Wakhi mountain houses of Zoodkhun in Chapursan Valley, northern Pakistan

Even though it experiences a, sometimes temporary, exodus to the big cities of southern Pakistan, Zoodkhun Village (also spelled Zuwudkhoon) is still well alive. Nowadays, numerous houses are being built or being enlarged. It is possible to observe a Pamiri layout dating back from Atash-Parast (Fire worshippers, Zoroastrians). This permanence could be due to religions (including old ones) but also due to a perfect adequation with environment constraints and ressources available in this remote area of Chapursan Valley (also spelled Chipurson, Chipursan, or Chapurson).

Bernard Grua
11 min readJan 6, 2020

Zoodkhun houses have a Pamiri layout for addressing mountain constraints

From outside, a compact quadrilateral for facing harsh winters

Khana, (Khane, house), in Zood Khun, just has a ground floor. It is a single storey building, unlike, for example, the ones of the old walled city of Ganish, where horizontal expansion was not possible. Khana seems to be the general Wakhi word for house like in jamat khana (community religious house). However, Jansher Khan Tajik Wakhani says, in Chapursan, the word khun is used, like in Zood Khun, the name of the village.
The building cover consists of a terrace used for drying and storing straw or fodder, consequently providing more insulation. The future government school is one of the rare exceptions. It is wearing a roof frame. This school will partially double the Aga Khan Foundation one, located between the hamlets of Zoodkhun and Shitmerg (also spelled Shetmerg, Shetmarj or Shuthmarg). One may fear that its cover will be made of metal plates with a bright and brilliant color. This could trivialize the environment and break some of its visual consistency.

Zood Khun: hay stored on a roof of a stabble Photo Bernard Grua
Zood Khun: hay stored on a roof of a stabble

Around the khana core structure, extra buildings such as washroom, stable, sheds, verandah and summer rooms (with windows) can be added (see similar layout in Nazif Shahrani, “The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan”, page 66). As a result they make another layer for protecting the central part from direct external cold and wind.

Tusion, Tajik mountains: behind Odinasho Sharopov, a traditional Pamiri house — Photo Bernard Grua
Tusion, Tajik mountains: behind Odinasho Sharopov,
a traditional Pamiri house

The khana traditional design is a classical Pamiri one, although it can also be found in Karakoram and Hindu Kush. Like in Tajik and Afghan Pamir it is a warm (in winter) or moderate temperature (in summer) shelter with no lateral windows. The external door doesn’t open directly into the main room. People have to go across a mazelike corridor, sometimes, closed by an additional door. On the roof is a skylight which can be shut thanks to glasses in framed panels. This is particularly energy efficient while the layer of the heat going to the top stops the cold air entrance in winter. In summer, when open, it is efficiently cooling the internal space.

Yamchun, Wakhan: a Tajik Wakhi house — Photo Bernard Grua
Yamchun, Wakhan: a Tajik Wakhi house

Like a submarine inside its different protecting hulls and ballasts, the airtight core structure is ready to dive into the wild winter. This main part of the khana (khun) reveals a complex organization.

Inside, a sophisticated puzzle resulting from an immemorial tradition

Zood Khun: House of Mrs Bibi Numa with some members of her family, Dildung is covered by colored fabrics — Photo Bernard Grua
Zood Khun: in the house of Mrs Bibi Numa with some members of her family,
Dildung is covered by colored fabrics

Space is divided into different platforms. Each of them has a specific function. Their following description is largely inspired by the article written by Hannibal Taubes, on his blog. The layout of the main room, showed below, is a replica of his manual drawing based on his observations done in Shimshal. It could differ elsewhere. However, the articulation of the different platforms is relevant and brings more clarifications than it leads to confusion. This work was completed by information received from Jansher Khan Tajik Wakhani, Haider Badakhshoni and Dilawar Figar. While Wakhi language is not a written one, transliteration into Latin characters may be subject to interpretations. Pillars are showed in red. White numbers are platforms described below.

Layout of wakhi house main room by Bernard Grua

1. Kunj: (Kungh) Anteroom to keep the wind from blowing directly into the house also, now, used for shoes. The house entrance is Sorye (Suriye).
2. Yoch: (Yorc, Yorch). It is the space for wishing welcome or for dancing during marriages and festivals. In the past, it was also a place for work, for stocking fuel for immediate use and for taking off the shoes. Nazif Shahrani says in Afghan Wakhan it is used for new born or sick animals requiring cares at night, especially during winters. In Zood Khun, this last task was handled in Kalaraj (6) as explained below.
3. Pastraj: (Past Raz) Sleeping. Duvets and blankets are kept rolled up here during the day, and spread out at night.
4. Sinaraj: More sleeping space.
5. Nikard: Stove and eating space. The sitting area is a square place around the fire place. Males sit on the right side. Sitting arrangement is in specific order. The guest, elderly or religious leaders people get the priority to sit, the closest to the stove (B). These most respected people sit first then the young ones sit. Females sit on the left. Similar hierarchy rule is also followed on the female side of the sitting area (A). The most important places for sitting are called dildungban.

In the house of Mrs Pari Jahan. Kitchen is separated from the main room Photo Bernard Grua
In the house of Mrs Pari Jahan.
She prepares chapati on a stove in front of dildung.
Kitchen is separated from the main room.

6. Kalaraj: (Kla Raz) Sleeping. In the past, it could be used for animals in winter.
7. Dildung: (Dildong, Dong) Cooking and sitting place for children. It is the highest platform (until 1 m high). It is originaly a furnace (tandoor) made with clay and stones, able to accumulate warmth and to return it at night even if fire is finished. Odinmamadi Mirzo (Wakhan, 2010, p. 78) says its name in Tajik Wakhan is degdon (wrong transliteration?). He adds: “finally dedgon from the perspective of the Zoroastrian religion performs the place for fire worshipping”. He also presents some traditions of ancestors regarding fire and fireplaces which are considered as mandatory to follow (Wakhan, 2010, p. 109). Today Dildung is less used as a furnace while being suplemented by a metal stove placed in front of it.
8. Warasar: Storage. Two half height walls or wooden cabinets separate the two Warasar (8) from Dildung (7) and Sinaraj (4).
9. Jkeesh: (Cekish, Chukish) Cooking and storage.
10. Ganz: (Ghanz, Ghananz) Stockroom. In some houses, this room can be bigger, have a stove and a skylight. It is, then, the kitchen and the dining room.

The multiple senses and functions of the khana pillars

Here, the major source of information comes from Robert Middleton, 2002, “The Pamiri house”.

The Pamiri house design is said to be more than 2,500 years old and based on Atash-Parast (Fire worshippers, Zoroastrians) principles. However, today, the five pillars are considered representing the five holy personalities of Ismailism, being Mohammed, Fatima (Mohammed’s daughter and Ali’s wife), Ali (adopted by Mohammed and succeeded Othman as Caliph of Islam), Hassan, and Hussain (Ali’s two sons). It has been suggested that in Zoroastrian symbolism the pillars may have corresponded to the major gods/goddesses (‘Yazata’ or ‘Eyzads’): Surush, Mehr, Anahita, Zamyod and Ozar. The number five also reflects the five principles of Islam. In Hunza Valley, these pillars can be found in pre-Islamist constructions sometimes with Buddhist or Tibetan ornaments. The pillars and the beams are also said to be an anti-seismic structure which could survive cracking in walls or even the fall of some of them.

The skylight is echoing the pillars. It is built of overlapping wood beams. With four wooden squares and the fifth square of light, the same Ismaili symbolism applies. Moreover, these wooden squares were chorkhona (chor khana, four houses) representing, respectively, the four Zoroastrian: elements earth, water, air and fire, the latter being the highest, touched first by the sun’s rays. More about the permanence of Zoroastrianism symbols on HeritageInstitute.

It would be probably a mistake to consider the five pillars as present only in Ismaili houses. Here is an example of pillars in a Shia house of old Ganish city. The pillars are of special interest due to their carved ornaments.

Ganish: carved five pilars in an old Shia house — By Bernard Grua
Ganish: carved five pilars in an old Shia house

No doubts that so many elements deeply rooted in religions helped to keep the layout of the structure for such an extremely long time. We have an incredible opportunity to see houses, where people still live, looking similar to the ones built millennia ago. However, this is also a testimony about the early achievement, in Central Asia mountains, of an optimum reached to address altitude and climate constraints with the limited available resources.
Zoodkhun constructors have been able to use very local materials in the most efficient way.

For religious considerations in Chapursan Valley, see on “Medium”, from the same author: “How past and present religions built a tradition palimpsest in a high valley of northern Pakistan”

Importance of material choice for a comfortable and healthy floor

The platform floor, where people sit and sleep, is usually made of wood or mud. It is covered with thick carpets. Note, it seems that the Tajik Wakhi way (probably influenced by Russian habits) of hanging heavy wool carpets on the walls is not a tradition from Gojal. The most which can be observed is a partial or complete wall cover with a thin fabric having colored patterns. Otherwise, walls are just painted.

Local mud and stones for walls, built without mortar, providing good insulation

In numerous villages of Gojal, the main materials for field and house walls are, more or less round large pebbles, extracted from sediments and removed from reclaimed land for fields. In Zood Khun, it is different. Stones used for masonry present sharp angles, like they would have been broken out of bigger ones. There are, actually, large areas of rocky chaos exploited as quarries.

Zoodkhun: a dry stone wall and another one in preparation Photo Bernard Grua
Zood Khun: a dry stone wall and another one in preparation — In the background is the rocky chaos used as a quarry. At its beginning, it possible to see the long wall of the polo field.

Stone walls are dry mounted, without mortar. Except for enclosures and field terraces, the spaces between stones are filled in with mud which, when dried, provides the insulation required by the cold winters, at this altitude of 3,300 m. These local materials, perfectly in accordance with the land they come from, contribute to the authentic and charming vision offered by the diyor. The amazing consistency of dry stone walls for field terraces as for all around plots and paths is absolutely stunning and should be preserved in a time when so many gorgeous points of views, including in Hunza Valley, are spoiled while bearing the scars of ugly exotic enclosures.

Zoodkhun: all paths are bordered with beautiful dry stone walls — Photo by Bernard Grua
Zoodkhun: all paths are bordered with beautiful dry stone walls (the young girls are going to the village library)

Skill in building dry stone walls without mortar is a Wakhi expertise. In Afghan Pamir for example, Kirghiz herders, ignore this technology. In their high settlements, when they want constructions in addition to their yurts, they hire Wakhi people (Matthieu & Mareile Paley — Pamir, p. 132).

However, it should be mentioned that concrete blocks begin to appear for housing and for small shops closed with their inevitable iron curtains while topped with metal sheets. Then, these shops look like average suburban garages or “Naran-fashion” stalls (the social and visual damages spoiling Kaghan Valley will be addressed in another article). Fortunately, they are, at this time, still in a small quantity. Moreover, due to the limited number of external visitors, shop keepers don’t need to show any disrupting commercial signs, while every inhabitant knows their specialties. Thanks to this contained invasion, Zood Khun “main street” (being also the end of the valley road) stays, till today, incomparably more poetic than the one of Sost.

Sost: “main street” on Karakoram Highway (KKH) — Photo by Bernard Grua
Sost: “main street” on Karakoram Highway (KKH), a place with numerous junk concrete and metal plate « buildings » with, however, nice and helpful people in the middle of a great landscapeost.

Wood for a more stable structure

The preferred wood for pillars, especially for the prophete Mohamed’s one, and for the roof-terrace beams is yarz (juniper) because it is strong. It has anti-insects and purifying properties. It is a sacred tree. Its scented smoke is supposed to facilitate access to the mystical world (Matthieu & Mareile Paley — Pamir, p. 41). It has the same shamanism level of recognition from Siberian native people. In Europe, juniper pebbles were supposed to repulse witches and bring luck. They were also put in wardrobes against moths. Modern cosmetics researches show that juniper essential oil has actual beneficial qualities. However, while this wild tree, which can be found until 3 800 m, is slow to grow and not abundant, weaker, less desirable and less lasting “cultivated” poplar can replace it.

Modern concrete is not a proper alternative to local materials

Houses with rigid concrete walls may lack the traditional anti-seismic property. They are also not so good for keeping heat in winter especially with limited fuel resources. Additionally, the cold concrete floor can cause joint pain when sitting or lying on platforms. These reasons might be the ones explaining why some families having modern houses in “new Ganish” go back to their former home during the coldest period. This is a useful information for Zood Khun which is located 1000 m higher in the mountains and facing a harder climate.

A cement veil on a timeless vision?

Even on traditional walls, it seems trendy, nowadays, to coat facades with a dark cover of cement. It is, somewhere, affecting the harmony of the landscape. It is, additionally, a trap preventing traditional walls of “breathing”, by blocking evaporation, facilitating condensation and leading to humidity accumulation. These monotonous gray walls are, sometimes, decorated with geometric patterns. It doesn’t appear this ornamentation has a particular meaning. According to Mumtaz, a village children, “this is for style”. In the same way, the angles of the coated walls and the framing of the openings are underlined by strips traced in white paint.

Where to stay in Chapursan Valley

Pamir Serai guest houses are the traditional homestay of Zoodkhun and Baba Ghundi for external visitors. They are run by the internationaly famous Alam Jan Dario’s family.
Sky Bridge Motel & Resorts opened in 2018. It is run by Fahim U. Baig in Zoodkhun.
Hilltop Guest House is run by Haider Badakhshoni in Reshit.

Discover the Wakhi way of life and culture with Pamir Trails

Pamir Trails, can propose you jeep tours in Northern Pakistan and guided treks on foot, on horses or on yaks. It can also indicate you, or organize for you, Wakhi cultural events in Chapursan Valley.

Pamir Trails trekking and adventures in Chapursan Valley, Pakistan
Pamir Trails is the tour company of Pamir Serai


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Bernard Grua

Photographer, writer, contributor to French & foreign media: culture, history, heritage, geopolitics — https://bernardgrua.nethttps://pamirinstitute.org