In Langscape Magazine Articles

Bahadar ’s Almanac: Oral Tradition in Northern Pakistan Makes People Resilient and Prepared for Natural Disasters

July 20, 2021

Text by Zubair Torwali
Photos by Aftab Ahmad

Gurnal

The beautiful village of Gurnal nestled on the side of a hill in the Swat District of northern Pakistan. 2017

When I still used to lend a hand in the fields to my father, now 78, he would refer to a certain guy, Bahadar |bahadər|, for his oral traditions about the right weather for sowing and harvesting. At that time, I was in college and was familiar with the Gregorian calendar, which was commonly known as Angrezi (English calendar) in our community. My father always ignored the Gregorian calendar and preferred Bahadar’s oral almanac to it.

Now I no longer help out with farming and work at my office instead, where we always use the Gregorian calendar. This system is now the official calendar of Pakistan and is popular in offices, as it marks working days and public holidays.

But even today, my father does not follow the popular Pakistani almanac called Jantry in Urdu. He says that Bahadar’s almanac is ahead of the Jantry and is more authentic. Like him, a majority of other Torwali farmers in the Swat District of northern Pakistan continue to consult Bahadar’s system for cultivation and harvesting.

Besides, there are a number of oft-told legendary stories about the authenticity of Bahadar’s almanac. One such story goes as follows:

“The father of Syed Jamal, a man named Sher, was once plowing his field. It was a mid-summer day, and Sher was sowing his maize crop in Gurnal |ɡurna:l| village. In the afternoon, Bahadar went to him and advised him not to sow more maize in the field because, according to Bahadar’s calculations, the time for sowing had ended that very afternoon. Sher did not accept his claim and kept up sowing the field. Bahadar told him to divide the field into two portions with some fencing, according to the time of sowing before and after noon on that day. He added that Sher would see that the maize crop sown in the afternoon that day would not ripen, whereas the other portion of the field would have a ripe crop. At the time of harvest in early fall, people really saw that the maize crop sown before noon that day in summer was ripe while the other portion sown after noon was not.”

Bahadar died about a hundred years ago. He lived all his life in Gurnal, a beautiful village on the hills about eight kilometers to the east of Bahrain town in Swat, in the heartland of the Torwali people. Bahadar belonged to one of the four Torwali clans, Bahadar Khel. He had no education at all. He could not read or write, but people say it was as if he had some magical knowledge about the changes in weather and seasons. People saw him like a saint.

Bahadar could not read or write, but people say it was as if he had some magical knowledge about the changes in weather and seasons. People saw him like a saint.

Bahadar had several followers from his family and clan. In addition to devising the almanac, he and his fellows designed a strategy for the distribution of irrigation water to the village’s fields. This system is still in use today and seems to work very well for the village.

Gurnal Elder

Zubair interviewing Gurnal Elder Wakmadar. 2017

For a long time, I was curious to learn about Bahadar’s almanac. Finally, in September 2017, at the time of Sul |sʊl| (or Suel |sʊel|) according to the almanac, I traveled to Gurnal to meet the Elders and find out from them about Bahadar and his amazing Indigenous knowledge. In Gurnal I met with a number of Elders. Among them, I interviewed Wakmadar, 75; Muhammad Siraj, 85; Muhammad Rasool Khan, 70; and Muhammad Sharif, 64. All four confirmed the stories I had heard. They also added more stories about Bahadar’s genius. All these stories tell of his keen observations and deep knowledge of the weather and seasons from an Indigenous perspective.

“Bahadar knew there was a day in the summer when stones would get softer. Once he was able to thrust a pickaxe into a boulder at that particular time, as the boulder was soft enough to be penetrated by a pickaxe. Later, the stone hardened again, and the pickaxe remained stuck in there. Bahadar told the people that he would be able to extract the pickaxe at that particular time on that particular day the following summer. He waited until that day and pulled the pickaxe out of the boulder when it became softened again.”

“Bahadar could predict a ‘good year’—a year good for crops and cattle—or drought. He used to put ashes outside in the open air at night at the beginning of spring. By reading some signs in the ashes, he would tell people that the coming year would either be a productive year or one of drought.” This would help people prepare for the drought. They would then look for means other than crops to ensure food security.

Gurnal Elders

Zubair interviewing Gurnal Elders Muhammad Rasool Khan, Muhammad Sharif, and Muhammad Siraj. 2017

Bahadar could also forecast weather and seasons. As I will explain below, the periods of Sul, Gup |ɡʊp|, and others were days of heavy rain. Bahadar would tell people that they should take care of their herds as heavy rain was expected. People would listen to him and thus were prepared for these kinds of disasters.

“One bright sunny day, Bahadar was passing by a group of people who were cutting grass from the grasslands adjoining their cultivated land. The people were having a Hashar—a feast-like collective work party, when people help one another during harvest and other similar occasions. Although it was a sunny day, Bahadar told the farmers to stop cutting more grass and start collecting the cut grass instead, so as to save it from the likely heavy rain. People followed his advice only reluctantly, because they saw no sign of rain in the sky. But after some time there came heavy rain with thunder. So exact was Bahadar in his forecast!”

“One time Bahadar told the people in Gurnal that it was the first day of spring. The people mocked him, as Gurnal was still covered with snow. When the people did not accept his claim, he told them to go to Manko, a village along the Swat River between the towns of Bahrain and Madyan, and see that a wild apricot had bloomed there. A couple of men did go there and found that what Bahadar had told them was true.”

almanac

Bahadar’s system helped people cultivate their fields according to the exact weather. They would also be well prepared for natural disasters and famines. Through Bahadar’s astronomy, people could plan ahead and also keep their herds safe. People would also choose when to travel to the highlands following Bahadar’s forecast. In Gurnal in particular, and in the entire Torwali heartland in general, people still largely follow Bahadar’s system for cultivating and harvesting their fields.

Bahadar’s system helped people cultivate their fields according to the exact weather. They would also be well prepared for natural disasters and famines.

According to my interviewees, Bahadar’s seasonal calendar has nine months, and each month is comprised of forty days. Beside these months, there are special periods like Gup and Sul. There are two Gup periods: one falls in summer, whereas the other is in winter. The one that falls in summer is called Basha si Gup |bəʂa si ɡʊp| (Summer Gup) and the other is called Himaan si Gup |hima:n si ɡʊp| (Winter Gup). When the Summer Gup passes, the heat of summer begins to subside, and the season turns toward winter; and when the Winter Gup passes, the cold of winter begins to diminish, and the season turns toward summer.

In Bahadar’s almanac there are two similar periods in spring and fall. They are the periods of Sul or Suel. One is at the beginning of spring, whereas the other is at the beginning of fall. In spring, Sul comes at the start of the month of Chaiter |cetɘr| (Chaitra); in fall, it comes at the end of the month of Pasheekal |pəʃi:ka:l| (Sawan). In both cases, before the Sul, the weather becomes crazy for a few days. These rainy days are called Charmaqaq |cərməqəq|.

Gurnal village

A view of Gurnal village showing the forests behind it. 2017

My interviewees also gave me another version of Bahadar’s seasonal calendar. This twelve-month version is equally divided into six winter and six summer months. The two versions of the calendar are shown in the box above.

Bahadar’s system for the distribution of irrigation water in Gurnal, which is still practiced in the village, is based on the royalty from the forest, a payment the government makes to the owners of the forest. The village of Gurnal and its forest are divided into twenty-four “rupees”—a rupee being a unit representing one share. Each of the village’s four clans owns six shares, and each is entitled to a one-day (twenty-four-hour) share of water from the main irrigation channel. This share is in turn subdivided into three shares among the families of each clan. Each day (twenty-four hours) is divided into the following periods of time, during each of which three families can water their fields simultaneously:

Zaad |ʑa:d|: from the dawn Azaan—Muslim call for prayers—to seven in the morning

Kharen Pheet |kʰeɾen pʰiʈ|: from seven in the morning to nine in the morning

Maidan |mɛda:n|: from nine in the morning to the midday Azaan

Sari |sɘri:|: From the midday Azaan to Asar Azaan—the afternoon call for prayers

Zek pheet |ʑik pʰiʈ|: from Asar Azaan to Esha Azaan—the late evening call for prayers

Zaat |ʑa:t|: from Esha Azaan to the dawn Azaan

In spring, at the beginning of the irrigation season, the four clans do a toss to establish who gets the first, second, third, and fourth turn. Once this is done, turns rotate, so whoever was first becomes last, the second becomes first, and so on. The rotating turn is followed regularly, giving each clan the opportunity to irrigate at different times of day.

When I was conducting the interviews, I saw Elders who were gathered to distribute the irrigation water in the village. They were actually monitoring whether anybody deviated from the rule. They told me that thanks to this ancient system of water distribution there were no feuds or fighting over turns for watering the fields. They told me that this way everybody’s field gets the needed irrigation water and that they have a good yield every year.

Thanks to Bahadar’s system of water distribution there are no feuds or fighting over turns for watering the fields. . . . Everybody’s field gets the needed irrigation water and they have a good yield every year.

It seems that Bahadar made keen observations of the sun and stars for years, and based on his observations, he orally developed this system. The skyline toward the west in Gurnal is very clear. Bahadar fixed various points along this skyline along the hill for the position of the sun. Based on these points and on the rising of stars, he built this invaluable Indigenous knowledge system that for generations has supported the local people’s resilience against natural disasters and has helped them meet their daily food needs, which are mainly dependent on livestock and agriculture. His system of irrigation water distribution has helped the villagers water their crops in a timely fashion while preventing any water disputes.

By now, Bahadar’s almanac has been in use as a guide to cultivation and harvesting for over 150 years. Younger generations of farmers follow this system, too, as it is always passed on to them by their Elders. So, this extraordinary example of Indigenous knowledge is likely to continue to support people’s resilience for generations to come.

Gurnal village

The western skyline as seen from Gurnal village. The sun sets to the left in winter and to the right in summer. This is the skyline Bahadar would have observed for many years to design his oral almanac. 2017

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Zubair Torwali hails from Bahrain, Swat District, the Switzerland of Pakistan. He is a researcher, author, protector of minority languages; social, cultural, civil society and human rights activist; writer, columnist, blogger, journalist, and voice for the rights of all the marginalized linguistic communities of northern Pakistan.

Aftab Ahmad is a young Torwali researcher who lives in Bahrain Swat and has an interest in the landscapes of northern Pakistan.


Further Reading

Shah, D. (2013). Torwali is a language. Himāl South Asian. Retrieved from http://himalmag.com/torwali-is-a-language/

Torwali, Z. (2016). Reversing language loss through an identity based educational planning: The case of Torwali language. Eurasian Journal of Humanities, 1(2), 23–39.

Torwali, Z. (2015). The ignored Dardic culture of Swat. Journal of Languages and Culture, 6(5), 30–38. doi:10.5897/JLC2015.0308

Torwali, Z. (2017). The Torwali language and its new Android keyboard. Google in Asia. Retrieved from https://www.blog.google/topics/google-asia/torwali-language-and-its-new-android-keyboard/

Torwali, Z. (2015). Muffled Voices: Longing for a Pluralist and Peaceful Pakistan. Lahore, Pakistan: Multi Line.