Skip to main content
Two groups of men shoulder-to-shoulder face each other in traditional dance for a crowd under a large cloth tent. 

Torwali dancers performing the traditional dance Dhiz (ɖʰiz) in the Simam Festival 2011.

Photo courtesy of Aftab Ahmad

  • Torwali Language, Music, and Poetry: An Heirloom of Love from Northern Pakistan

    On a cold afternoon in the winter of 2016, my colleague and I parked at a fuel station in the city of Bahrain, northern Pakistan. As we rushed to the station office for some heat, an old man stood by our car. He had a sweet smile on his face, and his eyes were filled with tears. I greeted him, but he waved me away with his hand. I realized he was engrossed by sounds coming from our open car door: a DVD player hooked up to the car stereo was playing the video album Manjoora, a collection of ancient folk songs known in the Torwali language as Zo. 

    The old man stood in the cold, moved by these Zo couplets. When the singers finished, the old man turned toward me and asked my name. I told him my name and my role in creating the Manjoora album. He hugged me and kissed my forehead.

    That day was a powerful moment in my career of promoting Torwali language and culture, but I have always lived in a place with a rich history of language diversity. I grew up in the Swat region and in other regions of North Pakistan, where more than half of the country’s seventy-eight languages are spoken. Torwali people are of Indo-Aryan descent and are one of the many Indigenous Dardic communities living in the region for over 5,000 years. But between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, during several waves of invasions, many of the Torwalis and other Indigenous groups of Swat were gradually subjugated, driven out, or killed, leading to a substantial loss of Indigenous culture, identity, and language.

    Three men seated on a red carpet play musical instruments together.
    Torwali singer-poets Haleem Khan Noorani (left) plays the Bhden and Sitar, and Zahoor Ahmad Torwali (right) plays the rabab.
    Photo courtesy of Aftab Ahmad

    Today, Torwali people are Sunni Muslim, and we mostly live in the upper reaches of the Swat valley, around the town of Bahrain. An overwhelming majority of Torwalis are multilingual in Torwali, Pashto, and Urdu. A small number can also speak English and other Dardic languages, such as Gawri, Indus Kohistani, and Shina. Until 2004, Torwali was not a written language; today, there are some books written in and about Torwali, but it is still under-resourced. According to my research for the 2017 national census of Pakistan, Torwali is presently spoken by a population of about 140,000 people. Torwali is one of the twenty-seven languages in Pakistan which face attrition and are categorized by UNESCO as endangered.

    The Zo and Phal

    The story of my involvement in language revitalization starts in my teens. I often went to the jungles in Swat to gather firewood or morel mushrooms. While on the pine tree ridges, I used to hear sweet singing of Zo, traditional Torwali folksongs, by other foragers. The sound mingled with the breeze which gushed over the trees, providing a kind of accompaniment. I also tried to sing loudly. It often became a kind of competition in which the singers could not see each other, only hearing the songs and responding.

    Examples of Torwali Zo:

    æ mhi theyē sūāl thū othɘl khɘn si borā
    ek yæri mi dɘlāl nɘ gɘş dūi ʑo nɘ sɘā

    I implore you my beautiful beetle of the high mountain
    In matters of love, neither make Zo, nor employ the middleman

    Mhun wətən qeməti ab o hawa ye səfa
    Uthəl khən si puʃuaa si χaist ɣələba

    There is nothing of more value than the clean climate of our country
    The flowers of the highlands overwhelm us with their beauty

    Examples of Torwali Pahal:

    Yæ orān ʑéndé wālū nil gɘyā
    ʐād si pæl wɘyi mhi mé būgæwā

    As the Oran flashes the green forest,
    A stream of blood runs down my chest

    Dhut lhegir ɖoli serænæ mhæ dhəyayi dəm pə dəm
    Chi æʂi əlmas si chəle hi zed ki tæwi zəχəm

    O, girl with red lips burn me again and again
    Like diamonds your eyes wounded my heart with pain

    Tunu da si bugo dere no cho
    Tu mhago si bhoro kekede kho

    Do not keep goats of my rival outside
    Guard them and eat your milk porridge

    When I was young, I would see my mom performing the unique Torwali women’s dance known as naar. Now, the dance is mostly replaced by those from the dominant communities, yet many elderly women and some young women know this special dance. My mother has always been an inspiration for and source of my love of our language and culture. She has also made Zo and remembers hundreds of Zo by others. My mom, now in her seventies, is an Indigenous intellectual, having great knowledge of cultural practices and folk poetry. 

    During my childhood, the Torwali community had lost their sense of identity, history, and pride. Centuries of domination had triggered a sense of shame about their culture and language. In most cases, attempts to revitalize our ancestral culture, especially the music, ignites people’s wrath even within our own communities. Many have been indoctrinated immensely by religious extremism and see our musical traditions as sacrilegious.

    I became curious about my mother tongue in college because of some unpleasant incidents. I felt that my classmates and some teachers looked down on me for being ethnically different and for using a language other than Pashto. These incidents would haunt me, and I used to be anxious about speaking Torwali. However, because my early youth was embedded in Torwali culture, I resisted some of that feeling of shame. These memories prompted me to not only help revitalize my language and culture but also work on Torwali history in order to reclaim our lost identity.

    In 2007, I motivated some other Torwali youth to join me in this mission. We established our small organization with the Urdu name Idara Baraye Taleem wa Taraqi (IBT), which translates to Institute for Education and Development. Since then, our organization has been working for the mobilization and revitalization of Torwali language and culture, along with other endangered languages in the Swat region. IBT has initiated many programs for Torwali language and cultural heritage including the use of Torwali in education, developing a writing system, enhancing literacy among young people, celebrating culture and music through festivals, and documenting folk poetry and music. 

    Torwali Music and Poetry

    In the past, through the 1980s, Torwali music was popular and sung by everyday people, without specially trained singers, musicians, or poets. Singing was accompanied by instruments like the sitar, ɖhūmām (drum), béʃél (flute), sūrni (traditional pipe), and bhédæn (a pitcher made of mud with its lid tightened with animal hide or string cloth). People used to sing Torwali music during community gatherings and festivities, such as haʃər, a time when villagers came together to cultivate and harvest crops or build a house. Music, singing, and dancing have also been common at wedding ceremonies and other rites of passage. 

    Ancient Torwali musical traditions have continued to grow and change in recent times. When audiotapes arrived in the Swat Valley in the 1970s and 1980s, the ability to record led to the growth of Torwali music and poetry.

    A hand opens the cassette deck of a silver 1980s boombox.
    The author’s cassette recorder used in recording Torwali music in the 1980s.
    Photo courtesy of Rahim Sabir

    After the late 1990s, however, we noticed a fast decline in Torwali musical traditions. Access to Bollywood movies and drama series through satellite televisions overshadowed Indigenous Torwali music. Soon, songs from Bollywood sung in Urdu, and others sung in Pashto (the dominant language in Pakistan’s northwestern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the official language of Afghanistan) spread in the area. This coincided with growing puritanical religious extremism. Many locals did not like music and thought it immoral. But due to television, people could not stop the global access to these resources, so their “soft target” became Indigenous music and its singers, musicians, and poets. 

    Zealous locals exerted influence and pressured these artists. The stigma against music strengthened. Many artists abandoned their art. The surni pipe disappeared. So did the big drum. Soon, people could not openly possess sitar. During this time, because of being continuously marginalized, Torwalis became less confident of their unique identity, less knowledgeable about their history, and less educated, and they became more impoverished. They began to hide their culture and language and tried to assimilate with dominant communities. 

    Five stringed musical instruments hang in storage, and one drum rests on a stand below.
    Torwali musical instruments: four sitars (left), rabab (right), and dhumam (below).
    Photo courtesy of Rahim Sabir

    The Simam Festival of 2011

    Music and poetry are the most compelling forms of our culture, especially as our language is mostly oral and has only an oral narrative tradition. We say that in the Torwali language, there are no poems, only songs, and that poetry is singing. Given the undeniable connection between language and culture, the organizers of IBT feel that our language revitalization program must incorporate reclaiming our culture and cultural expressions. 

    Against this backdrop, IBT intended to revive the beautiful traditions of music and songs in our ancestral homelands. Soon after the worst religious militancy the Swat Valley had ever seen (from 2006 to 2010), and after monster floods in 2010 in Swat, our organization held its first Indigenous culture festival, called Simam—Torwali for “grandeur, dignity, and celebration.” The three-day festival brought together over 9,000 Torwalis for traditional music, dance, and games. We even included a national seminar on peace and harmony on the final day.

    Holding such a festival was a gigantic task with many perils. We produced it in a time when there was still ample chance of attack by the militants and backlash from the community. Our organizing team saw these threats as more motivation. People were traumatized because of the militancy and floods. We knew the festival could be a space for emotional healing. 

    Although we faced some backlash from local leaders, since the festival was celebrating our Indigenous culture and heritage, we did not get much pushback from local elderly and religious people, or even individuals from the faction of Torwali people who had moved toward religious extremism. I have been a powerful voice against militarism in Swat, but we included the local political and military leaders in our advocacy for the festival. While we organized the festival, there was a pro-culture and anti-militant government in the province under the Pushtun nationalist secular political party, the Awami National Party. The various leaders of this party respected and accepted my ideas, which allowed us to mobilize and convince our elders that it was safe to publicly play music. In the end, we even got the local religious leaders on board. 

    Yet the festival had its challenges. The musicians could not come to the venue with their instruments for fear that they would be harassed. One of the surna players was not allowed by his sons to carry musical instruments and play them. We dismantled his instruments and brought him to the venue in the dark of night. 

    After the festival, there were still several mullahs (Muslim religious leaders) who blamed us for spreading fahashi (immodesty) in society. 

    New Songs 

    The Simam Festival was like a new beginning, a new spring in the revival of Torwali music and poetry. This was the first large public event where Torwali singers sang and played music. Despite the criticism we experienced, we feel the overall response was very positive. IBT involved the village leaders in responding to and managing the criticism. Having received  media coverage and tremendous applause from the public, the singers and poets felt encouraged and continued singing and performing after the festival. The Simam festival also helped youth emerge as poets and singers. Musical traditions were rejuvenated at the village level, and this enthusiasm has grown.

    Men sit on carpet with musical instruments and microphones singing together.
    Torwali singer-poet Mohammad Zeb (middle) and others sing Torwali Zo at the Simam festival in 2011.
    Image courtesy of Aftab Ahmad

    To document this recent revival, our organization has encouraged Torwali singers, musicians, and poets to share their art through social media. We have invested in state-of-the-art technology to capture Torwali melodies on video. The Manjoora (gift) video album, released in 2015, is one result. We distributed Manjoora among the community as a gift, and it was shared on YouTube and on other platforms.

    In this video from Manjoora, you can see the Zo couplets of the Dubha, a duet, with English translation.

    The Future

    As a result of the Simam festival and Manjoora, we see the Torwali musical tradition flourishing. New singers and poets are emerging with new styles. Those who were dispirited are now inspirited. Those who had abandoned the music and poetry have rejoined. Elder singers like Haleem Khan, Muhammad Zeb, Nazir, and others have restarted their singing and poetry. One young singer, Shahab Shaheen, has recently become very popular.

    Poet and singer Javed Iqbal Torwali felt empowered by the encouragement by our organization to renew his art. He shared the following: 

    “I had a liking for Torwali music and poetry in my childhood. I loved to play sitar. But I could not keep musical instruments at home because my father was against music, as he used to be a prayer leader at a mosque.

    Over time, and with my growing poverty, I was distracted from my passion, my poetic sense. I abandoned music and poetry. Some fellows advised me to compose religious poetry, and I did. It was liked by many, but I was not content, for I was not allowed to play sitar.

    But when I joined IBT, the dead poet and musician in me was reborn, and I began to play sitar and learned to play rabab’, too. IBT has been working on the revitalization of Torwali language and culture. It has been respecting and encouraging the singers and poets, and providing them with spaces where they can perform their art. I learned a lot of new things here. I documented many ancient Torwali Zo. Here, I grew into a recognized poet and cultural activist. Now I have turned to Zo, for I think one can do excellent poetry in it. Now, I can also recognize the vocals of every Torwali singer. I feel very proud of my poetry and playing sitar and rabab’.”

    We have continued to be under threat, but we have also continued to work on behalf of our Torwali language and cultural revitalization. We continue toward this goal today.

    Zubair Torwali is a writer and activist for the rights of all the marginalized linguistic communities of North Pakistan. He is the founder of the civil society organization Idara Baraye Taleem wa Taraqi (IBT) and the author of Muffled Voices: Longing for a Pluralist and Peaceful Pakistan (2015), among many others. He lives in Bahrain, Pakistan.

    About the Endangered Languages Project

    The Endangered Languages Project is a collaborative online space to share knowledge and stories, explore free learning resources, and build relationships to support Indigenous and endangered language communities around the world. Get in touch at

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.