Gawri People

Gawri Language of Kalam (Swat) and Dir Kohistan (Upper Dir), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

By Dr. Joan L.G. Baart

Linguistic environment

Gawri  is one of about two dozen languages that are spoken in the mountain areas of northern Pakistan. The name Kohistan in Urdu and Persian means ‘land of mountains’, and Kohistani, when used as the name of a language, can be translated as ‘mountain language’.

The subject of the current essay is the Kohistani language that is spoken in the Kalam tahsil in district Swat, and also in the Kohistan tahsil in district Dir, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province.

As one leaves Pashto-speaking Mingora, the major market town in district Swat, and travels up the Swat valley, Pashto remains the pre­dominant language up to and including the vil­lage of Madyan. After Madyan one enters another language area, namely that of Torwali. Bahrain village is the centre of the Torwali-speaking area. Travelling further up one eventually leaves the Torwali area, and passes a num­ber of settlements (Asret, Laikot, Peshmal), where Gujari is the predominant language. Finally, one reaches the point where the Karan Duki /qa:ran duki/, a small tributary of the Swat river, comes gushing down the mountain, driving the turbines of the Kalam power house. Here, one passes from Bahrain tahsil into Kalam tahsil, and at the same time into the Gawri lan­guage area.

Even before this point, across the river from Peshmal in the village of Ariani, one can find homes where a form of Gawri called Dachwa is spoken.

While Gawri is the predominant language in Kalam tahsil, it is cer­tainly not the only language. Over the centuries, groups of people from different ethnic back­grounds have found their way to the Kalam area and settled there. Among them, Pashto, Gujari, and Khowar-speaking communities are the most numerous. Many of these people have learned Gawri as a second lan­guage. In addition, Pashto is spoken as a second language by virtually all the men and a lesser number of women of Kalam tahsil, as this is the lingua franca of district Swat, and the North-West Frontier Province in gen­eral.

Traditionally, the Gawri-speaking area in Swat is divided into three major clus­ters of villages and hamlets, each named after its principal village: the lower cluster is Kalam /kālām/ proper; up from Kalam there is the Utrot /utrōṭ/ clus­ter in the West, and the Ushu /uṣu/ clus­ter in the North-East. The three commu­nities have different traditions regarding their historical descent, and each has its own po­litical organisation.

Although the dialect of Utrot and the dialect of Ushu are per­ceptibly different from each other and from the dialect of the Kalam clus­ter, all three are very much the same lan­guage, in the opin­ion of the people as well as according to more formal sociolinguistic criteria (see Rensch 1992).

As mentioned above, the language is spread over a larger area than just Kalam tahsil. When one crosses over the mountains westward from Utrot, one reaches the upper part of the Panjkora valley, which belongs to district Dir. This area is often called Dir Kohistan. Here too, in a number of villages (Thal, Lamuti, Barikot, Biar, Kalkot and Raj­kot/Patrak), the same Kohistani language is spoken.

Geographical area

Kalam Kohistan is the name given to the northern-most parts of the Swat district in the KP Province, including Kalam and the areas beyond Kalam. To the North it is bordered by the moun­tains of Chitral and the Gilgit Agency. To the East, several high mountain passes lead into the Kandia valley of Indus Kohistan. Fre­quently-travelled mountain passes also connect to the West, to the vil­lages of Thal and Lamuti in Dir Kohistan. Kalam is the name of a village located at the confluence of the Ushu and Utrot rivers, which form the river Swat. The Kalam Kohistani people occupy most of the upper-most parts of the Swat valley. However, some of the highest permanent settlements are not inhabited by Kalamis but by Gujars, who speak their own language, Gujari.

Kalam village is located at an altitude of approximately 7,000 feet above sea level. The scenery in Kalam is dominated by the glaciers of the nearby Mankial range, east of Kalam, and by the more distant peak of the Falakser. The peaks of Mankial and Falakser reach an altitude of just under 20,000 feet.

Dir District, of which Dir Kohistan forms a part, also comprises a sec­tion of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Chitral borders it in the North, Swat in the East, Afghanistan and Bajaur in the West, and Malakand in the South. The Kohistani people of Dir live in the north­ern part of Dir District, in the upper reaches of the Panjkora valley. A jeep road leading from Lamuti over a mountain pass to Utrot in Kalam Kohistan is presently under construction.


Stahl (1988:40) and Rensch (1992:33) estimate the number of Gawri speakers in Swat to be 40,000. A regional development project (KIDP) gave an estimated (supposedly more reliable than the 1981 census figures) total population of Kalam tahsil in 1982 of around 40,000. However, from this figure we have to subtract the population of the non-Gawri speaking communi­ties in Kalam tahsil.

On the basis of the KIDP data, we arrive at a number of between 26,000 and 30,000 mother-tongue speakers of Gawri in Kalam tahsil in 1982. Assuming an average annual popula­tion growth rate of three percent (which roughly approximates the figure for Paki­stan as a whole), the number of Gawri mother-tongue speakers in Kalam tahsil in 1995 may have been in the range of 38,000 to 44,000. To this we need to add the Gawri-speaking population of Dir Kohis­tan and the Dachwa speakers in Ariani (which belongs to Bahrain tahsil).

According to Keiser (1986:493) the population of village Thal in Dir Kohistan was approximately 6,000 in 1984. In July 1995, two men from Kalam visited Dir Kohistan and on our request inquired about numbers of Gawri speak­ers. Based on the number of forest royalty shares, the number of Gawri speakers was said to be 8,000 for those living in Thal, 7,000 for Lamuti, and 2,000 for Kalkot. We do not have up-to-date fig­ures for the other Gawri-speaking villages in Dir Kohistan (Barikot, Biar, Patrak). On the basis of the available information, the total num­ber of mother-tongue speakers of Gawri, including both Swat and Dir Kohistan, may be estimated to be in the range of 60,000 to 70,000 in 1995.

Language names

In the linguistic and ethnographic literature, the language has been given differ­ent names. Morgenstierne (1940) uses the name Bashkarik, a name that was also used by Biddulph (1880/1971:70,71). Grierson in the Linguistic Survey of India (LSI 8/2:507ff) called the language Garwi (ga2rw|2). Barth (1956:52) and Barth & Morgenstierne (1958:120) gave Gawri  as a more accurate version of the latter and also found that the name Bash­karik is not known by the Gawri speakers in the Kalam area. Rensch (1992:5) and his co-workers found that the name Gawri was regarded as pejora­tive by some speakers of the language. Rensch and his co-workers use Kalami and Kalami Kohistani in their work. The name Bashkari is used by Khowar speakers in Swat Kohistan for speakers of Gawri, while the Gawri language is called Bashkarwar in Khowar.

Apparently both these names, Gawri and Bashkari, have a long his­tory. The name Gauri occurs in the Vedas, and in the work of Panini (late 5th or early 4th century BC) and other Indian sources, as a name of the river Panjkora in what is now district Dir. In 327 BC Alexander the Great fought a battle in this area at a place called Massaka, with a tribe called the Gau­­raioi (also called Gretai). In the work of Ptolemy (c. 150 AD), the region directly to the west of the river Swat is called Goryaia (see Schwartzberg 1992 for more information on these refer­ences). About the tribal name Bashkar, Bloch (1965:23) says that it is a relic of the Vedas and “no doubt the same as that of the school, which preserved the Rgveda.”

The Gawri-speaking people themselves most commonly use the name Kohistani to refer to their language. Originally the name Kohistani was used by the Pathans that lived in the lower parts of the Swat valley for the tribes that lived higher up (Biddulph 1880/1971:69; Barth 1956:52).


The predecessors of the Gawri-speaking people are perhaps the same as the Gauraioi (Gawri), who inhabited the lower, more fertile parts of Dir from as early as the days of Panini and Alexander the Great, as mentioned above. In the 11th century AD, the area was con­quered by Afghan troops under Mahmood of Ghazni and the original population was forced to flee to the remote, mountainous parts of the Panjkora valley. Local traditions confirm that from there, groups of Gawri settlers passed over across the mountain passes into the Utrot, Kalam, and Ushu valleys in what is now district Swat, while others stayed in the upper Panjkora valley.

From the 14th century onward, a new wave of Afghan invaders (the Yusufzai Pathans) gradually took over the lower parts of Dir and Swat. Under pressure from the Yusufzais, the Pathans that had settled there before fled the area, and some of them arrived in the upper reaches of the Swat and Panjkora valleys. Due to the influence of these Muslim immigrants, the Kalam and Dir Kohistanis converted to Islam, proba­bly in the 15th or 16th centuries.

The Kalam Kohistanis have been able to maintain a large degree of political independence during many centuries. Finally, in 1947, when the British left India, the Wali of Swat was able to establish his rule over Kalam Kohistan. At that time, Swat was an autonomous state. The Wali built roads, schools, and hospitals in the area. Subsequently, Swat was incorporated as a part of Pakistan in 1969.

Till the present day, the people of Kalam and Dir Kohistan have retained their inde­pendent spirit. The local administration and police do not have much authority in day-to-day affairs in the area. In many ways tribal tradi­tions still take precedence over official Pakistani law.

Socio-economic conditions

Traditionally the Kalamis were subsistence farmers. Some thirty or forty years ago, the potato was introduced as a cash crop and adopted by almost all farmers. Nowadays, one can see a few other cash crops as well, such as turnip and cabbage.

Due to increasing population pressure, the Kalami people are forced to look for other sources of income besides agriculture. In the winter sea­son, many Kalamis travel to Mingora, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and other cities of Pakistan, to look for jobs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there has been an explosive growth of tourism in Kalam. There are presently more than 200 hotels in the Kalam area. Tourism does create income for the Kalamis: some find jobs in hotels and restaurants, some earn an income as guides and jeep drivers, or as shopkeepers catering to the tourists. Unfortunately, only a few hotels are owned by Kalamis; most are owned by outsiders, and most of the income from tourism leaves the area.

Probably less than ten percent of the Kalami men and very few women have received education. Government schools are operating in the larger villages of the area, but due to a lack of teachers and lack of facilities, the quality of education is poor. In 1996, a private school was opened in the Kalam area that is run on a commercial basis; two other such schools were established in 1997. These commercial schools have been quite successful in attracting sizeable numbers of students.

There are only two function­ing primary schools for girls in the entire area. A pro­gramme of home tuition centres for girls was started by the Kalam Integrated Development Project (KIDP) around 1990. This programme gained some popularity with the local people. However, after the closure of the KIDP in 1998, the fate of these centres is uncertain. In the schools, as well as in the home tuition centres, the medium of educa­tion is Pashto. To the younger children, teachers often provide verbal explanation in the Gawri language as well. The higher grades in school are taught in Urdu.

Religious and political aspects

There are no sectarian divisions in the Kalam area. All Kalamis are Sunni Muslims belonging to the Hanifi school of Islamic law.

People participate actively in provincial and national politics. Major political parties which are represented in Kalam are: Pakistan Muslim League, Awami National Party, Pakistan People's Party, Jamaat-i-Islami, and Jamiat Ulma-e Islam.

A familiar sight in Kalam is a man going on the road with a Kalash­nikov slung over his shoulder. Men carry these weapons so as to pro­tect themselves against their enemies. These enemies are usually the members of some other Kohistani family with whom they have a feud. Most of these feuds develop from a dispute over land, or from a per­ceived violation of the modesty of a man's wife, sister, or daughter. An in-depth study of death enmity within a Kohistani society can be found in Keiser (1986 and 1991). In recent years, the Kalam Kohistanis have been taking measures against the carrying of weapons in the bazaars of the main villages, as it was felt that the carrying of weapons might offend the tourists that visit these bazaars.

Relationship to other languages

According to its genetic classification (Strand 1973:302), Gawri belongs to the Kohistani branch of the Dardic group of lan­guages, along with several closely related languages in its geographi­cal vicinity: Kalkoti (spoken in the village of Kalkot in Dir Kohistan), Torwali (in Swat Kohistan south of Kalam), Indus Kohistani, Bateri, Chilisso, and Gowro (the latter four in Indus Kohistan). Dardic in turn also includes such languages as Pashayi across the border in Afghani­stan, Khowar and Kalasha in Chitral, Shina in the Northern Areas, and Kashmiri across the line-of-control.

Dardic languages belong in the Indo-Aryan language group, which means that they are genetically more closely related to Urdu, Punjabi, and Sindhi, than for instance to Pashto and Balochi, the latter two being Iranian languages. Within Indo-Aryan, Dardic is related more closely to Hindko, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Siraiki, which are said to belong to the north-western zone of Indo-Aryan, together with Dardic. Urdu, the main literary language, and Gujari, which is also spoken in the Kalam and Dir Kohistan areas, are somewhat more distant, as these languages belong to the central rather than the north-western zone of Indo-Aryan (see Masica 1991:446ff. for a discussion of Indo-Aryan subclassi­fi­cat­ions).

Of course, similarities between languages do not only arise because of genealogical relatedness, but also under the influence of other factors, such as language contact. One general observation is that Gawri shares a number of features with most other languages within the South Asian linguistic area, be they Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Iranian, or even the isolate Burushaski.

Finally it is no surprise to find that many words have been borrowed into the Gawri language from languages of particular religious, political, or economic importance, notably Arabic, Persian, Pashto, English, and Urdu.

Literature on the Gawri language

Prior to our own research, few linguistic descriptions of Gawri had been published (Leech 1838, Biddulph 1880, LSI 1919, Morgenstierne 1940, Morgenstierne & Barth 1958). The most extensive treatment in the English lan­guage was Morgenstierne (1940), which has 17 pages of text followed by a 35-page word list. The actual field work on which that treatment was based was carried out in 1929, and his prin­cipal language consultant was from Lamuti in Dir Kohistan.

More recently, a sociolinguistic survey of Kalam and surround­ing areas has been carried out by Rensch and co-workers (Stahl 1988, Rensch 1992). These stud­ies focus on bilin­gualism and language use, but give little information on the lan­guage itself.

Quite rich in information is Shaheen (1989), which is written in Urdu and discusses the history and languages of the Kalam area at a popular level. He devotes many pages to a list of Gawri words and phrases.

A recent account of the sound system and grammar of the Gawri language can be found in the work of Baart (1997, 1999a, 1999b).

Some thirty years ago, a Pakistani scholar by the name of N.A. Baloch published an article titled: Some less known dialects of 'Kohistan' (Baloch 1966). In this article he pointed out that Pakistani scholars need to give special attention to the languages spoken by their own people, and in particular to those languages that are little-studied or not studied at all.

"The languages spoken by our own people, being the primary media for expressing their thoughts and feelings, provide the basis of our rich cultural variety and the very foundation of our national literature. Of these languages, the less known dialects need our special attention because of their philological and anthropological importance and also because of their importance in the local folklore and literature."

Of course, words of similar meaning have been repeated by many other scholars as well, but after thirty years we must say that a great deal of work still remains to be done.

This is certainly true of Swat Kohistan, the area about which N.A. Baloch was writing. Baloch had a remarkable way of advertising this area for scholarly research. He said:

"If some local scholar undertakes to collect folk poems composed in these tongues, his efforts will be amply rewarded. The early romance of Aman Maluk of Kishkar with Khush Begum and the love poems composed by Aman Maluk seem to have started almost a chain reaction through Kohistan and, since then, a number of actual love stories have provided interesting topics for verbal tales as well as inspiring themes for poetry. Indeed, Swat Kohistan could as well be described as the 'land of lovers', and almost every lover was a poet in the bargain."

Who would not want to come to a 'land of lovers' and study their poetry? Within the limits of this essay, we do not have the space to share many of the results of our research on this subject. It is true, though, that in the area of Swat Kohistan, where most of the people are completely illiterate, one will find the most remarkable people that are producing remarkable literature. In the Kalam area, one such person is Abdul Haq Mankirali. This man of some 60 or 70 years old, lives in the village of Buyun, which is located on a plateau approximately one thousand feet above the village of Kalam proper.

Mr. Abdul Haq is a man of many careers. The people call him "Maulana" because he is a religious scholar of high standing, to whom people from far-away places come to seek guidance and to be cured from their ailments. He is an innovator who was the first to introduce the growing of potatoes in his village. He is also a scholar of history, who has compiled a number of hand-written works, in Pashto, about the political history of Kalam. One of these works has even been published in Germany in an English translation. Finally, he is famous as a poet. His songs, most of which are composed in the Gawri language, are extremely popular among the local people.

Traditional Gawri romantic poetry, which is called ro, is still very much alive and is vigorously being continued by the younger generation. However, the poetry of Abdul Haq is of an entirely different genre, and can be seen as an act of innovation, just like the introduction of the potato.

This man from the 'land of lovers' does not have many words to spend on romantic love. For him the lovers of Kohistan are a bunch of fuzul (idle) people who forget that "death is on our heads", that the "graveyard is our final place", and that one day all of us will have to answer the imaanee~ tapos, the query about our faith. Much of this poetry is concerned with criticizing and mocking the practices of the people and exposing hypocrisy, but it is done in such a humorous way that the people, instead of being offended, love to recite and sing these poems.

A few lines of Abdul Haq’s poetry, as well as a few examples of the classical Gawri ro are provided at the end of this essay. A number of proverbs and a short Gawri text are also found there. Literary publications in the Gawri language are Abdul Haq (1997), Sagar (1998), and Lal Badshah (2000). For a published version of Abdul Haq’s history of Kalam see Mankiralay (1987).

April 2002