The Ismailis of Gorno-Badakhshan have been unique participants and observers in Tajikistan's history. The evolving choice of wedding and traditional dress over the past decades tells the story of the shifting cultural landscape that accompanied changing influences in the region. Once relegated to folklore and theatrical performances, the customary attire and traditions of Pamiri heritage are re-emerging to take their place alongside traditional Tajik and European costume that have held greater sway since the Soviet-era.
A brief history
The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is a large province covered by the Pamir Mountains, which makes up eastern Tajikistan. It is home to a majority of Tajikistan's Ismaili population.
Although GBAO makes up about 45 per cent of Tajikistan's total territory, it accounts for less than four per cent of the total Tajik population; its inhabitants are scattered throughout the province and focused away from urban centres. A mountain language is most commonly spoken, while several unique dialects have emerged in the various sub-regions of the province.
Due in part to the mountainous landscape and poor road conditions, Ismailis in the Pamirs have historically found a degree of separation between themselves and those in the surrounding region. This has led to the preservation of many old tradtions, including clothing styles among Pamiri women. But even within GBAO, isolation and geographical separation has led to the prominence of multiple variations in traditions and attire.
Given the variety of traditions among GBAO Ismailis, it would be hard to pinpoint a single standard style of “traditional” clothing. However, a Pamir woman might traditionally have worn a white dress, narrowing at the waist, together with a pair of white trousers and sometimes a red cardigan. The costume would have been completed with a red toki (skull-cap) and also a white shawl for older women.
A traditional Tajik dress began to emerge during the Soviet era, and is still commonly used today. Courtesy of Rukhshona Nazhmidinova
Trends in attire started to shift in the early 1920s when the Soviet empire began to extend into the area. The former area of Badakhshan was divided into two parts separated by the Pyanj river – one in Tajikistan, which is now GBAO, and another region across the river in Afghanistan, referred to as Afghan Badakhshan.
During the Soviet times, transport infrastructure improved as roads were constructed and GBAO started developing a closer connection with the rest of the country, resulting in the beginning of a shift in cultural changes in Pamiri society as well. Tajik and Russian were recognised as official languages and began to be taught in schools.
In women's attire, traditional Tajik dress began to replace the customary Pamiri fashions. A uniform, loose-fitting outfit, it seemed to conform better to what was considered a broader Tajik preference, and bore little resemblance to the traditional Pamiri dress. Some comment that the use of the dress was encouraged by the Soviet government to bring a degree of uniformity to the attire of the people of the country. Later on in the Soviet era, in the 1970s, European style dresses began to increase in popularity and were soon available in Badakhshan.
Partially as a result of the increasing influence of these other forms of dress, traditional Pamiri clothes were relegated to the realm of artistic and cultural performances. They were usually only seen during performances by Pamiri folklore singers and dancers.
The Soviet era also brought changes to the traditional process of a wedding including the addition of a new event to the wedding ceremony. Whereas during a traditional Pamiri wedding, the bride would leave her home and proceed directly to the groom's house with her face covered and hair braided, now an extended ceremony – often held at a restaurant – was introduced in the intervening period. Various state rites including the registration of the marriage with the government were conducted; for these new events, brides increasingly began to garb themselves in the European style.
Re-emergence of traditional Pamiri clothing
The European style dress is similar in colour and shape to the traditional Pamiri dress. Courtesy of Rukhshona Nazhmidinova
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new shift has begun. Earlier wedding traditions and the use of Pamiri clothing are enjoying a re-emergence.
Zebunisso Asanova is a dressmaker in Khorog – a town of 25 000 and the administrative capital of GBAO – who makes her living by sewing dresses and curtains. Pointing to a shift away from the traditional Tajik dress of the early Soviet era towards the previous traditional Pamiri fashion, she says. “I could see that many ladies had been dreaming about wearing a white dress on their wedding day, which is more similar to the traditional Pamiri dress instead of the Tajik dress.”
Seeking to meet the new demand, she continues, “I thought that the traditional Pamiri dress resembles a European style more than the current Tajik style. Besides, traditional Pamiri dress comes in white. So why not give the brides the joy of wearing white dress on their wedding day?”
The shift back to traditional styles has not been an immediate: “I made them in different styles as few people still prefer the pure Pamiri dress,” says Asanova. “Right now I have one pure Pamiri set in stock and two Pamiri dresses with elements of European style in them.”
“In February I had three people renting the dresses with mixed Pamiri-European style and one person renting the pure Pamiri dress,” she notes.
Support from new generation
Traditional Pamiri attire, worn here in a traditional dance, is beginning to re-emerge as a popular fashion choice – particularly at weddings. Mikhail Romanyuk
As Pamiri dresses return to the mainstream, members of the younger generations are beginning to embrace them at weddings and also at other formal events. One bride who grew up in Dushanbe but whose husband is from Khorog had two wedding ceremonies, one for each side of her family.
Having held a European style wedding in Dushanbe, she followed the Pamiri traditions in Khorog where she wore a Pamiri dress. “I was lucky to have the wedding both in Dushanbe and Khorog,” she says, “because I had the chance to wear both styles of dresses I had been dreaming of.”
She is not alone in her choice of traditional clothes. In the meantime, the tale of the Pamiri dress continues to evolve as a symbol of cultural revival as post-Soviet Central Asia rediscovers its heritage.