In my three decades of experience as a travel consultant in Chitral, the response to this question from travelers of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles has always fascinated me. “What brings you to Chitral?” and 9 out of 10 times the answer was “The Culture of Chitral”. Diverse cultures have become travel attractions in many parts of the country and Chitral is no different. Seasonal and religious festivals are very important in all societies and these practices are celebrated with enthusiasm, zeal, and passion. Cultural exploration is one of the dominant motives for tourists to visit Chitral but when asked “What cultural experience are you looking to explore?” 10 out of 10 times the interest is in the cultural experience of the Kalash festival of Chilim Jusht or the Shandur polo festival. No doubt, these festivals have given tourists from across the globe insight into the socio-cultural life of Chitral, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. The culture of Chitral is diverse with many cultural festivals celebrated throughout the year which are yet to receive as much attention. A lot remains to be explored and one of these unexplored events is the Pathak festival.
Pathak is an unexplored winter festival of Injigan, Chitral, and is celebrated every year from 31 January to 01 February. Previously known as Injigan or Khuzar, 45 km northwest of District Lower Chitral, Tehsil Lotkoh is commonly known with the name of its Tehsil Headquarters town – Uch or Garam Chashma. Injigan is home to 70,000 multi-cultured background people and has remained a historical trade route as well as a pilgrim route between Central and South Asia for over 4000 years. It is located at 80 km and 170 km from Afghanistan and Tajikistan respectively. This region has a long history of cultural connections to the Pamir regions of Central Asia and it used to be the shortest traditional trade route from Central Asia to the sub-continent. Injigan was an important border town during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan as it hosted over 3 million Afghan refugees and provided an important route for weapons supply and trade.
Of the many seasonal and religious festivals celebrated in Chitral, Pathak is quite unique. It is also known by the name “Lotkoho Pathak”. According to the folk heritage of Shi’i Ismaili Muslims, Pathak marks the successful conclusion of the 40 days (chilla) meditation by Peer Nasir-e-Khusraw, the legendary Fatimid period Ismaili mystic, who preached Islam in this part of the world. Pathak is a Sanskrit word and means preceptor or a person who teaches. Completion of 40 days full fasting meditation in the mountain cave and commencement of Islamic values in the region is said to be the Remembrance Day of the preceptor and teachings celebrated in that memory.
Peer Nasir-e-Khusraw is believed to have lived in Injigan for some time before returning to his hometown through the same cave of meditation in Badakhshan-Afghanistan. There is little historical evidence to support this thesis, including the shrine/ mausoleum of Peer Nasir-e-Khusraw, the mountain cave, his dresses, arts and crafts, etc. He used different methods and tools for bringing the local people together such as by sharing food, musical programs using Gharba and daff ”. He also sang beautiful poetic melodies to influence the local people to accept his version of preaching and teaching, which is still practiced in this region and other regions of Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The region of Injigan is also known for its hot spring waters. Payech Uch (Khowar), translated as Garam Chashma or Hot Spring (English) are a few names in use for the hot sulphuric mineral spring that flows in the valley. With the passage of time the Urdu name “Garam Chashma” replaced the historical name “Injigan” as the area get to be known because of the popularity of Hot Mineral Spring Water. According to the Ismaili folk, the hot spring is a blessed gift that started after the prayers and Peer Nasir-e-Khusraw in this region. The hot spring has rich sources of several kinds of minerals like sodium, sulfate, potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, etc with healing benefits including treating skin irritations, relieving tension in the joints, sore muscles, helping with chronic pain and arthritis. Spring water has also been known to remove toxins, reduce stress, increase post-workout relaxation, and improve sleeping patterns. It has indigenously been used for hydrotherapeutic medical and health benefits for centuries.
Unlike Chilim Just and Shandur Festival, tourists are not attracted to the Pathak festival because the dates of the festival are not known and publicized. Let alone outsiders, even many insiders are unaware of the exact dates or the customs. Some locals have come to confuse the Pathak festival for Navroz Pathak (which is celebrated in March). It is becoming a forgotten festival in other parts of Chitral, but Injigan has continued to celebrate it. Lasting three days, Pathak is celebrated just like Eid. People cook special food, visit each other for greeting and sharing the joy of the festival. Special religious and cultural programs and activities are also held to highlight the contribution and importance of the saint in the Ismaili faith and the concept attached to the tradition.
Before the festival, Pathakins (messengers) are sent by the Khalifa, the eldest of the custodian of the shrine for the commencement of the festival in all villages. They give the message of blessings of the day and the year. The day of the festival is preceded by Samoon (preparation day), when the house is completely cleaned. The walls and ceilings are decorated with flour with different signs of animals, trees, flowers, etc. Women prepare traditional food such as Shoshpalaaki (sweet bread with filling), Cheera Shapik (bread with cheese filling), and Sanabachi. Girls gather to help each other apply nakrezi (henna) on their hands and hair. Gifts including milk, butter, cheese, dry fruit, local cake, etc are prepared for distribution among relatives.
The day of Pathak begins early dawn when the most respected religious elder/leader (Peer, Khalifa, Qazi, etc.) visits different houses in his village and exchanges best wishes and prayers using special words “Mubarko bashad” (congratulation with best wishes). Families welcome them to their houses with sprinkling white flour on his right shoulder, which is an omen of blessing. In return, he sprinkles flour on the door or main pillar in the kitchen (duur) of the house. He and his visiting guests are offered indigenous cheese (pandeer) as eshpeeri (a very special traditional refreshment offered to guests as a sign of welcoming them).
Early morning, men from different villages gather at the Ziarat (mausoleum) of Peer Nasir-e-Khusraw to pay homage and Fatiha to the holy soul for his services and contributions to the Islamic faith. The ziarat of Peer Nasir-e-Khusraw is located in the center of Garam Chashma town, and is being looked after by the Ziarat custodian called “Darveshan” (a branch of Saadat families). It is a place of great respect and veneration for both the Shi’i Ismaili and other sects of Islam.
At this shrine, the Qazi/ Khalifa deliver speeches about the preaching and teaching of Peer Nasir-e-Khusraw and the community renews their commitments to follow the philosophy, teaching, and message of Islam. Traditional food is brought to the Ziarat by families on a voluntary basis and is called ‘luqma’ meaning sacred and blessed food. The community members gathered at the Ziarat collectively praise and thank God for the guidance and Sirat-el-Mustaqim (right direction), peace, happiness, good health, prosperity, and continuing blessing in their lives, their families, the region, and the entire humanity.
People also visit their relatives, especially their married daughters, and exchange gift of the year – called “bash”. The term ‘bash’ has a very contextual indigenous significance and gifts under the term bash are held in high regard. The next day of Pathak is enjoyed by communities visiting each other’s, sharing their special indigenous organic food. People also find this an opportunity to engage in traditional sports. Boys play like shimeni zhingkek (tug of war), while girls go chukubeezh (swinging) and paai ganik/ boht pissik (stone throwing). If the event falls during snowfall, children also go skiing (chuuzh dik).
On this day, relations are revived, and differences are resolved after mutual forgiveness. This healing touch of Pathak is its most distinguishing feature. The festival gives us the lessons of unity, tolerance, and peaceful harmony. People visit each other houses in groups and this resultantly promotes a spirit of unity, brotherhood, and physio-psychological relief by engaging in sports, etc.
With the revival of tourism in Chitral, the culture has received extensive attention but indigenous events like Pathak are yet to be recognized and given the same attention as other events. In many ways, it remains the shortcoming of the tourism sector that these festivals have not been highlighted and given the due attention that they deserve. The need is to develop a calendar of all local festivals and indigenous events and publicize them locally and nationally.
Syed Harir Shah is a Travel Consultant and a practicing Tour Operator for over 25 years in Pakistan.