aap was/is another word for greeting. Usual Pakistani peace greeting, salam, has by now replaced barbarye. The younger women used to bow when greeting older ladies. They even touched their feet. The older ladies would, in turn, kiss the younger ones on their forehead. This practice is rarely observed now.

Social gatherings

People used to gather in a common-house usually owned by the chief of the village. This was called bhetak; and sometimes, hujra. People also used to sit around a fire pit in mosques when it was winter. In the mosques the elderly used to tell folk stories; share their experiences and discuss local politics.

In the bhetak people entertained themselves by music. It was very simple. The instruments used were sitar or rabaab and a mud pitcher with a neck.

The open end of the pitcher was tightly covered with either hide or some other flexible material. Torwali zo was then the only song sung in hujras. Besides music, jokes, anecdotes and riddles were also means of entertainment in the hujras. The hujra and mosque-fire-pit gatherings are not in existence now. The Torwali old zo is gradually vanishing and is being replaced by a parody of Urdu and Pashto famous songs.


There were no festivals except the two eid celebrations of the Islamic calendar. New clothing and eid greetings were common. No greeting cards were used. The village chiefs were visited and greeted on eid days. This trend gradually lost its importance.

A kind of common festivity was in practice. It was performed in the time of reaping and sowing crops, cutting hay, threshing maize grains from cobs and building a house. It was called asher. People gathered to work. It was circulated among the villagers. During this event music was played by a professional. The workers used to sing Torwali zo while working. For ashar of threshing maize grains a special type of Torwali verse was written by poets. It was /is called phal. Phal was/is sung differently from zo.  The ashar is not very common today.

Honour and family grace rituals

Tribal fights and generation to generation enmities were common over issues such as land, elopement, etc. As there were no courts, land related issues were settled by force. Before the government of waali (before 1925) the local jirga had the function of both police and court. After the Waali’s government hakims (judges) were there to settle disputes. In this government the police was very powerful as all feared the policeman called the nowker.

In case of elopement, the couple was sought; and on finding shot to death. Often people tried to mediate and reconcile such disputes. The procedure for reconciliation was to punish the boy’s family indirectly. As the girl’s elopement was considered a severe disgrace, her family was compensated by giving them some cash and a girl as well. This girl, in many cases would not be of age in the time of reconciliation. Only after the settlement, the eloped girl, now married, was allowed by her  father’s family to enter their house. This was called dar. To have dar means to have reconciliation. If the mediation failed to bring a settlement to the dispute there would be a prolonged enmity between the families till there was vengeance.

Nowadays in an elopement or court marriage case the reconciliation method is the same but there is no prolonged enmity. Only a stand-off between the families exists for a long time. People go to the police in such cases. Honor killing has almost ended. It happens very rarely.  The penalty for reconciliation is the same as it was before.

Rites of passage


When a male was born a feast was held in the house. This was to celebrate the birth. In this feast there was dancing, music and a meal. Relatives and neighbours came to congratulate the new birth. They brought gifts containing food items also.

Female childbirth was not celebrated, rather mourned. The mother was despised by her relatives and was considered responsible for the female childbirth. Even the husband would not enter the house. The mother was not treated well during her recovery period.

Now attitudes have changed to some extend, however, a male birth is still considered superior to that of female.


Here puberty means an age at which fasting and praying becomes obligatory on the child. This was not a special event in the life span and nothing has changed in this rite. However, in some families fasting of the child, even if he/she is underage, is now celebrated. This custom has obviously been adapted from the cities.

Old Age

Old age was, and is, considered an honour. The older generation was respected and not supposed to do manual work. There is a myth from a few centuries ago that contradicts this sentiment towards the old. According to this myth there was a custom that the old people were pushed from a rock called maazulu/maaslu baat.  A basket made of the stems of certain shrubs, containing round pieces of maize or barley bread was also thrown into the river. This, however, remains a myth and there is no evidence substantiating this tradition.  There are places, however,—rocks and cliffs—in the Torwali speaking area, which have names like maaslu/maazlu or maarthalu. These words seem to be the derivatives of Maash Thalu i.e. to throw man.[V]


No birthday was celebrated. A few have now started celebrating it. Death anniversaries were common. A large meal was / is served on this day by relatives each year. This was / is called tilaen.


A large number of people gathered in the home of someone who had passed away. The women would gather for mourning and the men for burial. The women cried in musical accents. The Islamic rites of bath, coffin and prayers were fulfilled and the dead body was laid to rest. There was a large meal served while the dead body was still lying at home. After the burial there were seven smaller meals by the relatives served in successive evenings. These were called niyashams or simply meaning evenings. There were considerably bigger meals in the evening of each Thursday for successive seven weeks. These were called shugaer, Friday and continued till the last Friday meal of chehlum was served. It is called dubeshum or fortieth. People would come to the house of the dead for three days and condoled with the relatives. The people gathered in the funeral were also paid either in cash or in kind such as gur, soap etc. This is called iskhaat.

Things have changed now. The mass meal at the time of the burial is no more. Some people still hold the niyashams and shugaers giving a basis to this practice from their particular religious creed. The tilaen is rarely practiced. The iskhaat is not common but a few rich families still practice it; and most often distribute cash among the people (men and women) who gather for the funeral.


Swat is rightly called ‘paradise on earth’ and almost everyone knows about the God-gifted beauty of this idyllic valley. Swat used to attract high profile guests — Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of England visited Swat in 1962. Similarly, in the summers, thousands of tourists used to pour into Swat in search of solace from the scorching heat in their cities. Every visitor and resident of Swat is well aware of its azure lakes, waterfalls, crystal clear streams, lush green pastures and fields, fruit-laden orchards and the mild cool breeze during summer but what most of the residents and tourists miss is Swat’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity which adds to its natural beauty.

Besides the majority Pushtun community Swat is home to the Dardic communities—Torwali and Gawri—that add to its history and cultural diversity.

These Dardic communities are under the threat of not only a language shift but also of a culture shift. Being ignored and marginalized these communities, like many other sister communities, regard their culture and language as ‘barriers’ in the way to their development. That is why they abandon their culture and language. This causes the death of not only of their identity but of an invaluable human heritage.

[1] The author is a senior research fellow with CRSS and the Executive Director of Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) Bahrain Swat, KP, Pakistan.

[I] Luca M. Olivieri; Behind the Buddhist Communities: Subalternity and Dominancy in Ancient Swat. Journal of Asian Civilization, Vol. 34, No.1 July 2011

[II] John Moch Ph.D & Kemberley O’Neil; Dards, Dardistan, and Dardic:
an Ethnographic, Geographic, and Linguistic Conundrum,

[III] Grierson, George A.; Torwali: an account of a Dardic language of Swat-Kohistan, 1929

[IV] Inam-ur-Rahim & Alian Viaro; Swat: an Afghan Society in Pakistan, 2002

[V] Torwali, Zubair: Vestiges of Torwali Culture, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) 2006