Introduction / History
The Baloch (Baluch) are a most ancient semi-nomadic tribal group who eventually occupied an area of land stretching through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, first settling there between the 5th and 7th centuries. Considered to be an Iranian people based on language, their racial origin is murky. Some historians believe they are Semites while others track their racial origin through Indo-Europeans. Long-standing relation to the Kurds is evident, but it is also agreed that Baloch became an admixture of many peoples through the centuries.
Most scholars agree - there is some dissent - the first Baloch migration was from the Caspian Sea area to northern Iran where, according to Persian literary sources, they became a significant political and military entity. Later migrations south and southeast established them as a major people group by the beginning of the Christian era in the regions of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, collectively named Balochistan - their traditional homeland. It was arbitrary boundaries imposed by the British in 1893 that partitioned the tribes among those three countries.
Today Afghan Baloch (designated the Western Baloch) live primarily in four southern provinces - Helmand, Nimruz, Farah and Kandahar, where daily life is routinely disrupted by Taliban presence. They comprise a small portion of the worldwide Baloch population. Their national language is Balochi - a language that remained unwritten until about 150 years ago. A Kurdish-related dialect is spoken in Afghanistan as is Bruhui, Dari and Pashto.
Name origin is vague as well, but "nomad" or "wanderer" is thought erroneous. One suggestion is derivation from a Median word (brza-var) meaning "loud cry". Another colorful suggestion is a term for "cock's comb" dating to more than 500 years before Christ when Baloch warriors wore helmets featuring a rooster's comb. A combination of two Sanskrit words - bal (strength and och (magnificent) is another theory of meaning.
Like other Central Asian people groups, the Baloch tribes - hailed by Alexander the Great's officers as dauntless fighters - defended themselves against foreign invaders with long arrows and wooden sword-like weapons. Unfortunately, they also fought among themselves for hundreds of years. The tribes reached their apex between 1749 and 1794 under their single most powerful and influential leader, Naseer Khan the Great. Failure to form a lasting, unified nation during his time contributed to marginalization by host countries when the British divided the larger group in the 19th century. Loosely organized into clans based on blood ties and tribes defined by territory, each is headed by a chief. Land is owned by tribal groups rather than by individuals.
An honor code (Baluchmayar), passed down in songs and poetry and observed by all the tribes, defines principles of living regarding integrity, hospitality, mercy and honor. Although a majority of Baloch are now Sunni Muslim (a faith adopted slowly to replace their old Zoroastrian religion), Sharia Law is not used to deal with social infractions. Instead the tribal chief encourages a blood feud between the families involved to settle violations. Theft or adultery demands death as punishment.
Ancient Baloch songs also celebrate the bravery of heroes past and a time of bounty and rain - a wet era that ended at least 15,000 years ago. Afghan Baloch have long lived in a semi-arid expanse of rugged mountains, parched river valleys and desert where rain is rare, but can bring raging floods when it does. Not so long ago, semi-nomadic Baloch lived in tents made of palm matting or goat's hair, but as they settled down and began farming they built mud-brick homes, enclosed by a low wall with an open courtyard to the front.
Life-long marriages are arranged exclusively from within the Baloch community. Divorce is thought disgraceful but may occur if there is an inability to conceive children. Widows return to their father's home but may remarry. Although viewed as inferior to men, Baloch women endure fewer restrictions - such as being set apart - than women in other Muslim cultures. However, the two daily meals eaten in the morning and evening are served separately to men and women. Meat is usually included with roasted lamb a favorite. Unleavened bread made of wheat or millet flour is baked in brick ovens. Rice, dates, wild fruits and vegetables are part of the diet. Milk is drunk and used to make cheese, butter and buttermilk. A summertime treat is made of milk, molasses and sugar. Traditionally women keep the home, including gathering wild vegetation, firewood and water but also share in tending the family herds.
Men are grain farmers and herders of sheep, goats and cattle. Some are known as superior camel breeders. Time is also spent wrestling and horseracing or playing games such as cards, checkers and tag with the younger men - activities that once prepared them as warriors.
Largely overlooked today by government services, educational opportunities are limited; a small percentage of Baloch children (mostly boys) attend school but advancement beyond high school is rare. Since few can read or write, they are more likely to hold low-status jobs.
Even so, an oral tradition of storytelling and poetry provides a rich thread in Baloch culture. Music provided by drums, lutes and shepherd's flutes is integral to celebrations. A child's birth or a wedding ceremony includes joyous music and singing. Men's dances reflect warrior traditions and male "rites of passage" are occasions to celebrate. Circumcision is performed when a boy begins to walk and "the first wearing of the trousers" occurs at age 15. The latter event signifies entrance into adulthood and warrior status. Festivals are of less significance to Baloch than to other Muslims although they do observe Eid al-Fitr to mark the end of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) to close the Islamic year.
Male traditional dress consists of a long, loose below-knee length shirt worn over baggy trousers and completed with a turban. Footwear is leather shoes or sandals. A warm shawl-type wrap is added in winter.
Women wear long-sleeved, ankle-length loosely fitting garments with a long scarf to wrap the head and shoulders. Under-trousers are common attire for many Muslim women, but among Baloch only those of high status are permitted to wear them. Red is worn by single girls, black by widows; otherwise clothing colors are inconspicuous although women do decorate clothing with skillfully embroidered geometric and abstract motifs. Jewelry, including necklaces, bracelets, hair ornaments and every variety of rings is common.
Interestingly, Baloch arts and crafts are not considered notable although appreciation for Baloch rug designs has increased in recent years. Felt is made from sheep's wool and flat, abstract- pattern rugs are woven for household use and to sell. Their influence is seen, however, in pile rugs from northeastern Iran and northern Afghanistan that are woven in the Balochi style.
Given infighting, tribal partitioning and exposure to foreign influences it is remarkable the Baloch have retained a distinctive cultural identity. Common folklore, language and moral code have served to conserve Baloch nationalism. Fearless warriors of the past, the Baloch will need to call on the vitality of their heritage to overcome limited opportunities for betterment and the regional upheavals presently challenging their culture.
|Profile Source: Mary Ann Stone|