Pakistani Culture: Sources and their Legacies

Shahid H. Raja
12 min readDec 28, 2021

Introduction

Culture is an umbrella term that encompasses the social behaviour and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups. A product of multiple and diverse factors ranging from history and geography to climate and socioeconomic interactions with the outside world, a country’s culture manifests itself in all facets of a society’s daily life—food, shelter, clothing, ideas and beliefs, entertainment, etc.

No society or culture remains static over time; it keeps on changing under the requirements of the stage of its technological and economic development, accompanied by attendant structural and institutional changes. The same is the case with Pakistan, home to over 15 major ethnic groups that differ in physical features, customs, dress, food, music, etc. It is a melting pot of South Asian, Central Asian, Western Asian, Middle Eastern, and European influences brought about by foreign invasions and trade relations. However, it is strongly shaped by Islam since it first came to the region in AD 700.

This cultural evolution has been influenced, like all other cultures, by several drivers of historical development; here are the six main sources of our cultural heritage.

1. Indus State Heritage

Pakistan is the inheritor of the world’s earliest urban civilization, the Indus Valley Civilization which started around 5500 BCE and lasted until around 1500 BCE. Known for their extensive use of bronze, they developed new techniques in handicrafts and built their cities using the grid system with roadside drainage systems and multi-story houses made with bricks. Consequently, like every other ancient civilization, the Indus Valley Civilization has left rich legacies in all the regions of Pakistan, providing a solid common foundation for the evolution of national culture.

Unfortunately, there are no surviving grand monuments of the Indus Valley because their cities have almost vanished. However, their knowledge and skills still survive in our cuisine, architecture, clothing and fashion, agricultural practices, arts & crafts, trading conventions, etc

We have inherited our staple diets of lentils and bread from the Indus Valley people, who were forced to use a heavy intake of fat and carbohydrates due to the harshness of the climate and heavy load of work. Wheat imported by them from the Fertile Crescent and grown in the fields of Punjab and Sindh soon replaced barley as the main ingredient of our bread. Frequent famines taught them how to use grass (Saag) along with vegetables as a second dish. Before the British introduced the third time of food eating—breakfast, we used to have only ‘do what ki roti (two meals a day)—11 o'clock after finishing work at the fields and 6 p.m. dinner before going to bed.

Beads and pendants are very important forms of ornament that have a very long history in the Indus Valley. Buttons—made from seashells—were used in the Indus Valley Civilization for ornamental purposes by 2000 BCE. Many crafts, such as shell working, ceramics, and agate and glazed steatite bead making, were used in the making of necklaces, bangles, and other ornaments from all phases of Harappan sites, and some of these crafts are still practiced in the subcontinent today. Some make-up and toiletry items (a special kind of comb (kakai), the use of collyrium, and a special three-in-one toiletry gadget) that were found in Harappan contexts still have similar counterparts in Pakistan. Terracotta female figurines were found (ca. 2800–2600 BCE), which had a red colour applied to the “manga” (line of partition of the hair).

Most of the themes of the folk stories are wedding dances, belief in magic, the sacredness of cows, ritual bathing, bull-baiting, possibly yoga, symbols like the Swastika, and the endless knot, which are auspicious symbols of Buddhism / Jainism today and owe their origins to our Indus people. The Indus Valley people lived in peace, and their gift to us is showing us how to live in peace. Village structure and respect for authority are still the same as they were during the Indus Valley civilisation. Many pieces of touchstone bearing gold streaks, probably used for testing the purity of gold, were found in Mohenjo Daro. Such a technique is still used in many towns and cities in the Subcontinent.

The IVC may have been the first civilization to use wheeled transport. These advances may have included bullock carts that are identical to those seen throughout South Asia today, as well as boats. Most of these boats were probably small, flat-bottomed craft, perhaps driven by sail, similar to that one can see on the Indus River today; however, there is secondary evidence of seagoing craft.

The people of the Indus Valley have also passed on lots of games; kabaddi, chariot racing, wrestling, Gulli Danda, etc. owe a lot to our Indus people ancestors. The dice that were used in the Indus Valley are very similar to the ones we use today. An early form of chess may have been used in the Indus Valley. Objects with grids on them and playing pieces have been found in the Indus Valley. 5,000-year-old things Indians still use from the Harappans

2. Islamic Influence

Islam came to India from two different directions, namely from the south in 712 CE in the wake of the Muslim conquest of Sindh and Punjab, and then onwards from the northwestern side as a result of invasions by the Central Asian conquerors. Consequently, over some time, there emerged a distinct Indian Muslim culture with a mixture of hardcore Islamic teachings as well as religiously sanctified local customs and traditions. Accordingly, Islam’s contributions to Pakistani culture can be seen in every aspect of its culture from two different perspectives.

As 98% of Pakistan’s population is Muslims, one will find the hardcore of their religious beliefs consist of the fundamental Islamic beliefs and rituals discernible in any Muslim majority society, i.e., belief in monotheism, the finality of prophethood, life after death, prayers, zakat, fasting, and celebrating Islamic festivals like Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Azha, etc. Islam created the division of halal and haram in food, in particular eating the meat of only those animals that have been declared halal and have been slaughtered under Islamic injunctions. Similarly, its injunctions against pork and wine resulted in their banishment from our cuisine. The dress code for religious ceremonies is also influenced by Islamic traditions. Around 40% of Urdu vocabulary consists of Arabic words, thanks to the use of Arabic as a religious language by people.

The second perspective to observe Islam’s contributions to Pakistani culture is the way indigenous beliefs and customs have been adopted by the majority of Pakistani Muslims, considering them to be Islamic. There is a considerable body of beliefs and practices that are of Indian, Central Asian, and Persian origin but have been sanctified by the religious elite. As such, they are considered Islamic in this part of the world, although you won’t find them being practiced in other Muslim societies outside of South Asia. Thus, peer/mourning, magic, some festivals, various rites observed at marriages, dances, superstitions, mysticism, pirs, fakirs, palmistry, horoscopes, etc. are considered to be rooted in Islam and are indigenous.

Wedding rites are a mixture of Islamic traditions and indigenous practices. For example, giving dowry to the daughter on marriage is a purely Islamic tradition. However, in certain regions of Pakistan, it is the bridegroom and his family who are responsible for the arrangement. There are two explanations for the widespread prevalence of dowry in Pakistan. Firstly, it is considered compensation for not giving her due share of inheritance. Secondly, it is given as a genuine contribution from parents to ensure that their daughter lives comfortably in her new house. Whatever the justification, a purely Islamic tradition has become more of a social obligation than a need.

Another relic of the past is the hierarchical system of social stratification (caste system), which we inherited from our indigenous Indian roots. Unfortunately, Muslims added their social stratification to this by declaring Says, the descendants of the Holy Prophet, as more equal than the equals. It has now permeated all facets of Pakistani society—social relations, economic dealings, political affiliations, voting patterns, and behaviour.

While the Muslim conquerors of the Subcontinent brought the traditional rivalry between its two main sects, namely Shia and Sunni, to India, two others, namely the Deobandi and Brevelvi sub-sects, sprang from the Indian soil after the 1857 uprising, which was accentuated due to a political vacuum. Islam fitted in the rural area smoothly, where several communities lived together on an economic class basis, each class protecting its corporate interests irrespective of the religious divide.

However, after the 1857 uprising, religious differences started accentuating, particularly in urban areas where opportunities offered by the new capitalist development were up for grabs and religious differences were used to protect their interests. It, therefore, created a clear division between the persecuted Muslims and aspiring Hindus in their social relations—food, clothing, worldview, etc.—resulting in two nationalities, then two nations, the precursor of Pakistan. Since independence, Islam has been used by different governments according to their domestic and foreign agendas.

3. Central Asian Impact

Present-day Pakistan was the base camp for any conquer from Central Asia, and there were many. Consequently, there has been a lot of racial and cultural intermixing, which over time has been diluted but still manifested in physique, food, shelter, and clothing. There are hundreds and thousands of towns and villages in Pakistan whose inhabitants are proud of their Central Asian ancestry. A lot of our cuisine, particularly meat dishes, is of Central Asian origin.

They added horses, dogs, and camels to the list of domesticated animals. Similarly, a sizable portion of our daily vocabulary has its roots in Central Asia, i.e., Daku (robber), Qazzak (vagabond), Ghar (house), Makan (home), Samovar, etc. According to several scholars, even the name of our country is a modified adoption of the name of a Central Asian region, namely “Krakul Pakistan”. All four components of our national dress, namely the sherwani, Karakuli cap, kameez, and shalwar, have their origins in Central Asia.

4. Mughal’s Contributions

The Mughals came from Central Asia but settled here and ruled India for more than 200 years. One of the most powerful dynasties ruled India for more than two centuries; they bequeathed us substantial legacies in almost every field. During their rule, Indian culture and society underwent a fundamental transformation in multiple dimensions, ranging from food and shelter to art, literature, and even our dress. The centralized, imperialistic governance style, Mughal art, the fusion of Persian and Indian culture and cuisine, and the development of the Urdu language are their best legacies.

Art and culture would have been poor if the Mughals had not left such rich and exquisite traditions in this field. Even the tradition of decorating the trucks for which Pakistan is famous all over the world comes from the era of crafts and craftsmen from the Mughal Empire. The extreme attention paid to the intricate details in every aspect of these trucks stems from the old style of palace décor employed during the Mughal era.

They left us a rich culinary legacy called Mughlai cuisine, consisting of a delicious blend of exotic ingredients mixed with indigenous spices, besides perfecting the art of cooking by using earthen ovens and pots. These are still the norms in our cooking practices. Some of the dishes we take for granted, such as Murgh Musallam or Navratan Korma, are Mughal gifts to our cuisine. The same is the case with Nihari, Shabdeg, Biryani, Haleem, etc.

Talking about architecture, we cannot escape Mughal contributions wherever we go. Lahore, the occasional residence of Mughal rulers, exhibits many important buildings from the empire. Most prominent among them are the Badshahi mosque, the fortress of Lahore with the famous Alamgiri Gate, the colourful, Mughal-style Wazir Khan Mosque, the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, and the Shahjahan Mosque in Thatta. The Lahore Fort, a landmark built during the Mughal era, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even the British, who introduced European architectural styles in India, were greatly inspired by Mughal architecture and built numerous buildings copying their style.

5. Colonial Heritage

Although formal British rule started after the 1857 War of Independence when Queen Victoria became empress of India, the British cultural invasion had started influencing Indian society even during the rule of the East India Company. We must give them credit for laying down impressive public infrastructure such as roads, railways, canals, telegraphs, etc. Excavations and preservation of our archaeological sites and saving traditional languages from extinction owe a lot to the British explorers and linguists.

Foreign invasions, trade relations, and colonialism have also played a key role in introducing certain foods, fruits, and vegetables, as well as the dishes and manners of their cooking and eating. While the Portuguese were responsible for introducing tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, and tobacco, the British introduced the third type of food eating—breakfast. Before their arrival, we used to have only ‘do what ki roti (two meals a day)—11 o'clock after finishing work at the fields and 6 p.m. dinner before going to bed. Having lunch or dinner around the table and using a fork is also a colonial legacy. While tea and refined sugar (still called Cheeni) were introduced by the Arabs from China, they were popularized by the British. Evening tea with snacks and custard are British legacies.

6. Globalization

No society or culture can remain static. It keeps on changing with the times to the requirements of the stage of its technological and economic development. Pakistan is a part and parcel of a rapidly globalising world and it is not possible to protect its culture from the global influences of the dominant Western cultural influences any longer. The ease of travel and flow of ideas through print, electronic, and social media is transforming the beliefs, behaviour, and attitudes of people even in the remote corners of the world. Pakistani society and its cultural values are also subject to this phenomenon.

Modernisation is affecting all aspects of its cultural milieu. Visit any region, even its remote areas, and you will see three centuries coexisting side by side. Our inner core is still 1400 years old, while our middle layer is from the 20th century. On top of that, we are wearing a thin coat of the 21st century. However, the new generation is rapidly assimilating the attitudes and behaviours of a global village citizen

Like all other countries, the range and intensity of modernisation in Pakistan differ from region to region and even within a region. However, it is affecting rural areas and urban areas at different speeds. For example, Karachi is the most modern city in Pakistan, where a person coming from the West will feel at home in its posh areas while he will be lost in the slums of Karachi. On the other hand, the same person will again see the familiar environment in Lahore and Islamabad but face the same alienation in the rural areas of Punjab.

Pakistani society and its cultural values are also subject to these influences. Globalization has made great inroads in all spheres of our social life, including food, shelter, clothing, attitudes, beliefs, etc. Coffee is the gift of Globalization along with fast food and different fizzy drinks. Lassi, made from curd, a traditional drink in the Punjab region, is being replaced with fizzy drinks even in rural areas. Black tea with milk and sugar is popular throughout Pakistan and is taken daily by most of the population.

The same is the case with our dresses, entertainment, means of transportation and communications, modes of governance, etc. Globalisation is also changing our attitudes and behaviour. From a joint family to a nuclear family, a lesser number of children, individualism, role, and status of females, eating habits, and manners are changing with global trends.

Conclusion

The evolution of a particular national culture takes time, to which each federating unit contributes. Uniformity has the colour of deserts, while the beauty of gardens is in their diversity. Let a hundred flowers of different varieties and hues bloom rather than having a garden full of roses only. Unity in diversity is the hallmark of a true federation. Cultural homogeneity cannot be achieved through the barrel of the gun or state edicts. Give respect to every major language spoken, and let a national language evolve over time.

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