There are more than 50,000 Tajiks living in China, the majority in the Tashkurgan area of Xinjiang which borders on Tajikistan. They follow the Ismaili branch of Shi’aIslam, and they regard the 11th century poet, Nasir Khusraw, as the founding figure ofIsmaili doctrine. Shrine worship is considered an important Ismaili duty. These shrines are believed to have the power to cure infertility and diseases and avert natural and other disasters. There are an estimated 100 shrines in the Tajik region of Xinjiang. During my fieldwork in 2009 and 2010 in and around Tashkurgan, I visited nearly 50 shrines and documented their related legends and rituals.
A shrine in Tashkurgan. Photograph by Aynur Kadir.
Everyday shrine worship
Individuals, families or small community units may visit a shrine with specific requests for happiness, fertility, and freedom from disasters. There are many shrines on the roadside, by rivers and at crossroads. When people pass by these shrines they stop to show their respect (deryup). Both hands are used to touch the shrine or sacred objects and then the chin and forehead, three times. They leave some sacrificial things such as food or money, and often kiss the shrine wall or tree. They recite a shrine prayer which is attributed to Naser Khusraw:
Bereqi in diyar, in mazar, el aman, buzurkan, nakan pakan xelq aman, el
insan imam, ya ezisima aqiwet medetsah, leshkaran, ghayiban, zulpiqar, her
bala her xeter, perwerdigar, amin!
Shrine Prayer, recited by Seid Shamhan. Recorded by Aynur Kadir
This shrine, sacred shrine, shrine light, bless us with a home, give us happiness and peace, in this shrine lie martyrs, our fierce sword, with their God, protect us, may the Imam fulfill our desires, amen!
The family or whole village may also organise shrine visits to invoke protection from various forms of evil, prayers for good weather, healing diseases, or preventing unexpected disasters. People pick a suitable day, sacrifice halal animals (mainly sheep), read the Qur’an, chant prayers, and recite the names of the 49 Imams, three or seven, even 101 times. Such occasions may be organised following, for example, a car accident, or warnings of floods.
Shrine Worship during Major Festivals
One of the distinguishing characteristics of shrine worship among the Tajiks is shrine pilgrimage during the major Islamic festivals. These pilgrimages are led by the sheikh or a mirap (in former times the village“irrigation administrator”). Women prepare a special offering called istiraq, made from white flour and butter while reciting the names of the Imams. They bring it to their shrine and pour it on the fire, making a kind of oily fragrance.
Shrine worship at Pilik Eid
Pilik Eid is held on the 14th and 15th days of Sha’banmonth. Tajiks hold two big rituals at home and the shrine before and after that night. Because “pilik” is literally translated as “wick” or “light”, it is also called the “Festival of Lights”. The first ritual of the first night is called “oy pilik” (home fire). Families make torches – two for every living family member, and one for every member who has passed away in the last three generations. They put all the sticks together, surrounded by seven different kinds of food, and after reciting some Qur’anic verses by elders in the family, the eldest male in the family will light the sticks. Each family member receives blessing from the lights three times and looks into a bowl of water.
Pilik Eid at home. Photograph by Aynur Kadir.
Early on the following morning, people bring two long specially-made sticks called “mazar pilik” to the biggest shrine in their village. I participated in the Pilik Eid shrine rituals at Shatalip Mazar in Tiznap village of Tashkurgan county on 6th August, 2009. When people come to the shrine, they kiss the shrine or shrine wall, make deryup and offer their pilik and food to the sheikh of the shrine, mainly mutton, bread, fruit and candies. Some of them tie coloured cloth to the shrine with special requests. Istiraq, the offering made flour with butter,is one of the most essential offerings of the pilik cermony, and provides an oily fragrance over the whole shrine. After the pilgrimage, people also visit the tombs of their family and relatives, and light fires on their tombs. The food brought as an offering to the shrine is divided equally among the community. Reciting the Qur’an and the names of the Imams over the food makes it “sacred”, with the potential to cure diseases. Worshippers also weep collectively with a strong rhythm. The festival is a place for meeting, repenting, remembering, cultural gathering and religious activities. Such collective rituals deepen feelings of community and strengthen community ties.
Pilik Eid shrine festival at Shatalip Mazar, Tiznap Village. Recorded by Aynur Kadir, 2009
Shrine worship at Zohur Eid
Tajiks in Xinjiang celebrate Zohur Eid during March. The village elders or mirap fix the day of Zohur according to the weather. “Zohur” in Tajik means “bring water”. This festival reflects the extreme climate of the Pamirs. When spring comes to the freezing winter landscape, the key need is to break open the frozen irrigation systems so that the land can be ploughed ready for sowing the new crops. It is a communal labour and all village members will reap the benefits. The gathering for ice breaking always starts at a village shrine. I participated in Zohur Eid rituals in Tiznap village, Tashkorgan in March, 2010. The mirap sprinkles soil on the ice in the main irrigation channel to accelerate the melting of the snow and people get their tools ready for ice breaking. The women prepare for Zohur Eid by baking three big festival breads, two to bring to the shrine, and one to eat home.
On the day of “Zohur”, all male members of village community come to the shrine with their bread and their tools. Two families in the village (usually those who have had a new-born son or grandson in past year) will prepare a sheep. One of them will be sacrificed early in the morning at the shrine before people start the task of ice breaking. The other will be sacrificed after the water is successfully directed. The second sheep is usually sacrificed directly into the water flowing down the mountain slope.
Sacrifice at Zohur Eid. Photograph by Aynur Kadir, 2010
Smaller children will splash water on each other happily, even though the weather is still cold. After this is done, people will come back to the shrine and eat bread and the cooked meat of the sacrificed sheep. They will also pray for a good harvest, listen to Qur’anic recitation, and receive agricultural advice from the village elders. To finish, people participate in sheep polo (buzkashi) and other riding activities on horse or yak.
Large-Scale Shrine Pilgrimage
Prior to the Cultural Revolution, Tajiks in Xinjiang held an annual large-scale pilgrimage, in which sheikhs of the two biggest shrines carried the holy flags and lights around every shrine in the Tashkurgan area. I collected oral histories from village elders about this kind of shrine activity. They recalled that two shrines located on the Yarkand River, Bamafidil Wali Mazar and Bamafidil Mujaret Mazar were regarded as their most sacred places, which housed their two most important holy objects: the sacred flags (tugh) of Ali and a lamp-stand (chiraghdan) of Naser Khusraw.
The man who carried the holy flags on the pilgrimage was called the “tugh begi” (master of flags). He led the group in chanting qasida, munajat and talqin as they walk. People also recalled that musicians played the dap frame drum or the rawap plucked lute to accompany the recitation. In between these qasida they shout as “Häq Allah!” (true God), and “Ya Imam! Ya Ali! Ya Häsän! Ya Hüsän!” Everyone could hear the sound from their homes, and wherever the group of people went, the locals would come out to welcome them, show them hospitality and give them zakat (alms). The holy items were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and the practice has not revived, but people can still recite the qasida, munajat and talqin.
Qasida, Munajat, and Talqin formerly recited during shrine pilgrimage. Recorded by Aynur Kadir
As you can hear from the video clips, these contemporary qasida and munajat are recited in the Uyghur language, but ethnographers working in the 1980s confirm that they have also heard them performed in Farsi.
西仁·库尔班，马达力汗，段石羽《中国塔吉克》新疆大学出版社(Shirin Qurban and Medelihan, Duan Shiyun. 1994. Tajiks in China, Xinjiang University Press).
西仁·库尔班，伊明江·木拉提《塔吉克族民俗文化》新疆大学出版社 (Shirin Qurban and Iminjan Murat. 2001. The Folklore of Tajiks, Xinjiang University Press).
热依拉·达吾提《维吾尔族麻扎研究》新疆大学出版社 (Rahile Dawut. 2001. Uyghur Shrine Culture, Xinjiang University Press).