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Ismailis and the Pamiri Home

In earlier posts, we made mention of the Ismailis and their Pamiri houses, to which we are so frequently invited for a modest cup of tea (which is short for a very extensive luncheon with never ending spreads of local foods, always accompanied by hot tea).

The traditional Pamiri home (huneuni chid) consists of a large, five pillared room with raised areas around four sides of what can only be described as a central “pit”. In the winter, this pit contains a wooden stove which is warming the room and keeps the tea- and soup pots boiling. Apart from the main room, there is an entrance area (leave your shoes here, you always enter on your socks) and ,often, a private, smaller living space and hallway; the main room is where all the activities take place. This is where the extended family (and their honored guests) sleeps, eats, studies, watches television and entertains.
There are few, if any, windows. Illumination comes through an artfully designed skylight in the roof (the chimney of the wooden stove also leads through this roof-window) and consists of four concentric squares, representing the elements of fire, earth, air and water.
Along the raised sides, carpets and mattresses take the place of our furniture (good luck sitting cross legged through a three hour dinner with your stiff western limbs); carpets are colorful and plenty and also serve as decoration along with panels of photographs, the most prominent of which is almost always a portrait of the Aga Khan.

We have been told on numerous occasions, that the vertical pillars (5) symbolize the five members of Ali’s family (Fatima, Ali, Mohammed, Hassan and Hussein for who is interested) as well as the Five Pillars of Islam.
Some say, that these pillars also go back to the five deities of the Zoroastrianism religion (the structure of the Pamiri house goes back over 2500 years). In a further act of symbolism, the number of often beautifully decorated roof beams relates to the seven imams and six prophets of Ismailism. The most prominent place of the house is next to the Hassan pillar where the guest of honor will be seated (this can be the religious village leader for instance) so you have to be pretty careful where to put down your behind.
We have found the corners of the houses pretty comfortable (this is where you can stretch your legs the easiest) but you have to be careful around the "dastarkhon" (the table cloth spread on the floor which serves as the table). There are many forms of etiquette that we had to learn quickly. A lot of nevers. Never blow your nose (extremely rude), never place bread upside down or give food to animals, never step on or over the table cloth, this is especially a deadly sin (if you don’t have enough room, tuck your feet under the cloth).

The Ismailis are the second largest branch of the Shiites; they consider the family of Mohammed as divinely chosen, infallible and guided by God to lead the Islamic community, a belief that distinguishes them from the majority Sunni branch of Islam.
The Ismailis get their name from their acceptance of Ismail (ibn Jafar) as the appointed spiritual successor (Imam) to Jafar as Sadiq (this with thanks to Google, the BBC and Lonely Planet, I couldn’t remember these early theology lessons).

We find the Ismailis extremely pleasant; they don’t carry their religion on their sleeves, pray at home (no mosques) or in their community centers, drink modestly if they want to (the Russians left a legacy of vodka here of course). Most of the women wouldn’t look out of place in Paris, Rome or London and we wonder how they walk so elegantly through the snow with their high heels and stiletto boots. It’s easy to engage in discussions about religion if you want to, although the concept of atheism is not really understood.
The current Aga Khan is the 49th Imam (successor) and it is his job to interpret the Ismaili religion to its current day and times. Thus, the Koran is not followed literally but explained in the context of the 21st century.
According to our Canadian friend and co-volunteer Rod (a firm sceptic) anybody with a grain of sense would wish the Aga Khan (he refers to Him as one Cool Dude) as the chief of his or her religion. He lives in Switzerland, married several times, is a good skier and enjoys life to the fullest it seems. He is interested in the elimination of the world’s poverty, the advancement of women and gives most of his (considerable stacks of) money to good causes of which we are indirect beneficiaries (we work for one of his many foundations) so what’s not to like about him …..


  1. lalawoman and consort:

    Great to hear from you and to get the description of the Pamiri house structures and your endless round of feasts. I REALLY sympathized with you about sitting cross-legged for 3 hours! I would last about 15 minutes with crossed ankles!
    The idea that the five pillared "pit" room goes back to Zoroastrian times is very interesting -- we heard about Zoro... roots in while in the Stans.
    And no furniture. We saw this in Bhutan as well -- people sat on rugs and slept on bedrools in the common room.
    I checked yesterday and it was 11 F in Khourug while we were suffering with 75 F. Fortunately you have your single malt to keep you warm.
    NEWS NEWS NEWS Lew had a scan for traces of cancer last week and was pronounced FREE OF CANCER. He still seems pretty tired, but his spirits are good - and he still has his girl friend Janette.

    Keep warm if you can.


  2. Thank you for the description of the five pillared homes. The house is all about their beliefs. I imagine the occupants have wide open hearts.
    We also read about your experience in Egypt. Once again warm lovely people are crowding the globe. I think all the mean people must be so busy getting shown on Television that they don't have time to mix with the general population. So far it has been our experience the world over that most people are friendly and good. Especially poor people.


    Steve and Manjula


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