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Sofra spread with delicious food

Part II: Land of Dance

by Robyn C. Friend, Ph.D.
photos by author,
many photos are linked to larger images- click!
posted September 30, 2009

In part I, Robyn talked about Tajikistan and its dance, about her Tajik dance teacher Makhingul Nazarshoeva, and about the challenge and rewards of travel in Tajikistan.  In part II, Robyn takes us to the Pamir mountains of Badakhshan.

Time seems to have a different meaning in Badakhshan – the rural, eastern portion of Tajikistan – than it does here in the States. Vehicles break down, roads become impassable, everything takes longer than you plan for.  So, punctuality and advance arrangements are not always necessary, or even possible.  There are usually no phones in the villages of the river valleys, so you just go, and make arrangements as best you can, expect the unexpected, and always be flexible.

Soon Sharlyn and I were on our way with Dawlatnazar – driver, dancer, and musician – and Samandar – our guide and friend – to the valley of the Bartang River, looking for local musicians and dancers who would perform for us.  Our first stop was at the village of Shujand, where Musarwal, a musician known all over Tajikistan, was uphill working on his fields. Eventually he was located and brought down to the road where we waited to make arrangements for a performance the next day.  He had known of our arrival in Badakhshan and our wish for a music and dance session with him, as we had given him a lift for a few miles on our way to Khorog when we first arrived in Badakhshan.  We made our arrangements, and then continued on up the valley for another couple of hours, arriving around dusk at the village of Siponj and the house of Jonboz, another well-known musician and an acquaintance of Samandar’s.  

Jonboz had no idea that we were coming, but upon our arrival seated us in the guest room of his house, and entertained us with music and stories until a hastily-prepared supper could be brought to us.

Central Asian hospitality is legendary:  though poor in material goods, these warm-hearted mountain people will offer their last piece of bread or bite of chicken to a guest.  We had to remember not to eat everything served; our host’s family could well have put everything they had on the sofra (dining cloth), and if we consumed it all, they might have little for themselves.

Jonboz is renowned for his piety and the deep spirituality of his music.  In addition to playing all the musical instruments of Badakhshan, Jonboz also creates small, beautifully hand-bound books of traditional poetry and excerpts from the Koran, folk remedies, and amulets of Koranic verses.

The sparse population of Badakhshan can be roughly divided into two main ethnic-religious groups: the Kirghiz, who are Turkic tribal nomads (found in Kirghizstan and China, as well as in Tajikistan) who practice Sunni Islam, and the Ismailis, who form the majority in the province, and speak languages of the Iranian family.  Religious practice among the Ismailis of Badakhshan is a fascinating combination of Ismaili “Sevener” Shia’ Islam, Zoroastrianism, and pre-Zoroastrian paganism.  

The faithful meet in one another’s homes, not in a mosque.  The construction of their homes displays elements from all of these different belief systems; in fact, the same element is often explained concurrently in terms of both Islam and pre-Islamic symbolism. 

Cheed CeilingThough every Ismaili Pamirian home is a little different, they all represent variations on a theme, incorporating the following elements:

  • The entrance to the square family room is through a door that leads to two floor-to-ceiling pillars, which are called the “Hassan and Hossein” pillars (named for the children of the martyred Shia’ imam, Ali), and, alternatively, the “Sun and Moon” pillars.
  • At the top of this pair of pillars is a crosspiece which joins them.  This crosspiece has images of Sun and Moon on it.
  • The three walls without doors have platforms built along their entire length, two low ones and one higher.  The platform to the right of the entrance is for the eldest men present.  The platform to the left of the entrance is the higher one; this is where the women sit during meetings, and where the husband and wife sleep.  In pagan reckoning, the platforms are named, beginning from the right, for the three ancient pre-Islamic “kingdoms” of the natural world:  Mineral, Plant, and Animal.
  • Across the facing platform are three pillars, named for “Muhammad, Ali, and Fatima”, respectively the prophet of Islam, his nephew,and his daughter.
  • The crossbeams in the ceiling are named for the Zoroastrian angels.
  • In the center of the ceiling (called a “cheed” ceiling) is a skylight, similar in function to the smoke hole in a yurt (a Central Asian tent), but formed in this case by four concentric squares stacked one atop the other.  These squares are named, respectively, for the four ancient pre-Islamic “elements” of the natural world,  Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

JonBoz, Shirinnazar, and other musiciansThe next morning we had breakfast in the interior of the house, as musicians and a dancer began to gather.  Soon everyone was assembled, but Jonboz took time to re-tune carefully the various instruments.  “The instruments are crying”, he told us.  “They have no masters to play them”. Finally the instruments were tuned, and the men began to play maddoh, the traditional Badakhshani musical sequence of mystical poems, played in a variety of rhythms.  The men took turns as lead singer, giving each a chance to lead and then to rest.  It went on for a very long time; later, we were told that for special occasions when maddoh is played, the music and singing can go on all night.

A young man named Shirinnazar (“Sweet Looks”) came to the center of the floor, and began to dance Rapo (see Part
of this article for some information about the dance “Rapo”).  He was smiling as he whirled slowly and smoothly, arms and hands carefully placed.  He did the dance similar to the way my own teacher, Makhingul Nazarshoeva, did it – evidently, there is little difference between the way men and women dance the Rapo.  When it was all over, we thanked them all and headed off to Shujand for lunch and another performance by Musarwal.

Musarwal presented us with another massive outlay of food, including home-brewed liquor.  Afterwards, Musarwal lead us to a grassy spot by the river, where the musicians laid down a carpet and sat down to begin tuning their instruments.  Across the river a row of ladies collected and sat, watching us watching them, and enjoying the music. 

After a performance of daf soz (songs with frame drum accompaniment), the musicians played maddoh, followed by raqs-i aspak (“horse dance”), in which a man dances wearing a costume which makes it look like he is riding a horse.  Soon we were all dancing rapo, inviting the ladies across the river to dance with us, but, laughing, they declined.



Men play


Horse dance

Pagan RockOn the way back to Khorog, we stopped at a sacred site devoted to Mushgela Gosha, the “Remover of Difficulties”.  The interplay between the Islamic and the pagan in this shrine is fascinating: phallic-shaped stones at the entrance (pagan); Koranic verses (Islamic), and a photo of the Agha Khan (Islamic) hanging near the Hassan and Hossein (Islamic) – or Sun and Moon (pagan) – pillars ; inside the shrine, a stack of nearly perfectly-round black meteorites, washed smooth by the pounding flow of the river (pagan).  We left a small amount of money for the caretaker, and continued our journey back to Khorog.  I was reminded of Christian churches I had seen in Central America, where Mayan and Christian iconography and practices are completely intermixed.

Khorog is a town of around 25,000 people; small, yet it is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, and by far the largest town in the area; most of the rest of the population of Badakhshan live in small villages of at most of few hundred people.  In Khorog, there is a university, a theater, a bazaar, and goods from China and Russia available for purchase in the marketplace. 


From the center of  Khorog, you can see Afghanistan; in fact, the major portion of the drive from Dushanbe to Khorog runs along the river separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan.  There are places along the road up from Dushanbe where you could toss a stone across the river from the Tajik side and hit a goat in Afghanistan.

The river, however, is deep and fast, and we never saw a single boat of any sort. The governments of both nations have collaborated on the opening of three bridges across the river, at Darvaz, Ishkoshim, and Khorog. At the bridge near Khorog, once a week on Saturdays the Afghans are allowed to come across the bridge into an enclosed bazaar, to buy or to barter their cheap goods from India for the Tajiks’ cheap goods from China.  Families whose various branches were severed once the Soviets took over Central Asia also try to find their now-distant cousins from among the Afghan visitors.


I’ve since my first visit made several more trips to Tajikistan, and I hope to continue to visit regularly.  It’s not easy or luxurious, but the scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly and wonderful, and the culture is unique.  The intrepid Samandar is even starting to conduct small-scale tours, so you can go and visit this unknown jewel of beauty and culture for yourself. If you fancy some safe but adventurous travel, and the opportunity to see high mountains, green valleys, and dance among people who love and respect dance, then come away with me to Badakhshan!

Dancing in Home


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