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Who are they?
The Pathan people are one of four major Muslim communities in India. A hardy, immigrant community from neighboring Afghanistan, these people claim to be descended from Saul, the first king of Israel. They came to India during the successive Muslim invasions of the 11th and 12th centuries AD, forming a part of the raiding Turk-Afghan armies of Mahmud of Ghazni (a principality in Afghanistan) and Mohammed Ghori. They reached the peak of political power when the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri (1540-45) established his short-lived rule over North India. After independence from the British in 1947, during the Partition of India, the Pathan left in large numbers to the newly created nation of Pakistan. Origin
There is conflicting opinion among scholars about the origin of the Pathan. William Crooke, (Tribes and Castes of North-Western India, 1896) states that the word ‘Pathan’ is an Indian form of the Pushto word Pukhtana. R.E. Enthoven (1909) was of the opinion that they are descendents of the first Afghans who came to India and settled in Patna and were therefore called ‘Pathan’. Another view held by Russel and Hiralal (Tribes and Castes of The Central Provinces of India, 1916) is that the name is probably an Indian form of the word pustun, from speakers of the Pushto language. It is also believed that the Pathan are not a homogenous group but include the original Afghan and Central Asian immigrants (such as Turks, Persians and Arabs) as well as the locals who embraced Islam.
The Pathan use the title Khan as a surname, and at times Khan is synonymous for Pathan. Pathan women attach the suffix Khanam or Bibi to their names. The Pathans are considered fourth in rank, below the Sayyid, Sheikh and Mughal in Muslim hierarchy. All four of these communities are collectively known as Ashraf or Shurafa, meaning honorable. They are a particularly proud people, sensitive about maintaining family honor and self-respect and work hard to ensure it. Revenge and blood feuds between families lasting generations is common owing to this strict code of honor, known as Pakhtunwali, to which they faithfully adhere.
The Pathan number around ten million and are distributed in seventy-four districts across the North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
Though their original language is Pushto, Indian Pathans consider Urdu as their mother tongue and use the Persian-Arabic script to write. They are also conversant in Hindi in addition to the regional language of the state they live in.
What Are Their Lives Like?
With their martial background, the Pathans were in great demand as soldiers and mercenaries for different principalities. The British raised crack Pathan regiments that distinguished themselves in action. Many Pathan youth serve in the defense services today.
Formerly, this community had many money lenders and itinerant salesmen who sold goods on credit. They were renowned for their ruthlessness in settling accounts. Presently, the Pathan are mostly engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, military service, in the police force and work as clerks, taxi, truck drivers, tailors, watchmen and daily labor. Many own or work in small to medium businesses. In West Bengal cattle trading and fish breeding are the primary forms of livelihood. In Tamil Nadu, the most common ways of making a living are carpet, mat and basket making. There are also teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and administrators in the community. There are also some Pathan politicians at local and regional levels. The Pathan eats only halal meat slaughtered according to Islamic law. Pork is strictly taboo. Staple foods include rice, wheat, maize and coarse millets, like jowar and bajra, supplemented by a variety of pulses, seasonal vegetables, fruit, milk and milk products. A majority – both men and women habitually chew paan (betel), while some men use tobacco in different forms and occasionally drink alcohol. They prepare special dishes like biryani, a rich aromatic pulao, kebab, korma (fried and spicy mutton/beef curry) and other flavorful dishes for their celebrations.
Formal education is encouraged for both boys and girls, but boys go on to graduate while girls finish earlier. Despite this, the dropout rate is high due to economic and social pressures. They use both traditional and modern medicine. Some younger couples approve of family planning except in Gujarat and Karnataka where they do not practice it. Facilities provided by development programs such as clean drinking water, electricity and irrigation are welcomed. This community have a number of subgroups throughout the regions they in which they reside. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh they are divided into sixteen subgroups. Territorial differentiation within the community and among the subgroups exists and these identities are known as qabilas. The number of subgroups in is twenty –six Himachal Pradesh, eight in Delhi, three in Rajasthan, five in West Bengal and eleven in Bihar.
The Pathans marry within the community and marital alliances are preferred within the subgroup. However, in case of no available suitable match, marriage with other Muslim communities is acceptable; the Sayyid community favored the most. Marriages are arranged by family elders and monogamy and adult marriages are common. Polygamy is religiously sanctioned and also socially acceptable. Consanguineous marriages, (marriages between closely related persons) especially those with paternal or maternal first cousins, are quite prevalent. A widower may marry his deceased wife’s younger sister or elder brother’s widow. Toe-rings, nose rings, glass bangles, black-beaded necklace are the marriage symbols for women. In Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal no marriage symbols are observed. Divorce is allowed by Islamic law and compensation – the sum fixed at the time of the nuptials – is given to the divorced wife. Widow, widower and divorcee remarriages are permitted. Dowry is given in both cash and kind.
Among the Pathan, nuclear families are increasingly common. Both sons and daughters have a share in the parental property with all the sons equally sharing two-thirds and all the daughters one-third of the inheritance. However, in states like Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh the daughters do not inherit any share at all. The eldest son succeeds his father’s authority as head of the family. The status of women in Pathan society is secondary to that of the men and until recently most of them wore a burkha (chador or veiled dress) in public. Today however, women in cities cover their heads with a scarf instead. The women attend to all the domestic chores, help out in agriculture and animal husbandry and often contribute directly to the family income. They have a definite role in social functions and family rituals but it is restricted in the religious and political ones. The Pathans have a tradition of folk tales and folk songs and use several musical instruments like the dholak, a barrel-shaped drum with tapering ends, the harmonium and the flute. Some are experts in light and classical music. Women dance but not in the presence of men at festivities. The men traditionally wear a loose tunic and baggy trousers like pajamas, with a waistcoat and round embroidered caps while the women wear salwar kameez.
In most regions, there are no community councils, but from time to time an ad hoc body of respected elders is formed to uphold community norms and to resolve social issues. In Bihar there is a traditional council known as the Khan Biradari, and in Rajasthan the Jama is headed by an elected chief.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Pathans are strict Muslims by faith and belong to the Sunni sect. They worship Allah as the Almighty and revere Prophet Mohammed as his messenger to whom the holy Koran was revealed through the archangel Gabriel. They believe power of dead saints and pray at tomb shrines for them to intercede on their behalf. Pirnagah shrine in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, is famous for responding to the prayers of devotees and curing buffalo ailments, bringing increase in milk yield, prosperity, and for keeping family peace.
Their sacred specialist, the priest, is usually from other Muslim communities and performs births marriage and death rites, cures diseases, exorcises evil spirits and presides over religious ceremonies. Circumcision is performed by a Muslim from the Nai people in infancy or early childhood for boys. The dead are buried and a forty-day mourning period is observed, at the end of which a community feast is given.
The Pathan celebrate Islamic festivals like Id-ul-Fitr (Feast of Alms), Id-ul-Zuha (a feast in which a goat is ritually slaughtered in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice) and Id Milad (Prophet Mohammed’s birthday) with great enthusiasm and devotion. They also observe a dawn-to-dusk fast for forty consecutive days during the holy month of Ramzan or Ramadan. The Pathans are passionate about their faith, which is sometimes mixed with superstition. The Haj or holy pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lifetime, is a cherished desire of all Pathan.
What Are Their Needs?
The Pathan need better education, especially for females, as well as economic improvement.