Our first fieldwork opportunity: The festival marking the 50th anniversary of the current Imamate of the Ismaili spiritual leader, Hazar Imam (the Aga Khan), a holiday known as Ba takhtnishini of Hazar Imam (also called the Golden Jubilee Celebration as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Imamate). A bit of history is in order, just to get a sense of what this celebration meant to the Ismaili communities who celebrated this day all over the world, and to the people of Badakhshan in particular. I will attempt to provide here a brief outline of the basic Ismaili community history. Further information on Ismaili history and development programs can be found at:Aga Khan Development NetworkIsmailis
Most of the people living in the region of Badakhshan, both in Tajikistan and Northern Afghanistan just across the Panj River, are Ismailis, a branch of Shia Islam that believe the successor of the leadership, or Imamate of the Muslim faith, was the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and that the leadership would continue by hereditary through Ali in the Prophet’s family. Today, the Ismailis are one of the few branches of Islam that are led by hereditary Imam, the Swiss-born Aga Khan, who is the 49th Imam in a lineage of Ali and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima. The Ismaili worldwide Jumat (meaning community or church) is very engaged in social development and has been a leader world wide in issues such as the status of women, education, cultural pluralism, and sustainable economic development. In fact the present Aga Khan has made tremendous non-sectarian humanitarian efforts worldwide, and has initiated many remarkable and progressive economic, agricultural, and cultural development projects. The Badakhshan region for example was kept from almost complete starvation due to the Aga Khan Foundation’s aid programs, particularly during and directly after Tajikistan’s recent civil war. Though poverty and high unemployment remain in the region, Badakhshan perseveres with hope, largely due to the generosity of the Aga Khan (who is the 49th Imam) and his timely intervention. Recently, in 2003, 200 million US dollars were pledged to establish a University if Central Asia in Khorog which opened its doors this year. Interestingly I have been informed by those who should know that there is a long-standing prophecy among the Badakhshani’s, that the people would ultimately be saved by the coming of the 49th Imam.
Locally, the entire community of Badakhshan approached the celebration of Ba-Takhtnishini, or the Golden Jubilee, with a spirit of great hope and devotion. The event nearest to Khorog, 15 Kilometers away in the small town of Porshienev, was one of several regional events. Other events were also taking place in more remote districts such as Ghunde, Roshan, Darwaz, and Ishkoshim and also throughout the entire world. The Khorog/Porshienev event drew the most people locally. It was attended by between 20,000 to 30,000 from our team’s rough estimates. The town of Khorog was completely deserted by the mid-afternoon as people made their way to the event site en masse, young and old alike. Traveling to the celebration took on the aspect of a pilgrimage as people made their way, in many cases on foot for a good portion of the journey. Hand carrying many items such as food, water, and corpache’s (seating cushions) to a site about the size of four football fields. People started to arrive at 10am and by 5pm the grassy and scenic event area on the banks of the Panj River surrounded by the lofty peaks of the Pamirs had become a huge sea of families, shade umbrellas, and volunteers in red dresses or white button-down shirts and ties. It is a testament to the volunteer staff, and commitment of the attendees, that all went as smoothly as it did. An event of this size, with its many logistical and technical challenges was unprecedented for the region, and an impressive achievement in Badakhshan.
Our team members attended the event as guests of the performing artists, who provided the presentations of dance, music and poetry for the celebrations. We were honored to be included in the day-long rehearsal activities on the day preceding the event as well. On the day of Ba-Takhtnishini we left Khorog at 9am and arrived at the site with the artists in the backstage area by 10.
Waiting patiently until 7pm to start the performances, renewing friendships with artists we had met before and making new friends. Musicians included: Aqnazar, Gulomshoh Safarov, Berdov Khodapano, Anvar Nazirov, vocalist Sahiba, members of the Badakhshan Ensemble, and many others associated with the Khorog Theater performance group, ensembles from the Khorog Academy of Music, as well as several popular singers and musical groups.
Dancers such as: Soloists Anargul, Fakhriddin Alinazarovich, Miss Tehmineh, and the dance ensemble directed by Mahingul Nazarshoeva performed throughout the evening. TDI team member Aliah Najmabadi made an unannounced solo dance appearance as well. Many presentations of classical Persian poetry, choral songs, and heartfelt speeches in honor of the occasion were interspersed in the presentations. The entire evening culminated, starting at around midnight, in film presentations. Historical documentaries presented the history of the current Imamate and an address from the Aga Khan, the Hazarat Imam, to Ismaili communities worldwide were shown on large screens erected for the occasion. When the event ended with the last film at around 2am, an exodus back to Khorog began. Most people, of all ages, were on foot due to the fact that most vehicle drivers were attending the celebrations with their families, and the masses of people filling the road blocking traffic. Most, including the local artists and some of the TDI team arriving back in Khorog, after a four hour 15 kilometer trek, well after dawn.
Observations: Unlike almost any other happy occasion in Tajikistan, dance at this event was restricted to the formal stage performances, aside from an occasional brief and fleeting moment in the crowd. This may have been due in part to the devotional tone of the event itself, and to the often repeated requests from organizers for the attendees to remain seated for the purposes of crowd control. Our team was also disappointed as photos and video were strictly policed. We heard from the attendees of the other local events that this rule was not as strictly enforced at their celebrations.