After years of war between militants and the Pakistani Army, Swat (a picturesque mountainous district in northern parts of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province) is now considered safe to travel to, and is open for domestic tourism. To explore the culture of Swat, I embarked on a short journey this summer, taking a bus from Rawalpindi to Mingora, the main town in Swat. The journey took five hours, with several security checkpoints along the way.
At Mingora I transferred to a local van to get to the next town, Bahrain. The road was severely damaged by the flood last year, making the ride bumpy and dusty. I reached Bahrain late at night, and it had started to rain. Tired and exhausted, I was greeted by my host Zubair Torwali, a man in his late 30s with thick, combed hair, a well-trimmed mostache, wearing a traditional shalwar kameez (a long shirt or tunic and pajama-like trouser) .
Before falling into bed I had a cup of tea with Zubair and his friends in the hotel lobby. He would talk to me in Urdu while the rest of them spoke a language I was trying hard to understand. I can understand Pashto. This wasn’t Pashto at all. I curiously asked which dialect of Pashto they were speaking. Zubair smiled, paused, and with a confident gesture replied, “It wasn’t Pashto. We speak Torwali.”
Like many Pakistanis my assumption was that in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) they speak only Pashto. In school I was taught that the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, and that Pakistan has four provinces: Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (now KPK) where Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi and Pashto are spoken respectively.
It was not until I started traveling that I realized this country has more languages than those we were told about at school. Saraiki is widely spoken in southern Punjab and some parts of KPK and Balochistan; Brahui and Persian are minority languages spoken in Balochistan; Pashto is not only the language of KPK but is also widely spoken in northwest Balochistan; Kutchi, Thari, Memoni and Gujarati are also used in Sindh, as well as Sindhi; in Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir, more than seven languages are in currency, including Shina, Burushaski, Balti and Kohistani.
KPK is home to speakers of Hindko, Kalasha, Khowar, Sarieki and Torwali, as well as Pashto and many other languages. Trying to hide my ignorance, I said goodnight to Zubair with an embarrassed smile. I had learned of the existence of a new language, becoming more interested in learning about Torwali than in being a tourist in Bahrain.
In Swat, seven languages are spoken. The major language is Pashto while Torwali, Gujri, Gawri, Qashqri, Ushojo and Badeshi are also spoken. Torwals are said to be one of the groups indigenous to the region, inhabiting the area before the Buddhist era. Their language belongs to the Dardic group of Indo-Iranian (Aryan) languages, to which other major languages like Urdu, Hindi and Bengali also belong. There are a total of 100,000 people who speak Torwali and they live in the Swat valley from Madyan up to Kalam. Some of them have migrated to different parts of the country for work.
The next morning, Zubair Torwali invited me to his not-for-profit organization, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) – the Institute for Education and Development – working on mother-tongue based multilingual education in Swat. Zubair introduced me to his team and then presented me with a copy of a book of classical Torwali poetry with an Urdu translation, which was an initiative of IBT. According to Zubair, this was the first Torwali book as previously it had no known script. Seventy percent of the poetry within it is by women poets whose names have been forgotten in time.
Through IBT Zubair has been running a Torwali-based multilingual education school for Bahrain’s children. Furthermore, around 2000 women in the region are in the process of receiving education in their native language. They have developed a written script and a course book to enable children to study their mother-tongue, and are trying to expand the language from being solely an oral one.
Sir Aurel Stein, a British archeologist who in 1925 attempted to track Alexander’s march to the Indus, documented words, sentences, and three folktales from Torwali during his travels. Stein put his findings in the care of Sir George A. Grierson, a linguistic scholar who headed the Linguistic Survey of India from 1898 to 1928. Grierson, in his 1929 book Torwali: An Account of a Dardic Language of the Swat Kohistan, writes that Torwali is one of a number of languages generally categorized as Kohistani, and is spoken in Swat and the Indus Kohistan District, north of Peshawar and Hazara District. Before the Pathan conquest of the region, it appears that Torwal constituted a separate independent tribal territory. This is the one and only proper documentation of the Torwali language, and that from more than 80 years ago, before Pakistan’s independence. Subsequently, efforts to study the language have been few.
We had several more tea sessions during my stay in Swat, and Zubair kept highlighting the importance of Torwali for the native people of the region. He expressed his grief that priority is given to the dominant language, Pashto, over the mother-tongue of the local people. During a meeting with a few locals I noted that they had started speaking Pashto at home due to social pressure. I saw they responded very well in Torwali when Zubair started a conversation in that language. It isn’t that they can’t speak their language, they just don’t, said Zubair.
Many languages in Pakistan are under threat. And not just minority languages like Torwali: even in Punjab, a large population of urban dwellers try not to speak Punjabi in order to sound more educated. Punjabi is a major language, so minority languages like Torwali, Brahvi or Baltistani come under even greater pressure. Their social status is diminishing day by day.
As well as the delicious traditional chappal kebabs and tea sessions with Zubair in Bahrain town, my trip was productive. I learnt that it is not just Pashto that is spoken in KPK but many other languages too. I said goodbye to Zubair with a promise to educate.
This article first appeared in Himal Southasian, a Nepali magazine. Click here to go to the original