George Scott Robertson.

The Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush; online

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grajjhs — The electric battery — House-hunting — Suniri, a remarkable
old woman — She entertains me — The feast — The verandah — Independ-
ence of Kafir Ijabies — The slaves — Their social position — Their treatment
—The " Jast Bari "—The Urir— Slave traffic.

The date of my arrival in Kdmdesh for the second time,
was the i st of October. The first business of importance
was to procure a temporary abode, until the Kiim had
time to fulfil a promise to build me a house. While
negotiations were being carried on with this object, my
tent remained pitched close to the east village, and my
friends were filled with anxiety about my safety at night.
The villagers came in crowds in the day-time, and
appeared never to grow tired of watching me, and dis-
cussing me with one another. During my former visit
to Kdfiristan I had taken several photographs, some of
which, the portraits of well-known Kdfirs, met with the
warmest reception. As each face was recognised, the man's
name was shouted out amidst shrieks of laughter, as
if my audience were gazing upon a ludicrous caricature,
instead of upon works of possibly some artistic merit.
A small electric battery was as popular as the plioto-
graphs. At length, my occupation became very much
like that of a man with a successful "try your weight"
machine at an English fair, and the weariness of death
eventually came over me at the sight of fresh candidates


for a "shock" or a view of the pictures; but, on the
other hand, every one seemed so pleased to see me, and
so genially happy, that it was possible to restrain my
impatience even after hours of showman's work. My
tent was very small, and was surrounded by crowds of
Kilfirs, whose notions of cleanliness are, fortunately,
peculiar and national. The following day was spent
much in the same way, but occasionally diversified by
house-hunting. My visitors were as numerous as ever,
but the difference in their behaviour from that of the
year before w-as very striking. Although anxious to be
amused, and to see as much as any one else had seen,
they were no longer aggressively inquisitive, and even
asked if it troubled me to have so many visitors. This
was no doubt the result of Shermalik's account of
my greatness and dignity in my own country, which
he never tired of proclaiming. The Kdfirs were at
times very comical, and were usually amusing. The
way they delighted to bring up fresh sightseers, ask
for the photographs, and then proceed to explain them
with the airs of the superior person all the world over,
was very interesting. It was curious to notice the in-
fluence of age in the power of the people to recognise
portraits. * No Kafir ever recognised pictures of buildings
or landscapes. Boys and youths recognised the originals
of the photographs at once, and shouted out their
names ; men between thirty and forty took time to
consider, frequently held the pictures upside down, and
required to have them readjusted before they discovered
their meaning and recognised the features portrayed ;
while men a few years older could never make any-
thing out of them at all. The electric battery was



their chief delight. They would persuade one of the
uninitiated to grasp the handles, and then beg me by
winks and nods, or implore me by frantic gestures
behind the proposed victim's back, to turn on the
strongest current ; in this way they showed their keen
appreciation of a practical joke at the expense of others.

Concerning a house, there were several placed at my
disposal. That which seemed most suitable was the
tower at the top of the village. It belonged to a man
named Aramalik Chani, whose old mother, Sumri, had
been very kind to me the year before. But it was
pointed out that this tower was unfinished in the
uppermost story, and must consequently be verv cold
in winter. It was in its then condition a veritable
temple of the winds ; but that could have been rectified
without great difficulty ; while the power of being able
to completely isolate oneself at night by merely drawing
up the ladder by which the tower was entered, would
have been certainly convenient. But it was clear to me
in a very short time that the selection of a house was
not a matter which was to be left to my private judg-
ment, but was a question which was secretly but de-
cisively being settled for me by others. A transparent
little intrigue, in which Shermalik played a prominent
part, reduced my choice to one of two houses. The
first belonged to Torag Merak, and about it my Kafir
son was most enthusiastic ; but it was a dreadful
building, three stories high, and, from its position on a
slope, it was commanded close at hand by many liouscs
swarming with women and cliildren. It was dilapi-
dated, gloomy, and dirty. 1 decisively declined to go
into it. This refusal gave umbrage to Shermalik, who


was evidently acting as Torag Merak's secret agent,
and who doubtless wanted to conciliate that influential
and dangerous headman. The second house was one
belonging to Utah the priest. It consisted of one
room twenty feet square, built upon the roof of two
conjoined apartments, one of which was a cowhouse,
and the other, really a woodshed, was at the moment
occupied by Utah's brother, and the latter's new wife.
There were objections to this house also ; but it was no
use contending against the influence brought to bear
by the priest and Shermalik, so it was accepted and
occupied, with many expressions of thankfulness on
my part. To make room for me, Utah's youngest,
prettiest, but least-loved wife had to remove to her
father's abode. The Kafirs themselves promised to
carry over my small belongings, for my Balti coolies
were busily engaged all day long in collecting firewood
in the Deodar forest to the south of the village. The
distance the baggage had to be carried was about one
hundred and fifty yards over uneven ground ; the
number of loads was less than a dozen ; the number
of helpers was perhaps a hundred ; the time occupied
in carrying the things w^as about three hours.

After inspecting the tower already mentioned, I went
to call on Sumri, the owner's mother, who lived close by.
This old lady was the most highly esteemed woman in
the Kiim tribe. On the death of her husband she had
given away enormous wealth in the huge public banquets
she provided, not only for her own tribe, but for the
Wai people as well. She was proud of telling of the
crowds of people she used to entertain daily. Besides
the fame she had acquired in this way, she had also


gone through a series of ceremonies, which will be sub-
sequently described, by which she had still further
impoverished her young son by feastings and banquets,
but had in a still greater degree exalted the position of
the family. She was the only woman in the tribe whom
both males and females joined to respect. She did no
work in the fields, and very little about the house, so
high had her rank become, but spent the most of her
time seated on a little Kafir stool on a small platform
outside the upper verandah story of her house, ^^hicll
was reached by a long notched plank, the local sul)sti-
tute for a ladder. The fact of her sitting on a stool
outside the house proclaimed the high social position
to which she had attained. Anybody may sit on a
stool inside a house or in a verandah ; but only those
arc entitled to the privilege of using such a seat in
the open who have gone through certain elaborate
ceremonies, and have royally feasted their tribe in so
doing. The number of such individuals in the tribe
was three men — Dan Malik, Torag ]Merak, and "Lame"
Astan — and the woman Sumri just described. The priest,
by reason of his sacred office, was permitted the same

Sumri prided herself upon the good sense she pos-
sessed, and was famed for the good advice she gave —
for a woman. She invited me into her abode, seated
me with much honour on a wooden bedstead brought
into the verandah room for the purpose, and composed
herself for conversation. She began by observing, as
sententiously as a weak-looking, pale-eyed little woman
could, that the people would never be satisfied unless 1
ate with them. I expressed the great pleasure it would


give me to be entertained by her, and made certain
remarks as to the different eating customs of our respec-
tive countries, and instanced Shermalik's extreme dislike
to cold fowls, of which he had been given far too many
on our march down to India. They had usually been
pulled out, already cooked, from a saddle-bag, and owing
to the extreme cold of the journey, had generally been
presented to my adopted son hard frozen, and with their
juices turned into ice. It was only necessary to men-
tion this article of diet to Shermalik to set his teeth on
edge with agonised memories. She was next told of
the surprising behaviour of Shahru, the buffoon priest,
when he first put in his mouth some morsels of a hot
curry which remained from my plate. These little anec-
dotes were received with laughter and applause, and the
little old woman, with a confident, superior smile, called
to her assistance two daughters-in-law, and they all
went into one of the two rooms which gave off from
the verandah, to prepare me a meal with their own
skilled hands. AVhile the cooking was going forward,
Aramalik Chara, that is, Chara the son of Aramalik,
who was Sumri's son and the owner of the house, with
several friends who had casually stepped in to see what
was passing, proceeded to entertain me after their own
fashion ; but although it was interesting to watch them
for a time, they soon grew very dull. They were on
their company manners, and spoke solemnly and in a
dignified way about nothing at all for a long time ; then
a hubble-bubble pipe was handed round by a domestic
slave, and every one became more friendly, Shermalik
eventually obliging the company with some of his Indian
adventures, which certainly lost nothing in the telling.



After a time Sumri reappeared with a little feast, which
was placed before me on a round, hour-glass-shaped
wicker table, about eighteen inches high, and of a
diameter of some twelve inches at the top and bottom.
There were five or six large, round, thin unleavened
cakes, called chujyjxities in India, made of wheaten
flour, and in the centre of the top cake was a small heaj)
of salt, while on one side was a portion of toasted cheese.
In a wooden bowl was a quantity of ghee — that is to say,
butter clarified by the water being driven off by heat.
The whole repast was extremely good. The proper
method of consuming it was to tear oflf a piece of the
chujKttti, dip it into the ghee, and then deftly convey
the morsel to your mouth without dropping any of the
oily particles on to your clothes. The cheese was first
broken into fragments, which, having been touched with
the salt, were then consumed. After the meal was over,
the remains were thoughtfully, and with ostentatious
fairness, distributed amongst his other guests by Chi'ini.
They had all been somewhat surprised at my clumsv
efforts at handling the food, and one or two had tried to
instruct me how the thing should be really done. Now
they demonstrated the method with conscious pride, and
not without some slight exaggeration in giving a touch of
added elegance to the performance — a twist of the wrist,
an accentuated cock of the little finger, or a graceful toss
of the head.

The verandah in ^^hich we were seated, which was
the only portion of Chiln'i's house revealed to me on
this occasion, was really the front room of the second
story. It was closed at both ends by wooden and
masonry walls, each pierced by a doorway. In front


were two very large openings, like sashless window-
frames, occupying a space from the roof to within about
three feet of the ground. Behind were two very dark
rooms, side by side. All down the open side of the
verandah room ran a huge, broad, single plank, raised
some six or eight inches from the ground for the
accommodation of guests. On the opposite side, and
between the doors of the two rooms, the ground was
raised three inches, for use as a fireplace. On the wall
on this side of the apartment hung two leather shields,
evidently brought from Peshawar. At one end the
verandah room opened through a doorway, of which the
bottom frame timber was a foot or so above the level
of the floor, on to a square wooden platform, some
eight feet by six, along the edge of which was sitting
accommodation for several people. The platform com-
municated with the ground below by means of a notched
plank ladder, already mentioned. At the other end of
the verandah room three or four steps led to a window-
like door. On the other side of the door, which was
closed, was evidently a similar short ladder, as was shown
by the way a woman entered, carrying a bright-eyed,
two-year-old child. She placed the little fellow on the
ground, gave him a piece of bread to keep him quiet,
and Avent out again. To my horror the baby began to
climb up the small ladder after her, opened the door,
and disappeared. I was horrified, expecting to hear the
dull thud of a heavy fall ; but none came, and Shermalik,
whose eyes were in the same direction as mine, gave no
sign that anything unusual was happening. No doubt
there is a special Providence which watches over Kafir
babies. They stagger and reel along the edges of house-


tops, a fall from which would mean fracture or death,
and crawl along a roof to the smoke-hole, into which
they thrust their heads and shoulders, and still live to
totter away, to attempt some fresh suicidal -looking

The sight of the slave who had been handing round
the pipe from Chdra to his guests caused me to make
inquiries from Shermalik about the bondsmen held by
the Kafirs. He gave me much curious information,
which was corroborated and confirmed by others, and
subsequently by my own observation. While seated in
Oharas house we noticed a low-browed, very dark-com-
plexioned, and wild-looking man of powerful build,
carrying on his back an immense load, in size at any
rate, of Indian corn from a neighbouring field. I re-
marked how hard the man worked. The ans\\ er was :
" AMiy should he not? He is a slave; he sleeps all
night, and works all day. If he did not work he would
be beaten deservedly." This was said in a tone which
implied that the speaker — who probably never did a day's
work in his life, except in fighting or in travelling —
must seriously reprobate any falling away in devotion to
labour, or any remarks which might seem to suggest that
anybody could work too hard. The slave community
is a curious and interesting class. It is probable that
they are partly the descendants of an ancient people
subjugated by the Kafirs when they first entered the
country, and are partly the descendants of prisoners
taken in war. Among the slaves all are not of the
same social position, for the house slave is said to be
much higher in m-ade than the artisan slave ; but this
is one of the many points in connection with the slaves


which have always puzzled me. 'J'he skilled mechanics,
the wood-carvers, the bootmakers, and the silver-workers,
are called 'Mast Bari " ; "Jast" means senior or elder,
and " Bari " means slave. The lowest class of all is the
blacksmiths. All the craftsmen of the Kafirs, carpenters,
dagger-makers, ironworkers, and w'eavers, are slaves,
as are also those musicians who beat drums. The
slave artisans live in a particular part of a village. In
Kamdesh the slave quarter is called "Babagrom." The
domestic slaves live -with their masters. The relations
existing between the slaves, their masters, and the ordi-
nary free population, are very curious. It is impossible
to insult a Kafir more than by calling him a slave.
In a village quarrel that is the epithet used to lash
opponents into fury. Slaves are considered so impure
that they may not approach the shrines of the gods too
closely, nor enter beyond the doorway of the priest's
house. They are always liable to be sold, and also, I
fear, to be given up to another Kc4fir tribe to be killed
in atonement for a murder. Their children are the
property of their master, to do with as he thinks fit.
Yet, in spite of all this, their lot is by no means so bad
as it must appear. A very curious case I knew, was one
in which a master and his slave went through the cere-
mony of brotherhood together. The master, in talking
to me about his slaves, mentioned this fact quietly, and
as if there w-ere nothing unusual in it. The slave arti-
sans work for their masters with materials supplied by
the latter, and are not paid for their labour. If the
slaves work for others, they do not hand the wages
over to their masters, but keep the pay themselves ; on
the other hand, the masters do not supply the artisan


slaves with food or clothing ; the latter are entirely self-

The house slaves are fed and worked more in the man-
ner implied by the name. They probably would be beaten,
or otherwise punished, if they were not industrious, but I
never saw anything like harshness in the way they were
treated. A curious circumstance about the slaves is, that
they are permitted, after giving certain feasts to the free
community, including, of course, their masters, to wear
the earrings of the Jast ; but this privilege docs not
appear to exalt the individual, except among the slave
community. The bondsmen also adopt, more or less
closely, all the manners and customs of the rest of the
community, and give feasts at funerals and on other great
occasions. But perhaps the most perplexing point about
them is, that they are sometimes chosen to be members of
the ITrir, the annually elected magistrates, provided that
they are not blacksmiths, and that they are Jast Bari. In
1 89 1 this actually occurred while I was in Kamdesh. It
was explained that it was a useful thing to elect a slave
representative, because he knew so much about his own
class and their doings. What really happened is what
might have been expected. The slave Urir was instru-
mental in bringing a freeman to punishment by fine. The
latter, with his brethren, waited a certain number of days
during which the persons of the Urir are peculiarly sacred,
and then attacked the slave. The rest of the L'rir. all
of whom were freemen, rushed to protect their brothrr
magistrate ; the different families and clans began to take
sides, and what promised to be a bloody quarrel was only
averted with great difficulty. There is no distinctive
badge either for male or female slaves, but their physiog-


nomy is often quite sufficient to show the class to which
they belong. Slaves are just as patriotic as the rest of the
community. There was one slave at Kamdesh, a black-
smith, belonging to the most despised class of all, who
was pointed out to me as a tall man of his hands, and the
slayer of many of his country's foes. Many others fight
well when occasion arises.

I was assured that at Kamdesh slaves could only be
sold in the village or down the valley, and that if one
escaped and ran away to Katirgul, he would have to be
given up at once, or there would be war. Slaves are
never sold unless the owner becomes very poor indeed.
A young female slave is more valuable than a male, be-
cause there is the probability that she will bear children.
An old woman, or a very old man, is of course worth
nothing at all. When a female slave is sold out of the
valley she is always sent by herself, for if she were one of
a party they would certainly all run away from their pur-
chaser. Musalmans are always ready to buy female slaves
or their young female children, and pay high prices for
them, partly, no doubt, because they are thereby enabled
to make converts to Islam.

The Presuns, who are a feeble folk, have no slaves of
their own, and purchase them from the Katir tribes. It
is a strange sight to see Kafirs in the Siah-Posh garb, and
therefore presumably manly and independent, owning as
their masters the heavy-featured, cowardly Presuns.

There is very little traffic in slaves. Female children
of slave parents are sold and sent away to neighbouring
Musalman tribes. The slave population is very limited
in number, and as it comprises all the artificers of the
village, it would be exceedingly inconvenient to the tribe


if such men were always liable to be sold. Nevertheless,
I believe that the community lays no claim to a common
property in the slaves ; they all belong to their respective
masters, to be sold or retained as each thinks best.

On one point I am not clear. It is concerning the
position of children of a freeman by a slave mother. I
believe that sometimes a slave woman is taken into the
house of a freeman, and that her children are not slaves,
although they rank much below the children born of a
woman of the same rank as the man. One sometimes
discovers that the eldest brother, the head of a family,
has a half-brother who is looked upon as a man of no im-
portance. He probably inherited nothing at the death of
his father, yet he is treated kindly by his half-brethren,
and is undoubtedly a freeman. The point I have not
determined is this : was the mother of this man of no
account a slave woman, or merely a woman of low rank ?

The Utah, the priest of the Kam, who is considered so
pure an individual that slaves may not approach his
hearth, has two children, a girl and a boy, who are both
of much lower grade than his other children. Their
mother was a Bashgul Katir, but I never could ascertain
whether she had been a slave, or was merely of inferior
rank. Utah had given the daughter to a Giijar of the
Kunar Valley, who paid an exorbitant price for the girl,
believing her to be one of the ordinary children of the
Kam priest, and being anxious to proselytise a K:i1ir
damsel of such presumably high birth. Utah told me the
story himself, with a grave face, but with his tongue in
his cheek, so to speak. I subsequently discovered that
he spoke truly.


The narrative continued — Universal opposition to my travelling about the
country — Settling down- — Appearance of Kafirs — Kafirs in their own
country — Anxiety about my safety at night — Necessity for caution —
Small swindles and thefts — Torag Merak's threat to expel me from the
valley — Difficulty in getting supplies — Adverse and friendly parties —
The Mehtar's influence against me — My arguments and assurances —
Perpetual sacrifices to Imni and Gish — Plans to obtain solitude —
Efforts to learn the Bashgul language — Torag Merak's recipe to that
end — Visit of Presungulis — Their amazement at my abode — Presungul
national dance and music — Visit of Ramgulis — Their attire — Their
departure — Their temerity — Rumours of fighting — Raids — Kafir stealthy
revenge and cold-blooded murder — Observances upon the return of
successful braves.

I BEGAN to settle down in my new house, and the
curiosity of the people was still unsatiated. Perhaps
the point about the Kafirs which struck me more than
any other was the striking difference between the
appearance which they present outside their own
country, and that which they present in their villages.
In Chitrdl, for instance, especially if in a conciliatory
attitude, Kdfirs are singularly mean, shifty, and forbid-
ding in appearance, A scanty and dirty dress, furtive
glances, shameless begging, and a prowling step, induce,
at first sight, a feeling towards them of dislike and
contempt. It needs a close and sympathetic observa-
tion to discover that the vile brown robe trailing at
the heels, conceals active and athletic forms ; that the
bland, insinuating faces are keen and well-formed, and
can give at times the bold fixed stare, or the swift wild


glance of the hawk ; that the men playing the part of
cringing beggars, with all the subtlety and duplicity of
the Oriental, have fierce and impetuous natures, and are
capable at any minute of throwing off the mask of
humility, and assuming their own characteristics — a
fierce independence of spirit, tempered by a clear per-
ception of the exigencies of the moment, and the pos-

Online LibraryGeorge Scott RobertsonThe Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush; → online text (page 7 of 38)